Sri Lanka

Future Sri Lankan Indigenous Chief Seeks to Balance Modernity and Tradition

The future chief of the Veddas will inherit the challenge of preserving their fading culture amid modernization.

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Future Sri Lankan Indigenous Chief Seeks to Balance Modernity and Tradition

Gunabandiya Uruwarige (left), 43, the future Vedda chief, sits with his father, Vanniyaletto Uruwarige, 65, the current Vedda chief.

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Part 5 in a Series

Fading Culture: Sri Lanka’s Indigenous People Adapt to a Modern World

DAMBANA, SRI LANKA – As the future chief of the Vedda people, Gunabandiya Uruwarige, 43, will face the challenge of preserving the indigenous community’s traditions while embracing inevitable modernization.

Uruwarige has received training since childhood to be the future leader, he says. He did not attend primary school with his younger siblings. Rather, he had to follow the Veddas’ traditions of learning through nature. Although he is illiterate, he says it will not affect his leadership.

“The things that I learned from my grandfather and father, Uruwarige Vanniyaletto, are [more] useful and practical than things which others learn from the school,” he says, referring to his father with his surname first, which is a Vedda custom.

Although other Vedda men now marry women outside their community in Dambana, a village in the Uva province in southeastern Sri Lanka, the future chief married his cousin, he says. In line with tradition, his parents arranged his marriage within the Vedda community.

“Many original Vedda families transformed, as they are married to outsiders,” he says.

Uruwarige will become the next chief once his father dies or when the community elders decide he should step down. But when he becomes the chief, he will also inherit the difficult task of preserving the Vedda culture amid increasing modernization, he says.

“Like my father, my biggest worry is how to preserve our heritage,” Uruwarige says. “I don’t want to blame our people. In this ever-changing world, change is inevitable.”

He says a major catalyst for change in the community started 60 years ago when the government made it illegal to hunt or to harvest crops in national parks – previously forests where the Veddas had carried out these traditional livelihoods. “Vedda” means “hunter and gatherer” in Sinhala.

As the Veddas’ livelihoods change, so do their culture, traditions and lifestyles, says Geethani Amaratunga, head of the sociology department at the University of Kelaniya in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

A 2004 government rural development project has also opened Dambana to tourism, exposing the Vedda community to modern influences.

Uruwarige therefore holds a unique and challenging role: He must live according to the traditional Vedda ways while the world around him changes and modernizes. He must also prepare to lead his community to balance these competing ways of life.

To prepare, Uruwarige is learning about Vedda culture, including their martial arts, healing methods, farming techniques, religion and language, he says. This is important so he can keep them alive as modernization continues to influence the Veddas.

But there was one Vedda tradition he never learned from his family: hunting. In addition to being a vegetarian, his father foresaw 30 years ago that hunting would soon become a dying Vedda art form because there would be no forests in which to hunt, Uruwarige says.

Vedda families also pass along their cultural traditions to the younger generation at home, Uruwarige says. But opportunities are limited.

“When they get school holidays, we teach our children about our culture and traditions,” Uruwarige says. “We speak our language at home, as there are no other places they could learn [the] Vedda dialect, which is unique to us. We give them the opportunity to perform our traditional dancing when there are occasions.”

Occasions include performing for tourists, he says. But tourists and other contact with outside cultures also expose young Veddas to modern items, from clothing to technology.

“Can I influence an educated Vedda youth to wear our traditional sarong and be bare-bodied when he is wearing a denim trouser and a latest shirt in the town?” Uruwarige asks.

This outside influence has even penetrated his home. His three daughters wear denim skirts and go to school.

Other cultures also expose the Veddas to unhealthy substances, including alcohol, drugs and cigarettes, which they become addicted to, he says. Like his father, he educates the younger generation about the repercussions of using these substances.

Vanniyaletto Uruwarige, 65, says he hopes his son, like himself and his own father, will continue to preserve the Vedda culture.

“My father is a man who didn’t see any value in material things,” the current chief says. “He wanted people to be happy and live a free life.”

The future chief says his grandfather taught him many of the Vedda traditions.

“He wanted me to be a true Vedda to set an example for our young people,” he says. “Now, I have a mission to look after our people and culture for the next generation.”

But Uruwarige says that he will need to find a balance when he becomes chief between preserving the Veddas’ traditions and embracing organic modernization.

“We need to relax our customs to go [on] par with the modern and challenging trends for survival,” he says.

The Vedda people cannot shut out the modern world, and he cannot create restrictive rules to prevent change, he says. But, like his father, he will try to protect the Veddas.

“In [the] future, I will continue from where he stopped to protect the rights [of] my people and their lands,” he says. “I will not bow down to any that will harm them.”

The alternative, he says, is bleak.

“Otherwise, Vedda people will be wiped out from this earth, and they only remain as exhibits,” he says.


Interviews were translated from Vedda and Sinhala.


Editors Note: Although local custom in the Vedda community is to list last names first and first names second, Global Press Institute follows The Associated Press Stylebook on this matter.