Veddas  or Wanniyalaetto of Sri Lanka

The Ahikuntikaya or Gypsies: An Ancient People in a 21st Century world

The Ahikuntikaya are descendants of an ancient nomadic group. The Ahikuntikaya converse in Telengu (a South Indian language) and survive as they have done for centuries by reading palms, snake charming and training monkeys to perform tricks. In modern Sri Lanka, their traditional skills are obsolete and the scattered remnants of the community are marginalized to an extent where those that give up their ancestral livelihood are forced into unskilled labour.

An ancient people in a 21st Century world Dilmah Conservation and the Ahikuntikaya

Recognising the plight of the Ahikuntikaya, Dilmah Conservation initiated on January 29th a series of programmes designed to help restore the dignity of the ancient people. The intention is to document their unique but rapidly disappearing heritage, which is still largely unrecorded and was passed on through generations of Ahikuntikaya by word of mouth. A Dilmah Conservation team will undertake a survey of the community, to comprehensively record their culture, traditions and aspirations. These will be embodied in research publications on the community whilst also being presented in an unique Cultural Centre and Theatre. That facility will contain a museum and handicraft centres, and was designed by the fourth year students of the Architecture Faculty of the University of Moratuwa on the invitation of Dilmah Conservation.

The Foundation stone for the Centre was laid by Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando, and the five leaders of the remaining Ahikintukayas. The Kudagama Arachchi (leader) commented at a traditional ceremony to mark the occasion, that this was the first time in the history of their people that the Ahikuntikaya culture was being recognized and preserved from vanishing entirely. He estimated that at the rate with which poverty was forcing his people to abandon their heritage, all traces of the ancient community would be lost by 2020.

An ancient people in a 21st Century world Dilmah Conservation and the Ahikuntikaya

The Dilmah Conservation plan envisages recording, presenting and celebrating the culture of the community whilst at the same time, helping them to become sustainable. The first step in the Dilmah Conservation programme was to strengthen the community’s unique identity by reinstating the most significant annual event of the community after a lapse of over half a century. The traditional gathering, known as the ‘Varigasabha’, resumed after after 60 years on 28th January, 2011 in Kudagama. The Varigasabha brought together the five different scattered gypsy groups in Sri Lanka with their traditional leaders (‘Arachchis’) to meet, exchange ideas, re-establish social bonds whilst celebrating their history and sharing traditional stories. The last Varigasabha was held in the 1940s with most Ahikuntikaya unable to remember when exactly it was held. Traditionally the Varigasabha is also a community court with the leaders hearing complaints and resolving disputes amongst their people.

The marginalization of the Ahikuntikaya caused a breakdown in their social structures, leading to the long lapse in the Varigasabha and thus further isolation of the community. Dilhan C. Fernando, son of Merrill J. Fernando, commented, "We are here today because we see significant value for future generations of Sri Lankans, in the traditions of our ancient communities.

The Ahikuntikaya are now out of sync with the rest of the world. The 21st century has left them behind and we want to help them to be sustainably integrated into modern Sri Lanka. This Ahikuntikaya Cultural Centre will present the ways and history of this ancient and vanishing culture for the world to understand and appreciate, whilst at the same time helping the remaining Ahikuntikaya live with dignity."

At the Varigasabha the community leaders drew up a Charter outlining the heritage of the gypsy community and the issues – mainly poverty – that they face and which threaten their identity and survival. This document, known as the Kudagama Charter, will be presented by the Ahikuntikaya leaders to the President of Sri Lanka, with the facilitation of Dilmah Conservation.

An ancient people in a 21st Century world Dilmah Conservation and the Ahikuntikaya

Addressing the community, Merrill J. Fernando stated, "The idea behind this centre is to preserve and protect your traditions and culture and to record them as historic fact. Then, generations to come will be able to read and realise that such a community lived in Sri Lanka. We also want to develop and uplift your quality of life." The gypsy leaders expressed their appreciation for the efforts taken by Dilmah in establishing the Centre and allied empowerment programmes, with the Kudagama leader adding, "We are grateful that the traditions and heritage of our way of life which were in danger of completely vanishing can now be preserved for our own children to see".

Courtesy: Dilmah Conservation