The Gal Oya Experience: a walk with the Veddas, Sri Lanka’s indigenous people
GENERAL DESCRIPTION: Written into existence by the Mahavamsa in the 5th Century CE, the vedda people were said to have been the descendants of King Vijaya (The Sinhala king who first encountered Sri Lanka) and Kuveni (a native yakka, or devil, who was already inhabiting the island). The veddas are therefore descendants of the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka and are more shrouded in secrecy, mythology and mystery than any other group of people on the island. Referring to themselves as ‘forest-dwellers’, the veddas form several distinctive groups across the island. The veddas of Gal Oya once lived in caves protected by the forests of the areas, but were moved out by government developments in the early 1950s. These days the Gal Oya veddas mostly inhabit small mud houses within the forest and many of them have modernized and integrated into the local community. Recent years have brought developments such as TV and internet into the vedda communities and as such their language, unique religion, extensive knowledge of natural medicines, and ritual customs are being slowly lost. This walk with Gal Oya’s vedda chief provides a unique insight into a culture which is rapidly disappearing. This is a community on the brink of extinction and as you trek through the forest listening to the somber melodies chanted by the veddas, you will gain a deeper understanding of how fragile this tribal existence is.
EXPERIENCE DESCRIPTION: This experience is as non-linear as you can possibly get. It forms a fine line between a touristic show and an authentic experience, but don’t write it off because of this! This paradox mirrors the situation of the vedda people who sit somewhere in between traditional tribal customs and modern development and the experience will give you a real feel for those two opposing influences. In order to ensure conservation of the culture of the local vedda people you will meet only with the chief and his second in command, who are keen to teach others about their ancient community. Although some parts of the walk have been constructed in a manner to make vedda culture more understandable and accessible to tourists, for the most part this is an authentic meeting with two people who are very much unique from anyone else you are likely to meet during your time in Sri Lanka, and they 100% call the shots. This means that the experience really depends on their mood, as well as your mood and openness, to some extent.
There are few veddas who still wear the traditional dress of the vedda people – a simple loin cloth tied at the waist – and the veddas you will meet for this walk are no exception. They wear local sarongs, the favoured dress of the village people in the area. However, they still carry their traditional axes over their shoulders, passed down through several generations from father to son. You will meet the vedda chief and his second in command at the Lodge itself and then will take a small drive towards the forest. From here, you’ll continue on foot, walking through the jungle to learn more about medicinal plants, traditional methods of storing food (preserved in honey and buried in an underground cave), and you may even get an invite to the home of the chief vedda if you play your cards right. You will quickly find that the vedda people are a friendly and open people with great knowledge of the nature that surrounds them. They worship dead ancestors and sing songs to the spirits in the forests to ensure safe passage as they travel. If you visit during the honey season, you may even have the opportunity to watch the veddas harvesting honey from the giant combs that sit high in the trees.
includes: bottled water, accompanying naturalist.
duration: 3 hours
difficulty: medium – you will walk for roughly 2 hours through the forest and there may be some climbing over boulders. It is not a particularly difficult walk but very young children or older travelers may find it a little tough.
suitable for children: Very young children may struggle to understand the greater implications of this, but older children (age 10 and up) and teens that enjoy being outdoors will love this experience.
times: Early mornings or afternoons
what to wear or bring along: Cool, light clothing, caps, sunscreen and a camera
important to know: The vedda people are one of the last remaining tribal communities on the island, however some parts of their culture have been modernized with increasing development in the area. These modern aspects of their culture may be disappointing to some who were expecting a truly ‘tribal’ experience. However, if you approach this experience with openness, you will be rewarded with a greater understanding of a unique culture that may cease to exist in upcoming decades. If you are expecting a performance, then this experience may not be for you. Try to go with the flow, learn all you can, and be tactful of their complex livelihood. There is a lesson in this experience for all of us.
private or not? This experience is private.