DAMBANA is a remote jungle village of indigenous people, situated about 300km from Colombo. The population of these indigenous ‘Veddha’ people now consists of only about 350 families.




Modern lifestyle - cause
for all ills

Vedda Chief Wannila Aththo tells Int'l Medical Congress in Colombo


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Dambana, Village of Indigenous People of Sri Lanka
DAMBANA is a remote jungle village of indigenous people renowned for its eco tourism prospects, situated about 300km from Colombo , Sri Lanka . The population of these indigenous 'Veddha' people now consists of only about 350 families, a number significantly reduced from a once thriving community. The 'Veddha' are so influenced by the imposing dominant culture that they risk losing their traditions and what has been their livelihood for centuries. However they remain determined that their way of life will continue into future generations. The Chief himself told us on a recent visit to the village that his main worry is that he may not be able prevent the 'Veddha' from dying out beyond his own lifetime. Visitors to this fascinating village have the opportunity to meet and chat with the people who live there, learn about their traditions, and gain a unique insight into their way of life.


By John Gimlette

Weird, isn’t it, when people you’d assumed long dead suddenly step out of the forest? It happened to me the other day, in Sri Lanka. I’d read a bit about the Veddas, the island’s original inhabitants. They were first described in English by a merchant of Wimbledon, Robert Knox, in 1681 (“wild men”, ferocious archers). I’d imagined they’d vanished years ago. But now here they were, just as he’d described them: half-naked, beards down to their chests, and armed with axes and bows.
I haven’t quite recovered from that first encounter. Although we spent several days together (firing arrows, collecting honeycombs), we felt several centuries apart. After 16,000 years on the island, there are now only about 500 true Veddas, all fiercely independent. They have their own language, their own “king”, their own jewellery (made with elephants’ teeth) and their own music (with monkey-skin drums).
Only my camping team kept me anchored in reality (or at least the 21st century). My tent had a flushing loo, and, at night, I sat in a jungle clearing, at a table laid with linen. Once, the Veddas appeared dressed in leaves, and – on my last morning – I found one out in the long grass. He had made me a bow. “We welcome visitors,” he said, “as long as they don’t try to change us.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the Veddas, on my quest for the Kandyan kingdom. It was always going to be a strange fortnight. The old kingdom still has a mystique about it: Sri Lanka’s Shangri-La. For years it held out against the Portuguese (1505-1658) and the Dutch (1638-1803), only to fall at last to the British, in 1815. It wasn’t even hard to find. The size of Cornwall, it sits at the heart of the island. No, the secret of its independence was simpler: gradient. The old kingdom is a magnificent natural fortress, rising to 7,000 feet, spouting the wildest of rivers, some as broad as the Thames.


Daily Mirror
Saturday, 30 July 2011

The government had decided to permit the Veddah community to access the Maduru-Oya National Park to carry out their traditional livelihood activities such as fishing in the reservoirs, the Department of Wild Life Conservation said yesterday.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) will be signed in this regard with Veddah Chief Uruwarige Wanniyaletto at a function to be held in Vakarai tomorrow in view of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. According to the MoU, indigenous people will be given the chance to venerate their places of traditional worship inside the National Park.

The Department said in a press release that members of the community would be given a special identity card attested by the Veddah chief to be produced when entering the park hereafter. It was also agreed to appoint five persons from the Veddah Community to act as guides for those visiting the National Park.

The MoU will provide provision for these indigenous people to obtain materials necessary to build their homes from the park, and build them according to their traditional styles.  They will also get the opportunity of using traditional methods of fishing in the tanks located within the park.

By Bandula Bandaranayake
The Kanahalu Plant, a medicinal plant used by the Vedda community as a effective cure for breast cancer has drawn the attention for the Aryurvedic Department. Aryurvedic Dr. Athula Kanagarathne said he was conducing research on the Kanahalu plant which the Vedda community had been using for centuries in the treatment of breast cancer. Vedda Chief Uruvarigelage Vannile Ettho said several women in Dambana were cured of breast cancer through this method of medicine.

