Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Poddak Inna!!!!

This was written by my alter ego Thaddeus O’Grouch for Adoh magazine back in 2007.

There was a hoary old joke that used to be told against the Irish. It was probably concocted by the Irish themselves to get them out of doing any work. It goes something like this:

There was an international conference of philologists. During a tea break a Spanish philologist engaged an Irish philologist in conversation and asked, “Is there, in the Irish language, any word equivalent to the Spanish concept of manyana?”

The Irishman thought for a while and responded: “Well there are a number of Irish words that are vaguely synonymous with manyana, but none with the same sense of urgency.”

That story long ago ceased to convey an accurate impression of the real Ireland of today. Today a more accurate cliché is the remark that there is no phenomenon in the known universe quite as alarming as an Irishman on the make.

Ireland has discovered urgency in a big way and a lot of people have put some serious energy into becoming obscenely rich and unpleasant.

The joke might be adapted to fit more aptly the Sri Lankan national character. As I go about my daily doings I am constantly faced with the manyana syndrome.

Some examples: in my foolish desire to put something substantial between my golden locks and the incessant rain, I made enquiries about roofing materials. A well-known company of tile manufacturers agreed to send a representative to weigh up my requirements. At the appointed time of our appointment there was no sign of himself. I rang his mobile and spoke to him. He was in Ratnapura – about four hours drive away from my roofless abode.

Being the sort of fellow who likes to plan ahead I decided that once I did have a roof it would make economic and ecological sense to have solar panels fitted to it. A chap from a solar panel company agreed, somewhat reluctantly I thought, to come and have a look at the place where my roof should be. Fair play to him, he did turn up somewhere in the approximate vicinity of the agreed time and told an inspiring tale of the early hour at which he had risen from his slumbers in order to get to me. We had a pleasant chat over a couple of beers. Some months later, he sent a plumber who offered to bring me some prawns from Negombo. He made a few leaks that had not been there before and disappeared never to be seen again. Two years later, I still have no solar panels.

Incidentally, I do have a new roof. I was always adamant that I would not have an asbestos roof on the sensible premise that I felt I was too young to die. The tile roofing people let me down. Various metal roofing suppliers failed to call back. One, after threats of violence, did turn up at my gate with an estimate but it was many times the GNP of some emerging nations. I now have a new (asbestos) roof but it leaks more than the old one.

Thwarted in my ambition to generate my own electricity through the power of the sun, I decided to ask the CEB to get me a more powerful supply for those little lacunae of contentment and illumination when my life-support system is operational between the power cuts.

CEB have notices in their office in three languages saying ‘The customer is king’. I tried to feel regal as I filled in the form handed to me by a sullen girl behind an ancient typewriter. My crown got a bit sweaty as I trudged a couple of miles to a bank to pay the required fee and then back to the CEB with the receipt. I waited several unroyal months for the work to be done. Innumerable phone calls elicited innumerable imaginative promises and excuses. No-one ever turned up on an allotted day. They often turned up when I was not at home.

I seem to spend a lot of my declining and rapidly diminishing years waiting in futile anticipation. Sometimes I feel I have lost the will to live. My complaints and pink-faced rantings are charmingly accepted with a shrug and a smile and the inevitable: ‘This is Sri Lanka, no?’

A European acquaintance long resident in Sri Lanka advised me that it would be detrimental to my general health and equanimity to try to learn Sinhala. I was told that I could never hope to be fluent enough to avoid being an object of merriment among the natives. Even if I were to become fluent, people would pretend to be unable to understand me in order to avoid difficult situations. Otherwise they would try to engage me in conversation which would not do at all.

In spite of myself, I have learnt a few phrases which have some limited use. Some of these phrases are too disgusting to commit to the pages of such a chaste publication.

One phrase, poddak inne, has proved useful in daily commerce. I am used to being on the receiving end, waiting patiently for nothing to happen as I slouch a little nearer to the lip of the grave. If someone agrees to meet me on Tuesday – poddak inne- I must stoically accept that they may turn up, unannounced, the following Sunday. Why worry? Watch that blood pressure!

But an extremely laid-back approach to delivering service is combined with severely limited impulse control when seeking services. The simple task of buying a stamp from a Sri Lankan post office is an acute test of my cardio-vascular system because everyone else is so impatient. One goes to the counter marked ‘stamps’. One asks for a stamp and is greeted by an expression of derision and redirected to the counter marked ‘postal orders’. One makes a lonely attempt to form an orderly queue but is buffeted on all sides by people with anxious expressions who try to climb over one and thrust their fenugreeky armpits into one’s face.

