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A FOCUS ON THE MARGINALISED SOCIAL GROUPS OF THE ENVIRONS OF THE PROTECTED AREA COMPLEX OF
SRI LANKA -- THE TRADITIONAL FOREST-DWELLING VÄDDA PEOPLE OF RATUGALA, POLLÉBÄDDA AND
GALLINDA HAMLETS; AND THE DRUMMER CASTE OF NAGALAVÄVA IN SIGIRIYA, SRI LANKA
K. S. FERNANDO
Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES)
PO Box 03, Diyakäpilla, Sigiriya.
Mob. +94 (0)773123206
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: The focus is on the Vädda groups of Ratugala (Bible, Monarāgala District),
Pollebädda (Maya Oya, Ampāra District) and Gallinda (Polonnaruva District); and a
social group of drummers (Sinhala. Nakatikula) of Nagalaväva in Sigiriya (Matale
Sri Lanka has long felt a need for the development of its local or indigenous
cultures specifically relating to the non-urban sector. It is well entrenched that
diverse cultures combined to influence the societal makeup of the island’s long
history for over 2300 years under the Sinhalese kingdoms that were predominantly
influenced by the Buddhist culture (see Appendix 1: Mahavamsa 1950:74-75;
Appendix 2: Alberuni’s Indica 1973:26). Despite the overall contradiction of the caste system in Buddhist
philosophy, the diverse castes of drummers, potters, fishers, cattle herders, vyādhas (huntsmen or archers),
farmers and members of the royal court that made up some of the occupational caste groupings --
categorically termed high or low -- were based on the social hierarchy extant throughout the greater part of
history (Valentia 1811:435; Ievers 1899:93), largely to the benefit of the dominant groups in society.
Thus, these groups or castes can be classified as a well established part of the island’s native population --
conforming or not -- to what has been defined as such since the European colonial era. Of these groups,
therefore, the proposed programme focuses on the commonly termed ‘Vädda’ and a caste of drummers --
owing to their present social standing and pleas for help.
The arrival of European colonists -- the Portuguese, Dutch and British -- to the island and their succeeding
administrations and cultural intrusions as recently as 500 years ago had its impact on the local cultural
system giving way to a new privileged class conforming to the norms of the dominant western traditions.
The norm among European and other travel writers of the colonial era was thus, to depict hunter-gatherer
groups whose non-urban lifeways were by comparison ecologically balanced in their human-environment
interactions, as ‘uncivilised’ or ‘barbarous’, as a ploy perhaps, for gains through unlawful governance if
not ignorance. The Vädda people were similarly portrayed in the popular literature of the colonial era and
since, as having adapted from what was conceptualised as a purely hunting tradition based on seasonal
nomadism to alternate sedentary practices as testified since the mid-17
century with the earliest account
by Knox (1981:195). What can be gleaned from the vast body of literature on the subject, is, however, that
the forest-dwelling groups including the Vädda people have been a well integrated part of society –
serving a defined role– whether in the capacity of huntsmen, trustworthy guardsmen or tradesmen
recognised by royal decree throughout the lengthy Sinhalese kingdoms; and owed allegiance to the King
Despite the evidence for caste distinctions, as well as the assimilation of the diverse social groups in
society -- with the exclusion of marital links -- however, the diverse traditions that were thus fitted within
the social milieu and sustained for well over a millennia have had little opportunity to survive the resultant
social transformations that have since stood to isolate them. The status of these minority social groups has
since continued to remain well outside macro-society and unrecognised as far as an integrated programme
for their overall wellbeing and assimilation is concerned. Further, the large scale so-called “development”
programmes to “settle” them as revealed since the time of Tennent (1977: 911-913) and since (see
Appendix 3: Stavenhagen 1990: 17-19; Dharmadasa 1990: 100-101) has largely been to suit the needs of a
dominant intrusive culture, that have only served to intensify their marginalisation and enhanced
susceptibility to change.
