Henry Parker, 1909




THE Sinhalese histories contain several references to the aborigines of Ceylon, whom they usually denominate, in the Pāli language, Yakkhas. The narrative of the Buddha's supposed visit to them has been given already. They are next mentioned in the tale of the arrival of Wijaya, the first Sinhalese king; and the story, even if partly or chiefly fictitious, is valuable as an illustration of some of the notions which the invaders or new settlers held regarding them. On this occasion only two Yakkhinīs (female Yakkhas) showed themselves and endeavoured to entrap the travellers, who were only saved because Vishnu had taken the precaution to tie charmed threads on their arms.

One of the Yakkhinīs proved to be a princess named Kuwēnī, whom Wijaya married. She provided the adventurers with a good meal of rice and other articles taken from ships that had been wrecked on the coast of Ceylon. She is then represented as proceeding to recommend Wijaya to attack the Yakkhas of the neighbouring town, in the following terms (Mah. i, p. 33):—"In the city Sirivattha [the Sirīsavatthu of the Jātaka story], in this island, there is a Yakkha sovereign Kālasēna, and in the Yakkha city Lankāpura there is another sovereign. Having conducted his daughter Pusamittā thither, her mother Kondanāmikā is now bestowing that daughter at a marriage festival on the sovereign there at Sirivattha. From that circumstance there is a grand festival in an assembly of Yakkhas. That great assemblage will keep up that revel without intermission for seven days." The prince acted as advised by her, and 'having put Kālasēna, the chief of the Yakkhas, to death, assumed his court dress. The rest of his retinue dressed themselves in the vestments [or ornaments] of the other Yakkhas. After the lapse of some days, departing from the capital of the Yakkhas, and founding the city called Tambapaṇṇi Wijaya settled there.'

According to the narrative, Wijaya subsequently married a daughter of the Pāṇḍiyan king of Madura, and discarded the Yakkha princess, who went to Lankāpura, where she left her two children outside the town (Mah. i, p. 35). 'The Yakkhas on seeing her enter the city, quickly surrounded her, crying out "It is for the purpose of spying on us that she has come back." When the Yakkhas were thus excited one of them whose anger was greatly kindled put an end to the life of the Yakkhinī by a blow of his hand. Her uncle, a Yakkha named Kumāra, happening to proceed out of the Yakkha city, seeing these children outside the town, "Whose children are ye," said he. Being informed "Kuwēnī's," he said, "Your mother is murdered; if ye should be seen here they would murder you also; fly quickly." Instantly departing thence, they repaired to the neighbourhood of Sumanakūta (Adam's Peak). The elder having grown up married his sister and settled there. Becoming numerous by their sons and daughters, under the protection of the king they resided in that Malaya [mountain] district. This is the origin of the Pulindas.' Thus it is plain that at the early date when the first annals consulted by the compiler of the Mahāvansa were written it was known that the so-called Yakkhas were in reality the aborigines, the Pulindas.

In the time of the fourth king of Ceylon, Tissa, the chronicler returns to the old idea of the Yakkhas as a form of demon, and narrates (Mah. i, p. 41) that 'A certain Yakkhinī named Cētiyā[1] (the widow of Jūtindhara, a Yakkha who was killed in a battle at Sirivatthapura[2]) who dwelt at the Dhūmarakkha mountain [which the context shows was close to the Kasā ford on the Mahawaeli-ganga, near Polannaruwa], was wont to walk about the marsh of Tumbariyangana in the shape of a mare,' which was of a white colour, with red legs. Prince Paṇḍukābhaya, the nephew of the king, who had taken the field in an attempt to seize the throne, and now held all the eastern and southern districts, to the south of the river Mahawaeli-ganga, succeeded in catching this mare, and by her super natural advice and help, that is, with the assistance of the Yakkhas or Vaeddas, defeated and killed the king his uncle, and the latter’s brothers, with the exception of two, and thus secured the sovereignty.

He reigned at Anuradhapura, which he enlarged and rearranged, so that during his reign it became an important city. The chronicler relates that 'He established the Yakkha Kālavēla in the eastern quarter of the city; and the chief of the Yakkhas, Citta, he established on the lower side of the Abhaya tank [that is, on the south-western side of the town]. He who knew how to accord his protection with discrimination established the slave [Kumbōkatā], born of the Yakkha tribe, who had preciously rendered him great service,[3] at the southern gate of the city.' Thus he arranged that his Vaedda allies should be established on three sides of the city, doubtless as its defenders.