In Cargills, as I patiently wait at the checkout to pay handsomely for the cornucopia of bounty in my brimming trolley, there is always someone with one item like an ice cream or a single toffee or a mobile update who thinks that they can interrupt the inexorable totting up of my gargantuan bill and be on their way speedily. Poddak inne, my good fellow! This remonstrance can be combined with a faux clumsy backward step in my hobnailed boots crushing the fragile Bata- slippered toes of the interloper.

There is always a danger that I might run out of petrol because I have a phobia about petrol sheds. Filling up one’s tank is such a stressful operation because of the reluctance of the petrol-purchasing masses patiently to succumb to an orderly process. I am just about to be served when another motor-cyclist nips in front of me. If I ever manage to fill up I cannot get back on the road because I am surrounded by three-wheelers or the exit is blocked by mating buses.

The inability to wait is also manifested on the highway itself. Elsewhere in the motoring world there is a recognised code of conduct for letting people through, rules of precedence and right of way. When these rules are followed in a civilised fashion the traffic flows smoothly. In Sri Lanka the rule seems to be ‘aggressively lay claim to every inch of road and don’t give way to anyone’. This short-sighted impatience leads to lengthy blockages. When I try some of my foul Sinhala phrases in such situations the result is usually a friendly smile and “you are from which country?’ In England if you transgress the code or look at another motorist in the wrong way you will probably get shot in the head.

Often I am driving along in my usual impeccable fashion when a pedestrian looking the other way flings himself in front of my vehicle even though the road behind me is totally devoid of traffic and he could have crossed safely had he waited one pico-second.

Advancing white vans on the wrong side of the road will horn at me ordering me to vacate the highway so that they can get past me immediately. As soon as they succeed they pull up and park. What was the urgency?

This toxic combination of lethargic unreliability and psychotic futile urgency is enough to test the patience of even such a saint as myself.

Wait, already!!!


Vanishing Veddahs

I posted this on Open Salon on October 31 2008.

Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo

Earlier in 2008, the Sri Lanka Daily Mirror reported that Veddah Chief, Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo, would be attending the Sri Lankan parliament. He sat in the gallery in Parliament in his traditional dress and carrying the keteriya (axe) which is his symbol of his authority.

Photographs of this “Stone-Age man” alongside the elite of Sri Lankan politics provoked much merriment. Many could not resist comparing him to ‘Dr’ Mervyn Silva, a member of the government who once proudly boasted to the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga of squeezing the testicles of a monk parliamentarian so hard that the poor man had to be hospitalised. Most of the comments to the Daily Mirror were humorous but sympathetic to the Chief along the lines of “Please don’t spoil his mind by exposing it to the politicians.”

My friend, Champa Fernando, found the tenor of some remarks offensive and wrote to the papers. She objected to some people describing the Veddahs as “primitive” and “uncivilised”. She met the Chief when visiting his community with veterinarians to care for their dogs. She regards the chief as a friend.

“I consider Chief Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo to be a civilised and sober leader of a group of people who respect all living beings and the environment in which they live. I find them to be a highly considerate and gentle group of people, extremely hospitable to their visitors. They believe in preserving the environment for future generations. In fact I feel there are many civilized things we could learn from them and their life ways. Thousands of people visit Dambane, especially to meet Chief Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo, talk with him and learn about the lifestyle and culture of these people who are an integral part of the Sri Lankan social and cultural heritage”.

Knox and Spittel 


Richard Lionel Spittel, according to his daughter, Christine Wilson, once said, “If I die give me a Veddah funeral. Bury me between two slates of bark in the jungle. I can think of nothing better.” Spittel was a doctor who, as a child, glimpsed a “wild man” with a bow and arrows emerge from the forest in Tangalle, and then disappear. Spittel had a lifelong fascination with the Veddahs and wrote many books about them, including Savage Sanctuary. He befriended a previous Tissahamy who was jailed in Badulla (the nearest large town to our home and the capital of Uva province) for being rebellious. Tissahamy died in Badulla General Hospital in 1952. Spittel erected a tomb over Tissahamy’s mortal remains with a fitting epitaph etched on the stone tomb lying there to say “Here lies outlaw Tissahamy of Savage Sanctuary by Dr. R. L. Spittel at the Badulla Cemetery.” That does not sound much like being buried between two slates of bark in the jungle.