Present status: The present status of the Vädda people thus, reveals that only a handful of groups that remain
scattered in a few remaining forest pockets of the south-eastern
hinterland are recognised as such. Of these, the literary evidence of the
latter part of the colonial period first mentions the Ratugala and Bingoda
(subsequently of Pollebädda) groups as the Vädda prototype, owing to
their forest or cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer practices. As stated by
Kuruppu (see Appendix 10: Sunday Times 1993), the term
“Vanniyaläättō” (“forest-dweller’) is by which some of the Vädda groups
are popularly referred to now (see Appendix 4: De Silva 195; see
Appendix 3: Meegaskumbura 1990:101; Appendix: 5: Stegeborn 1994: 2) evidently owing no doubt to the
erroneous assumption that ‘Vädda’ is a term that is derogatory, when in fact it is a corrupt anglicised
version derived from the recognised Sanskrit term ‘vyādha, referring to the “huntsmen” of King
Pandukhābaya’s time (see Appendix 1: Mahavamsa 1950: 74-75). The Ratugala and the popularly-
described Dambāna groups have also been referred to as “show” Väddas being the focus of interest of
both travelers and researchers owing to comparatively easy access, as well as the survival of certain
elements of known “Vädda” cultural traits (see Appendix 6: Seligmann et al. pp. 37-39). Today, the
situation remains unchanged in Dambāna. With the focus on Dambāna by diverse individuals and State
authorities -- for each of their own benefits -- it has grown to become “the recognised centre of the so-
called “Vanniyelättō” world with national as well as international programmes linked to this community.
Protected Area signage
Although the Pollebädda and Ratugala communities have since of late sometimes been encouraged to
participate in the events organised, they are often deprived of the benefits received by the Dambana
community and return home disheartened (pers comm. T.B. Gombā 2004), despite the questionable
authenticity of the present beneficiaries by which the other groups including Dimbulagala, Pollebädda,
Ratugala, etc. are marginalised at most events concerning the “indigenous” people. A further case in point
was the declaration of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1993 that saw the sole
representation of the Dambāna group at the United Nations, with their chief benefactor an anthropologist
of Swedish descent affiliated with the group.
Thus, it is the nomadic practices of the fragmented Bingoda
group settled in Pollebädda over sixty years ago that is,
however, the only group that can be defined culturally as
archetypal, if at all (Appendix 7: Spittel 2001: 104, 216-217,
264; Appendix 11: Kuruppu Daily News October 1992).
Their cave shelters, hunting and foraging tract within their
old haunts stretching from the environs of Nuvaragala is
spoken with much lament today (pers comm. T.B. Gombā
and T.B. Kairā Vanniyā
2004). It is evident that the introduction of national conservation laws --
rather than policies -- has neither considered the traditional foraging patterns of hunter-fisher-gatherers --
a practice akin to most forest-dwelling communities including the non-sedentary agriculturalists of diverse
caste distinctions -- as well as their Vädda neighbours, nor has there been any endeavour or inclination to
provide the displaced groups concerned with adequate alternatives required for their continued existence.
Instead, these diverse communities have been entirely deprived of their traditional hunting tracts by which
the need for game flesh is particularly manifest in the lives of the once seasonally nomadic significantly
small Pollebädda and Ratugala Vädda groups, as has been revealed by them on numerous occasions (pers
comm. T.B. Gomba 1992; and 2004; pers comm. TB Heen Kaira 2004; pers comm. D.M.B Heen Mänikā
of Ratugala 2004). Their dietary intake which mostly lacks nourishment today has no doubt led to a
physically weakening -- ill health, failing eyesight, malnutrition and debilitating diseases among these
groups. Further, a continued practice involving the gathering of edible-nests of the swift is sustained by
some of the Vädda and their non-Vädda neighbours in the Ratugala area, despite the trade being illegal
resulting from the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) operative since the British colonial era.
