This is our cave,” said the man. He was tall with curly, shoulder-length hair and his lower lip was caked red with the areca nut he was chewing. An orange sarong was tied around his waist and a small axe was slung over his left shoulder. He pointed at a dimly lit rock shelter guarded by swaying trees.

“This is where the children lived,” he said, gesturing to a dark corner, “and here, the men and women. You see the top there,” he continued, showing a sun-lit platform sheathed by scattered boulders. “That’s where our leader slept, and we burnt wild boars, deer and rabbits to eat.”

Gunabandilaaththo belongs to the Vedda community, the earliest known aboriginal people of Sri Lanka. For centuries, his people were forest dwellers who foraged, hunted and lived in close-knit groups in caves in the dense jungles of Sri Lanka, relocating from one cave to another when someone from the group died. After one’s death, they laid the body on the cave floor and covered it with leaves while gathering by a large tree to pray for the deceased; and offered wild meat, honey and wild tubers to their ancestors and the deities of the trees, rivers and jungles. “We prayed for their afterlife so that their souls will belong to the deities; they will look after us,” he said.

Today, the Vedda live scattered in tiny settlements in the Hunnasgiriya hills in central Sri Lanka up to the coastal lowlands in the island’s east. However, long before Indo-Aryans – who are now the dominant Sinhalese-Buddhist people – came to Sri Lanka from India around 543 BCE, the Vedda lived all around the island.

Gunabandilaaththo belongs to the Danigala Maha Bandaralage lineage of Vedda, a Sinhalese title given to them by the kings of the Kandyan kingdom (1476-1818). Originally, they lived in eastern Sri Lanka, in the Danigala mountain and the surrounding forests. But the construction of Senanayaka Samudra – the biggest man-made lake in Sri Lanka – in 1949, displaced this Vedda community.

We lost some of our original forest homes because of the reservoir,” said Kiribandilaaththo, who also belongs to the Danigala Maha Bandaralage lineage. During that time, seven families from Danigala came to live in a cave in Rathugala village in eastern Sri Lanka, which Gunabandilaaththo had shown me earlier. “My ammilaaththo and appilaaththo (mother and father)… they were part of that group,” he said.–185992374/

“[The government] had asked our ancestors whether they liked to eat rice,” Gunabandilaaththo added, explaining that the government encouraged them to relocate to Sinhalese villages for rice farming. Most Veddas agreed; those who did not – including the seven Rathugala families – received no compensation from the government.

While the seven families who lived in the Rathugala cave held onto their traditions for a little longer, living in the jungle and hunting and foraging for food, they gradually mingled with Sinhalese farmers and Muslim traders from nearby towns. When food was scarce in the jungle, Gunabandilaatho’s parents cultivated grains like corn, finger millet, mung beans and black-eyed peas. “We slowly started losing our way of life,” he said.

But now, things are slowly changing, with the Vedda community reclaiming their heritage along with renewed interest in these first people of Sri Lanka. “The Sinhalese used to look down upon us,” Gunabandilaaththo said, “but things have changed now. People are more educated, and they are interested in knowing about us.”

The department of archaeology and the ministry of heritage built the Veddas Heritage Centre in Rathugala just before the pandemic, where Gunabandilaatho will be leading tours for visitors, starting in April.

Proud to share his culture and traditions, Gunabandilaattho took me into the centre’s small mud cottages, which are next to the cave where their ancestors resided. One was decorated with black-and-white pictures captured by the physician Richard Lionel Spittel, who often visited the Vedda habitats in the early 1900s. Another was decked with pictures of caves, a map of their original homes and statues of Veddas. Visitors can also request to see traditional ritual dances or to listen to their prayers and music.

“We want to pass our cultural elements to our younger generations,” Kiribandilaaththo said, explaining that he’s happy to have the centre. Although briefly halted by the pandemic, Kiribandilaaththo conducts indigenous classes for 22 Vedda children every weekend at the centre, teaching them about their way of life and their language and traditions.
When we were small, our parents took us to the jungle. They showed us the caves, where to drink water, and how to find our food so we would never go hungry. They showed us the streams that never dried up. So, when we go to the jungle now, we can tell if an elephant or a wild bear is near us; we smell them,” Gunabandilaaththo said. “We want to give the same knowledge to our small children.

The Vedda staff members, who are mostly in their 20s, conduct cooking sessions for guests, preparing dishes stemming from their culinary traditions like smoked meat, wood-fired cassava roots and finger millet roti. That’s because while many young Veddas know little of their heritage and traditions, a love for their cuisine remains strong. Many still go foraging in the jungle for days at a time, sleep in the caves, and fish and hunt wild animals to cook over fire. They bring back wild meat, honey and wild tubers.

“I still cook our food for my children and grandchildren,” said Dayawathi, whose mother is Vedda and father is Sinhalese. She cooks curry for breakfast made of corn, wing beans, spine gourd and black-eyed peas, very different to the creamy vegetable curries made with coconut milk found in most island homes. While most Sri Lankan dishes are spice-laden, Dayawathi said she doesn’t add spices. “Instead, we mash green chillies and make a paste and eat it with helapa, which is a soft, steamed traditional finger millet dough wrapped in leaves.”

“For lunch, we sometimes add a piece of smoked meat to the same curry,” Gunabandilaaththo added, explaining that they also preserve smoked wild meat in honey poured into a gourd. “I mostly eat steamed jackfruit and wild meat, and I’ve never been to the doctor,” he said.

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