Amidst all the ethnic strife of Sri Lanka, it’s easy to forget that, hidden away in the interior, there remains the country’s aboriginal race. Impoverished, persecuted, and endangered, the Veddahs have often been overlooked. In this extract from his new book, Elephant Complex, author John Gimlette sets out to meet them:

What lay ahead was not worrying but it did feel unknown. Of all the island’s regions, the southeast always seemed the most mysterious and the most remote. The ancient chronicles hardly mention it, and, on early maps, it’s just a blank dappled with scrub. It would be defined by what it did not have, in particular, rain, reservoirs and rivers. Victorian mapmakers left huge chunks of it empty, or marked ‘Unknown mountainous region’. Where names did appear, they looked hurried and inept, like ‘Westminster Abbey’ or ‘Capello de Frade’, The Friar’s Hood. Even in the 1920s, visitors like R. L. Spittel tended to think of themselves as explorers, uncertain what they would find.

The region still felt unvisited. If the island were a clock-face, between three o’clock and six, there was almost nowhere to land a ship. Meanwhile, inland, there were fewer roads than anywhere else, and only one railway veering off to the north. It seemed that anything could be out there, lurking in the bush. In 1924, it was a man-eating leopard, but more recently it’s been bands of guerrillas, hiding out in caves. Then there were all the creatures of local mythology. One, called the Gawara, was said to have the head of a buffalo and a tongue so rough it could lick away flesh. Worse, perhaps, were the Nittaewo, a race of miniature cannibals, who attacked in huge numbers, filleting the locals with their long fingernails. To those planning a visit, none of this was particularly encouraging.

But the hostility had also made this land a refuge. Somewhere out there were the last of Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Veddahs. It was said that they were hunters or, in some cases, the hunted. I tried to think how I might reach them, and then I remembered an old friend, Anurudha Bandara. He’d made contact with the Veddahs, and often made trips. I asked him if there was any chance of taking me along.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘Meet me in Mahiyangana.’


For almost two-and-a-half thousand years, the Veddahs have been considered half-castes: royalty but with the blood of demons and snakes. It’s an insult they have never truly shrugged off, and yet it wasn’t always like this. In the preceding fifteen thousand years they had probably had the island all to themselves, and their waruges, or tribes, had prospered. They may even have benefited from the arrival of the Tamils and Sinhalese, soaking up survivors when their great cities collapsed. But the new arrivals also brought with them a dangerous idea. The Veddahs, they said, were descended from the island’s original demon-queen, the product of her nights with Vijaya, the Sinhalese prince. This immediately made the Veddahs both awesome and vile, a royal vermin.

Little had changed in the next two thousand years. The Veddahs would inhabit the margins of Sinhalese society, picking up the language but none of its habits. By the end of the seventeenth century, they were living as honoured outlaws, raiding travellers and fighting their own tiny wars. At night, they would leave meat with the blacksmith and if, by the morning, he had not left them arrowheads, they would kill him. But the Veddahs were also trusted. In times of invasion, they would take care of the Kandyan queens and the royal treasure. They could also be found at all the great battles, pouring their arrows onto European heads. But none of this changed them. In 1821, an English traveller, Dr Davy, described them as ‘solitary animals … resembling more beasts of prey, in their habit, than men.’ The same thing might have been written at any time in the previous two

As far as the British were concerned, the Veddahs were thrilling. Here were people who had no idea how old they were, who had no sense of time, and who had yet to learn how to laugh and smile. They wore clothes made of bark, and carried a slice of human liver to make themselves more fierce. To the Victorians, it seemed that at last they had linked up with Neolithic man. One writer described the Veddahs’ existence as an ‘interlude’, adding that they were ‘due for extinction.’ This idea, that the Veddahs were somehow an accident from another age, was still popular, even today. In Colombo, at least one travel agent was offering ‘Stone Age’ tours.

They were lucky, perhaps, to have anything left to tour. The twentieth century had been particularly cruel. In 1911, there were 5,342 Veddahs, and yet, a hundred years later, there were barely 500. Some had perished in the Spanish flu pandemic, but many others had simply lost their lands and vanished in the mix. In almost no time at all, the veddarata , or Veddah’s range – which had once extended to the coast – had shrunk to nothing. The worst year was 1983, when huge tracts of land were swallowed up in a hydro-electric project. At about the same time, the civil war began, and the Veddahs were deprived of their guns. After perhaps 18,000 years of hunting, the Veddahs now had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Many of them had drifted off to Bintenne, or – as the Sinhalese call it – Mahiyangana, the town now appearing on the plains ahead.


The next few days felt like a play in which all the actors had become somehow trapped. It was as if a storyline had entered their lives and possessed them, and now all they could do was keep the show going. Anurudha had warned me about this. ‘I’m going to take you to Dambana,’ he said, ‘A few miles from Mahiyangana, and home to about 350 families. We pay them some money, and they show us their lives. If they don’t want to take part, they stay out of the way. OK, I know, it’s not perfect but it’s a livelihood. The Veddahs can’t hunt anymore, and have no tradition of farming. It’s all they have left, putting on a show.’

