The Veddas, generally known as the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, are presently found in the Hunnasgiriya hills in central Sri Lanka down to the coastal areas of the island’s east. However, according to ethnographers and social anthropologists, the Veddas originally lived all over Sri Lanka.

Over the centuries, they were absorbed by the dominant Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil communities through a process of give and take. It was osmosis, not subjugation, erasure or decimation as in some other parts of the world.

There has been racial admixture and mutual adoption of beliefs and practices. However, there remains a minuscule community of Veddas that has managed to remain a distinct group, constituting 1% of Sri Lanka’s population.

In his work Colonial Histories and Vädda Primitivism: An Unorthodox Reading of Kandy Period Texts, social anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere says that a large part of the Vellassa, the Monaragala district and the region south of Namunukala, were known traditionally as Vedi Rata (Vedda land), though no Veddas live there now. The residents claim to be Sinhala Buddhists. This led Obeyesekere to investigate what happened to the Veddas.

In some of the remoter areas of this region, people would say that they were Veddas before they became Sinhala-Buddhist. They have a plethora of myths about their origin in the Vijaya-Kuveni marriage and their flight to forested areas having been driven out by Vijaya’s men.

Obeyesekere notes that the Mah?vamsa and the Pali chronicles are silent on the fate of Kuveni’s people – Veddas. He says that the “aboriginals” living now in poverty in Bintanna and Maha Oya had a history but that history has been ignored.

The Veddas lived in virtually every part of Sri Lanka during the period of the Kotte, Kandy and Gampola kingdoms, according to what Obeyesekere calls “intermediate texts”, not Pali chronicles, but palm leaf manuscripts written in simple Sinhala by local intellectuals and ordinary people.

He draws his material from the Vamsa katha, Vadi Vamsaya and Vanni Rajavaliya. Then there is the Vitti Pot, or “stories about episodes or events;” and finally, the Lekam Miti or land-tenure registers.

Obeyesekere points to a ritual known as Väddan andagahima, or “roll-call of the Veddas,” sung during the Kohomba kankariya ritual which suggests that the Vedda territory was practically coterminous with that of the land of the Kandyan Sinhalas. Over ninety Vedda villages fell in this area.

The Veddas lived in Asgiriya, Bogambara and Hantana, Batalagala, Gomiriya, Maturata, Hunnasgiriya, Lower Dumbara, Kotmale, Nuvara Eliya, Kehelgamuva and Uragala. Presently these are all Sinhala (and estate Tamil) areas.

Obeyesekere buttresses his case by pointing out that the kingdom of Vikramabahu III (1357–1374 AD) was founded in a village then called Katupulla that was ruled by a Vedda chief known as Katupulle Vedda. The Kandyan kings had a police force known as Katupulle Atto, a Veddas name.

Present day Matale was very different in the 17 th., Century. The leading families of Matale at the time of Rajasinha II’s rule (1629-1687) were Kulatunga Mudiyanse of Udupihilla, Vanigasekere Mudiyanse of Aluvihara, Candrasekere Mudiyanse of Dumbukola (Dambullal), Gamage Vedda and Hampat Vedda of Hulangamuva, who were Veddas with Sinhala honorific names.

The lands beyond were under the guardianship of Kannila Vedda, Herat Banda, Maha Tampala Vedda, Valli Vedda (a female?), and Mahakavudalla Vedda to name a few. During his own fieldwork in the late 1950s and early 60s Obeyesekere noted that the tradition was that many of the villages of Laggala Udasiya Pattu were once Vedda villages.

Obeyesekere found to his astonishment that there were Vedda female heads of territories called Vedda Mahages. They acted as guards of territories along with men.

Veddas intermarried with the Sinhala-Buddhist upper class. A Vedda King of Opaigala married the daughter of a Sinhala king, Vira Parakrama Bahu. His son was named Herat Bandara in Sinhala style. He founded the village of Udugama “and was perhaps the ancestor of distinguished Kandyan aristocrats, the Udugamas and Ellepolas,” Obeyeesekere says.

The term Vedda comes from the word Vyaadha (to pierce), that is to hunt, but it is wrong to think that hunting was their sole occupation. The Veddas were also agriculturalists. Veddas who had Sinhala names like Herat Bandara would have also practiced agriculture in addition to hunting. The Sinhalas of this area belonging to the farmer caste Govigama also practised hunting in addition to agriculture during that period.

According to Vaadi vamsaya, the Veddas rendered various services to the Sinhala kings. They served in their armies, hunted for them and safeguarded demarcated sections of these territories. They were rewarded for these services with titles and honours. Panikki Vedda, an elephant catcher for King Bhuveneka Bahu of Sitavaka, living in Eriyava near Galgamuva in the Kurunagala district, was given the lordship of the four Vanni districts or pattus, namely, Puttalam Pattu, Munessaram Pattu, Demala Pattu, and the Wanni Hat Pattu, and honoured with the title “Bandara Mudiyanse.”

“It can be assumed that the descendants of these distinguished Veddas became Bandara Veddas and then merged with the Sinhala Bandara aristocracy. Panikki Vedda himself was deified at his death and he is still propitiated in rituals over a vast area of Bintanna- Vellassa,” Obeyesekere points out.

Kuveni’s clan were a group of hunters or “sabaras”. They had migrated to what is now Sabaragamuva. Here there are place names like Veddi pangu (“Vedda’s land share”), Veddi kumbura (“Vedda rice fields”), Vedivatta (“Vadda gardens”) and vedd?gala (“Vedda rock”). These are now Sinhala villages. The Paravi Sandesaya mentions Veddas in the area south of Colombo, around Potupitiya and Kalutara.

Vedda loyalty to the Kandyan king is seen with clarity when the Sinhalas and Veddas of Vellassa began their revolt against the British in 1817. The revolt soon spread all over the Kandyan provinces in a most serious challenge to British rule ever mounted in Sri Lanka.

Dorai Svami, believed to be in the direct line of descent from the Nayakkar kings of Kandy, emerged as the symbol or leader of the revolt and claimed to be the rightful inheritor of the Kandyan kingdom that had been acquired by the British in 1815. Hunted by the British, Dorai Svami was in Kokagala, the sacred peak for the Veddas in the Bintanna area, under the protection of Kivulegedera Mohottala, who belonged to a distinguished line of Bandara Veddas. He was also a Mohottala, an important Kandyan official.

In their bid to crush the rebellion, the British employed the scotched earth policy. Writing about this in 1896 the British judge Archibald Lawrie said: “The story of the English rule in the Kandyan country during 1817 and 1818 cannot be related without shame. In 1819 hardly a member of the leading families, the heads of the people, remained alive; those whom the sword and the gun had spared, cholera and smallpox and privations had slain by hundreds.”

Kivulegedera, along with the other leaders, was captured and executed while large numbers of lesser leaders were deported, sometimes without trial, to Mauritius, then a penal colony.

After his death. Kivulegedera was deified as Kivulegedera Punci Alut Deviyo (“the younger new god of Kivulegedera”). According to Paul E. Pieris, Kivulegedera Mohottala was the last and seventh of a distinguished line of deified Bandara Veddas. Both this deity and his father, also a deity, are to this day propitiated in communal rituals among the Sinhalas and Väddas in the Bintanna, Vellassa and Viyaluya region, Obeyesekere says.

However, few today think that Kivulegedera was a Vedda. He has been transformed into a fully Sinhalized hero of the resistance, Obeyesekere adds.