According to the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty, the Mahavansa , the Pulindas (Veddhas) are descended from Prince Vijaya (6th-5th century BC) the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, through Kuveni, a woman of the "Yakkha" clan whom he had espoused. The Mahavansa relates that following the repudiation of Kuveni by Vijaya, in favour of a "Kshatriya" princess from the "Pandya" country, their two children, a boy and a girl, departed to the region of "Sumanakuta" (Adams Peak in the Ratnapura District) where they multiplied giving rise to the Veddhas. Anthropologists such as the Seligmanns (The Veddhas 1911) believe the Veddhas to be identical with the "Yakkhas" of yore.
Veddas are also mentioned in Robert Knox's history of his captivity by the King of Kandy in the 17th century. Knox described them as "wild men," but also said there was a "tamer sort," and that the latter sometimes served in the king's army.
The Ratnapura District, which is part of the Sabaragamuva Province is known to have been inhabited by the Veddhas in the distant past. This has been shown by scholars like Nandadeva Wijesekera (Veddhas in transition 1964). Indeed, the very name Sabaragamuva is believed to have meant the village of the Sabaras or "forest barbarians". Such place-names as Veddha-gala (Veddha Rock), Veddha-ela (Veddha Canal) and Vedi-kanda (Veddha Mountain) in the Ratnapura District also bear testimony to this. As Wijesekera observes, a strong Veddha element is discernible in the population of Veddha-gala and its environs. As for the traditional Veddha lifestyle, a number of authorities have delved on this and we can easily describe their life-style as it existed in the past, and as it exists today.
Another, largely distinct group, often termed East Coast Veddas, is found in coastal areas of the Eastern Province, mostly between Batticaloa and Trincomalee. These Veddas speak Tamil as their primary language
One of the most distinctive features of Vedda religion is the worship of dead ancestors: these are termed nae "yaku" among the Sinhala-speaking Veddas. There are also peculiar deities that are unique to Veddas. One of them is "Kande Yakka".
Both the sub divisions of the Veddas along with the Island's Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities venerate the temple complex situated at Kataragama, showing the syncretism that has evolved over 2,000 years of coexistence and assimilation. Kataragama is supposed to be the site at which the Hindu god Skanda or Murugan in Tamil met and married a local tribal girl, Valli, who in Sri Lanka is believed to have been a Vedda.
There are a number of other shrines across the island, not as famous as Kataragama that are as sacred to the Veddas as well as to other communities.
Veddha religion centred round a cult of ancestral spirits known as Ne yaku , whom the Veddhas invoked for game and yams.
The Veddha marriage ceremony is a very simple affair. The ritual consists of the bride tying a bark rope (diya lanuva) of her own twisting, around the waist of the bridegroom. This is the essence of the Veddha marriage and is symbolic of the bride's acceptance of the man as her mate and life partner. Although marriage between cross-cousins was the norm until recently, this has changed significantly, with Veddha women even contracting marriages with their Sinhalese and Moor neighbours.
In Veddha society, woman is in many respects man's equal. She is entitled to similar inheritance. Monogamy is the general rule, though a widow would be frequently married by her husband's brother as a means of support and consolation (widow inheritance).
Death too is a simple affair without any ostentatious funeral ceremonies and the corpse of the deceased is promptly buried without much ado. The dead don't care where they are.
Although that medical knowledge of the Veddha is limited, it nevertheless appears to be sufficient. For example, pythonesa oil (pimburu tel), a local remedy used for healing wounds, has proven to be very successful in the treatment of fractures and deep cuts.
In Vedda burial rituals the dead body was scented or smeared with some juice obtained from the leaves of jungle trees or a lime tree. The foot or the head of the grave was never lit either with fire or wax and water was not kept in a vessel by the grave side.
They believed that the spirit of their dead would haunt them bringing forth diseases and calamity. To appease the dead spirit they invoke the blessings of the Nae Yakka and other spirits, like Bilinda Yakka, Kande Yakka followed by the dance ritual of Kirikoraha.
According to Sarasin Cousins (in 1886) and Seligmann's book - 'The Veddas' (1910).
