In the Occidental Sphere, where monuments and statues evoke discussions about historical events, the ancient practices of indigenous communities often slip under the radar. Take, for instance, the Vedda culture in Sri Lanka, that enchanting island off India’s southern tip. Few places on Earth boast a human habitation stretching back over half a million years, making the Vedda culture a captivating exploration of our ancient roots.
Tracing Human Footprints: Sri Lanka’s Populous Past
The timeline of human presence on the Indian Sub-Continent is extensively chronicled, yet the arrival of the first humans in Sri Lanka continues to fuel intense debate. According to S. U. Deraniyagalam, the Director-General of Archaeology, settlements in Sri Lanka trace back to 130,000 years ago, potentially even 500,000 years ago. The wide temporal range, as set by leading archaeologists, accentuates the intricacies of comprehending the island’s ancient origins.
In the 1st millennium BC, the onset of iron technology marked a swift transition from a Mesolithic culture to the Early Iron Age, ushering in elements such as horse riding, cattle farming, pottery, and paddy cultivation.
Natives of Sri Lanka: The Veddas
The indigenous populace of Sri Lanka, known as the Veddas or Wanniyala-Aetto, were once identified as the “forest people.” Until recently, Vedda women draped a cloth from navel to knees, while men sported a loincloth suspended at the waist with string.
Mythical Roots of the Veddas
As per the Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty, the Veddas, also referred to as Pulindas, trace their lineage to Prince Vijaya, the founding figure of the Sinhalese nation. The Veddas’ origin is intertwined with Kuveni, a woman of the Yakkha clan, after Vijaya repudiated Kuveni in favor of a Kshatriya princess.
The original Vedda language is still in use in the island’s interior, with Sinhala-speaking Veddas in Bintenne and the Eastern Province adopting Tamil.
Spiritual Practices and Ceremonial Rites of the Veddas
In the ancient tapestry of the Veddas, animism was prevalent, with beliefs in spirits residing in nature. The interior Veddahs encountered a clash of animistic concepts with Buddhism, while east coast Veddahs harmoniously blended animism with Hinduism, acknowledged as ‘folk Hinduism.’
Ancestor worship, known as “nae yaku,” held a pivotal role in Vedda worship. All communities, including Vedda, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim, paid homage to the Kataragama temple complex. Death among the Veddas unfolded in a straightforward manner, with bodies laid to rest without elaborate ceremonies.
Colonization brought about shifts in burial practices, leading to the creation of 4–5 foot deep graves with Gadumba tree trunks. Bodies were scented with lime and leaf juice, placed with personal artifacts, and covered with leaves. The cultural amalgamation of Veddas with newer populations spans five centuries, and the term “Vedda” has evolved to encompass not just hunter-gatherers but anyone embracing an old-school, rural lifestyle.
In awe of consciousness, humans grapple with the inevitability of death, fostering various religious beliefs. In Sri Lanka, the Veddas’ ancestor worship, revolving around a cult of the dead, involved incantations and chants to appease spirits causing turmoil.
By resisting societal transformations, Vedda populations are on the rise in specific Sri Lankan districts, preserving ancient cultures amidst modern shifts.