Vedar of the East A Forgotten People
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
They call themselves 'descendants of Kuhani (Kuweni),' consort of Vijaya, and live in a place called Santhosapuram, one of the 30 villages inherited by these Tamil Vedar (Veddahs). But these Vedar of the East are not recognized for their heritage and certainly have little joy in their lives.
They live in probably one of the most beautiful parts of the island, the place where the Mahaweli, the greatest of our rivers breaks up into rivulets, Aaru in Tamil, to flow into the Indian Ocean.
But their habitat is being destroyed, their livelihood threatened, and their micro-culture severely endangered.
Ceylon Today visited them last week, here's their story.
The village of Santhosapuram is about 9km east of Muttur town. There, we encountered a people who call themselves 'Palangudi Makkal' (Aadivasi) or the 'Ancient Ones' whom the media has referred to as the Tamil Veddahs. Like their cousins in the south they eschew the moniker Vedan (Veddah) as they believe non-aboriginal people use it as a derogatory term.
These people say they are descended from the earliest settlers of the island and trace their origins to an immigrant wave from the Indian sub-continent that brought their people – including Kuhani (Kuveni) here.
Short in stature, they are dark and some have surprisingly light coloured eyes. Their language is a pidgin Tamil, which they speak fast, with a musical cadence. For the normal Tamil speaker the terms they use can be confusing. For instance, they call the male child 'Kutty' and female 'Pulle,' while in normal Tamil both terms are used for the girl child.
The region of the Eastern Province these people call home stretches from Muttur to Seruwila through the jungles south of the Koddiyar Bay. These people say they have lived here for two millennia and that the Aadivasis of the South are their descendants.
According to data gathered in 2008 and provided by the Muttur Pradeshiya Sabha, there were 2,775 families of this group in Eechilampatru, Verugal and Muttur occupying 35 villages. They estimate that the population has now nearly doubled.
These people believe that when Prince Vijaya and his cohorts from Bengal landed on the island, there were 43 chieftains who ruled the land and outsiders feared to venture in, as Kuhani and her army were powerful. According to their oral tradition, Kuhani met Prince Vijaya or Vijayavaahu in Ilangaiththurai Muhaththuvaram, which is now called Lanka Patuna in the Seruwila Division, some 20 km from Santhosapuram.
Fifty-three-year-old Sri Selvam of Santhosapuram told us, "We, the Palangudi Makkal are unique and distinct but our traditions, culture, music, language and rituals have been erased due to politics, discrimination and suppression by Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese equally."
But they have realized they lost their identity too long ago to regain it.
They insist that they are not ethnic Tamils although they speak the language, and say the general Tamil community treat them as outcastes. On the rare occasion a member of the Tamil community marries into their community, that person is also treated as an outcast.
Selvam went on to say, "Two years ago we realized the extensive damage done to our community and only sound education can uplift us. We can combat racial and religious discrimination that is forced on us by the other communities."
These are traditional hunters whose main diet is wild bees honey, meat and yams from the forest.
They worship Lord Murugan – the God of Kataragama – who is worshipped by members of almost every religion in Sri Lanka. They observe rituals such as 'Paaimaraththu Sadangu' and the hunter's festivals such as 'Vettai hiruvilza' for Murugan or Kumarankudi.
But, that important cultural aspect has been hurt as well. They worshipped at an ancient temple atop a rock, which is now called the Lankapatuna Samuddragiri Viharaya. It was their forest, which has been demolished and a Buddhist Viharaya erected there with the assistance of the Security Forces in the area. The idol that was in their temple has been moved to the bottom of the rock.
Culture aside, these Ancient Ones are losing their lifestyle because their forests are disappearing.
Forests taken away
A total of 1,400 acres of forest has been earmarked for projects being channelled through the Board of Investment (BoI) including a coal power project, according to the Land Officer of the Muttur PS. There has been no progress on the projects, and these people have been deprived of its usage.
Another large block of land in Pattaali Puram has been reportedly reserved for a powerful politician in the area and a resort is to be built there.
The area that is reserved for the Sampur Coal Power Plant, now abandoned, was heavily forested and there are 11 natural pools which contain fish and freshwater prawns.
The loss of forests and new resettlement projects mean that they now have to live with other communities. Selvam laments, "We are now forced to live with other communities. This is how our race is getting wiped off."
They have now realized that they need to organize themselves and have therefore formed the 'Palangudi Makkal Amaippu (Aadivaassi Association)' to resolve and highlight their plights and violation of their rights to the world. They also came to know that an UNESCO-like organization protects cultures and traditions of the tribal communities.
Selvam notes that the Aadivasis of the South are being recognized because their language is linked to Sinhala but that isn't the case of the Tamil speaking Vedar.
The Tamil Vedar met the Veddahs of the South through their Association last month. They had exchanged pleasantries and the Vedar have invited the Mahiyangana Veddahs for a gathering that would be held in the near future in the Eastern Province. They want to form a single Aadivasi entity bringing all of Sri Lanka's aboriginal community together. This, according to them, would give them wider recognition.
Selvam who is the Treasurer of the Association, along with other office bearers said that they want the government to grant lower cut-off marks for Grade Five Scholarship, O/L and the A/L examination so that their children could have a sound education and build their future.
Their children have suffered through the last few decades. The LTTE abducted many of them and forced them to fight. Some tribal members joined the LTTE due to poverty. "Most of our people who perished as combatants were from Sampur."
In the regular schools, their children are marginalized and the locals don't like them seated in the same classroom and school has to be conducted separately for them. Selvam talks of one particularly bright girl who passed her O' Levels while attending a school in the Vanni because she was displaced due to the war. This child had to repeat her examination when she returned to the East because her school did not believe she could get such good results. Despite this, she could not get a job and has given up thoughts of a career.
"Other communities are using us for their gains. The Sinhalese destroyed our places of worship and the Tamils used us for political gains. Tamil politicians talk about our plight and raise funds in our name but never mention our race. They only want our votes but never encourage us to get involved in politics so that we can support our community."
Pasubhathipulle Kaalirasa (37) is a housewife with three children. She recalls how she was humiliated by other children in her class when they knew she was a member of the Vedar community. "They laughed at my name and I felt shy when the teacher too laughed at me." She quit school and began to do menial jobs in the village to educate her children. Her eldest daughter is in Grade 10.
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