The exploitation of the local community by the Muslim traders of particularly Badulla where a kilogram
of edible-nests fetch Rs.10,000/- in the market is also manifest, while they are only purchased from the
forest-dwelling edible-nest gatherers -- who run the risk of a fine if apprehended by the wildlife authorities
and their lives in gathering the nests -- for half that sum (pers comm. H.M. Jayewardene 2004).). Further
deprived of the most basic human need -- water -- without which existence of any sort is indeed, bleak, the
external influences and dominance faced by the Ratugala group are reflected in their lifeways. Deception
and unethical church conversions of over a decade ago, in addition to fraud that has deprived them of
access to a single water well allocated to them are also perceived today (see Appendix 12: Samaratunga:
Fishing in the waters of the
Gallinda Mahā väva on lease.
The Anumätirāla and Kapurāla of Gallinda
performing the ritual duties at the God
July 11 1993; Appendix 13: Wimaladasa The Island 20 Nov 1993). It is thus vital that a plan with an
integrated approach is made for the benefit of these long-marginalised communities -- taking into
consideration their traditional practices within their foraging lands that they have been unfairly prevented
from carrying out, simply owing to the needs of a dominant self-seeking society; and their participation in
the overall conservation and management plan of the island’s Protected Areas. Examples from such case
studies are evident the world over, such as in Uluru (Ayers Rock area) in Central Australia and certain
areas of the biodiversity- and culturally-rich Käkadu National Park in northern Australia, as the allocated
territory of the respective native Australian tribes.
Similarly, the vestigial Vädda community of Gallinda
documented even well before the Seligmanns’ study of 1911
(see Appendix: 5: 56-57), contains a rich oral tradition dating
back to the reign of King Mahasen and is also the focus of
present concern. The origin of Gallinda and its association with
Minneri väva is also contemporaneous as evident in the living
traditions of the surrounding area. Brow’s study of the
extensive “Anuradhapura” Vädda” community in 1978 (see
Appendix 8: 1978: 200, 204-205) includes Gallinda, but has,
however, neglected to obtain at first-hand the status of its
inhabitants by which he has erroneously referred to its
abandonment, contrary to the evidence forthcoming from the ensuing studies of Manatunga (1990) and
(1991; 1992; 1993; 2002). The human-elephant conflict rampant in the area eventually led to
the destruction of the last dwelling at the hamlet in 1992. What remains at the site today are the Gallinda
shrine -- where the traditional rites are performed by members of the Gallinda Vädda lineage -- the spring
well from which the hamlet has derived its name; and the traditional paddy lands by which their sedentary
agricultural practices are sustained depending on the seasonal rainfall on which the Gallinda Kudā väva is
dependent. Their hunter-gatherer-fishing traditions though sustained, are limited resulting from the
declaration of the conservation laws for Protected Areas.
The integration of the Gallinda community with its neighbouring
communities is also apparent and compares with that of the diverse
other social groups in the area that combine to serve as an important
element of the Dry Zone cultural context. A further important role that
reflects their assimilation is their participation at the annual customary
rites at the old God Minneriya shrine (Sinhala: purāna Minneriya
devālaya) in the vicinity of their ancestral abode in Minneriya. The
Vädda priest-medium (Sinhala: Anumätirāla) of Gallinda shrine in
Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS) [1991-1993], Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) [1993-1996);
University of Stockholm ; and Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES) 
Minneriya also bears the traditional role of Chief Kapurāla to assist its priest-medium following the
annual rites at the Gallinda shrine to culminate with the events in Minneriya. The reciprocal relationships
existing between the diverse social groups in the past are also attested by the ancient pilgrim route that lies
from Sigiriya (via Diyakapilla) to the purāna devālaya in Minneriya that now largely lies within the
Minneriya-Giritale Nature Reserve and its National Park. Entry within the National Park is thus
prohibited. Of further note are signs that the ritual practices of the diverse traditional groups concerned do
not take the form of Buddhist practice, but are more akin to a pre-Buddhist pagan worship by which
recently dead human ancestors (as evident in the Nae Yakku/ancestral worship of the Vädda people)
(Spittel 2001) or other exemplary humans (for e.g. King Mahasen) are deified, for the protection of the
surviving community/inhabitants of the region, by which they live-on as deities or spirits.
