Colonial Histories and Vädda Primitivism: An Unorthodox Reading of Kandy Period Texts

Gananath Obeyesekere in 

Introduction:  Let me start by saying that this lecture is a by-product of my current field-work in the somewhat remote parts of Vellassa and Bintänna. I am working in this region because it is little known anthropologically and historically and I have always felt that a study of the small village shrines and ritual practices of this area might help us understand the manner in which the Vädda worship of dead ancestors, known as nä yakku (yakku having no negative connotation) is articulated with the Sinhala Buddhist belief in selected ancestral heroes who have been subsequently deified in what is sometimes known as the bandāra cult, generally constituting a conglomerate of twelve major gods known as dolaha deviyo. In addition, this was the region which saw in 1917-18 the first major resistance against British colonial rule and hence Vellassa has special significance in our historical annals. A large part of the Vellassa and adjoining regions, for example the Monaragala district and the region south of tea country of Namunukala, were known traditionally as vädi rata or even as mahā vädi rata. However, there are no longer any Väddas in the vädi rata; the residents there claim to be Sinhala Buddhists. Hence one of the issues that I am investigating is whatever happened to the Väddas? In some of the remoter areas of this region informants will volunteer opinions to say that they were Väddas before they became Sinhala; and they have a plethora of myths that relate to their origins in the Vijaya-Kuveni marriage and many others. I am sure Dr. Mendis would have been delighted with this information because he was one of the first historians to critically reflect on the early myths of the Mahavamsa and examine their historical salience. Hence let me start off with the Vijaya myth, which most of you know, and which records the origin of the Väddas and vindicates their connection as well as separated-ness from the Sinhalas.

Vijaya, as we know from the Mahāvamsa but not from the older Dipavamsa, married the demoness Kuveni who helped him to vanquish her own kinfolk, the yakkhas. Vijaya later abandoned her for a legitimate union with a princess from Madurai in the Tamil country. Kuveni herself was killed by her kinfolk; but her two children fled to the hills near the fastnesses of the god Saman and it is from them that the Väddas were descended. As for the Sinhalas they are a product of the union between the Vijaya and his followers and the women of the Tamil country which of course means, according to the Mahāvamsa, that the Sinhalas are a product of a genetic intermixture between a possibly north or eastern Indian group of men who landed in Sri Lanka and Tamil women from Madurai, an interconnection that continued, with ups and downs, right through history.

After the origin myth of Väddas and Sinhalas the Mahāvamsa is singularly silent about the former who seem to disappear from Pali chronicles. And therefore I shall begin my account with the history which deals with these forgotten and misunderstood peoples of our history, the so-called “aboriginal” peoples living nowadays in rather poor conditions in the area of Bintanna and Maha Oya. But surely these people had a past, a history if you want to call it that. There are no “peoples without history” but only peoples whose histories have been forgotten or ignored or simply impossible to reconstruct because of the few records they left behind. I therefore want to practice what I call a “restorative” analysis wherein I resurrect the Vädda voices from the past, to depict their presence in history and the complexity of their life-ways prior to their final and sad dispersal, and perhaps the extermination of some of them, during the fateful rebellion against the British in 1817-18, and the less fateful but nevertheless harsh confrontation with agricultural development in the Mahavmäli zone. It is unfortunate that we know the Väddas only from their remnants in the Maha Oya-Bintanne area and that is because as a thoroughly colonized nation we have absorbed the colonial view of the primitive Vädda that in turn has set an indelible stamp on our knowledge of them. Hence I want to initially deal with what Friedrich Nietzsche would call the “genealogy” of the primitive Vädda.


Conclusion: I want to conclude this discussion by addressing the implications of the physical omnipresence of the Väddas, if not their demographical 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 Tissa Hami and as genetically and culturally hybrid. Further, unlike in many parts of the world colonized by Europeans, there was no forcible extermination of Väddas by Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Nor, until recently, when Sinhalas have mimicked colonial practice, were the Väddas seen as an inferior group. They were feared and respected even if they were outside the pale of Buddhist civilization.72 There is no doubt that that civilization was a hegemonic one but not necessarily an intolerant one, as far as the Väddas were concerned. The kings were Buddhist and defenders of the Buddhist faith. But there has been no instance, as far as I know, of “internal colonization” through violence, or a forcible absorption of Vädda communities into the Buddhist polity.73 The presence of Väddas as different and yet similar to the Sinhalas and living in close propinquity to them is recognized in several symbolic performances in Sinhala society in the recent past. There is a short rite known as the vädi dāne or “the almsgiving of the Väddas” performed during the Sinhala post-harvest rituals of both the kohombā kankāriya and the gammaduva which recognized this separation and unity. A similar sense of exclusion and inclusion is dramatically recognized in the wonderful enactment known as the vädi perahara performed annually in Mahiyangana.74

