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Memories of the Wanni; the Vaddas and the Vanniyas

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 10:16 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 24 November 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I will call him Jayaseelan because I can’t recall his name (Preposterous but bear with me). Jayaseelan is a Tamil speaking Vadda who is an ex-LTTE fighter. Sometime after 2009, Sunday Divaina had done a story on Jayaseelan. It had captured a retrospective inner conflict going on within the man. Jayaseelan confessed to asking himself the question, “I am a Vadda. Why did I fight for a separate Tamil state?” However, that was not what made the story stick in my mind. Jayaseelan had a grandfather who, while recounting the history of their community in the area, had let drop, almost casually, that they were Bandara Vannia’s[i] people.

Sharing the Wanni like they did the Vaddas and Vanniyas intermingled in interesting ways. They married each other, transformed into each other, and became “ruler” and the “ruled over” to each other in unidirectional ways with the Vanniyas ruling over bands of Vaddas. They even came to resemble each other in ways that caused certain 19th century British administrators to suspect a relationship[ii] (S. Fowler, Diary of 3rd May 1887).

In Sinhala consciousness of living memory the term “wanniya” (closed vowel) is a geographic term inalienably bound-up with “wanaya” and “wanantharaya” (meaning forest). “Wanni wanantharaya”, “wanni mukalana”, “hadda wanniya”, “heethala wanniya” are colloquial Sinhalese usages carrying strong subliminal associations of the Vadda. The Vaddas are of course carriers of the name “wanniyalettho”, the present Vadi chieftain being “Uruwarige Wanniyalettho”.

For Sri Lanka, the period between the 13th and 17th centuries was a time of resurgence and recovery. In-migrations were orchestrated from Bengal and diverse parts of South India. There were irrigation works to restore and de populated regions to reclaim. “The involvement of the Sinhala-dominated states in this process of in-migration is demonstrated in several sources.”- (Roberts: 2004, p72). South India, the source of most of these in-migrations was a land which had a well established Vanniya tradition. The earliest references to the Vanniya in South India predate Lankan references and go back to the 11th century inscriptions of the Colas. The earliest South Indian mention is the word “vanniya parru” occurring in the “inscription No. 556 of 1919, which appears to belong to the time of Rajaraja I (985-1014)”.-(Indrapala, 1970[iii]). “Vanniya-parru” means vanniya holding (ibid) and seems to find a corresponding echo in the Sinhalese term “vanni peruven” found in “Vanni Bandara Vitti Potak: Rate Attange Niti kandaya”. This manuscript, (Or 6606-182) in the Hugh Nevill Collection contains the Sinhalese folk historical tradition about the arrival of first immigrant group in the wanni region of Lanka and says that these seven “malavara” chieftains came from Kumara-valiyen (princely clan) ); Bndara-valiyen (from the families of dignitaries); and from Vanni-Peruven (Vanni class of Vanni land).-(D.G.B 1996[iv]Full Text).

The Malavar, by the way, were “chiefs of certain hill-tribes in the Karnata and Tamil areas of South India…Many Malavarayars find mention in the Pandya records of the thirteenth century”-(Indrapala 1965 thesis p296). Or 6606-182 uses a language throbbing with sentiment to describe the contribution of these seven chieftains from malavara desa; “Me Lankavata uruma vali-vahasi Vanni-rajje ayiti-kara Palamuvaniyonam me hat denaya” (these seven are the first possessors of the very own wanni kingdom belonging to this Lanka). “Mema Vanni rata elikara golla patkale me haddenaya…Kisivek nati avastavaka…rata elikara golla patkaleya” (It was these seven who cleared this vanni country and cut down the jungle at a time when there was no one else). “De himiyen –vada himiyen me Vanni rajjeta uruma valivahasi Karayoya” (By rights they are the real owners of this vanni kingdom).

The memory of these foremost owners is “retained to this day in the “Mutti-namima” ceremony observed in the Kala-balalu area to offer the first rice of the season to Aiyanayaka. The tasting of the first-lump of rice offered has to be performed by a Valivahasi karaya, a descendant of the original group of immigrant chieftains”- (D.G. B; 1996 referring to “Sirith Samgrahaya”, a collection of the oral tradition on Vanniyas and Rata Sabhas, C.L Wickramasinghe collection RASSL).

