Adhivasis: Torn between tradition and modernity | Sunday Observer

Adhivasis: Torn between tradition and modernity

The Veddha or Adhivasi clan chieftain Wanniyala-Atto emphasizes that his clan is desperately trying to preserve what’s left of their culture and being traditional herbal medicinal oil makers they never sell low quality products to visitors

It was a Monday, the final week of the month of September. It was noon and the harsh rays of the sun bounced off the green foliage of the verdant forest canopy in the darkness of the jungle of Dambana, the ancestral habitat of the Adhivasis, a Veddha village or Variga Gammanaya just 10 kilometres away from Mahiyanganaya.

We entered the Variga Gammanaya which now has around 300 Adhivasi families whose main livelihood is farming and selling hand-made handcraft items to the visitors who throng the village to witness the daily life of Adhivasis. The day we visited was not a holiday, most of the stalls were empty except for a few, as my fellow photojournalist Susantha Wijegunesekara and I headed toward the village en route from Wasgamuwa National Park.

Veddah dialect 

I had the fortune of seeing the ‘Nayakathuma’, what the juniors called him, the chieftain of Adhiwasi clan, Uruwarige Wanniyala Atto, sitting leisurely at the outer verandah of his wattle and daub hut thatched with Illuk, during our brief visit to Dambana. After being seated on a locally made mat (Pan Padura), we were welcomed with a traditional-handshake and we had a conversation with him in the Veddah dialect. His arrow and an axe were kept in the corner of the room and a few bottles of herbal ointments and bee’s honey kept beside him.

I was returning to this Vaddha or Adhivasi ‘country’ after a gap of 10 years and I found nothing had changed physically except a few buildings; one is the Dambana radio station and others are a life-size statue of old Wanniyala-atto chieftain the late Tissahamy and two new buildings close to Wanniyala-Atto’s house.

Uruwarige Wanniyala-Atto (70), is the second son of the former clan chieftain late Uruwarige Tissahamy, who took over the clan and continued the struggle after his father’s demise. He is well-built and is of average height. His erect figure, his patriarch’s beard and his penetrating eyes, and his baritone voice commanding me to introduce myself revealed a natural leader. He apparently understands Sinhala but chooses to speak only in his own language- fair enough.

Talking to Susantha (who is fluent in the Veddha dialect) in his dialect, Wanniyala-Atto pleaded him to inform the visitors to Dambana, through newspaper, regarding the wrong information spread by unscrupulous traders who make fake herbal oils fraudently labelled with the Adhivasi name.

“We came to know that fake products of herbal oil and bee’s honey are being sold by a group of unscrupulous traders labelled as Adhivasi products. This is wrong. Our community never sells any kind of fake products such as herbal medicine oil or bee’s honey and never does any kind of unprofessional exorcist rituals. We never deceive visitors selling fake products. Our products come from generation to generation of traditional herbal products and exorcist rituals. No one can replace our traditions. It is our commitment. What we want to inform the visitors to Dambana is that they should not buy or ask for any oils and exorcist rituals from outsiders,” emphasized Wanniyala-Atto.

Herbal plants

Being proficient hunters, the Adhivasi members are clever enough to gather bees’ honey from forests, but the hunt is prohibited for them now. Some elders sell handicraft items carved from woods such as Ebony and herbal oils which are supposed to have certain medicinal properties. Even though the forest is forbidden to them, every year Adhivasis along with their chief offer bee’s honey to the Sacred Tooth Relic at Kandy during the first Randoli Perahera. As one of the traditional herbal medicine makers, Adhivasis are running out of herbal plants to prepare medicine. Though Adhivasis still engage in producing herbal medicine, the biggest concern is that their rituals, customs and norms have been forgotten by the younger generation. However, most of the visitors buy some medicinal ointments from them.

We leisurely spent almost an hour with him and I captured his many relaxed moods on my camera from different angles in his abode while Susantha had a long conversation with him.

By the time we returned from his house, a group of foreign tourists were headed towards it, accompanied by a junior Adhivasi. A few yards away from the vehicle park is the ‘Wariga Mahagedara’, (Indigenous Heritage Museum) which was our next visit. It is located under a fairly thick forest canopy with huge creepers hanging from top to bottom. A huge ant hill lies under a tree giving an amazing view to the site while an actual size statue of old Adhivasi chieftain, late Tissahamy lies in a corner of the compound of the museum. Although it was a week day, several group of local visitors thronged the museum which displays implements and other articles used by the Adhivasis in a bygone era and a collection of old photographs of the Adhivasi community. Apart from this, a number of primitive Adhivasi drawings adorned the walls of the museum and other buildings at the village.

Having visited the Radio ‘Dambana’, a new experience of community radio in Sri Lanka which caters to the Adhivasi community in Dambana, we realized how the new generation of Adhivasi community struggled to grasp the new technological advancements in the ever changing world. In fact, the community is having two schools in the vicinity of Kotabakiniya. The first person who gained university admission from Damban was Dambane Gunawardena.

Primitive lifestyle 

The Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme in 1980 greatly affected not only the environment of the Adhivasi, but also their traditional way of life.

With this doorway to civilization opening in their midst, the Adhivasis have accepted that their primitive lifestyle cannot survive for much longer. A majority of the villagers who accepted relocation to Henanigala, 35 kilometres from Dambana, were given all facilities, including land, proper access roads and money to build houses. Most are happy with their new life as farmers, but some still miss the thrill of the hunt.

Legend has it that the Adhivasis are descended from the fabled founder of the Sinhala race Prince Vijaya, who came from North India 25 centuries ago and married a native princess Kuveni. Anthoropologists trace the Adhivasi linage to early farmers who ranged as far as Australia 25,000 years ago. However, not all traditions have been wiped out. Proudly upholding a stone-age culture, the Adhivasi clan still worships tree gods and practices many traditional exorcise rituals such as Kiri Koraha, to invoke the blessings of their dead, who lie buried in Dambana jungle. They invoke the ancestral spirit of ‘Ne Yakku’ to protect from calamity, disease and distress.

Bidding adieu to Wanniyala-Atto and his clan, we set out on our return trip. Indeed, the younger generation of Adhivasis are rapidly acclimatizing themselves to change. Some of them have already become passable paddy cultivators and some have taken up other professions. They look to the future with great expectations.

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