Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: environment

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.







Polythene Pestilence

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 19 2014

Colman's Column3

Visiting Horton Plains, I got the strange feeling that I had been transported back to Ireland. The fog, the yellow furze blossoms, the red fuchsias, all brought back memories of rural County Cork. At Horton Plains, signs warn visitors that plastic bags can kill the deer that are one of the reasons for visiting the spot. This is no longer a problem in Ireland. Ireland has conquered the scourge of plastic bags.

In his book Ireland and the Irish, John Ardagh noted: “the Irish lack of any strong visual sense or concern with tidiness”. The Irish landscape is beautiful but it is marred by the intrusion of humanity.  Most Irish small towns are ugly and depressing. The Irish countryside is sparsely populated but despoiled by the phenomenon of “bungalowitis” – the economic boom led to many ugly houses being built. With the collapse of the economy, the country is littered with ghost housing developments.

The Irish do seem to have got something right with their policy on plastic bags. I would venture to say that Sri Lankans also lack a strong visual sense or concern with tidiness. People of my age and background were trained to be tidy. Dropping litter in the street would be anathema even if there were not fines to be imposed if you were caught. Ireland seemed to be improving somewhat. There is now less danger in Irish cities of getting stuck to the pavement with chewing gum than there is in London. There are now tidy village competitions in Ireland. In Sri Lanka, I notice children dropping litter on the ground without being reprimanded by their parents. Why are the schools not training them?

It is not just Sri Lanka that is plagued by plastic bags. An estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, 380 billion of those in the US. Each year in Singapore, some 2.5 billion plastic bags are used which means vast quantities of non-renewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas are consumed to produce them. According to an impact assessment by the European Commission, European citizens use, on average, 198 plastic bags per year. Of the 198 bags, 90 per cent are single-use lightweight plastic bags. An estimated three billion plastic bags were used daily across China, creating more than three million tons of garbage each year. China consumed an estimated five million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil annually to produce plastics for packaging.

Large build-ups of plastic bags can clog drainage systems and contribute to flooding, as occurred in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998 and almost annually in Manila. Plastic bags constituted a significant portion of the floating marine debris in the waters around southern Chile, according to a study conducted between 2002 and 2005. If washed out to sea, plastic bags can be carried long distances by ocean currents, and can strangle marine animals. The inks and colorants used in some bags contain lead, a toxin. Once in the environment, it can take hundreds of years for plastic bags to breakdown. As they decompose, tiny toxic bits seep into soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans.

Sri Lankan retailers have a mania for packaging. One might buy a packet of biscuits, which has already been wrapped by the manufacturer. The shopkeeper will then wrap it in newspaper, put it in a brown paper bag and then put the lot into a plastic bag.

In my living memory, plastic bags didn’t exist. How did we manage without them? Today’s lightweight shopping bag, made of ethylene derived from natural gas and petroleum, only came into common use in the 1970s. Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin invented it and   Celloplast patented worldwide it in 1965.

Someone told me that plastic bags were here to stay in Sri Lanka because their production was a cottage industry providing livelihoods. Could livelihoods not arise from producing biodegradable packaging? I attended BCMIH to hear Ajahn Brahmavanso and was impressed with the efficient manner in which the event was organised. Seven thousand people were provided lunch in neat disposable cardboard boxes. Not a plastic bag in sight!

Rwanda has had many problems. If they can deal with the plastic problem, surely it is not beyond Sri Lanka? At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones. The authorities encouraged companies that used to manufacture plastic bags to start recycling them instead by providing tax incentives. In 2008, Rwanda decided to ban plastic bags completely.

Ireland took a global lead on the plastic bags issue. I was somewhat disconcerted to be told on 4th March 2002 by an Irish retailer that I would have to pay 15 cents for a plastic bag. My first thought was that this was profiteering. I later learnt that this was a levy imposed by the Irish government to limit the use of plastic bags and encourage the use of re-usable bags. All levies are remitted into the Environment Fund to develop schemes to promote awareness of the need to protect the environment.

There was an immediate effect on consumer behaviour. Use of plastic bags plummeted from an estimated 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita overnight. Tony Lowes, director of Friends of the Irish Environment in County Cork, said the levy had “been an extraordinary success,” resulting in a 95% reduction in plastic bags. Local authorities carry out surveys to determine the extent, composition and causes of litter pollution in their areas. This information enables them to plan litter management. There have been positive changes in litter pollution levels throughout the country since 2002.

Ireland gave an example to the world. In a quarter of the globe, there are some restrictions on plastic bags. Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand and three states and territories of Australia, ban them. The five-cent tax levied on plastic bags in Washington DC in 2010 brought a decrease in consumption from 22.5 million to three million bags in the first month alone. Italy began a total ban on January 1 2011.  Like Ireland, Belgium and Hong Kong discourage plastic bag use by imposing a levy.

China’s State Council, in January 2008 prohibited shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from providing free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimetres thick. The NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission) announced recently that supermarkets had reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent. The commerce administration enforced the ban through a 600,000-strong army of regulators who inspected some 250,000 retail outlets. Regulators imposed about two million yuan (US$293,000) in fines. The reduction in bag production saved China 1.6 million tons of petroleum. However, a survey by Global Village, a Beijing-based environmental group, found that more than 80 percent of retail stores in rural regions continued to provide plastic bags free of charge.

There are positive developments in Sri Lanka. Cargill’s and Keell’s are promoting re-usable bags. The problem is that it is very difficult to stop market traders using plastic bags even when one presents them with a re-usable bag in which to put ones purchases. Local government and workplaces could hammer the philosophy home. Tele-dramas could preach the anti-litter gospel. There is already a tradition of recycling newspapers and exercise books to make bags. Could these not be used  instead of rather than in addition to plastic?

It may seem like an uphill task to end Sri Lanka’s dependence on plastic bags and to raise awareness of the disadvantages of litter. Who would have thought a few years ago that the Irish could be prevented from having a smoke with their pint in the pub? Who would have thought they could be weaned almost overnight from the plastic bag?

There must be hope for Sri Lanka!

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