between two worlds
coastal veddah community is poverty-stricken, malnourished and
During my recent travels to Varakai region, north of the
Batticaloa District, I got the chance to visit Kathiraveli, 62
km away from Batticaloa and the border village of the Batticaloa-
Trincomalee Districts. Before making our way back to the city,
my tour guide said that he would take me to see the local
‘Negroids’ if I was willing to travel further interior.
Curious to see this group of ethnic peoples of whom I had never
heard, I agreed to take the hidden route. It wasn’t an easy ride
along a muddy, winding, broken gravel road and no big vehicle
could get an easy access. We stopped our vehicle at the top of a
seemingly uninhabited jungle path and ventured inside the woody
The shaded path suddenly opened up to a micro village, with
perhaps less 20 families residing in light blue, partially
constructed houses. An old woman, decked in shabby clothes was
washing a thin cloth, using water pumped by a tube well nearby.
My guide warns me that they do not like to be asked specific
questions with regard to their ethnicity and might turn violent
if they do not like my line of questioning.
These ‘different’ people are commonly identified as the
‘coastal’ or ‘Muhudu’ veddahs. They are an indigenous community
who make their living by fishing, honey gathering and a little
bit of agriculture. Today, most of what is remaining of this
tribe of East Coast Veddahs have mixed with various races and
living in and around the Batticaloa town, especially with
Tamils. Some look very much like modern Tamils, with modern
dresses and using Tamil as their mother tongue.
people however dislike being identified as hailing from an
ancient indigenous tribe, largely due to the prevailing caste
hierarchy in the eastern region. The veddah community is
considered the lowest of the regional castes and shunned by
persons of higher castes in the region. As a result of denying
themselves thus, there has been a tremendous loss of heritage
and roots for the coastal veddah peoples. Tragically, the term
veddan which is Tamil for veddha is now used in the region only
to rebuke a stubborn or naughty child.
Strangely enough, no matter how often the region of Vakarai and
its surroundings have been ravaged by war, the veddah clans
continue to live in the area.
Further along the road that leads to this small habitat, a
veddah woman was modernly dressed in a t-shirt and skirt and
mending her fishing net. It is likely she received her modern
attire during their displacement due to the tsunami. Walking up
to her, I politely I asked her name and age. She wasn’t very
conversant but her old mother walked by and said her name is
Ponnamma and added that she was 40 years old. Instantly, Ponnama
found her voice and said that she’s not 40, but also said she
had no idea how old she was.
Ponnamma has eight children and each one is maybe an inch
shorter than the other. Regrettably, they also do not know their
ages and are all clad in rags.
At a house nearby, a small boy named Gajendran lives with his
mother. Wearing a red unbuttoned checked shirt, this boy looked
barely two years old, although his mother tells me he is nine
and currently studies in Grade III of the village school. Many
in his little community laugh that his school bag is bigger than
he is, but Gajendran does not seem to be bothered.
“He got rashes when he was born. That’s the only sign I could
relate to his sickness,” said his mother, Vasanthi, who looked
like she was in her mid- 20s, although she cannot recall her
proper age. Soon, she went into a room which is dedicated to the
traditional way of cooking fish by the coastal Veddahs. The fish
is caught and placed on a long steel grill to burn on a small
Moving South of Katheriveli, I was introduced to another set of
Coastal Veddahs in Mankerni, 48km away from Batticaloa town.
Soon I saw an elderly veddah, 82 year old Byron Ummani, who
warmly welcomed me and asked how he could be of assistance. He
can speak the veddah tongue, which sounds very similar to the
Sinhalese language. It is also interesting that his first name
denotes a Burgher influence.
“Thaiya nama mokkaddha? What’s your name?,” is the question
Ummani asked when I entered his house.
“My parents used to talk this language very fluently and it is a
must for the little ones of those days to learn this language if
one is to survive in our clan. But in my time, due to the ethnic
tension, many of our people moved away from our clan and never
came back. Then nobody was willing to talk this language and my
children’s generation abandoned it as it was of no use to them
now,” he said.