In this play, the sequence of events did not seem to matter, and so we began with a curtain call. That night, a cast of Veddahs turned up at our campsite, as if to say goodbye. There were six of them, looking just like the figures the Victorians had photographed: bearded, barefoot men, wearing only loincloths, and each with an axe. Lining up on the rocks, they bowed and danced, and made me a gift of leaves. Then something odd happened – perhaps it was all the lantern smoke – and I was copiously sick. There was nothing in their script about the audience vomiting and running off into the jungle, and so the Veddahs just carried on bowing and dancing, and presenting their leaves. By the time I got back, they had crept off, vanishing into the dark.

‘They looked tough,’ I remarked to Anurudha.

‘Even tougher once. They could separate fighting bears.’

The next morning, three of the Veddahs reappeared, out of the grass. They carried their axes hooked over their shoulders, and moved noiselessly, like cats. The oldest was about seventy, and the youngest had his hair tied up in a bun. But the third one was the most powerfully built, his beard so wild and silvery-black that, for a moment, I thought he was entirely covered in hair. He was also the only one to have a bow and arrow, a knife and a name: Udu Waruge Sudabanda, or ‘Sudda’. It was once thought the Veddahs had little use for names, and that people just were who they were – The Fat One, perhaps, Oldie or The Boy.

At first, they hardly seemed to notice me, and merely assumed their roles. Sudda loosed off his arrows, and the others fanned out into the trees, pursuing an imaginary pig, which they then killed in a frenzy of shrieks and gurgles. Later, an interpreter appeared – rat-faced and malevolent with drink – and we all set off, deeper into the forest. After a mile or so, the Veddahs suddenly stopped and listened. I couldn’t hear anything but they all padded off through the leaf-mould until they came to an old tree. There, the boy listened again, and then with his axe, he reached up and severed a huge lobe of honeycomb. With their beards now full of bees, they offered me a dollop and were surprised that I liked it. Did I like the other things they ate, like iguanas and monkeys? They told me hornbills had been popular, and the little swiftlets that went chee-chee-chee when you put them on the fire.

‘And what about porcupines?’ I tried.

The Veddahs all looked at each in horror. Eeugh, they said. They’re for the dogs.

Things changed after the honey, and our day began all over again. Everyone presented their knuckles in welcome, and we clasped each other’s forearms. Sudda even re-introduced himself, with a cluster of stories that never quite finished. He said he made charms out of elephants’ teeth, and that many of the women had gone away to be housemaids, and that it was now dangerous to hunt, and that some of his friends had been shot, and that chewing betel had given him cancer, and that – beneath the beard – half his jaw had gone.   Perhaps, he suggested, I’d like a monkey-skin drum? Or maybe he could make a bow and some arrows?

I tried to explain that Veddah bows were too big for the plane.

OK, he said. And now it’s time to see the king.


It was a grim thought, a king. Who would I find at the heart of this performance? A figure of fun, a Pearly King? Or perhaps some half-crazy Asian Lear, busily presiding over his own demise?

But Uru Waruge Wanniya was neither of these things. He lived in a small, thatched house, where he made baskets and bottled honey. He was a ‘king’ in the sense that he was the son of the greatest Veddah, Tissahamy.   Like his father, he had also become a champion of aboriginal rights, and across the wall there were photographs of him, shaking important hands and meeting the generals. These pictures were the only furnishings he had, apart from a mat and a chopping block. Nor was he apparelled in velvet and ermine. Although his beard was tidier and his eyes were rimmed with fatigue, he was dressed just like the hunters.

I was offered a seat, on a low mud wall.

‘I understand you’ve been to Geneva,’ I said.

This was translated first into Sinhalese and then Veddi basava, and the king nodded. I was away for a month, he said, and spoke at the United Nations. They had never heard of the Wanniyala-Aetto (or ‘Forest People’) before, but things got better after that. My father had said that, if we were moved into communities, we would become beggars, but we are still here. Some changes are good, and some not. We are not sure about the schools, but we do not like the shirts and the shorts

‘And what about the tourists?’ I asked.

They’re alright, as long as they don’t try and change us.

We’d been talking an hour, and the king now looked even more exhausted.

I got up to go. ‘Just one thing. How did you like Geneva?’

I know how lucky I am, he said, not to have that noise.


On my last day, we had several visitors to our camp.

The first were two snakes, who came slithering in amongst the tables. One was a rat-snake and the other a krait. Sudda had already given me something to ward off serpents: a cacuna seed, shaped like a python’s head. Despite its magic, I still jumped. But Anurudha smiled, and carried on writing. ‘One who fears snakes, sees them,’ he said.

The next visitor was more welcome, Mr Gunawardene the teacher. He was half-Sinhalese, wore a shirt and carried an umbrella. Under his arm, he had with him some books he had written. These were probably the first stories ever published in Veddi basava, and when Mr Gunawardene read one to me, it sounded like the forest coming to life. He said it was a beautiful language but that it lacked the words to describe our times. Shoes – always hated objects – were merely ‘containers’, and aeroplanes had become uda thanen mangachchana dhandu kachcha or ‘above-going machines’. But the improvisations could be endearing too. A motorbike was a hootu hootu, and the English language was referred to as ‘birds shouting’ because that is how it sounds.

The last visitor was Sudda himself. I found him a short distance from the camp, crouched in the grass. As I approached, he held something up for me. It was a bow he had made, just the right size to go in a plane.

Elephant Complex; Travels in Sri Lanka is due to be published on 1 October 2015, by Quercus (£20)

By John Gimlette

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