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Lost Tribe: Vedda of Sri Lanka

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The Veddas are an ancient people of Sri Lanka, widely believed to have descended from the island’s ancient, indigenous aboriginal population – archaeological finds indicate the presence of their Neolithic ancestors on the island as far back as 10,000 BC. Many also believe that they are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC), the legendary founding father of the Sinhala nation.

First described by English merchant, Robert Knox, in 1681 as “wild men” and “ferocious archers”, it would seem that time hasn’t changed much for the Vedda – today, many remain most comfortable in minimal clothing, with profuse beards, and armed with axes and bows. After over 10,000 years on the island, and with only about 500 true Veddas left, they remain fiercely independent.

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Vedda Culture

A peaceful tribe, each family owns a small piece of land, with boundaries identified using markers like trees and mountains. Land rights are based not on written contracts (since they have no written language), but on reciprocal understandings passed down the generations. Veddas marry by and large by agreement between families rather than by choice, with women seen as men’s equals, and being entitled to inheritances.

A distinctive feature of the Veddas’ mostly animistic religion is the worship of dead ancestors, as it is believed that the spirit of their dead would haunt them, bringing disease and misfortune. They appease these spirits by invoking blessings through ritual dance.

Even their food is unique, including the goya-tel-perume (the tail of a monitor lizard stuffed with its own body-fat and roasted in embers), as well as dried meat preserved and soaked in honey.

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Visiting the Vedda

While the Vedda people used to populate the more secluded areas of Sri Lanka, they now live almost exclusively in the curve of land between the largely Sinhalese South, West and Centre, and the mainly Tamil North and East.

Today, the you can visit a traditional Vedda village in Dambana, a jungle village about 300km from Colombo, situated within the Maduru Oya National Park which is famous for its wild elephants (numbering around 200) and spotted deer.

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To experience the Vedda culture up close, you can spend a night with them – camping, hunting, trekking and gathering food. Depending on the season, you may also get to witness a dance performance. If you’re lucky you can also join a Vedda hunting party (usually during the rainy season from October to January), or search for beehives. Various operators offer Vedda village excursions, including activities like hunting and hiking, ranging from 1-3 days.

For more on the Veddas, check out Issue 73 (Jan/Feb 2017)

Photos by Ironman athlete and photographer Jose Jeuland (www.josejeuland.fr)

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