17 April, 2024

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Review Of The Väddas In Sri Lankan History & Society

By R S Perinbanayagam –

Prof. R S Perinbanayagam

The Creation Of The Hunter – Gananath Obeyesekere (Colombo: Sailfish Publications:2022). In earlier works Obeyesekere demolished the claims of both Western scholars and European colonizers that cannibalism was a general practice among the natives of some of the countries they sought to rule and exploit and with his work he de-apotheosized Captain Cook and his sanctification by some western scholars. In his work on Sri Lanka he was at it again. With his book on the Pattini cult and the practices at the temple in Kataragama, he challenged certain constructions about Sinhala society and its ethnic make-up and religious practices. In his work on Buddhism in modern Sri Lanka he showed how it was influenced by Protestant Christianity just as it did in Bengal, in the shape of the Brahma Samaj. And so on.

Now, in another of his learned works Gananath Obeyesekere comes this time to challenge another thesis developed by many authors about the Väddas of Sri Lanka and to provide an alternative, strictly evidence based, interpretation. 

He describes his approach in this mind-bogglingly detailed study of the Väddas as follows:

The historical methodology I adopt is as follows.  It is impossible to deal with the long historical run of the Vädda presence in Sri Lanka without understanding their presence in more recent times.  Thus, I will focus on the Kandy period literature, particularly between the late 16th and the early 19th centuries, a period for which we have reasonable historical records.  Once we have this historical understanding, followed by the colonial intrusions, especially the disruptive British conquest of the Kandyan kingdom, and also our current fieldwork, we might be able to reach back to earlier times, albeit with extreme caution and tentativeness owing to the paucity of records.  The texts that I examine are not classical historical and literary works in Pali and Sinhala written by highly sophisticated literati, mostly monks, but rather those written by a village intelligentsia on palm leaf manuscripts (pus-kola pot) found nowadays in public and private collections.

This methodological approach consists of using folk documents as sources of data. These documents are: bandaravalia, and vamsa katha(stories about given families), kadaim pot( boundary records of given provinces) and vitti pots(records of various events and episodes).This approach is indeed a revolutionary one with which to study Sri Lankan  historiography and is  certainly a  departure from the standard ones. These documents are just simple records of  given families and events as well as descriptions of territorial boundaries  and was not composed for the serene joy of the pious.1

This methodological approach allows Obeyesekere to explore a variety of issues: the territory inhabited by the Vaddas, the religious life of the  the Vaddas and the rituals they practiced, their connection to the cult of Pattini and to the temple to Murugan/Skanda at Kataragama and its relationship to that of the Sinhalas, on Buddhism  and its  arrival in Sri Lanka  and its impact on Sri Lanka, the frequent connection to Southern Indian communities, the careers of various monarchs ,the role of the Vaddas in various local conflicts etc. Insofar as this is the case, it is impossible to deal with them all here and I will deal with the overarching theme of the work which is the story of the Vaddas. I will discuss Obeyesekere ’s work focusing on two themes: Who were the Väddas? And what happened to them?

Who were the Väddas?

One answer to the first question was given by two early anthropologists the Seligmans. Obeyesekere notes:

C.G. and Brenda Z. Seligmann dealing with one of the world’s most “primitive” hunting and gathering groups, the Väddas of Sri Lanka, published in 1911 their work entitled The Väddas. It was one of the first systematic forays into ethnographic fieldwork…  .

The Väddas, they imagined to be a wild man of the woods, clad only in a scanty loin cloth, carrying his bow and arrows on which he depended for his subsistence, simple and untrained, indeed, little removed from the very animals he hunted.  Nowadays many middle-class Sri Lankans have accepted a version of this image assisted by grotesque caricatures of the Vädda represented in the local media.

Obeyesekere challenges these observations. In the opening chapter Obeyesekere shows the role the Väddas played in the Kandyan kingdom. I will give a good example of this. Seeking support for a military campaign the King of Kandy tries to recruit some who can fight his battles. Obeyesekere reproduces one report:

In order to seek help from his own region of Matale, he summoned Niyarepola Alahakon Mohottala, and asked him to name the denizens (that is, men and animals) of Matale and the reply, Your worship (hamudurvane) there are only three [noble] houses in the rata of Matale” and when the king asked what these houses were, “Your worship [hamuduruvane) there is Kulatunga Mudiyanse of Udupihilla, Vanigasekere Mudiyanse of Aluvihara, Candrasekere Mudiyanse of Dumbukola , [and then also] Gamage Vädda and Hampat Vädda of Hulangamuva, and when the king asked who are the people in the lands beyond – (epita rata), your worship, on the other side of the steep waters (hela-kandura) of Biridevela, there is Kannila Vädda in control of (hirakara hiṭiya)  Kanangamuva, and Herat Banda in control of Nikakotuva, and Maha Tampala Vädda at Palapatvala, Domba Vädda at Dombavela-gama, Valli Vädda at Vallivela, Mahakavudalla Vädda at Kavudupalalla, Naiyiran Vädda [some texts Nayida] at Narangamuva, Imiya Vädda at Nalanda, Dippitiya Mahage [a female] controlling an area of nine gavuvas(leagues) in the district known as Nagapattalama, and Makara Vädda and Konduruva employed in the watch of the boundary (kadaima), Mahakanda Vädda controlling Kandapalla [today’s Kandapalla korale], Hempiti Mahage controlling Galevela, Baju Mahage controlling the Udasiya Pattuva of Udugoda Korale,  Minimutu Mahage controlling the [same] Pallesiya Pattuva, Devakirti Mahage controlling Melpitiya 

One can’t think of a better example of the integration of the Väddas and the Sinhala people, and that some Väddas shared high social status with the Sinhala others.–that is to say, they were not just primitive hunters and gatherers.

Here is another example from Obeyesekere’ s work that shows the integration of the Vaddas with the mainstream and that they like their Sinhala neighbors. have taken to agriculture.:

The text goes on to say that King Prakramabahu (that is Vira Prakrama) gave the Vädda followers of Eriyave Malala Vädda equal proportions of land from the four sub-districts (hatara pattuva) of the Vanni and advised them not to quarrel among themselves.  Their lands were demarcated with stone markers, earth bunds and with fences made of sticks (that presumably will sprout).  The king also gave deeds of gift or sannas indicating that the lands were theirs “till the sun and moon lasted,” a standard phrase in all such deeds.  When they were given the lands they were now to be called vanni unnähäla or “lords of the Vanni” by royal command and they were entitled to dues and/or services from villages of carpenters (k ṭṭ  badda), washer folk (rada-badda), drummers (berava-badda), and villages that have unspecified new sources of services (nava-badda). 

It is clear from these descriptions that the Vaddas were not isolated from the mainstream society but were an essential part of it. 

Where have all the Väddas gone?

The numbers of the Vadda people have dwindling seriously over the years  leading to this question.

Here is Obeyesekere’ s summary:
“I want to make a preliminary conclusion by addressing the implications of the physical omnipresence of the Vӓddas, if not their demographic significance, in a tentative manner.  Let me emphasize that as far as Sri Lanka was concerned there were no “indigenous peoples,” no “aborigines,” no “wild men” and “tribes” of the Western imagination.  I am as much an “aborigine” as anyone else and as genetically and culturally hybrid. 

Nowadays, we are accustomed to think that the main structural opposition in history is between Sinhalas and Tamils. Yet, this oppositional relationship is a historically contingent one, that is, it depends on particular historical circumstances such that periods of Sinhala-Tamil opposition might be followed by alliances expressive of amity; or both opposition and amity might co-exist in the same time span; at other times neither opposition nor amity seem to matter and both communities went on “living and partly living” if I might borrow a well-known phrase.”

Obeyesekere’ s conclusion about the significance of his work in modern Sri Lanka needs to be quoted in full:

“Ultimately, we hope that this research questions the current nationalist ideology of the Sinhala-Buddhists that Sri Lanka was an exclusive Buddhist civilization.  I hope to eventually demonstrate that the non-Buddhist Väddas were a powerful visible presence although their approximate numbers cannot be calculated.  Contrary to early European and current Buddhist prejudice we shall show that there was a constant interplay between Väddas and Sinhala Buddhists, such that over historical time Väddas could become Sinhala Buddhists and Sinhala Buddhists could become Väddas.”

 Another of his observations deserves to be quoted too:

“This leads to my final point: if Vӓdda versus Sinhala was a structural opposition of the long run and a historically consistent phenomenon, the opposition between Tamil and Sinhala was historically contingent, and only emerges when Tamilness is associated with false belief or heresy.  Otherwise, Tamil affinity, in its technical sense, is intrinsic to Sinhala-ness and this is primordially recognized in the Vijaya story of Sinhala origins.  The historically contingent oppositional feature against which the Sinhala place themselves is the Tamil-Shaivite one and that also when it is expressed in terms of invasion or conquest.  This is in radical contrast to the oppositional dialectic of Tamil and Sinhala nationalism of our own day.  However, the Kandyan discourse, as with contemporary nationalism, anchors the discourse on the exemplary example of “kings of yore.”  Is this an invention of tradition or a truth about history or both?