Wanniyala-Aetto means forest people, more commonly known as Veddahs. They are thought by many to be the original indigenous inhabitants of Sri Lanka (human remains dated from 18,000 BC show a genetic continuum with present day Veddahs). DNA studies suggest that the Wanniyala-Aetto may have been the ancestors of most Sinhalese before the Indo-Aryans arrived from North India. Both Sinhala and Veddah folklore says that the two races shared common ancestors

Robert Knox mentions Veddahs in his account of his captivity by the King of Kandy in the 17th century. He describes them as “wild men” Ramba-Väddahs or hairy Veddahs who, as children of nature, “never shew themselves.” Knox said there was a “tamer sort” which sometimes served in the king’s army or owed service obligations to the king, especially providing tusks, honey and wax and deer’s flesh which they bring to the gabadage or royal store-house.


Professor Obeysekere

Professor Gananath Obeysekere, suggests that Knox invented this portrait of the wild man from his fertile imagination because he is unlikely to have seen one up close; he described them in this way because his late 17th century English audience wanted to hear it. After the imperial expansion romanticized as “voyages of discovery”, the concept of the human monsters and wild men of the European middle-ages was being transferred onto the “savage”, the concept of cannibalism was developed, all to provide a rationale for the extermination of native peoples and to steal their land and natural resources.

Pseudo-science came up with all kinds of bizarre notions that the European mind was receptive to accepting. Perhaps because of early pseudo-scientific studies the Veddahs achieved a kind of popular notoriety. Many Europeans wanted to see the Veddah, from the comfort of a Government Rest House,  as a specimen of the wild man, or a copy of the primitive Australian aborigine, for it was widely believed, on the flimsiest evidence, according to Professor Obeysekere, that the Veddahs were culturally, genetically and physiologically related to the Australian aborigines.


Henry Parker, in his 1909 book, Ancient Ceylon: An Account of the Aborigines and of Part of the Early Civilization, was dubious about the Australoid connection: he wrote that the wild Veddahs he knew had hair “no more frizzly than that of ordinary Sinhalese. … [It] is tied in a knot at the back of the head, exactly like that of all Sinhalese. … There is nothing in the figure (except the smaller height), the features, or the ordinary coiffure, and very little in the average color of the skin, to distinguish the Veddah from many low-caste Kandians found in the northern and north-west Sinhalese districts”.

The Seligmanns, observing east coast Veddahs in the late 19th century, reported that their “life differs but little from that of the poor and low-caste Tamils who are their neighbors …they generally resemble low caste Tamils after whose fashion they dress”.


Professor Obeysekere writes: “Let me emphasize that as far as Sri Lanka was concerned there were no ‘indigenous peoples,’ no ‘aborigines,’ no ‘wild men’ and ‘tribes’ of the Western imagination. Unlike in many parts of the world colonized by Europeans, there was no forcible extermination of Veddahs by Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Nor, until recently, when Sinhalese have mimicked colonial practice, were the Veddahs seen as an inferior group.”

Reduced Numbers

Professor Obeysekere may be correct in saying there was no planned genocide but numbers did reduce as a result of meeting western civilisation. When the British arrived, Veddahs who lived mostly by hunting and gathering were confined mainly to the plains of the Wanni and Bintenne. Numbers were severely reduced by an epidemic, possibly of influenza, around 1809. Many died or fled after a rebellion in 1818 and became absorbed into the Tamil communities at Batticaloa in the east. The British cultivated for coffee and tea most of the wild country where the Veddahs especially the area of Namunukula (where I live) right down to Passara.

Today, Veddahs living in Bintenne in Uva province and near Anuradhapura in North Central province, speak Sinhala, while a distinct group, called East Coast Veddahs living between Batticaloa and Trincomalee speak Tamil. Much of the vocabulary of Veddahs (especially terms associated with the forest and their lifestyle) cannot be traced to Sinhala or Tamil and may be from a language spoken before the development of the Sinhalese language. One example is the Veddah word ruhang for friend, while the Sinhala word is yaluva.

Spiritual Beliefs

The spiritual beliefs of most Veddahs include an element of animism. Those in the interior mix animism with certain elements of Buddhism, while the East coast Veddah mix it with what anthropologists call ‘folk Hinduism’. A distinctive feature of Veddah religion is ancestor worship. The ancestors are called yaku and a deity unique to Veddahs is called Kande Yakka.  Veddahs venerate the temple complex at Kataragama, which is also a special place of pilgrimage for mainstream Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Legend has it that the site of Kataragama was where the Hindu god Skanda married a Veddah girl, Valli.