By Dianne Silva
Daily Mirror
August 07, 2009

The indigenous settlement of Dambana, a little off Mahinyanganaya and 200 KM away from Colombo prides itself as the most pristine example of the lifestyle of the Veddah’s. On first visit to  this village that is home to 350 families and approximately 1675 persons, one is hoodwinked into believing that one has taken a trip back in time. However, on close inspection it is clear that the modern world is inescapable regardless of the claims one may make. This tribe led by Uruvarige Vannila Aththo, struggles to hold on to their cultural identity in a world that is fast impeding on their existence and proving their traditional methods defunct.

From the climate change that affects their crops and cultivation patterns, to the education they are expected to give their children and the tourists on whom they depend for existence, the outside world plays a larger role in their lives than they prefer. Proving that in this day and age you “can’t go home again” whether it is to your childhood without TV’s or your indigenous ways of inhabitance 37 thousand years ago.

 Children from this village venture out early in life to be educated according to government regulations. Most parents from the settlement don’t oppose this in the hope that their children will have options as they grow older. A vast number of children from the settlement go to the Dambana School and mingle with those from the nearby village. “200 children study at this school over 75 percent of them are the children of the indigenous people, the rest are Sinhalese children from the villages,” Vice Principal of the Dambana School M.K. Shelton Nagasiri told the Daily Mirror.

Although some might hope that this mingling would result in a transferring of culture and tradition from the children of the Veddah’s to the village children, the opposite is true. “The children who come here mix with those from the village and therefore there is no language barrier. The  children are well versed in Sinhalese. They are expected to talk in Sinhalese in order to cope with the school  curriculum. We really have no control over what they speak and we can’t expect them to use their Veddhi dialect in the hope that this will be transferred to the village children,” a teacher at the Dambana SchoolT.M. Dharmaratne told the Daily Mirror.

Children of the Veddah’s tend to emulate the ways of the many tourists that visit the village. “When outsiders visit the children, the kids try to imitate their ways,” Nagasiri said. The Daily Mirror witnessed this first hand when children outside the school were interacting with a group of foreigners greeting them with lively “Good Mornings and how are you?” they seemed rather eager to entertain and amuse the tourists with their mastering of English.

The teachers themselves however are confident that despite this constant interaction with the outside world these  children will not attempt to transform their lives or the ways of their people. “My brother was Dambana Gunerwardene the first indigenous person to go to University. Just because he was educated doesn’t mean that he came back here and tried to change our community or our people,” Dharmaratne said.

Conversely Dharmaratne sees education as a means of improving their world and holding on to their heritage. “I went to the University and studied and now I teach here in order to better educate our children and give them more opportunities to develop themselves in every area including that of our culture,” Dharmaratne.

A greater part of the burden with regard to protecting their culture is in the hands of the leaders of the tribe. The son of the present Vannila Aththo and the next in line to take on leadership of the tribe is Uruvarige Gunabandila Aththo, who sees the acute responsibility in passing down the traditional ways of his people. “I have three little girls and we never  let the girls out of the house in the old days but now things are different. The young people have ventured out, so many things have changed. However we try to educate our children about our culture and hope that they will carry it forward to the generations to come,” he said.

Dotted around the compounds and homes of these people are intricately created ornaments, made according to traditional methods. Although these are for sale to the number of tourists that visit, Gunabandila Aththo takes pride in the fact that his children tend to  speedily catch onto these crafts and meticulously remember the stories of their ancestry. “When the children are at home for the school holidays we talk to them about our ancestry and traditions and teach them various crafts. They catch on to these very fast and when we teach them once or twice they are able to do it all by themselves,” he explains.