From “Vanni Bandara Vitti Potak”, we learn that these Malavaras had been given Sinhalese names along with specific tracts of territories to administer upon their entry into the milieu of this country. Ramge Bandara getting Minneriya, Illangasimha Bandara Hurrulla, Kadugat Bandara Kala-vava, Vannisimha Bandara Kaluvila and Kalukumara Bandara Vilacciya. (DGB; 1996; p171). As for their interaction with the Vaddas, VBVP tells us that these Malavaras were met on arrival by the “Vadi samuhaya” (Vadi tribe) of the “Raja Vadi Vanse”, which tribe DGB de Silva surmises must be so named due to inhabiting the lands of Raja rata. Apart from confirming what we already knew; that the Vaddas were traditionally employed as guardians of boundaries, this manuscript has nothing to add regarding Vadda-Vanniya interactions.

For the story of a Vanniya family who got far more entangled emotionally and territorially with the Vaddas, we must leave the VBVP and go into “Kandure Bandaravaliya” (Or 6606-77 III) and “Kandure Bandarage Niti Pota: Kiravalle Raja-Mula” (Or 6606-132). These introduce us to the arrival and fortunes of another family of immigrant chieftains whose place of origin is somewhat obscure. There were three Kandure Bandaras who were “proper” and entered service directly under the king (Bhuvanekabahu) of Kotte and four Kandure Bandaras who went rogue. The rogue Kandure Bandaras forcibly occupied land belonging to “Vadi chieftaincies in the Bintenna-Vellassa area which Hugh Nevill thinks extended to the eastern littoral”. – (DGB: 1996, p169). The rogue Bandaras also married Vadi women “perhaps with a view to legitimizing the land they seized” and “to enlist the services of the Vaddas to take care of the land”.-(ibid)

The historical significance of “Kandure Bandaravaliya” rests on three things. First, it points to the existence of Vadi chieftaincies in the east. Secondly it “as observed by Hugh Nevill, is the first reference to the establishment of principalities by immigrant Vanniyas” in the eastern parts of the island. Thirdly it reveals “the importance that Vadda chieftains had acquired in the later centuries of the island’s history”.-(DGB, 1996-Full Text). It’s not only that there had been inter-marriage between Vadi chieftain families and immigrant nobles, but according to the Kandure Bandara chronicles, the King Buvanekabahu of Kotte had intervened to transfer the forcibly seized land back to the Vaddas. The KB tells of how the king intrigued with one of the rogue Kandures, married his younger sister as a concubine and gave him alternate land in Tamankaduva and Nuvara Kalaviya. The brother of the new concubine happily “took his four Vadi wives and his brother in law Kairappu with him to his extensive territory in Tamankaduwa”- (DGB: 1996, p169). KB also tells us that the Vadi chiefs affected by these land juggleries were given alternate land in Velikerata and Sabaragomuva rata.

The Vaddas for whom all these considerations were accorded were somewhat different from the present day Vaddas, who are extremely marginalized. For one thing, “the Vadda population in the late middle period was considerably more” (Roberts: 2004) and they had teeth. Some Vadi chieftains were then “on par with the highest of the Sinhalese nobility by reason of their importance”.-(DGB: 1996). There is a record in the Matale Maha Disave Kadaimpota (Or 6606- 141) that “the Disava of Matale lodged with the Hulangamuve Vadda when he went to recruit troops in the district”. To insert an anecdote, Michael Roberts recalls how there was one very fair Hulangamuve with them in Peradeniya, who had Vadi ancestry[v].

However it “does not appear that all Vadi chieftains came from Vadi clans. Sinhalese chieftains as well as immigrant chieftains appear to have assumed authority over the Vaddas as their chieftains. Hugh Nevill speaking of the Malala nobles observes that they were ancestors of the Vanni chiefs of Hurulu-rata and the eastern coast who were “undoubtedly Nayakas, and always recognized as “rajas” or princes over the Vaddas there”. Vaddas had become so important during warfare that holding chieftainship over them seems to have been a very lucrative proposition. The ms. of Vanni Puvata has a passage which says that these chiefs collected a great retinue of Vaddas and became very wealthy”. – (DGB: 1996).