Losing Battle

The Veddah people are fighting a losing battle to survive as a distinct entity. The community has been buffeted by successive waves of immigration and colonisation that began with the arrival of the Sinhalese from North India in the 5th century BC. Colonisation and rural development schemes have caused a dwindling to a couple of thousand as they have lost their ancestral lands and forest homes and intermarried with the larger groups.

Tissahamy was disappointed that cultural and other influences were forced by other ‘civilized’ communities upon his community. “The new civilizations arrived, changing the country and the world in its wake. But it is my belief that a Veddah shall be a Veddah always”.  He said that the jungle was their soul. “We were born there and will die there one day. My people prefer hunting, collecting bee-honey, or chasing an iguana”.


Modern Progress

Tissahamy vehemently refused to obey the order to leave his traditional habitat to make way for the Mahaweli Project, although a majority of his tribesmen opted to move out to their new settlement area in Hennanigala South, which had been exclusively reserved for them. He had several clashes with the officials of the Wild Life Department and those of the Mahaweli Development Authority. A few years later, some of the Veddah families who had migrated to their new settlement in Mahaweli System C began to return to Bintenne.

A report in the Daily News of 16 March 2006 said that the Veddah community in Monaragala in Uva province has become the latest target for religious conversion at the hands of Christian fundamentalists. Conversion is a very contentious topic in Sri Lanka. Monaragala is the poorest district in Sri Lanka and the Veddahs are the poorest people in that poor district. Twelve out of 60 families in the village of Ratugala have already surrendered themselves to funds offered by them and accepted their Agam pojja (religious faith) in return.

Veddahs have mostly adopted the lifestyle of the dominant culture but this is not through choice. Most no longer live by hunting, but instead cultivate a small plot of jungle land using the chena method (slash-and-burn, swidden-fallow cultivation). Most Veddahs now wear sarongs rather the traditional loincloth.  Most have abandoned the long, unkempt hair that was for centuries an identifying characteristic. Some will revert to the loincloth; carry a bow and arrow and put a short axe over their shoulders to provide photo opportunities for visitors.

Uruvarige Vanniyaleththo is on Facebook.

Giving the Tourist What He Wants

Even in 1911, the Seligmanns were writing of their uneasy encounter with these “primitive” people: “Naturally the Veddahs felt uncomfortable and shy at first, but when they found that they had only to look gruff and grunt replies in order to receive presents they were quite clever enough to keep up the pose. In this they were aided by the always-agreeable villagers ever ready to give the white man exactly what he wanted. The white man appeared to be immensely anxious to see a true Veddah, a wild man of the woods, clad only in a scanty loin cloth, carrying his bow and arrows on which he depended for his subsistence, simple and untrained, indeed, little removed from the very animals he hunted.” The Seligmanns referred to “show Veddahs”

Professor Obeysekere, coined the term “self-primitivization.”  He has written: “Soon this image was being perpetuated for those Sinhala middle class people who, in their own mimesis of colonialism, have imbibed much of the Veddah mythology created by the European. I have seen Dambane Veddahs during the 1950s and 1960s line the road to Mahiyanganaya carrying their bows and arrows waiting to perform their act of wildness, at which they were now past-masters.” Nature conservationist Dr. Ranjen Fernando said he had vivid memories of Veddahs going about on mopeds but the moment they heard that tourists were arriving, changed from their usual clothes to Veddah “garb”.

Address to the UN

In 1996, Warige Wanniya addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous People. This is an abridged version of his address:

“On November 9, 1983 the government of Sri Lanka turned the last of our forest territory into a national park. The Maduru Oya National Park, and thereby transformed us from being hunters and gatherers into poachers. Our traditional way of life, became a criminal offence in the eyes of the English Common Law, a law from a foreign country that we do not understand.

Our last hunting grounds comprised about 51,468 hectares was designated a combined ‘catchment area’ for a gigantic hydroelectric cum irrigation project, the Mahaweli Development Project and a Forest and Wildlife Reserve.

We were expected to move from the tropical forest to the ‘rehabilitation villages’ by free will. The government says no one was forced. If ‘force’ is armed forces, the statement cannot be argued. We had the choice to stay on, in the remaining land bordering the dams. The risk however of flooding during the monsoon rains was a threat to consider. We were not allowed to live off the land. Furthermore, no person is allowed to enter the National Park, except for the purpose of observing the fauna and flora, according to the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. We are arrested, imprisoned and brought to courts if we go inside. There is electric fencing, barriers, and national park guards armed to shoot if we trespass the borders.

