Asia, Culture, Offbeat, Sri Lanka
Comments 47

The Last Indigenous Cave Dwellers of Sri Lanka.

The first thing I noticed about him was the fresh blood stain on his shoulder rag. That must be from breakfast, our naturalist mused, not really joking.

Under an ominous grey morning sky, we tried keeping up with him as he scampered through overgrown wilderness, crossed a stream and scrambled up slippery rocks to the top of a hill with a natural cave. This was home, he said in Sinhalese, and revealed his beetle-stained teeth in a wide smile. He was the son of the chief of the Vedda tribe – the last surviving indigenous forest dwellers of Sri Lanka.

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Scampering through the wilderness, our Vedda friend.

He casually flipped his black, curly hair and let them fall messily on his shoulders, almost forming a crown for his short, lean figure. He walked barefoot, wearing nothing but a loincloth around his waist and a worn-out axe resting hands-free on his shoulder rag.

And that’s the kitchen, he pointed vaguely to a rock, carelessly crushing betel nut in his palm.

Confused, I turned to our naturalist, who asked me to come closer, and had me stare down a precariously cut hole in the rock. Filled with wild honey, this is how the Veddas preserved meat.

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The wilderness of Gal Oya.

Deep within the forests of Gal Oya, these cave dwellers lived for centuries, hunting wild animals yet living in harmony with nature. Then a few decades ago, the government incentivised the Vedda men and women to move out of their caves to mud houses at the edge of the forest and send their children to adivasi schools. In an attempt to support their traditional ways, the government gave them permission to hunt wild animals like they had always done – but only using traditional bows and arrows!

While some older Veddas continue to live in their cave homes, most younger ones grew up in caves, but now live in mud houses, send their kids to school, speak their own language but also fluent Sinhalese, and have grown to enjoy rice and curry along with honey-cured meat.

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Getting our own fix of Sri Lankan food at Gal Oya Lodge.

What about wild elephants? I asked, for that’s what had compelled us to make the 4 hour journey, on the only local bus and broken roads, from Kandy towards the remote wilderness of Gal Oya National Park, near Sri Lanka’s east coast .

Turns out, the Veddas can feel a wild elephant’s presence for miles, even smell it the wind! In a local paper, I would later read the unbelievable tale of a Sinhalese forest surveyer who had spent months in the 1970s tracking wild elephants with help from the Veddas; they always walked with the wind in their faces so the Veddas could sniff out any elephants approaching them and change direction accordingly.

Also read: Sri Lanka’s Best Kept Secret

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Our naturalist walks in the dramatic landscapes near Gal Oya Lodge.

As we were about to say goodbye, I asked our tribal friend if his people still play their traditional music. He nodded, then casually walked away into the forest.

Later that night, while having dinner at Gal Oya Lodge, an elderly Vedda silently entered with a flute – he had made it that very evening using local wood, on hearing of my curiosity about their folk music. He sat in a corner and played soulful tunes passed down by his forefathers; tunes to create harmony with wild animals. In that moment, I felt a strange sense of sadness about the erosion of man’s connection with nature – indeed, the forest traditions of the Veddas will likely disappear with this generation. But as a city dweller who seeks modern comforts, who am I to judge?

Also read: Lessons on the Art of Living, in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

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Introspective in Sri Lanka.

The next day, we hopped on a boat safari on Senanayake Samudraya, Sri Lanka’s largest manmade lake in Gal Oya National Park, where the native wild elephants have taught themselves to swim from island to island in search of food! Much to our amazement, we spotted two wild elephants on a tiny island on the far side of the lake – presumably waiting for the post-rain water level to subside before continuing their island hopping.

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Spotting a wild elephant on an island in Gal Oya!

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An island in Gal Oya where birds come to nest.

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A storm approaches during our boat safari in Gal Oya.

We would hear later that Gal Oya Lodge, our luxurious refuge in a private 20-acre forest, besides bringing into the limelight the way of life of the Veddas, has made a brilliant attempt towards the conservation of wild Asian Elephants. The lodge hired some of the park’s most notorious poachers as their staff; not only do they know the forests (and the movement of other poachers) better than anyone else, they also act as the park’s guardians since their living now depends on it.

Back at the lodge, as I took a cooling dip in the dramatic backdrop of an elephant-shaped peak, I was filled with a sense of fascination: what other secrets might the forests of Sri Lanka harbor?

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A refreshing dip at Gal Oya Lodge.

Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka: Travel Tips

How to get there: The nearest big city is Kandy. Take the local bus from Kandy to Ampara via Bibile to get there. We caught a bus at 11 am, but check the local timetable for updated timings.