He observes in conclusion:

“Ultimately, we hope that this research questions the current nationalist ideology of the Sinhala-Buddhists that Sri Lanka was an exclusive Buddhist civilization.  I hope to eventually demonstrate that the non-Buddhist Väddas were a powerful visible presence although their approximate numbers cannot be calculated.  Contrary to early European and current Buddhist prejudice we shall show that there was a constant interplay between Väddas and Sinhala Buddhists, such that over historical time Väddas could become Sinhala Buddhists and Sinhala Buddhists could become Väddas.”1

This work, ostensibly about the Väddas, is much more than that: It is, to begin with, about the heterogeneous  composition of Lankan society with the Sinhala society as the dominant one but the Sinhalas contain former and current Väddas, Indians such as the Mallalas from Malladesa, Malayalees from Kerala, Tamils from Tamil Nadu, many of whom came as soldiers to fight for the local kings and some were given land grants in return for their services and stayed  behind. 

 Obeyesekere further challenges the simple use of the logic of structuralist theories. While its basic premises, in my view, are not disputable, it can be used in crude and mechanical ways: the civilized (we) and savages (they), we (eaters of animals and birds) and they (eaters of each other), we (have great literature and you don’t.) George Babington McCauley famously said:”A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” And so it goes.

Clearly anthropologising Sri Lanka through empirical studies, with both historical data and studies of modern times have inestimable value in every imaginable way and this work is a signal example of the contribution that such studies can make to dispel misconceptions as well as ideological reconstructions.2

NOTES

1. Obeyesekere discusses these topics with due regard to evidence and connects them to the larger story of Sri Lanka while keeping faith with his theme of the search for the hunter. The documents from which he draws his information were composed in the immediacy of the people and the events they describe and have a strong claim to authenticity.

One may add these documents are in many ways comparable the Doomsday Book  from England and the Scottish Chronicles and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,.

2. One can see also the use of the Vaddas and their relations with the Sinhala people in Leonard Woolf’s novel The Village in the Jungle.It  shows  the Sinhala characters treating the Vadda people with contempt To treat them thus, it is  obvious that they were not isolated in jungle habitats but part of the community. Further, Woolf’s characters both the Vaddas and the Sinhalas are shown to be hunting for their sustenance. It seems to me that Woolf was describing not only a village in the jungle but also jungle in the village! Woolf must surely know since he was king of Beddagama—or at least the agent of King George of England!

*Robert Sidharthan Perinbanayagam – Professor of Sociology (emeritus), Hunter College of the City University of New York

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Latest comments

  • 2
    0

    In this critical look at Gananath Obeyesekere’s work, Prof. R S Perinbanayagam repeats a para. If he felt that it was essential to repeat it I’d not know. He himself is an authority.

    • 4
      0

      Mr.Nathan:
      Thanks for your comment. I seem to have uploaded an earlier draft of my essay by mistake from my WORD instead of the final one. It is too late to send the finalized version and my apologies to those of you who have read this and found it annoying. AH: the pitfalls of having too many versions on WORD!

      • 1
        6

        rsp
        I will rather not blame software for my carelessness.

        • 7
          0

          SJ;
          How were you able conclude that I was blaming the software? Very strange interpretation of my message.Ah well: these are joys of internet commentary!

          • 4
            0

            Dear Sid
            I hope you dont mind my taking this opportunity to do a bit of advertising?

            Perhaps you can pass this on to any of yr friends & acquaintances still in Jaffna:

            “DEMOCRACY STILLBORN: Lanka’s Rejection of Equal Rights at Independence” by Kirupaimalar & Rajan Hoole, 2022, 730 pp.

            Book launch + discussion, TOMORROW at Trimmer Hall, Vembadi Rd, Jaffna (near the Clock Tower), Fri, 11 Nov, 4pm.
            Speakers: Devanesan Nesiah, Swasthika Arulinganm, Ahilan Kadirgamar, Kirupa + Rajan Hoole.

            ALL ARE WELCOME

          • 1
            4

            So it was hardware then.
            I will correct myself: “I will rather not blame hardware for my carelessness.”