We the Wanniyala-Aetto, which means forest-beings, are not allowed to remain in the forest. The national park regulations proscribe people from hunting, picking flowers, collecting honey, lighting a camp fire, much less allowing anyone to live in the park. Our relationship with our environment is changing. We were the custodians of the jungle throughout generations. Now the jungle is no longer ours and we do not feel responsible for its maintenance. A ‘Grab and Run’ philosophy has developed. We sneak inside, kill what we can get and then run outside again. We would not do that before. We were taught not to kill an animal drinking water, because we all need to drink water. We would not kill a pregnant mother; a deer a sambhur or another pregnant animal. We would not kill a four-legged mother giving milk to her small ones. The very land we, the Wanniyala-Aetto, shared with other beings (-aetto) is also shared by our ancestor forefathers, gods and goddesses and forest spirits. We are now alienated from them. Our very name, the Wanniyala-Aetto has no meaning if we cannot live in the forest.

Because of the 1983 prohibition of maintaining our traditional subsistence, new diseases appear. Since we cannot collect honey we have to add sugar to our diet. My own son is one of the first cases of diabetes in our community. Obesity, is another problem, and with that, high blood pressure. Since foraging is forbidden, we cannot track game for days and days as we did before. We cannot exercise the same physical hard work as we did before 1983. Alcoholism is also gradually penetrated into our society.

Instead, development programme villages awaited us with schools, shops, health clinics, ‘proper’ clothes, (i.e. English school uniforms for our children to go to Sinhalese schools) Buddhist temples and modem means of communication. Two and a half acres of irrigable land were allocated to each family. Two acres for cash cropping and the remaining half acre was for domestic consumption. We were expected to learn to become agriculturalists and live in a ‘civilized’ way, have a ‘civilized’ language and religion.”

The man said his brother should have been with him but he was the worse for drink.

Corruption and the Environment

Those that survive as distinctively Veddah live in isolated pockets near Mahiyanganaya and Gal Oya in the central and eastern portion of the island. Many have been resettled in new villages within the Mahaweli Irrigation Scheme.

It is interesting to note that the Mahaweli Project, which displaced so many people from their natural environment, has become a byword for corruption and ecological damage. Between 1970 and 1998, the World Bank extended six credits to the Mahaweli programme, totalling about US$ 450 million. The objective of the project was to improve rural livelihoods through a settlement programme involving irrigated farming and its supporting infrastructure, with a view to boosting incomes and boosting rice production to substitute for imports.

The World Bank did not consider the project a success though it made fortunes for many of those involved, including politicians who are revered by some, (probably mainly because they were assassinated before they could do any more damage). “The reassessment rates the outcome as highly unsatisfactory, based on the modest relevance of the project’s development objectives, modest progress in achieving those objectives and negligible efficiency. Relevance was limited by the project’s failure to address distortions in the agriculture incentives regime, the lack of consideration given to organizing water users for cost recovery, the failure to provide settlers with secure land rights, and the absence of provisions for sound management of natural resources”.

Professor Obeysekere is investigating whatever happened to the Veddahs in the Uva Vellassa region. The tea-growing area of Namunukula was traditionally known as a Veddah stronghold but there is no trace of them now.

I live in the foothills of the Namunukula range, which gazes down, like a mother with open welcoming arms, protectively on my house. Were those strange rocks in my garden trodden on by Veddahs in ancient times? Did they play some part in their bandÄra cult, worshipping the conglomerate of twelve major gods known as dolaha deviyo?

In the light of what I have written previously about nationalism, one might ask whether one should mourn the extinction of a distinctive cultural group such as the Veddahs, when conflicts between ethnic groups cause so much heartache in the world. In any case, with only 2,000 Veddahs left it is probably too late, without delusional tourist inspired myth making, to prevent their continuing assimilation.

Veddah Community Upliftment

Perhaps we should reflect on the hybrid nature of humanity in general. In Sri Lanka, as in many places such as the Middle East, identities are so shifting and arbitrary but are asserted so aggressively and so violently. Ceaseless cultural and genetic interchange between communities should prevent us from stereotyping identities that have evolved over an unimaginably long time.







Julie MacLusky

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