Legend and Mystery in Kumana National Park

Stefan d’Silva … an original piece responding to ATW Guneratne’sThe Call of the Remote Wild: Kumana in SE Lanka” in …………………………………………………. https://thuppahis.com/2016/01/11/the-call-of-the-remote-wild-kumana-in-se-lanka/

Kumana: Originally demarcated as Yala East National Park, Kumana was declared a national park with its own borders in 1969. Kumana is well known for birdwatching and its wonderful variety of birds and nesting colonies. Leopard, bear, smaller mammals, reptiles and elephant also roam the park. Off the coast line of Kumana good fishing grounds prevail and attract keen sportsmen with rod and reel. The Bagura plains within Kumana NP is the setting for many a tale from hunters of old, who hunted leopard and bear or merely shot animals ‘for sport’. Kumana was also one place where animals were trapped for the Dehiwela Zoo (in the mid to late 1950’s). The ‘trappers’ travelled by jeep and mainly by bullock cart, carrying nets and camping necessities. Every year in July/August Kumana plays ‘host’ to the Pada Yatra, a most amazing foot pilgrimage undertaken by Kataragama devotees as they trek many miles along the east coast, eventually reaching Kumana and then walking through the Kumana jungles and Yala NP to Kataragama.

IMG_2059 Cave paintings of elephants. Thought to be done by Veddahs. Bowatagala cave complex. This particular cave is used by a leopard as a resting up place during the day (according to the Game Warden)

The mystique of Kumana goes far deeper than the wild attractions. The Bambaragastalawa ruins, Bowatagala cave complex, Lenama, Maha Lenama and the Kudumbigala monastic sanctuary (just outside the park) hold some of the most mysterious history, legend and fact. Cave paintings, rock inscriptions and small caves (some now the lair of wild beasts) add to the adventure that is Kumana. Its remoteness is also its protector.

Bagura RockBagura Rock. What appears to be a constructed wall of some sort on the top between the two ‘mounds’ to the left? Some suggest it is a very old, historic construction

Legends: Interlinked legends endure in Kumana National Park providing additional stimulation to the singular dimension of mere animal sightings. The legendary existence and extermination of a race of “people” or hominins (if they may be called that) named the Nittaewo, their extermination by the Lenama Veddahs and in turn the decimation of those Veddahs by the legendary Lenama Leopards still prevail. The leopards that decimated the Veddah clan being sent as an instrument of destruction or punishment by an insulted Kataragama God, who was offended by a certain ritual performed by the Veddahs, using pig fat in lamps as they tried to tell their women folk what they saw of the Kataragama Perehera. Also linked to these legends is the possibility of a brown bear or another variety of bear – now extinct.

AA=Kiripokuna 1Cave painting. Kiripokunahela – Kumana NP. Thought to depict a man astride an elephant as in a Perehera and what is thought to be a leopard. Some inference is that this painting is linked to the legend of the Lenama Leopard and the tale of the decimation of the Lenama Veddahs by those leopards

The Nittaewo: A well written publication titled ‘Nittaewo – the Hobbits of Sri Lanka ‘by Pradeep Jayatunga (Neptune Publications 2010) condenses the various articles on the Nittaewo legend. Jayatunga makes the valid point that most of the information on the Nittaewo is a regurgitation (or plagiarism) of what has been around for some time. Nevertheless, the more one delves into the legends an odd or additional piece of information seems to ‘pop up’. No sightings of Nittaewo have been recorded. No archaeological proof has been discovered either – (then again it has not been the focus of serious archaeological digs and scientific field pursuit since the 1960’s either).

The general theme of the Nittaewo legend (derived from articles by Jayatunga, Punchihewa, the Ven Anandasiri Thero, Neville, Spittle, Deraniyagala and conversations with experienced, senior rangers from Kumana) informs us that these were pigmy type ‘beings’, about 3 to 4 feet tall that walked up right. One thread of thought is that they were hairy, with red brown fur and one thread of thought says they were very dark, smooth skinned hominin. A persistent theory is; that they had long talons or claws and used their claws to attack and kill Veddahs. One might may draw a conclusion that they were the sworn enemy of the Veddah as they also frequently stole food the Veddahs preserved in honey, stashed in trees and other places. The famous palaeontologist and Director of the National Museum of Ceylon, the late P.E. P Deraniyagala floated one theory suggesting the term Nittaewo comes from the phrase ‘niya potthu ayo’ a translation being “clawed folk”.

AA=pada yathra 3Pada Yatra pilgrims stream across the Bagura Plains on foot. Bagura rock is in the background

The legend also says the Nittaewo built ‘nests’ in trees to sleep at night. Some also suggest they habited rock crevices and caves. It is also suggested they communicated in some guttural ‘language’ and other sounds and the Veddahs apparently understood some of their ‘language’. Jayatunga (2010) makes another important observation that unlike other Sri Lankan legends there has never been any suggestion that the Nittaewo were supernatural or extra-terrestrial beings, the legend is based on what people and Veddahs knew or experienced from their previous generation and told explorers like Neville, Spittle et al.