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[i] On the doings of Bandara Wannia see A Description of Ceylon…By the Reverend James Cordiner, A.M . (Printed 1807), Vol. II, p243-246 (Candian Campaign in 1803):-

“The Bandara Wannian, a chief of one of the British provinces, who had once been pardoned for rebellion, again revolted, and, with the assistance of a large body of Candians, at one time, nearly overran all the northern districts.

On the approach of his troops towards the village of Cottiar, a small party of the Malay regiment, stationed there, found it necessary to retreat. But that important tract of country was almost immediately recovered, and the enemy driven beyond the frontier by the light company of His Majesty’s 19th regiment of foot, which was detached for that purpose from Trincomallee.

On the 25th of August, the Candians, in great force, attacked the Government-House at Moletivoe, which being untenable, Captain Driberg of the invalid Malays, withdrew the few soldiers, who were stationed at that post, in good order, to boats, which had been sent thither to secure his retreat, and carried them in safety to Jaffnapatam.

Two numerous parties of rebels and Candians penetrated into the province of Jaffna as far as Chundicolum, and the Elephants’ Pass. From the former place they were driven by a small party of the 34th regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Downing, who was detached from Jaffnapatam, and succeeded in burning and destroying the magazines collected by them.

The other party surrounded the small redoubt at Elephants’ Pass, and unfortunately surprised one European soldier, and two privates of the Jaffnapatam independent company, whom they barbarously murdered.

They remained there for a day and a night, but retired on the approach of Lieutenant Jewel of the 19th regiment, with a detachment from the garrison of Jaffnapatam, of which place he was then commandant. Next day the enemy entirely evacuated that valuable district.

The Bandara Wannian came down, in person, towards Vertivore, with a great force, but retreated almost immediately on the approach of Major William Vincent of His Majesty’s 19th regiment, with a part of the Mannar independent company.

……Captain Frederick-William Von Driberg of the invalid Malays …had the good fortune to surprise the Bandara Wannian’s troops at Cutchilamadu about five o’clock in the morning of the 31st: killed a great many of his people, took forty-six prisoners, and got possession of one Cingalese gun, mounted on a low carriage, carrying a ball of one pound and a half weight, fifty-five stand of arms, twelve pikes, two swords, two creeses, one bayonet, one barrel, and two baskets of ammunition. Sixteen houses, in which the chief of the Wanny had lodged his provisions, were burned, and his people were dispersed in different directions through the woods.”


[ii] “These people are the Wanniahs and are entirely dependent on hunting and occasional chena cultivation. They have no money and cannot buy land. These Wanniahs are a distinct caste, of which these men are the only representatives in the provice, (There are five or six villages in the North-Central Province, I believe). They still use the primitive bow and arrow and are well acquainted with the most remote jungles through which they wander in search of honey and game. There are some peculiarities in their dialect, which with their mode of life, suggest relationship with the Veddah, but they altogether repudiate the idea”-(S. Fowler, Diary of 3rd May 1887, quoted in the MLR & NQC, II, No. 5, May 1894, p.98).


[iii] K. Indrapala, “The Origin Of The Tamil Vanni Chieftaincies Of Ceylon”, Journal of the Humanities, July, 1970, Vol 1, No 2.


[iv] D. G. B de Silva, “New Light On Vanniyas And Their Chieftaincies Based On Folk Historical Tradition As Found In Palm-Leaf Mss. In The Hugh Nevill Collection, 1996: JRASSL, (New Series) Vol. XLI Special Number. (Published in 1998)- (Full Text)


[v] Another incognito anecdote was communicated to me by D. G. B De Silva; “A very good friend of mine, the late XXX (Well known Kandyan aristocratic name) told me that his grandfather used to “boast” about their Vedi connection. All these he told me not in the hearing of his wife, YYY, who is from a very aristocratic background.”



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