The only royal in the country


By Rohana R. Wasala

The Island editorial of Monday January 15th 2018 paid a glowing tribute to the incumbent Veddha Chief Uruwarige Wannialaeththo, describing him as the one true leader we still have, and further suggesting that he is perhaps ‘the last of the Mohicans’. Both descriptions are, no doubt, exaggerations prompted by the editor’s desire to express his deep moral indignation at the well known propensity of some of our average politicians towards rank corruption and crude behaviour in the Parliament and outside of it. But Wannialaeththo well deserves such praise for his striking intelligence, enviable composure, and regal mien. No one will dispute the validity of this highly appreciative editorial observation on the tribal chief’s wise comments during a recent TV interview on the current political situation in the country. I, as a Sri Lankan, particularly agree with the editor’s unambiguous recognition of Wannialae Aththo as a national leader and his possibly unrivalled stature in that position.

Let me start off with a crucial caveat, though. Such idolizing of the tribal leader as we see in the Island editorial referred to above seems to have been considered essential for emphasizing its message. People normally feel tempted to praise Wannilaeththo for the gems of wisdom that his conversation is usually strewn with, not only in the particular TV interview mentioned, but in other contexts as well. In addition to his customary ‘noble savage’ reputation, he has the contradictory distinction of being a man of the world. As the Veddhas Chief he enjoys frequent media attention both in Sri Lanka and abroad. He is wooed by prominent politicians in power as well as by those out of power. For decades now, the Veddhas have also drawn the attention of international human rights activists on the basis of their alleged threatened status as an ‘indigenous’ community. Both sources of attention could be tainted with mercenary as well as manipulative intentions. Wannialaeththo cannot be expected to be completely free from mundane temptations, as the Island editor himself has at least faintly suggested.

We are told that Wannialaeththo said, in the same interview, that he hoped that a member of his community would be elected to represent them in parliament. That is a highly commendable aspiration. However, the editor’s own suggestion (probably made half in jest) that the tribal chief be brought to parliament through the National List should be considered demeaning for the dignified Veddha Chief in view of the history of some of his prospective companions in case he is thus appointed. If, on the other hand, a commoner Veddha representative is elected to parliament, it could turn out to be a long delayed first step towards restoring the traditional inter-

communal harmony that prevailed throughout the island of Ceylon (Sinhale) from time immemorial down to the early decades of the 19th century despite temporary setbacks and interruptions of varying duration caused by foreign invasions, and fratricidal domestic power struggles.

I was in the audience during a guest lecture delivered at the University of Perdeniya (The E.F.C. Ludowyk Memorial Lecture 2000 under the title: "Voices from the Past: An Extended Footnote to Ludowyk’s ‘The Story of Ceylon’") by Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, USA Gananath Obeyesekere on October 24, 2000. A key fact that the well known anthropologist made clear in his lecture was that the Veddhas were everywhere in the island, an idea which contradicted the popular notion that they were found only in a few isolated places like Bintenne, Mahiyangana. While listening to him, I suddenly recalled, or rather realized, that we had had a Veddha family living in the village of my childhood in the Hill Country, but as a child I had never even suspected that they were Veddhas. The paterfamilias of that family was an old man (a straight backed dark man of sturdy build of middling height) that my parents referred to as Veddha mama (Uncle Veddha) as many others in the village did. What I had always thought was that ‘Veddha’ was the old man’s nickname. His grandchildren attended the same primary school as I did. They had ordinary Sinhalese names. None of us children knew about their Veddha identity. I don’t think, that even his grandchildren, did. Like most other peasants he did cultivation of rice paddy for a living. He didn’t go hunting. The adults of the village didn’t leave us children the slightest clue about the fact that they were Veddhas.

It was not that they deliberately concealed from us their different ethnicity; it was most probably that Veddha presence among the ordinary Sinhalese, particularly in rural areas, was so common a thing that they paid no special attention to it; they were apparently unaware of any separateness from those socially integrated Veddhas. This was an ‘epiphany’ of sorts that I experienced in my personal life in connection with the reality of what could be called the Veddha component of our national identity.

The professor invoked the view of Portuguese historian Fernao de Queyroz of the late 17th century that the Veddhas enjoyed an intimate relationship with the Kandyan king; they had easy access to him and referred to him familiarly as massina (which Obeysekere rendered into English as "cross-cousin"). They were his loyal subjects. The king and the nobles reposed great trust in them. Veddhas played an important part in the great 1818 rebellion. The famous Kivulegedara Mohottala belonged to a distinguished line of Bandara Veddhas. The scholar said that we should not imagine "that well-dressed Veddha soldiers were a Kandyan period phenomenon", and referred to the Veddha regiment in the army of Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) quoting from the L.C. Wijesinghe translation of the Mahavamsa (1882): "He [the king] trained many thousands of hunters [vyadha, that is, Veddhas] and made them skilled in the use of their weapons, and gave them swords, black clothes and the like". Veddhas had also served in the army of king Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) of Polonnaruwa who freed the country from Chola invaders.

(NB: Ideas other than the ubiquitous presence of Veddhas in the island and the close historical relationship between the Veddhas and the Sinhalese are my independent views or those derived from other sources than Professor Gananath Obeyesekere. My essay is not expected to give the faintest idea about the central argument of his lecture.)