Nowadays, we are accustomed to think that the main structural opposition in history is between Sinhalas and Tamils. Yet, this appositional 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 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. By contrast, as the Mahāvamsa clearly recognizes, the opposition between Väddas and Sinhalas was much more stable and permanent though not a hostile one. Right through history, even when Väddas practised agriculture, they were depicted as a different ethnic group, that is, as hunters. Though I cannot discuss the issue here, Väddas in general were not Buddhists either but practised the ancestral cult of nä yakku. Eventually they do become Sinhalas and Buddhists (and Hindus in the Tamil areas) but, according to the texts that I mentioned earlier, this is no different from the manner in which different migrant groups, mostly from South India, eventually become Sinhala and Buddhist, the more passionately patriotic being the more recent arrivals.

But the question remains that even if Väddas have been assimilated into Sinhala and Buddhism, why the drastic reduction in numbers in the 19th and 20th centuries? I am afraid the details are not entirely clear. When the British came on the scene the so-called wild Väddas or those who lived mostly by hunting and gathering were confined for the most part to the palu rata or “desolate lands,” the plains of the Vanni, the Bintanna. Many had been physically decimated by an epidemic of fever (perhaps the flu) around 1809, according to oral histories. And after the rebellion of 1818 those Sinhalas and Väddas living in the vast area known as the Vadi Rata and Maha Vadi Rata died during the resistance or fled elsewhere, some to the hills and others to the Batticaloa district where many of them became absorbed into the Tamil communities in that area. Coffee and later tea took over the wild country where many Väddas lived, especially the area of Namunukula right down to Passara. What happened to them and many others living in the hill country is anybody’s guess.

A final word: as with the relations between Tamils and Sinhalas it is obvious that the constant genetic and cultural interchange between communities must disillusion us against stereotying and essentializing identities constructed over a long historical period. Take the case of the Vädda-Sinhala cultural interchanges. Väddas have Kataragama who is a Hindu and Buddhist deity as one of their own; and there is the great god Saman, whom many Väddas of the Mahiyangana-Maha Oya area claim was one of their own ancestors before he foolishly invited the Buddha to these shores. Saman is also the younger brother of their own mother goddess Maha Lokuvo or Maha Kiriamma, and yet he is also a major deity of the Sinhalas. The great Vädda gods were, until very recent times, also propitiated by the Sinhalas who, at best, would substitute the word ‘deviyo’ (god) for Yaka. Thus Kande Yaka becomes Kande Deviyo. I have showed in another paper that the mortuary rites in the practical religion of Buddhists are very likely derived from Vädda ideation.75 These cultural interchanges facilitated movement from Vädda to Buddhist paralleling the movement from hunting to agriculture, as well as the other way around. This form of hybridity does not abolish the distinction between Vädda and Buddhist; only that at a particular historical conjuncture, the distinction becomes fuzzy such that Buddhist informants living in what was historically Vädda country even now proudly affirm their Vädda ancestry. But this affirmation of hybridity is not that of our postmodem situation where one can self-consciously affirm one’s fragmented and hybridized identity. The Sri Lankan historical conjuncture is but a phase in a larger movement from Vädda to Buddhist, accelerated in our own times where the dominance and new hegemonic intolerance of Buddhism cannot be gainsaid, quite unlike in the past where Buddhists also could become Väddas. In this situation I think it is the role of the analyst to excavate the past and hold up to critical reflection the hybrid nature, not just of Väddas and Sinhalas, but of our human condition in general. In the current political situation in Sri Lanka where identities are congealed and sometimes fanatically affirmed I think it our scholarly duty to point out the historically contingent bases on which such fixed conceptions are grounded, even if many remain indifferent to what we say and turn a blind eye on such “restorative” research.