        • 5
          0

          SJ:
          Forget about my errors.Just read the book.

          • 1
            5

            rsp
            Is it compulsory reading for me?
            With all due respect to Gananath, several of whose other works I have read, and my high regard for all indigenous people, I have a long queue of books to read before I cease to be.

          • 7
            0

            r s perinbanayagam

            Please forget SJ’s pettiness as he can’t stand other’s opinion, except Mao’s red book.
            He has been nitpicking for many decades as he is stuck in Mao’s and Sri Mao’s epoch.

      • 2
        1

        Dear r s perinbanayagam,
        .
        From what I see here I can reasonably conclude that you are the Prof. R S Perinbanayagam who has written this article. I did not know that you were a Professor when I had the gumption to fault you for using all CAPITALS in your comment here:
        .
        https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/what-problems-the-tamils-are-having-in-sri-lanka/
        .
        I see significance in the last comment on that article; it is by you. You have tendered a simple and unqualified apology to me. That would have been after you had checked some of the other comments, seen some by me, and noted that I had given my name.
        .
        What I had told was the truth. The time is now 06.16. I read your comment for the first time only about 05.35 today after starting this comment. Thereafter I read Wiggy’s article in full, and found many of the points there interesting, but realised by me quite long ago. This comment will now be submitted by me at 06.42
        .
        In spite of my being forced to add to further comments owing to my forgetfulness, I had still not given you the link that was going to “drive you off your nut.
        .
        This it was:
        .
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Unicode_characters
        .

  • 7
    0

    All descentants of Kallthonies

    Here is a message from Vedda Chief Uru Warige Wannila Aththo:
    “Someone representing their community should be elected to parliament.”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2SEW1MCvS8

    I have no thought about his request as I want to eat the cake and have it.
    On the one hand I want my people to have representation in the parliament and on the other I don’t want him/them to be corrupted.

    Therefore nimal fernando, old codger, chiv, Sinhala_Man …. should comment

    • 3
      0

      Native
      “On the one hand I want my people to have representation in the parliament and on the other I don’t want him/them to be corrupted.”
      Only three provincial councils, including one for the Veddas?

  • 2
    1

    When there was provision for representing minorities who were electorally weak, nobody thought of the Veddas (Attho).
    Even now, there is a strong case for the Attho, Malays and Burghers as well as other small but significant minority groups.

  • 3
    0

    Dear Sid
    I hope you dont mind my taking this opportunity to do a bit of advertising?

    Perhaps you can pass this on to any of yr friends & acquaintances still in Jaffna:

    “DEMOCRACY STILLBORN: Lanka’s Rejection of Equal Rights at Independence” by Kirupaimalar & Rajan Hoole, 2022, 730 pp.

    Book launch + discussion, TOMORROW at Trimmer Hall, Vembadi Rd, Jaffna (near the Clock Tower), Fri, 11 Nov, 4pm.
    Speakers: Devanesan Nesiah, Swasthika Arulinganm, Ahilan Kadirgamar, Kirupa + Rajan Hoole.

    ALL ARE WELCOME

    • 2
      0

      Hello Manel:
      Good to hear from you., particularly about this important event. Alas, I don’t don’t anyone in Jaffna now except for two and they are already the speakers– Ahilan and Devanesan.
      All the best to you
      RSP

    • 2
      0

      Good to hear from you., particularly about this important event. Alas, I don’t don’t anyone in Jaffna now except for two and they are already the speakers– Ahilan and Devanesan.
      All the best to you
      RSP

      • 3
        0

        Dear Prof. R S Perinbanayagam,
        .
        Now here’s the event that you missed yesterday:
        .
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcxd_h_HLCY
        .
        You say “Alas, I don’t [know] anyone in Jaffna now except for two“; but then you’ll be able to understand all of it.
        .
        How unfair. I recognised Ahilan there (from a minutes’ “jumping”), without meeting him in the flesh. I think that I have actually met all the others (Oh, except the pretty lass, Swasthika, who ought to be sent into Parliament, although she seems to speak here in Tamil).
        .
        I have made the first comment on the two hour YouTube. Just checked. Eighteen minutes later it’s still there, but it says “0 comments”. Sometimes they get removed because you have transgressed some algorithm that YouTube has imposed. They now have a near monopoly of videos on the Internet. Are there competitors?
        .
        When one considers all that one is grateful for the human moderators, who act only when readers complain. Two readers have complained against me. Separate occasions. What to do?

        .
        Panini Edirisinhe

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