"When man or woman dies from sickness, the body is left in the cave or rock shelter where the death took place, the body is not washed or dressed or ornamented in any way, but is generally allowed to be in the natural supine position and is covered with leaves and branches. This was formerly the universal custom and still persists among the less sophisticated Veddas who sometimes in addition place a large stone upon the chest for which no reason could be given, this is observed at Sitala Wanniya (off Polle-bedda close to Maha Oya), where the body is still covered with branches and left where the death occurred.
Palletalawa Navinna-Pita Gosin Vetenne,
Malpivili genagene-Hele Kado Navinne,
Diyapivili Genagene-Thige Bo Haliskote Peni,
Ka tho ipal denne
(A Vedda honeycomb cutter's folk song)
Meaning of this song - The bees from yonder hills of Palle Talawa and Kade suck nectar from the flowers and made the honeycomb. So why should you give them undue pain when there is no honey by cutting the honeycomb.
Understood from this perspective, these cave drawings depict brilliant feats of Wanniyala-Aetto culture as seen through the eyes of its womenfolk. The simple yet graceful abstract figures are portrayed engaging in feats of vision and daring that place them firmly above even the greatest beasts of their jungle habitat.
The nimbus or halo about the human figures' heads represents the sun's disc and, equally, the sacred power bordering upon divinity that accrues not only to great hunters but to all those endowed with the vision to behold and apprehend the marvel of divinity in humble guise. Even up to modern times, the Wanniyala-Aetto used to swear oaths of truth by the divinity of the sun, saying 'upon Maha Suriyo Deviyo'.
Such cave drawings have long served as visual memory aids and as teaching tools for the transmission of ancestral wisdom traditions to succeeding generations. To this day, they provide silent testimony to the profound heights attained by Lanka's indigenous culture expressed with elegant simplicity that people of all communities may appreciate.
Such succulent meat served as a ready food supply in times of scarcity. The early part of the year (January-February) is considered to be the season of yams and mid-year (June-July) that of fruit and honey, while hunting is availed of throughout the year. Nowadays, more and more Veddha folk have taken to Chena (slash and burn) cultivation. Kurakkan (Eleusine coracana) is cultivated very often. Maize, yams, gourds and melons are also cultivated. In the olden days, the dwellings of the Veddhas consisted of caves and rock shelters. Today, they live in unpretentious huts of wattle, daub and thatch.
In the reign of King Datusena (6th century A.D.) the Mahaweli ganga was diverted at Minipe in the Minipe canal nearly 47 miles long said to be constructed with help from the Yakkas. The Mahawamsa refers to the canal as Yaka-bendi-ela. When the Ruwanweli Seya was built in King Dutugemunu's time (2nd century B.C.) the Veddas procured the necessary minerals from the jungles.
King Parakrama Bahu the great of (12 century) in his war against the rebels employed these Veddas as scouts.
In the reign of King Rajasinghe II (17 century A.D.) in his battle with the Dutch he had a Vedda regiment. In the abortive Uva-Welessa revolt of 1817-1818 of the British times, led by Keppetipola Disawe, the Veddas too fought with the rebels against the British forces.
Examples include the Wanniyala-Aetto word ruhang for friend, while the Sinhala word is yaluva (jaːluaː). There are also communities of Wanniyala-Aetto who speak Tamil in the east coast (Vetas).
However, cultural assimilation of Veddas with other local populations has been going on for a long time. "Vedda" has been used in Sri Lanka to mean not only hunter-gatherers, but also to refer to any people who adopt an unsettled and rural way of life and thus can be a derogatory term not based on ethnic group. Thus, over time, it is possible for non-Vedda groups to become Veddas, in this broad cultural sense. Vedda populations of this kind are increasing in some districts.
Today many Sinhalese people and some east coast Tamils claim that they have some trace of Veddah blood. Intermarriage between Veddas and Sinhalese is very frequent. They are not considered outcasts in Sri Lankan society, unlike the untouchable caste called Rodiyas (see Caste in Sri Lanka).
The current leader of the Wanniyala-Aetto community is Uru Warige Wanniya.