Further, the community comprising a caste of drummers in Nagalaväva -- a traditional cluster village with
a common central courtyard (see Appendix 9: Myrdal 1994: 230, 289, 291) -- has also been prone to
changes as is the norm among the majority of our human societies. The hamlet is situated in proximity to
the Sri Lanka Air Force Base in Kibissa, the World Heritage Site and wildlife sanctuary of Sigiriya. With
intensified security measures of national concern that are in operation at the Air Force Base, the
movements of the inhabitants of the area are restricted and the worst affected. With a lack of opportunities
for the “development” of the community, there has also seen a shift to neighbouring settlements that are
also without much visible improvement. To prevent a further fragmentation of the community comprising
of only three remaining families at the cluster village who are mostly left unaided and largely dominated
by a non-Buddhist from Negombo -- on the western seaboard -- now married into the community and
which is belittled by him (pers comm. 2003), evidently requires external assistance which they seek in
desperation. Owing to its place in the societal makeup of the greater Dry Zone, associated ties with the
Gallinda Vädda hamlet and others in the area are yet perceived. The community continues to participate at
the ceremonial duties of the traditional God Minneriya shrine in Gallinda that further testify to the
assimilation of the diverse social groups.
Of further note is that the scientific investigations carried out in the Sigiriya-Dambulla region since the
late 1980s have established that the lifeways and material culture of the socially distinct Dry Zone
communities -- whether the long term (traditional) sedentary Sinhalese agriculturalists, the drummer
castes or the so-called Vädda people -- are more comparable than not. Thus, the lifeways of the traditional
agriculturalists were also tied to hunting, fishing and gathering, while the forest-dwelling communities
were primarily hunters-fisher-gatherers who more often than not, also cultivated (see Appendix 9: Myrdal
et al. 1994:265-267). What can be perceived in the present day, however, is that some of the castes are
unfavourably viewed by many of the younger groups in the area -- despite their own status in the caste
hierarchy -- through ignorance brought on by the influence of a considerably disintegrated Buddhist
society as reflected through history, by which stigma has been attached.
Thus, with the recognition that the focus of attention is in fact diverted away from these marginalised
groups through prejudice in favour of other groups – of both Vädda and non- Vädda origin -- simply for
each of their own gains; consultations with the partners of the implementing organisation have felt an
urgent need to prevent further suffering among these impoverished communities of Sri Lanka, while
providing them with the required assistance that in fact pertains to basic human necessities which are,
however, lacking owing to the increased – and further rising -- level of poverty faced by them today.
Further, in recognizing the social and cultural diversity that has over time been an integrated part of
Lankan society, it is thus opportune to safeguard such communities through effective planning and
management. It is thus envisioned that the proposed project will only serve to prevent further neglect of
these once resourceful communities whose standards of living have now reached well below that of the
poverty line. Thus, fulfilling the requirements recognized by the selected communities through adequate
planning and enactment of effective administrative policies will serve to sustain the individual households
as the first step to progress, with relevant local organisational structures established for the long term
benefit of the respective communities concerned, to avoid further neglect or fragmentation through
encouraged measures for “development” -- in the true sense of the word.
1. Brow, James. 1978. Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura: The Historical Anthropology of a
Community in Sri Lanka. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
2. Dani, Ahmad Hasan. 1973. Alberuni’s Indica: A Record of the Cultural History of South Asia
about A.D. 1030. Islamabad: University of Islamabad Press.
