The Veddas of Sri Lanka


By Prof. Premakumara

De Silva

Ph. D, Anthropologist, Department of Sociology,

University of Colombo

Excerpts of the Findings and Recommendations of the Report based on "Socio- anthropological research on Vedda community in Sri Lanka"

"The Vaddas were numerically small people verging on extinction, and so affected by contact with Tamils and Sinhalese" (C. G Seligmann and

B. Seligmann 1911: p. vi).

Since the pioneering anthropological study on the Vedda community by Seligmanns in 1911 there were scanty scholarly attention paid to further understand the plight of the Vedda people of Sri Lanka2. As a community, currently Veddas are facing stresses that threaten to modernise them, which could easily result in vanishing them as cultural group. While certain aspects of Vedda culture have nearly disappeared, the assimilation of the Veddas with mainstream Sinhalese and Tamils have resulted in Veddas being confined to small scattered communities in the Eastern, Uva and North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Veddas over the years have come under many stresses. Today there is a need to preserve their way of life, culture and their ‘traditional homelands’.

The research Background:

The research was conducted within a continuous period of ten months in 2010 and included data- gathering, mapping, analysis and documentation. The study was based on qualitative interactive interviews, collecting life histories and field observation, supplemented by questionnaires based survey research covering 1327 Vedda households which include 5124 individuals. In addition to that, GIS mapping of Vadda settlements and published materials on the Vadda community were documented through library research. Further, this project has mainly taken into consideration socio-cultural and economic aspects of the Vadda community. Veddas of Sri Lanka have survived for several millennia through adapting and coping with external stresses imposed on them. As a community they are facing stresses that threaten to modernise them which could easily result in cultural extinction and genetic leaching. While certain aspects of the Vedda culture such as using the bow and arrow are in near disuse, the assimilation of the Veddas with mainstream Sinhalese and Tamils has resulted in Veddas of Sri Lanka being confined to the Eastern, Uva and North Central Provinces of the country. In total there are Vedda settlements in Dambana, Rathugala, Pollebedda, Dalukana, Henanigala, Vakarai (including Kathiraveli, Kattamurigu, Andamkulam Kunnankulam, Kilimichchi, Madurankernykulam, Kokkuvil, Panichchankerni and Palchchenai), Muttur, Thoppur, Uppural, Anuradhapura, and Panama. For our research project, only the first six settlements excluding Anuradhapura, Thoppur, Uppural, Muttur and Panama were considered due to resource constraints.

Objectives of the Research

* To study and asses the nature of the social organisation of the Veddas

* To study the nature of the economic and cultural life of the Veddas

* To identify the interactions that the Veddas have with the mainstream community and to assess the extent of modernisation of the Veddas.

* To identify regional Vedda cultures and to collect information on the Veddas in various areas

* To identify the areas of possible intervention to preserve the social life and cultural aspects of the Veddas.


There are a total of 2,272 families of Veddas in the project area. Considering the population data, Vedda population in the project area is between 7,350- 7,500 and the total Vedda population including the areas not considered in the project (Anuradhapura, Thoppur, Uppural, Muttur and Panama) the figure could not be in excess of 10,000, but a thorough census needs to be conducted to identify the exact number of Vedda population.

Research Findings and Recommendations:


Although the major areas of concern within the context of cultural preservation of the Veddas are depicted in brief below, detailed analysis of each of the problem mentioned below and other problems that are branching from the core problems have been discussed under the main report in detail (406 Pages). The report consists of a narrative of socio- anthropological perspectives, cultural aspects, both in existence and extinct, and includes recommendations on the way forward to preserve the Vedda culture at the regional level, depending on the regional resource settings and socio economic contexts. Further, this report has taken into consideration the socio-economic, cultural and educational aspects of the Veddas as well as recommendations that are relevant to the long term preservation of indigenous culture in Sri Lanka.

Findings of the research are explained in terms of population dimensions, historic context, aspects related to hunting and fishing, clothing and appearance, language use, religious beliefs, folk songs, traditional medicine, preservation of culture as seen by the Veddas themselves, social organisation in terms of family life, socio-economic background and leadership, economic activities, education, associations with the outside world, associations of Veddas with the political system, interactions of government and non-government institutions, socialising of children and recommendations for future activities.

Major Findings.