Gunabandila Aththo accepts that change is inevitable in any culture and takes a “what will be, will be” attitude towards these changes, unlike most, he does not believe  that keeping the outside world is the best way by  which to protect their identity. “When it comes to language we teach our children our language at home there is no special institute for them to learn this from. And when they learn Sinhalese through the government education system they get it mixed up with our language and parts get added and deducted. In future our dialect may change as it has from past generations .However I see no reason  to worry about that now; change will happen when it happens,” he says.  In certain areas venturing out has become a clear necessity rather than a choice or luxury. With regard to healthcare, traditional methods tend to fail as the community mingles with society and their environment inescapably is polluted by disease. When a bear attacked the brother of the present Vannila Aththo there was no choice but to seek the help of western medicine in order to save his life. “A bear attacked me in the woods and my eye and shoulder were injured badly. At this time they took me to the Kandy Hospital where I received treatment. We have medicine and treatment but due to the seriousness of the situation and my eye coming out of the socket I had to go to the hospital,” he said.

Certain changes on the other hand have been accepted with open arms by the community. For instance modern technology and tourism have permeated to a greater extent. The youngsters of the tribe tend to have cell phones with them and use these to take pictures  for entertainment. For these youth the traditional bow and arrow are no longer games, it is the livelihood of their fathers which they wish to avoid.  However the elders avoid the mention of these items and stand fast that they are not used in their village. “We have seen mobile devices and people using them but for us these are of no  use. We have never used them in our community  and even if we did begin using them who are we to talk to?” said  Uruwarige Gunabandiya brother of the Present Vannila-aththo. Yet there is evidence that cannot be hidden , despite their best efforts; the Kohomba shampoo packets around the village well or the Fair and Lovely tube next to a tea cup in the house, as well as the number of cell phones in the hands of the youngsters prove that the outside world has now become inescapable.

Sadly though the youngsters are expected to keep this under-wrap; they are constantly hiding their phones or avoiding the use of Sinhala when speaking, in fear that their elders will reprimand them for this. The elders see a far greater benefit than simple cultural protection by sticking to their traditional ways. To them the more traditional  they seem to be ,the larger the number of tourists who come to see them.  Tourism plays a large role in the economy and everyday lives of these people; they rely on the money that comes in from visitors to sustain them and structure their lives to look perfect to the outside world. The village is mostly empty during  daytime only those dressed in traditional clothing are allowed to linger for long, so long as they adhere to the roles expected of them.

Although invaded by the outside world to such an extent that their lives have now degenerated to role playing, the people of Dambana gave us a glimpse into the lifestyles of our ancestors. Modern technology, climate change, health risks and tourism may intrude on their existence yet it is unable to impede on the pride they have in being part of a tribe that has been in existence for over 37 thousand years.


Modern lifestyle - cause for all ills

Daily News
Monday,November 24,2008

Sri Lanka's Vedda Community Chief Uruwarige Wannila Aththo told the World Congress of Integrated Medicines at their 46th annual conference held at the BMICH in Colom­bo on Friday last week "You have invited me to speak on our traditional system of medicines may be to see what you can get from us to meet your medical problems most of which are rooted in the modern lifestyle that you have adopted to live in.

We Veddas are living with nature in the natural envi­ronment and our medical systems are nature based and traditional. I don't think you can follow us in toto; but my advice for you is to stop destroying the natural environment in planning your development work. I don't see any benefit for human life in destroying nature gifted trees, plants and flowers and replacing them with industry made artificial trees, plants and flowers which you are doing now.

My advice for you is to get the people to curtail destroying the environment in planning development as much as possible. That's the best for human health and health of the world as well.

He thanked Dr. Githan-jana Mendis Chairman Medicine Alternative and the Open International Uni­versity for Complementary Medicine, and Director General of Sports Medicine Ministry of Sports Sri Lanka, for inviting him to the Congress as a special honoured guest and for get­ting him to speak at the Congress. He spoke in the vedda native language and it was translated into Sinhala and English.


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