Vedda - History and Cultural Relations

The weight of physical anthropological evidence is that Certain groups of Veddas show stronger biological affinities with prehistoric inhabitants of the island than do any other groups in present-day Sri Lanka. This lends support to the common assertion that the Veddas are the remnant descendants of an aboriginal population that inhabited Sri Lanka before the emergence of a literate civilization in the later centuries of the first millennium B . C . The extent to which this civilization was an indigenous development and not just the creation of Immigrant settlers remains a matter of controversy, but undoubtedly there was considerable exchange—both cultural and genetic—between the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants and later immigrants. These relations are expressed in the popular myth that the contemporary Veddas are descended from a union between Kuveni, an aboriginal demoness, and Prince Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhalese nation who came from India. In historic times, however, the most prominent feature—virtually the defining characteristic—of the Veddas has been their social marginality. They have made their living on the peripheries of Sinhalese and Tamil polities, in relation to both of which they came to represent the uncivilized element in society. Thus while actual Vedda culture reveals a variable pattern that merges readily with that of the rural Sinhalese, the categorical opposition between Vedda and Sinhalese radically distinguishes the former, as a group of savage and pagan foragers, from the more civilized, paddy-cultivating Buddhist Sinhalese. A similar pattern obtains between the Tamil-speaking Coast Veddas and the Hindu Tamils. In the last hundred years, however, with the rapid expansion of Sri Lanka's population, improved communications, and increased settlement in the dry zone, embodiments of the ideal or typical Vedda, defined in polar opposition to the civilized Sinhalese or Tamil, have become extremely hard to find. Nevertheless, because of its compatibility with the disposition of nineteenth-century European scholars to discover a pristine Vedda culture that was unambiguously associated with a distinct racial group, this idealized representation of the Vedda has exercised a commanding influence over the anthropological imagination. Recent studies of the Anuradhapura and Coast Veddas have encompassed groups that deviate significantly from the ideal, but representations of the Bintenne Veddas are still dominated by C. G. and Brenda Seligmann's classic study, published in 1911, which, in its ambition to describe the pure culture of pure-blooded Veddas, depicts a way of life that was followed only by a small minority of those who then identified themselves as Veddas.

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