3. De Silva, M.W. Sugathapala. 1972. Vedda Language.. Munich.
4. Dharmadasa, K.N.O. 1990. The Veddas’ Struggle for Survival: Problems, Policies and Responses. In
The Vanishing Aborigines: Sri Lanka’s Veddas in Transition. Edited by Dharmadasa, K.N.O. and
S.W.R. de A. Samarasinghe. International Centre for Ethnic Studies.
5. Geiger, Wilhelm. 1950. Mahavamsa: Or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon. Colombo: Ceylon
Government Information Department.
6. Knox. R.  1981. An Historical Account of Ceylon. Colombo: Tisara Prakasakayo.
7. Meegaskumbura, P.B. 1990. Religious Beliefs of the Veddas in Relation to Their World-View. In
The Vanishing Aborigines: Sri Lanka’s Veddas in Transition. Edited by Dharmadasa, K.N.O. and
S.W.R. de A. Samarasinghe. International Centre for Ethnic Studies.
8. Myrdal-Runebjer, Eva. 1994. …….. In Further Studies in the Settlement Archaeology of the
Sigiriya-Dambulla Region. Edited by Bandaranayake, Senake, Mats Mogren. Colombo: The
Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya.
9. Myrdal-Runebjer, Eva., Damayanthi Gunawardena and Sudarshani Fernando. 1994. Dwelling and
Household: Activity Areas, Tools and Auxiliary Devices. In Further Studies in the Settlement
Archaeology of the Sigiriya-Dambulla Region. Edited by Bandaranayake, Senake, Mats Mogren.
Colombo: The Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya.
10. Myrdal-Runebjer, Eva. 1994. Hunting, Trapping, Catching and Fishing. In Further Studies in the
Settlement Archaeology of the Sigiriya-Dambulla Region. Edited by Bandaranayake, Senake, Mats
Mogren. Colombo: The Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya.
11. Seligmann, C.G. and Brenda Z. Seligmann.  1993. The Veddas. Cambridge: Cambridge
12. Spittel, R.L.  2001. Vanished Trails: The Last of the Veddas. Colombo: Sooriya Publishers.
13. Stegeborn. Wiveca. 1994. Vanniyelatto…. (Unpublished Thesis).
14. Stavenhagen, Rodolfo. 1990. The Plight of the Indigenous. In The Vanishing Aborigines: Sri
Lanka’s Veddas in Transition. Edited by Dharmadasa, K.N.O. and S.W.R. de A. Samarasinghe.
International Centre for Ethnic Studies.
15. Tennent, E. 1977. Ceylon. Colombo: Tisara Prakasakayo.
16. Valentia, George Viscount. 1811. Voyages and Travels to India, Ceylon in the Red Sea, Abyssinia
and Egypt in the Years 1802-1806. pg. 434-435.
17. Wijesekera, Nandadeva. 1964. Veddas in Transition. Colombo: M.D. Gunasena & Co. Ltd.
18. NEWSPAPER ARTICLES [IN ENGLISH]
1. Kuruppu, Russel. Tala Bandaralage Gomba: New chief of the Pollebedda Veddas. Daily News. 27
2. Punchihewa, Gamini G. The Veddas in focus. The Island. Sunday, 3 January 1993.
3. Kuruppu, Russel. Champions of the ‘Wannietto’ cause. The Sunday Times. 10 January 1993.
4. Wimaladasa, Vilma. Veddahs and missionaries. The Island. Saturday, 20 November 1993.
5. Gloom over Vedda elder’s death: Yet another of Spittel’s Pollebedda community passes away. The
Sunday Observer. 27 August 1995.
6. Wijeratne, Premalal. ‘Galveddahs’ - a dying breed. The Sunday Leader. 27 October 1996.
7. Kuruppu, Russel. A vanishing tribe: Gamarala: the Vedda elder of Pollebedda passes away. The
Sunday Observer. 15 June 1997.
8. Arts award for Vedda chief. Daily News. January 2004. pg. 1
NEWSPAPER ARTICLES [IN SINHALA]
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