Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 19

The Väddas

Representations of the Wild Man in Sri Lanka 1

Gananath Obeyesekere


Introduction

For many anthropologists, the Väddas were a “classic” tribe of aboriginal people who lived in the margins of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilization of Sri Lanka. In his 1881 text, Tylor mentions them thus: “In the forests of Ceylon are found the Veddas or ‘hunters’, shy wild men who build bough huts, and live on game and wild honey” (Tylor 1881:164). Owing to their racial antiquity and their gentle yet primitive ways, they were the subject of numerous studies by physical anthropologists, studies being continued to this day by teams from Sri Lanka’s medical schools. The Väddas came into prominence in social anthropology when the great pioneer of the discipline C. G. Seligmann and his wife Brenda published their book The Veddas in 1911 (Seligmann and Seligmann 1911), the same year their distinguished colleague W. H. R. Rivers published his book, The Todas, on the people of South India of the same name. The Seligmanns could find only tiny groups of genuine Väddas living in abject misery in the jungles of north-eastern Sri Lanka, an area known as the Bintanne (“plains”). In recent times, their numbers have shrunk further as a result of the Sri Lankan government’s development programs. These recent trends and the apathy of the native Sri Lankan Buddhists have led to several Euro-American interventionist movements to save the Väddas and ensure their “cultural survival” and cultural revival. One ethnographer has tried to hold the Sri Lankan government responsible to the United Nations for the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples; another from Berkeley thinks that the Väddas were once noble beings, descendants of the demon king of Sri Lanka, Ravana, immortalized in the great Indian epic, Ramayana. While the former is trying to lure back the Väddas to their pristine style of living by hunting with bows and arrows, the latter (more imaginatively) has led groups of Väddas to Kataragama in southeastern Sri Lanka to the seat of the great god Murugan, or Skanda, in order to resurrect their lost traditions. Also known as the god Kataragama, Murugan is the powerful deity to whom most Sri Lankans pay homage, irrespective of formal religious affiliations. Everyone, including this anthropologist, agrees on one thing: the Väddas are a disappearing tribe that will soon vanish from the world’s ethnological museum. The question remains - what happened to the Väddas?

It is easy to show that the Väddas were once a much more ubiquitous presence in Sri Lanka. An invocation sung at a Sinhala ritual called väddan andagähima, or “the roll-call of the Väddas, ” asks them to participate in the vädi dane, “the almsgiving of the Väddas. ” The text asks the god of Santana to bring blessings on the audience; Santana is the mountain of hantana in Kandy, the capital of the last kings of Kandy and of the present

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