A walk with the veddhas: meeting Sri Lanka's indigenous people

Insight Guides' local expert for Sri Lanka, Imran, journeyed to Gal Oya last month to meet the island's indigenous veddha people. Here, he explains why it's a must for your Sri Lanka holiday itinerary
Sri Lankan vedda man. Photo: Shutterstock
Sri Lankan vedda man. Photo: Shutterstock

The veddhas are closely linked to the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka and are shrouded in more secrecy, mythology and mystery than any other group on the island

Written into existence by the Mahavamsa in the 5th century, the veddhas are said to be the descendants of King Vijaya (the Sinhala king who first encountered Sri Lanka) and Kuveni, a native yakka (devil) who was already inhabiting the island.

They refer to themselves as ‘forest-dwellers’ and form several distinctive groups across the island. The veddhas of Gal Oya once lived in caves protected by the forests of the area, but were moved out by government developments in the early 1950s and now inhabit mud houses within the forest. Many have modernised and integrated into the local community; recent years have brought developments such as TV and internet. These technological advancements are controversial as they threaten the preservation of the veddha's language, unique religion, extensive knowledge of natural medicines and ritual customs.

Insight Guides' local expert, Imran, went on a walk with Gal Oya’s veddha chief, a unique experience, which can be included in a tailormade holiday for those looking to connect intimately with Sri Lanka’s history, culture and its people. This experience offers the chance to gain an exclusive insight into this fascinating fading community, which is now on the brink of extinction despite having survived for so many years. Discuss your holiday plans with Imran by submitting a trip request, to have this added to your Sri Lanka itinerary.

"It was like stepping into the past."

"Dressed in traditional tribal clothing (a loin cloth tied round the waist), the veddhas led us deep into the jungle armed with their hunting weapons. These are still made in the same style as the original primitive designs – the veddhas are the only people allowed to hunt in the area because they do not use guns," explains Imran.

"They pointed out all the herbs they use in their daily lives, mostly for medicinal purposes, and explained the importance of each one. We were also taken to the place where the veddhas store their meat, and they showed us the ancient techniques they still employ in order to preserve their food."

Located in Gal Oya National Park, you'll also have the opportunity to experience wildlife up-close, as Imran did: "Deep in the heart of the jungle, we came across a tree with strange markings on the bark. When I asked about the scratches, they told us they are signs of a hungry sloth bear trying to climb the tree in search of honey. The Gal Oya veddhas collect honey, and at the end of the walk they gave us some fresh honey to taste – it certainly made it a sweet ending to the experience."


An unforgettable experience

"Meeting the veddhas is something I have wanted to do for a long time. It was the highlight of my trip to Gal Oya, and an opportunity that will not be around forever. I feel immensely lucky to have walked with them and seen their unique way of life."

"The part that will stay with me the most is the strange melodies they sang as we walked along. Some were in their native tongue, a language that is on the point of extinction. Many of the tunes had a haunting tone which made me think of how fragile their existence is, and of the secrets bound up in their past which are on the point of being lost forever."

Add it to your Sri Lanka holiday itinerary

Gal Oya Lodge, a highly-recommended luxury eco-retreat, which hovers on the edge of Gal Oya National Park, has developed this experience in partnership with the Gal Oya veddhas. Comprised of eight spacious bungalows spread across 20 acres of private forest, Gal Oya Lodge provides the ultimate escape from the stress of day-to-day life and has a magical atmosphere that will stay with you long after you leave. This experience is only available for those staying at this property, but it is easily organised through a tailormade holiday with Insight Guides. Take a peek at Gal Oya Lodge here.

Exactly what your experience will involve, aside from the walk, will differ from time-to-time depending on the veddha's mood, season and weather during your visit. However, this is an incredible opportunity; time is rapidly running out to discover the secrets of this enchanting tribe. It will open your mind and make you question your own way of life, modern society, and how precious and transient experiences can be. For more information, talk to Imran today.

Ready to take your trip to meet Sri Lanka's veddha people? 

Browse Insight Guides' suggested itineraries online now or talk to Imran to plan your stop in Gal Oya on your holiday

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