End Notes

  1. I want to acknowledge the help of my research assistants, Mr. H.G. Daya Sisira and Ms. Aparna Fernando. I am also indebted to Dr. Wimalaratne, Director of the Sri Lankan National Archives for the help he extended to us; and to Ms. Ramani Hettiaracchi who first pointed out to me the palm leaf manuscripts lying mostly unused in the University of Peradeniya library. The Vadivamsaya, which I mention in this paper, is from that collection. I am also grateful for the Wenner Gren Foundation for sponsoring my Vellassa field project and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo for supporting my study of “intermediate texts.” I also want to apologize for being unable to systematically employ diacriticals in this text.


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One response to “Colonial Histories and Vädda Primitivism: An Unorthodox Reading of Kandy Period Texts

  1. Prof. Obesekera is a very well known social scientist. However, I cringe at some of the statements that even distinguished scholars make – or is he knowingly setting off a minefield? Let me quote from his article:
    genetic intermixture between a possibly north or eastern Indian group of men who landed in Sri Lanka and Tamil women from Madurai, an interconnection that continued, …. , (Vijaya) married the demoness Kuveni who helped him to vanquish her own kinfolk, the yakkhas. Vijaya later abandoned her for a legitimate union with a princess from Madurai in the Tamil country.
    Do we have such genetic information on the people of Madurai and Anuradapura of that era? Even the genetic database on modern Lankans is very poor due to not many people donating samples, but in all probability we have a true ‘pot-luck mixture’ worthy of the sea route that went past Lankadeepa.

    Do we, or does GO know what people lived in South India and Lanka circa 6th century BCE? Most historians and Epigraphists are now agreed that ethnic identities had not firmed up that early in time. At that time the word Dameda’ (Dravida , Damila) was probably used by Northern Sanskrit writers to simply designate ‘southern’ in the same was as ‘middle-eastern’ is used for largely Arabian countires. The ethnic groups (Kera, Chola, Pandiya, Ila, Barata, .Satiyaputras, …) etc., as well as those in Lanka seemed to have used variants of the Asokan Brahmi. So the main distinction was between the dark-skinned southern (Dravida), and Northern (Uttara) people. The Pandiyans (and most southern Kings) preferred fair-skinned North Indian women as queens, and hence the Pandyans were closely linked with the Gupta dynasty. Even the mother of the king Karikala was a Gupta princess, and he was hence known as ‘Sundara Gupta’. In the Vijaya legend, after getting rid of yakshini Kuveni (Ku-veni) (i.e., literally, dark-coloured yakshini), Vijaya seeks a bride from the family of the queen in Madurai, i.e., a North Indian princess of the Gupta lineage! If Vijaya has stayed with Kuveni, the populace could ask if his descendants would be true ‘Kshatriyas’. The Mahavamsa writer used this ploy of bringing a queen from Maduari to ensure that Vijaya maintained a ‘Kshatrya’ north-indian lineage, and consistently claimed , later on in the narrative, that Badda-Kachchayana was of Sakayan stock.
    However, modern writers have transferred modern ethnicities to archaic ethnicities due to a lack of attention to detail, and concluded that 5th century BCE Maduapura queens were somehow genetically modern queens, using the Mahavamsa legend as the emprical basis of the claim!.

    Even the place-name Kapatapuram, a capital of the Pandyans, most probably arose from Guptapuram, giving toponymic evidence of the link between the Pandyan rulers ad the Nothern Guptas.

    In my view, Gananath O has fallen into the trap of transferring modern-day ethnic structures (and their prejudices) lock stock and barrel to construct equivalent ‘archaic ethnicities’.

    Karthigesu Indrapala, Iravatham Mahadevan and other modern younger writers have been far more circumspect . Even the most recently discovered Jain-hill inscription is ascribed to a form of southern Brahmi named ‘Tamil-Brahmi’ by Iravatham Mahadevan. He says that the Tamil language as such did not come into being until the sangam period. It is very likely that the Sinhala language also came into being around the same period., and not before That is, while these ethnicities had got established by the time of the Mahavamsa, it is very unlikely that such ethnic feelings or differences existed in, say, 5th or 6th century BCE. Those days Lanka most probably had its own form of southern Brahmi or Elu- Prakrit, very close to what we know today as ‘Tamil Brahmi’. The people were neither ‘sinhalese nor Tamils’.
    The ethnic nationalists on both sides can take a rest.
    But it is clear, be it then or now, that fair-skinned women were at a premium as brides .

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