The cemetery was fixed on the western side of the town; and to the northward of it, and apparently near the main road which led to Mahātiṭṭha, the port from winch travellers sailed for Southern India, 'a range of buildings' was also constructed for the 'Vyādas,' the Vaedda populace in general.

The Mahāvansa also informs us that 'he established within the garden of the royal palace the mare-faced Yakkhinī.' It will be noted that this Vaedda chieftainess is no longer called a mare, but only mare-faced, just as nicknames such as 'moon-faced,' 'crooked-nosed,' 'large-toothed,' etc., were applied to the Sinhalese kings.

Thus it is clear that a large proportion of the population of Anurādhapura or its outskirts at that time consisted of the Vaedda supporters of the king. It has been already mentioned that he provided a site for the Vyāda Dēva, 'the Vaedda God,' also. The chronicler proceeds to indicate in unmistakable language the commanding position of the Vaedda rulers of this period: 'In the days of public festivity, this monarch, seated on a throne of equal eminence with the Yakkha chief, Citta, caused joyous spectacles, representing the actions of devas [gods] as well as mortals, to be exhibited.'

This important sentence proves that the supreme Vaedda chief of that day occupied a position little, if at all, inferior to that of the Sinhalese king.

The chronicler continues, 'This monarch befriending the interests of the Yakkhas, with the co-operation of Kālavēla and Citta, who had the power of rendering themselves visible,[4] conjointly with them enjoyed his prosperity.'

It is easy to see that it was by means of a close alliance with the Vaeddas that this astute king, the greatest organiser the country has ever had—who is recorded to have made the first land settlement by defining the boundaries of the villages throughout the country—succeeded in deposing his uncle and gaining the throne. The natives were evidently far too numerous and powerful and well-organised to be put aside afterwards like the unfortunate Kuwēnī; and the politic king found it advisable to recognise the authority and influence of their leaders as nearly equal to his own. His political sagacity in this respect doubtless saved the country from many years of bloodshed and insecurity, and converted the Vaeddas into peaceable inhabitants devoted to his interests. In religious matters he was equally liberal and impartial; he made special provision for all religious bodies at his capital. It was he, also, who gave the first stimulus to reservoir construction in the northern districts, and probably also irrigation. The historian rightly referred to him as 'this wise ruler,' and stated that at his death the country was 'in a state of perfect peace' (Mah. i, p. 44). This great monarch was born in about 345 B.C., and reigned from 308 to about 275 B.C., or possibly a little later.

In the middle of the third century B.C. the account of the arrival of Mahinda, the son of the Indian emperor Aśōka, on a mission to convert the Sinhalese and their king Dēvānam-piya Tissa to Buddhism, possibly indicates a certain retention of power by the Vaeddas, and the brusque manner in which they ventured to address the king. When Mahinda first met the king in the jungle, 'the thera [superior monk] said to him, "Come hither, Tissa." From his calling him simply "Tissa" the monarch thought he must be a Yakkha' (Mah. i, p. 50). Whether the story is true or false, it proves that the writer believed that the Yakkhas, who must have been either super natural beings or the Vaeddas of that time, did not exhibit much deference towards the Sinhalese sovereign.

In the time of Duṭṭha-Gāmiṇi (161-137 B.C.) there is a reference to a temple of a deity termed 'Pura-Dēva,' which is stated to have been on the northern side of the cemetery, where we have seen that the Vaeddas were settled. This god seems to be the Vyāda Dēva of the time of Paṇḍukābhaya, the word apparently meaning 'the Ancient God' of the country.

When the great Ruwanwaeli dāgaba[5] was constructed by this king at Anurādhapura, among the paintings depicted on the wall of the relic-room inside it the list runs: 'The four great kings of the Cātumahārājika heavens stood there with drawn swords; and thirty-three supernaturally-gifted dēvas [inferior gods] bearing baskets of flowers and making offerings of pāricchatta flowers [Erythrina indica, now used only for demon-offerings]. There stood thirty-two princesses bearing lighted torches, and twenty-eight Yakkha chiefs ranged them selves as a guard of protection [for the relics in the chamber], driving away the fierce Yakkhas' (Mah. i, p. 121).