In recent times though, the Veddhas have been classified as an exclusively indigenous people similar to the Australian Aboriginals, as can be suspected, with the ulterior motive of conspiratorially alienating them from the native Sinhalese majority, who are as much indigenous to the island as the Veddhas and most probably they are descended from common ancestors. The nomenclature ‘indigenous or aboriginal tribe’ applied to the Veddhas came to wider circulation due to the influence of foreign human rights traffickers. The rural majority of Sri Lankans would be naturally surprised to learn about such an erroneous typological description of the Veddhas. Needless to add, the aforementioned ‘human rights traffickers’ are agents of interventionist Western and regional super powers, which are pursuing their own geopolitical agendas at the expense of the stability and even the very survival of our country as a free, independent sovereign nation state. (This is said without prejudice to genuine human rights activists/campaigners.)

Actually, international human rights campaigners need not worry too much about our Veddhas. The Island editor quotes global statistics to show that although indigenous peoples account for only 5% of the world’s population, 15% of the world’s poorest are among them. This means that indigenous communities are three times poorer than the rest of the world population. My opinion is that this does not apply to our Veddha compatriots. For one thing, they hardly qualify for indigenous community status in view of the long history of peaceful coexistence and social integration with the Sinhalese (even if their hypothetical common ancestral roots are ignored). For another thing, if you look at any pictures of these people you find that they are some of the finest specimens of homo sapiens sapiens! They look well fed and healthy. Of course, they may still lack the ordinary modern amenities that reasonably well off city dwellers take for granted, and they may be resigned to giving those desirable features of decent living a miss. They may be eking out a living by exploiting the resources available in the jungle. But, as one may point out, most rural Sri Lankans, the Veddhas’ close neighbours, are hardly better off. There is no doubt that the two groups will cooperate in persuading the government to address their common grievances. For that to happen, their education levels must be raised; they must stop being mere anthropological exhibits and modernize in keeping up with the rest of the country. Before long, Veddha representatives must get into local, provincial and national legislatures. It is a remarkable thing that the Veddhas, as a distinct (but historically allied) community, have maintained to this day at least a vestigial form of their ancient stone age hunter gatherer culture. One major contributory factor behind this could be the tolerant, nonaggressive nature of the dominant Buddhist civilization that their coeval tribal cousins the Sinhalese built up over the millennia (with which the island has from the earliest times been identified).

The Island editor’s unostentatious projection of Wannialaeththo as the national leader that he really is brought to my mind a story I heard in my youth that struck me with the realization that the reigning Veddha Chief of recent times is given only perfunctory recognition, which falls far short of his due. He is the hereditary leader of that particular ‘primitive’ community living in or in close association with the jungle, but speaking a dialectal form of Sinhalese called Vaedi Basawa. That he is actually of royal status within his community is forgotten. By the way, to most people a Veddha is still a curiosity at best and a joke at worst. This attitude has somewhat changed today, and there are signs that the changing trend is accelerating. However, 40-50 years ago, the Vaeddas had a more isolated existence than now or a few decades before the time that I am now going to recall to the reader. This was towards the latter ‘60s. Unlike today, then, government ministers and the high civil servants serving under them were invariably treated as celebrities as they undoubtedly deserved to be treated, given their unblemished personal stature and professionalism. Among them there was a ministry secretary who was enjoying living legend status among the civil servants, and he was in charge of a department that was concerned with education and cultural affairs. According to a story that I heard from a friend, this person was the chief guest at a function held at a premier centre of education in the country. In the course of his guest speech, the senior bureaucrat regaled the audience with an anecdote about an encounter he had had with the then Vaedi Nayake (Veddha Chief) Tisahamy of Dambana.

The speaker said he met Tisahamy at a public event in the Mahiyangana area that he (as a senior government official) was presiding over. (It could be guessed that the function was held in the open air.) The Vaedi Nayake was seated next to him on an improvised stage. Suddenly, a young Vaedda boy passing by, a few feet away, stopped for a moment, casting curious glances at the gathering. It looked as if the youngster thought that there was nothing interesting happening there worth paying attention to. So, he started walking away. But as he did so, he whistled nonchalantly, assuming a superior irreverent manner. The important government official felt outraged at what he took to be an affront towards him. "So, I turned to the Vedhi Nayake", the speaker went on," and said: ‘See how disrespectful this young fellow is towards me’". Then Tissahamy calmly replied in the words of his Vedhi Basawa (however, including the word ‘umba’ to address the visiting dignitary), which in colloquial Sinhala was something like this: "umbawa ganangaththe naethi eka newei prasne. me matawath oo garusaruwak kale nae ne!" (It doesn’t matter he ignored you; what is really offensive is that he didn’t show any respect for me!). Probably, most of the audience laughed at that august personage having been addressed as "umba" by a mere Veddha, for the vocative ‘umba’ (you) is usually reserved for addressing inferiors. But what the celebrated administrator meant was that the incident was an educative experience for him. The lesson impressed on him as a result was that the more important person in that context was the tribal chief. He himself was only a paid government servant, whereas the Vedhi Nayake was the head of his clan, and hence, in terms of protocol, his superior. Treating the Veddhas in a condescending manner is fast becoming a thing of the past.

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