The Lost Tribe- Veddas of Sri Lanka

PHOTOS BY: Pro Ironman athlete and photographer Jose Jeuland

The Veddas are an ancient people of Sri Lanka, widely believed to have descended from the island’s ancient, indigenous aboriginal population– archaeological finds indicate the presence of their Neolithic ancestors on the island as far back as 10,000 BC. Many also believe that they are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC), the legendary founding father of the Sinhala nation.

First described by English merchant, Robert Knox, in 1681 as “wild men”
and “ferocious archers”, it would seem that time hasn’t changed much
for the Vedda – today, many remain most comfortable in minimal clothing,
with profuse beards, and armed with axes and bows. After over 10,000 years on the island, and with only about 500 true Veddas left, they
remain fiercely independent.

VEDDA LIFESTYLE

The surroundings of the Vedda have morphed throughout history, as deforestation has reduced their hunting grounds and territory during Sri
Lanka’s colonisation and subsequent modernisation. The further unintended consequence of the reduction of forest cover has been the increased incidents of wild elephants destroying Vedda crops while foraging for food. The Vedda lifestyle is simple, and while some work as casual labourers in towns, many Vedda continue to live by foraging, hunting for food, and barter-trading with the honey they traditionally gather to buy clothes, food or rides on public buses.

A friendly people, the Veddas are hospitable to strangers, often offering visitors gifts of fruit or honey. They bear visible signs of modernisation in the clothes they wear – loincloths have given way to sarongs and Sinhalese dresses. However, many men still carry axes everywhere they go, both out of practicality and as a mark of Vedda identity. Less than a generation ago, the Vedda almost universally made their homes in airy caves close to water, but now favour houses of various forms, from a roof with no walls to more modern designs incorporating separate rooms and windows. While the modernisation process has been slowed by the absence of wifi and smartphone coverage in their territory, things are already changing with some Vedda homes already utilising solar panels, and others with mobile phones.

VISITING THE VEDDA

While the Vedda people used to populate the more secluded areas of Sri Lanka, they now live almost exclusively in the curve of land between the largely Sinhalese South, West and Centre, and the mainly Tamil North and East. Today, the you can visit a traditional Vedda village in Dambana, a jungle village about 300km from Colombo, situated within the Maduru Oya National Park which is famous for its wild elephants (numbering around
200) and spotted deer.

The Veddas have been given permission by the government to live within the park, where they are allowed to build traditional homes and use traditional methods to fish within the park. Members of the Vedda community are also actively employed as guides in the national park.

As Dambana is located within the Knuckles Mountain Range, there are plenty of hiking opportunities. These include the unique grassland of Pitawala Pathana and a mini ‘World’s End’, which is a deep escarpment that affords panoramic views of the Knuckles Range and the valleys below; it is possible to walk along to the rock extrusion right up to the edge for a
stunning view.

To experience the Vedda culture up close, you can spend a night with them – camping, hunting, trekking and gathering food. Depending on the season, you may also get to witness a dance performance. If you’re lucky you can also join a Vedda hunting party (usually during the rainy season from October to January), or search for beehives. Various operators offer Vedda village excursions, including activities like hunting and hiking, ranging
from 1-3 days.

Alternatively, neighbouring Gal Oya National Park has a luxury lodge that can arrange for trips to the Vedda village.

GETTING THERE

SriLankan Airlines offers direct flights from Singapore- taking about 4 hours – to Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. While there is another airport, the newly-built Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota , it is sadly under-utilised see more info at FlyBy Aviation Academy.

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