In the Hatthi-pāla Jātaka (No. 509) a tree-deity is represented as applying to the 'eight and twenty war-lords of the goblins' to grant a son to a king. The beings mentioned in the Mahāvansa are thus probably the same Yakkhas of the Indian authors. At the dāgaba at Bharhut, in India, these beings were carved in relief at the gateways of the 'Buddhist railing' in the third century B.C., as guards, together with Nāga chiefs.

On the other hand, in Southern India it is the Rākshasas who always act as guards at the Hindu temples, in accordance with the derivation of the word from the root rāksh, to guard. When deities are represented on the gōpuras or ornamental gateways at the entrances of the great temples, figures of the Rākshasas are invariably present as their guards, and the Yakshas are never found in such positions of trust.

In the later wall-paintings of the Buddhist wihāras in Ceylon, the Yakshas always form the army of Māra, the god of Death, which attacked the Buddha; but this has been shown to be a conception of later date than the canonical works, and it may not have found acceptance in the country in the time of Duṭṭha-Gāmiṇi. It is, however, somewhat strange to find Mahānāma inserting the description of these figures in such a position in the dāgaba without some explanatory remark. He may have understood them to be representations of aboriginal chiefs.

I believe the Vaeddas only make their appearance twice more in the early Sinhalese histories. The Rājāvaliya relates that King Mahā-Sēna (277-304 A.D.) employed Yakkhas as well as [Sinhalese] men in the construction of a large number of reservoirs that were formed in order to store water for the irrigation of rice fields. Some confirmation of this story may be seen in his deification at some subsequent period, with the title of Sat-Rajjuruwō, that is, 'King of (all) living creatures,'—both the men and the supposed demons whom he forced to work for him. Worship is still paid extensively to him in this capacity in the northern Kandian districts.

The Vaeddas still formed a great part of the population in the twelfth century. The Mahāvansa (ii, p. 151) recounts how King Parākrama-Bāhu I (1164-1197 A.D.), while his cousin Gaja-Bāhu ruled at Polannaruwa, made preparations for a campaign for the conquest of the latter's dominions, and enlisted for it large numbers of his subjects. Among these we are told that 'He trained many thousands' of Vyādas, that is, Vaeddas, 'and made them skilled in the use of their weapons, and gave them suitable swords, black clothes, and the like things.' Thus in the twelfth century we see the Vaeddas in a state of comparative civilisation, taking their place in the army with the other levies.

It is extremely probable that contingents of Vaeddas formed part of the Sinhalese army not only then but in every war. We find them still serving with the other troops under Raja Sinha in the early part of the seventeenth century. Captain Robert Knox, in his Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, p. 62, states of those living near Hurulla, in the North-central Province, 'The King once having occasion of an hasty Expedition against the Dutch, the Governour summoned them all in to go with him, which they did. And with their Bows and Arrows did as good service as any of the rest; but afterwards when they returned home again, they removed farther in the Woods, and would be seen no more, for fear of being after wards prest again to serve the King.'

As the immigration, such as it was, from the Ganges Valley appears to have practically ceased from the time of Paṇḍukābhaya's birth, his policy of admitting the natives to an equality with the Indian settlers must have caused a rapid fusion of the two races. This was the birth of the Sinhalese nation.[6] We must believe that such a broad-minded ruler would not refuse equal rights to the northern Drāvidians of Nāgadīpa, and thus the whole population must have gradually coalesced, with a great preponderance of the Vaedda blood. In the same manner as in England in Norman times or after the Roman domination, the natives in the lapse of years totally absorbed the newcomers, and a later very slight admixture of Tamil blood at last produced the race which we now find in the Kandian provinces. It differs from that of the western and southern coast tracts in all respects but colour, religion, and language.

In a note on the subject of Polyandry, the late Mr. E. Goonetilleke, the learned Sinhalese editor of the Orientalist, said in Vol. iv, p. 93 of that publication, regarding the two races of Sinhalese, 'They are as distinct from each other in their dress, habits, manners, and customs, and in their very ideas and manner of thinking, as if they formed two different races, rather than two sections of one nation.' The Kandian villagers certainly look upon the people of the western coast tracts as a separate race, and do not term them Sinhalese, but always speak of them as Pāṭa raṭē minissu, 'Men of the Low-country.'