The lives of this community in Mankerni are much better than
those in Kathirveli. Their clothes and houses are clean and tidy
and they welcome strangers without suspicion to their dwellings.
Studies have not been done to establish any difference between
these two veddah clans though they are closely related to
‘coastal veddah’ category. Most importantly, these Mankerni
veddahs knew their ages and articulated a good knowledge of
everything. Maybe, the location had made a difference, as
Mankerni is an area relatively accessible to town and commercial
sites, whereas Kathiraveli is a remote location, accessible by
only a barely motorable road and thoroughly neglected during the
years of war.
Ummani also said they worship a God named ‘Upathaiya’, whose
image greatly resembles Lord Pillayar, a Hindu deity. “We make
fruits, flowers and other kinds of food items as offerings to
Lord Upathaiya. Then we wrap these offerings in a cloth and
During his youthful days, Ummani says he used to go hunting with
his parents and then when restrictions were laid, he fished for
survival and also gathered honey during the season.
His daughter, 39 year old Santhiran Rupavathi, living next door
was putting her pet mongoose in its cage. It is said that most
people in this area tame mongoose to avoid snake bites.
“My children are schooling. We live mostly by fishing and honey
gathering during the season. Drinking water is a problem in our
area during the dry season,” she said, adding hopefully that
someone would solve the water problem soon.
These coastal peoples were traditionally forest wardens who
protected the jungle which provided their livelihoods. Living in
the jungle, they never required the sanitation and other
facilities that are part and parcel of modern life. Now living
among urbanites, these indigenous tribes still retain parts of
their traditional lifestyles. This primitive lifestyle is
frowned upon by modern eastern society and they are thus
relegated to the lowest caste in the regions they inhabit,
because they are caught, cruelly between these two worlds.
An expert view
Dr. Patrick Harrigan, is involved in research on
veddahs and is part of The Living Heritage Trust, that advocates
the recognition of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people and currently
serves as Executive Director of Sri Lanka Children’s Trust.
Harrigan says that east coastal veddahs themselves claim they
are aboriginal (adivasi) Veddas (Vedar parampari). For
anthropologists, international agencies like the United Nations,
and others who study or work with tribal peoples, peoples’ own
tradition is sufficient evidence in itself. “So, yes, since at
least anthropologists C.G. and Brenda Z. Seligmann published
their 1911 account of east coast veddahs, these people have been
accepted as veddas indigenous to Sri Lanka,” he says.
According to Dr. Harrigan, east coast veddahs do not claim any
relation to the Veddahs of Dambana or any other part of the
island, nor do Veddahs of the interior claim any relation to
coastal Veddahs. They appear to be distinct tribal groups.
“The term ‘veddah’, however, was assigned to all these tribal
peoples by immigrant peoples (Sinhalese and Tamils) who arrived
much later,” says Dr. Harrigan.
With regard to how these native people arrived in our country,
Dr. Harrigan explains, “The ‘Veddah’ peoples or tribes,
including the east coastal veddahs, appear to have arrived in
Sri Lanka during or prior to the last ice age about 6000, when
the sea levels were low enough that India and Sri Lanka were one
continuous land mass. veddahs have no tradition of having
arrived here by boat, as do the Sinhalese and Tamils and
everyone else but the veddahs. But the veddahs arrival took
place so long ago that it is only possible to deduce that they
did not sail or swim here, but walked here when India and Sri
Lanka were one and the same land mass.”
Dr. Harrigan sadly notes that once a generation turns its back
on its cultural heritage, the chain is broken forever. This is
the condition very regrettably prevailing the east with regard
to veddah community. This led the young generation of coastal
veddahs to deny their connection with the past, their group
identity or cultural heritage.
“Today young people especially feel insecure, both economically
and in terms of their self identity. They want to dress and
speak not as people of their own community, but as outsiders,
even as foreigners in their own native land. The antidote, in
part, is to give a voice to community elders by giving them
access to make their views heard through the printed and
electronic media. Also if young people could find decent
livelihood opportunities in their home communities, they would
not feel so attracted to quit their communities and leave,” says