1). Assimilation into mainstream societies: Sinhala and Tamil. Those who call themselves Veddas were considered under the project completely assimilated Veddas who are genetically Veddas, were not included not being represented in the statistics. 79% of the Veddas had Vedda origin fathers and 83% had Vedda origin mothers. In the current context, over 91% of the Vakarai Vedda community has maternal and paternal genetic descents of Veddas followed by Henanigala Veddas who have over 79%. Assimilation seems to be highest in Dimbulagala, Pollebedda and Rathugala where a significant proportion of the Veddas are fathered by Sinhalese.

2. Religious denomination: Currently 74% of the Veddas call themselves Buddhists whereas 18% call themselves Hindus. Only 2.75% of the Veddas currently worship and believe in their traditional ancestral worship (Naa Yakku) and have not adopted Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity or Catholicism. 2.5% have also adopted Christianity. Acquisition of Buddhism by over 91% of the populations of the Veddas is seen excluding in Vakarai where 74% have acquired Hinduism. Converting to Christianity is mostly seen in Vakarai (7.9%) followed by Rathugala (4.6%). This is mainly due to the Evangelical Christian cults that are active in the region. The Vedda population according to religious beliefs gives a clear idea of the extent of Buddhicisation and Hinducisation on the Veddas.

3. Migration Over the years, Veddas have made regional migrations as well as migrations within different parts of the same Vedda communities. While most of the Veddas and families have been in their current locations for the past few generations, some have migrated to other areas. In Vakarai, a different scenario is observed where only 12% of the Veddas reside in their original village and a majority of them has been displaced once or have experienced multiple displacements during their lives. Particularly due to war and the post -tsunami resettlement programmes.

Therefore, the main relocation and displacement patterns seen among the recent generations of Veddas are influenced by conflict, natural disaster and development. However, historically, displacement of the Vedda community has led to fragmentation of their natural habitats; eventual assimilation was inevitable due to rural expansion, agricultural extension and urbanisation.

4. Economic Transition

During this transformation of the Veddas from a predominantly wilderness-based setting towards a modernised setting, Veddas’ economic activities too are in transition. However, the main occupations that the Veddas engage in currently are paddy cultivation (37%), chena cultivation (22%), working as manual labour (19%), fishing (6%) and working in the Army or Police (5%).

When considering the major economic and income avenues in gender perspective, they are still dominated by males, but, not by much. More males (39%) engage in paddy farming than females (30%), but when it comes to chena cultivation, more women (24%) engage than males (21%). More women (19%) make their primary livelihood by providing manual labour in comparison to males (18%).

Due to the complex economic concerns and entrenched poverty and deprivation, women are compelled to become breadwinners and hence become victims of the organised and unorganised sex trade. This is merely because there is a high demand from one side drawing women into the trade and push factors led by extreme economic deprivation. There are also children and women who are coerced, procured and trafficked to be employed as domestic workers.

Income and Expenditure: 37% of the families had a monthly income between Rs. 5,001-10,000 whereas 36% of the families had a monthly income between Rs. 2,501-5,000 and 15% come under less than Rs. 2500. It is observed that the majority of Veddas are not only victims of economic poverty, but also most of their earnings are spent on recurrent expenditure, to buy consumables and to repay loans obtained from local boutiques leaving hardly any room for life improvement.

Land ownerships

Most of the Veddas (55%) currently live on crown land handed over to them with land permits and deeds. 18% of them live in properties that were inherited from parents which are most probably crown land given to their parents a generation or two ago. Purchased lands and lands that the Veddas use on the half share basis remain relatively low. Over 20% of the Veddas live on so-called ‘encroached state land’ as encroaches. In the second and third generation after the resettlement of Vedda communities in agricultural extension programmes land scattering is evident and encroachment is also increasing for which sustainable solutions have yet to be brought up.

Housing condition

One such diversification and change that has occurred concerns the status of housing of the Veddas. A generation ago, there were no permanent structures within Vedda settlements, but currently alongside modernisation, there is an increased tendency by the Veddas to follow common patterns shown by the Sinhalese and the Tamils to construct permanent houses. Apart from Vakarai, most Veddas still live in temporary or semi-permanent houses that are mostly between 101-500 square feet in size that have a single room or two. The most popular roofing material is using tiles (over 60%) followed by tin sheets that are used by 20% of the houses. Using illuk is still common in Pollebedda (28%), Henanigala (12%), and Rathugala (10%).

Part II will appear
next Wednesday



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