The difference is not altogether due to a preponderance of Vaedda blood in the interior. The dwellers near the western coast have always been exposed to foreign influences. The various races who have either settled among them in considerable numbers or held the western coasts as conquerors include Dravidian and Arab traders and settlers; and as conquerors, Malays, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and lastly English. It would be strange if the resultant people did not vary greatly from those of the interior.

That the Kandian Sinhalese are thus the modern representatives of the great bulk of the ancient Vaeddas is, I venture to think, beyond doubt. The people who were so numerous throughout the country in the twelfth century, that in half the island 'many thousands' could be enlisted as soldiers, have certainly not been exterminated. They, like the Vaeddas of preceding centuries, have simply settled down as Kandian villagers. An insignificant number still retain their ancient designation, but even these, with the exception of a few families, have become ordinary villagers, and in outward appearance are indistinguishable from many other Kandians.

This abandonment of the wild forest life of their ancestors apparently began at a very early date. After the time of Paṇḍukābhaya the next proof of the fact is found immediately after the introduction of Buddhism into the country. The evidence derivable from the caves or rock-shelters, thousands in number, under the sides of the boulders lying on the slopes of all the hills of the Low-country, whether in the eastern and southern part of the Northern Province, or the North-western, the North-central, the Eastern, or the Southern Provinces, all points to the settling down of the Vaedda populace in early times as peaceable villagers.

The researches of the Drs. Sarasin and Dr. C. G. Seligmann have shown that the first inhabitants of the caves were aborigines who made use of stone implements. Then, at a later date, which we know from the dedicatory inscriptions to be in nearly all cases pre-Christian, the caves throughout the whole of the above-mentioned Provinces (I have no knowledge of those of other districts) were turned into shelters for ascetic Buddhist monks. There is hardly a hill possessing such cave shelters, some of which, at least, were not so converted. Even where no inscription records the fact, the cutting of the kaṭāra or drip-ledge to prevent rain-water from trickling down the face of the rock into the cave is indubitable proof that this was the case.

Had the aborigines been forcibly ousted from these caves in order to permit the monks to occupy them, we cannot suppose that they would not have felt resentment, which would have led to reprisals of a violent character. It is clear that in many instances little establishments of only two or three monks must have occupied the caves on some of the most secluded of these hills, buried in the depths of the dense forests of the wildest parts of the island. In such sites the aborigines could have regained possession of their caves with ease and impunity, and with practically no fear of punishment by the Sinhalese authorities. In the histories, also, there is no hint of any quarrels with the natives after the time when Paṇḍukābhaya became king.

If the monks who occupied the caves had been in danger of attacks by the aborigines, it is extremely improbable that they would have utilised the caves on practically all the hills during the short period between the middle of the third century and the early part of the first century B.C., as the form of the letters of the inscriptions cut on so many of them—'hundreds and hundreds,' according to Dr. E. Müller—proves was the case. A few caves, but only an insignificant number, have inscriptions cut in letters of a later date than this. Thus there seems good reason to believe that when the monks came to occupy the caves their original residents had already voluntarily abandoned them, and, like the Vaeddas of Anurādhapura, had established themselves in villages.

Even the people who still call themselves Vaeddas are to some extent of mixed blood. This applies almost equally to the wildest members of the race, and is proved conclusively by the wide variation in the colour of the skin, and in the amount of hair on the face, even if the general outline of the features does not indicate it.

It was probably due to the union of the races on nearly equal terms that the Vaeddas accepted the language of the Gangetic settlers in preference to their own, which they have totally lost. Had they kept more aloof from the newcomers, they might have maintained their own tongue nearly intact down to the present time. The new language spread through Nāgadīpa also; there is not a single very early Dravidian inscription in the whole of Northern Ceylon. The adoption of the Buddhist religion throughout the entire country—including Nāgadīpa, as the numerous remains of ancient wihāras prove—must have accelerated this change of language; at every monastery the monks would teach the dialect of Pāli which had become the Sinhalese speech, in the same manner as at present.