The legendary Brown Bear: One theory is that these ‘beasts’ were no more than a brown bear, the legendary Rathu Walaha or Rahu Walaha now extinct in Sri Lanka. What is interesting is; that Hugh Neville, an extraordinary Englishman in the Ceylon Civil Service, who ‘broke the story’ of the Nittaewo in 1886 as the editor of the Tabrobanian- a Dravidian Journal of Oriental Studies also writes (October 1885) on a brown bear in Ceylon. Neville refers to a Dr Gray who reclassified a specimen bear skull from Ceylon in the Paris Museum and concluded it was a type of Tibetan Bear or Malayan Bear or a bear from greater Asia ( in short the inference is; there was another species of bear in Ceylon other than the Sri Lanka Sloth Bear). Neville says the specimen was initially taken alive in ‘Trincomali’ (Trincomalee). More interestingly, Neville states “The brown bear of Ceylon is now found, but very rarely, in the wild district lying between the Kumbukkan River and the Menik Ganga in S.E. Ceylon. I have not heard of it in the Trincomali, Mullaitivu or Mannar districts.” Neville also notes “it is spoken of under one name Rahu Walas”   a description offered by Neville of a bear that chased two of his guides is; a bear smaller than the sloth bear with a thick brown streak of fur on its back and a yellowish colouring on the chest/belly. Interestingly a close friend recalls a sighting in the Vanni jungles by another close friend, whose jungle craft, credibility and experience is beyond reproach, of a ‘brown bear type animal’ at a water hole in daylight. The hunter was unable to get off a shot before the animal went into thick scrub. This account was related about 40 years ago.

Legends linked: The associated legends to the Nittaewo in Kumana are of their extermination by the Maha Lenama Veddahs and in turn the decimation of those Veddahs by marauding legendary ‘Lenama Leopards’ – an instrument of punishment of an offended Kataragama Devio. The legend says that the Veddahs trapped the Nittaewo in a cave or rock crevice, piled firewood across the entrance and suffocated them to death.

A similar version afforded by the Ven Thambugala Anandasiri Thero (Twenty Five Years in The Jungle- Dayawansa Jayakody & Company USA- 2001) says the Veddahs initially attacked the Nittaewo in a battle killing most of them with arrows and a remaining number of six Nittaewo were trapped and suffocated to death in a cave.

AA=veddah placeLegend has it that this is one cave in Bambaragastalawa where the Nittaewo were suffocated to death by the local Veddahs.

The Legendary Leopards of Lenama: The general legend as to the Lenama Leopards is that they were much bigger and bolder and did not necessarily flee at the sight or confrontation with man. One game ranger explaining the size of a Lenama leopard’s head to me, whilst using his hands to demonstrate the size, said their heads are broader and bigger. A most interesting feature of these legendary leopards is that they allegedly had a stripe or two along the neck. The Ven Anandasiri relates (Twenty Five Years in the Jungle) an encounter with a leopard outside his cave in the Kudumbigala Hermitage “The face of a leopard I saw. Yet, he did not look fierce. I saw stripes on either side of his neck. The claws on its paws were quite large”. An unrelated incident (to the Lenama legend), but nevertheless interesting in terms of leopard colour variants with unusual markings is a record from Hugh Neville in the Tabrobanian (December 1885) of an encounter he had with a leopard, which lasted about half an hour on the Kandy road in January 1884, in broad daylight. He observes the leopard that was threatening to spring upon his horse “stood higher than any I have seen before and was remarkably thin. The tail was of the full length and unusually long. While the fur was of a dark tawny orange with no appearance of spots” He also comments on the white underbelly fur and cites another encounter of a similar shaped leopard, with no spots, with a Major Hubback.

More interesting is Neville’s mention of a “rat divi or red leopard from S.E. Ceylon” and the only reason he discounted the leopard he saw on the Kandy road as the “red leopard” is because accounts related to him by other Englishmen of sightings/encounters of the red leopard all stated the tail was shorter.

_MG_2115Veddah Rock in the background. The legend maintains this was the rock a family of Veddahs took refuge atop to avoid being killed by the Lenama Leopards. Legend has it that one day one member forgot to pull up the rope/vine ladder and the leopards or leopard climbed to the top and killed all but one. That survivor – a boy – fled on foot to the village of Helawa outside Kumana and resided there to the end of his days.

_MG_2088Bambaragastalawa reclining clay Buddha statue from ancient times

More cave paintings of elephants. Thought to be done by Veddahs. Bowatagala cave complex. This particular cave is used by a leopard as a resting up place during the day (according to the Game Warden)

Conclusion: mThe lack of scientific proof relegates these great tales and possibilities to the category of legend and speculation. To ‘romantics’ like me there is always hope – always the chance of some exciting discovery. For example; the colour and pattern variation in the King Cheetah to that of the ‘ordinary’ Cheetah is amazing. The infamous man eating lions of Tsavo were without manes (far removed from the handsome, black maned beasts in the Hollywood movie The Ghost & the Darkness”) and their specimens now on show in an American museum hardly strike fear into the visitor, nor are they ‘majestic’ or fierce looking in any way. Similarly a casual search of the internet reveals lion-tiger hybrids. Perhaps one day the legend of the Leopards of Lenama may find a place in our natural history as will perhaps a Sri Lankan Brown Bear, or another variety of Asian Bear.

The discovery in 2003 on the island of Flores, Indonesia, of small human like skeletal remains indicates an ancient hominin about 3 feet in height. Popularly named ‘The Hobbit’ of Indonesia. Research, as far as I understand continues to establish and progress more knowledge on this discovery. It may well turn out that the legendary Ebu Gogo tales of Indonesia may be rooted in fact. Perhaps one day Sri Lanka too may have its own hominin race of Hobbit established.

The legend of the Veddahs decimated has a degree of plausibility too as a well-known tracker from Kumana National Park who claimed Veddah origin was in Kumana until the late 1960’s. Many of the people referenced in this article have met Yapath Hamy and no one seems to refute the claim that it was his ancestors that were the victims of the Lenama Leopards. It is also, generally accepted, by many, that he was the boy who escaped from Veddah Rock to Helawa. His descendants are still around I am told.


Filed under cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian religions, landscape wondrous, life stories, pilgrimages, religiosity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, unusual people, wild life

3 responses to “Legend and Mystery in Kumana National Park

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