Where to stay: Gal Oya Lodge – built with locally sourced natural materials on the principles of responsible travel – is the only lodge in the vicinity of Gal Oya National Park, and we absolutely loved our stay there.

Have you encountered indigenous ways of life on your travels?

Note: We were hosted on these adventures by Gal Oya Lodge; lucky us!

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47 Comments

  1. How incredibly neat that this lodge was able to take poachers and turn them into conservationists. This tells us that poachers are not evil by nature, that they are just trying to survive. If more places can follow suit, we could see serious declines or even the end of poaching. How inspiring. 🙂

    I also love your bit about being a city-dweller who also longs for connection with nature. It’s really difficult to reconcile those two parts of ourselves…the part that really wants to be surrounded by greenery and smell the air, and listen to the birds… and the part of us that wants free Wi-Fi everywhere we go!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, right? I’ve read about eco-lodges and national parks using this mode of employment for conservation before, but experienced it first hand for the first time. Pretty incredible.

      And yes, you nailed it. I want nature, but I also want my life as a digital nomad 😉

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  2. I remember my evening in the Dhaani(Mud Houses) and the tea made freshly from milking the She Goat in a desert small village near Osian, Rajasthan(2014).I cherish my splendid time stuck serendipitously in Jang village near Tawang at West Kameng, Arunachal(2007). I reconcile my underpreparedness when my boatman asked me to get off the boat stuck in weeds due lack of buoyancy in a oxbow lake of Ganga at Chupi, West Bengal

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  3. Pingback: The Last Indigenous Cave Dwellers of Sri Lanka – via The Shooting Star – The Rocket Chimp Daily

    • Heartening indeed. I recently took a boat ride in Kerala with ex-sand smugglers! Goes to show that people want honest livelihoods if given the chance.

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  4. Rohan says

    Welcome to Sri Lanka Shivya,This is your 3rd visit I feel.Hope you have a very enjoyable and memorable stay in SL.Rohan

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    • Thanks! I think their culture and way of life is already on its way out, but hopefully they can preserve atleast the memories, with some incentives from responsible tourism in the area.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow your travels in sri Lanka sound amazing! I like your writing style! I never knew about there being indigenous forest dwellers in Sri Lanka. Learned something new today 🙂 It is definetly a shame that the traditions of these tribes may not continue in the next generations.

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    • Thanks, glad to hear you enjoyed my writing style 🙂 I had no idea about these forest dwellers either, until I actually made it to their home! It is a shame, but we can’t hold it against them; we all want ‘modern’ comforts and that’s okay I guess.

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  6. You are so right in saying who are we to judge. Most of the time i find myself in this dilemma, whether i want to live a wild life living as a part of nature or is it that after sometime my heart will crave to come back among the rustling of the city life i am accustomed to. And it always takes me back to the same old question we used to write essay during school time, ‘science: is it a bless or a curse?’
    This place looks so serene and beautiful by the way. 🙂
    I have seen so many tribal villages in orissa. And what attracts me most is how humans and nature seems entangled in this small villages. You cant separate them. And the colourful people, in spite of having so little they are always so happy.

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    • Indeed a dilemma, Swarnali! I’m hoping to explore the tribal side of Orissa over the winter. Would love any recommendations you might have 🙂

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      • I think i am extremely late replying this.. I have a really poor memory you see.. Thought i will do some research and tell you and then.. This happened 😄 anyway.. See i was in a place called Nabarangpur, a district town in south orissa.. Its near to Rayagada, Koraput where the Kondha tribes live.. Also you can visit the Sambalpur or Mayurbhanj district.. But a word of caution you should definitely avoid the Malkangiri area, its a highly naxalite area.. If you go to Nabarangpur or Rayagada and need any info do ping me..

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  7. Priya says

    Great post and an intriguing one too!! You shed light on the tribes beautifully:D I think I may bring in a small correction here – it is not beetle, but “betel nut”, also called areca nut and chewing on a mixture of betel leaves and areca nut is an age old ritual in South Asia

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  8. theonlineviking says

    Being “somewhat” new to blogging, rebuilding my own site and such, it is refreshing to have found such a blog. I am excited to keep reading more of your posts! This was informative and entertaining and I absolutely love it. It is sad to know how we are slowly losing the beauty of the natural world.

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    • I’m glad you found my blog refreshing; thanks for stopping by! I think we can preserve the beauty of the natural world while still making sure that we are all moving together towards a more comfortable way of life – it’s a fine balance though, but some countries seem to have achieved it.

      All the best for your blogging adventures!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Chaitali Patel says

    Wow! That’s truly once in a lifetime kind of experience. Absolutely loved reading this post!

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  10. Your detailed, ethnographic style of writing is absolutely thrilling to read. It’s rare to come across writers such as yourself. Keep up the amazing work!

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