Notwithstanding the alteration of language and ideas and the spread of the new religion, the population of whole districts must have remained more or less pure Vaeddas for many centuries, with some gradual slight intermixture of foreign blood as the intercourse with Nāgadīpa and Southern India led to an intermittent influx of Drāvidians, culminating in occasional invasions of the island by South Indian armies. In some cases, in what are now thought to be pure Sinhalese districts, many of the people were still distinguished from the other inhabitants by the name of Vaeddas down to the seventeenth century, after which they appear to have abandoned this title to the wilder residents of the eastern districts.

Although declaring themselves Buddhists and attending the services at the temples, many of these Sinhalese-Vaeddas still adhered to the worship of the ancient Hill-God of their ancestors, the Vyāda Dēva of the old annalists. The philosophical reasoning of the new faith might appeal to their minds, but it did not afford the practical protection which they received from their old religion. They still felt the need, of the kindly supreme deity to whom they could appeal in time of trouble, for which the new faith provided no remedy, but only taught resignation to the inevitable. The ancient god could still, it was thought, assist them out of their physical difficulties, without interfering with their general belief in the truth of the Buddhist doctrines. In some parts of the Kandian districts the two religions have therefore settled down side by side to the present day.

Dr. R. Virchow, as the result of an examination of a series of Vaedda and Sinhalese skulls, expressed the following opinion regarding the affinity of the Vaeddas and Sinhalese: 'The Vaeddas would appear rather as representatives of the aboriginal race; the Sinhalese, on the other hand, as hybrids produced by a union of immigrant Indians with Vaeddas, and therefore varying according to the measure of their participation of either of these elements. This indeed strikes me as being the solution of the anthropological problem before us, so far, at least, as the material at present reaches. The linguistic difficulty, that also the unmixed[7] natives adopted the Āryan language of the conqueror, without, so far as we can judge, having been forced to do so, appears to me no longer insurmountable, since from personal experience I have established the fact that in the Baltic provinces of Russia one part of the Finnish population after the other, through imperceptible but steady progress, has become letticized to such an extent that the Courland language has wholly, the Livonian almost wholly, disappeared, and only the Esthonian still offers any resistance.'[8]

His final conclusions on the subject are: '(1) That manifold resemblances exist between the Vaeddas and the Sinhalese, and that the origin of the Sinhalese race from a mixture of Vaeddas and immigrants from India possesses great probability, as well upon historical as also upon anthropological grounds.

'(2) That the Vaeddas as well as the Sinhalese in the main features are distinguished from the Ceylon Tamils, and equally from those of Tanjore (Sōla).

'(3) That, on the other hand, among the remnants of the old Dravidian or perhaps pre-Dravidian tribes of Hindustan we find even to-day evidence of analogies with the Vaeddas' (p. 136).


[1] In this and all other transliterations the letter c represents the sound ch, as in church.

[2] The words in brackets are only given in Tumour's Mahawanso.

[3] She had saved his life when an infant. According to the history, the so-called Yakkhas protected him from the time when he was born, his uncles having endeavoured to kill him on account of a prediction that he would destroy them. If there is any truth in this, his father's mother may have been a native princess.

[4] We may recognise the hand of the reverend historian of the fifth century in this little parenthesis.

[5] A dāgaba is a solid mound built to contain relics of Buddha, or important personages, especially monks, or sometimes only to commemorate an event which occurred at the site. It is usually a semi-globe or a bell in shape, with a terminal spire; but there are other forms, of which an account is given in a subsequent chapter. Dāgaba=dhātu-garbha, 'relic-chamber.'

[6] The tradition of the origin of the name is given as follows in the Mahāvansa i, pp. 33, 34. 'By reason of the King Sīhabāhu [the father of Wijaya] having slain the lion (Sīha), his sons and descendants are called "Sīhalā" (the lion-slayers). This Lankā [Ceylon] having been conquered by a Sīhala, from the circumstance of its having been colonized by a Sīhala, it obtained the name of Sihala.' At a much later date it became the fashion to adopt Sanskrit forms of words in writing, and instead of the Pāli word Sīha the Sanskrit expression Sinha was used. The word meaning the country and people thus became 'Sinhala' (pronounced with a nasal n, but no g sound). The Vaeddas have retained the old name of the country.

[7] It is extremely doubtful if there are any groups of Vaeddas of unmixed blood in these days.

[8] Monograph on the Vaeddas, published in the Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Science of Berlin, in 1881, and translated for the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1888, p. 110.