Gypsies network against dwindling numbers

Friday, 28 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Sunimalee Dias

A clan that is fast dwindling is to make a fresh start to regain their lives with a main meeting of the chieftains of each group of the community spread around the country.

Even the young are familiar with the reptiles

The gypsies in Sri Lanka are today celebrating a livelihood they enjoy alongside the locals by becoming one with them and living in harmony.

The Ahikuntika people, together with a selected group of experts on the subject, have been gearing up to conduct their first communal meeting or ‘varigasabha’ since 1946. A community that is fast dwindling in population is seen to be integrating more with their Sinhalese Buddhist friends.

This is the first meeting being held since 1946 when a meeting of the different group leaders and their chieftain was conducted at the Kekirewa Wewa. The significance of this meeting conducted decades ago was mainly with the intention of understanding their key issues and finding solutions and ensuring the community continues to thrive under their own strict code of conduct as opposed to that which is observed in the country in which they reside.

This next significant event in the history of this community is set to unfold this evening and over this weekend. The community’s revival and resurgence is bound to ensure their longevity and the nurturing of their important customs and traditions that are fast fading in the wake of modernisation and evolution within the clan’s youth.


Extraaxcted snake teeth

An interesting custom among this clan is the ‘sammata mandala’ or the meeting of the community leaders that will be relived today at Thambuttegama.

Over 60 years back, during the last similar meeting that was held, the chieftain at the time was Muttusamiarachchi, who along with 14 community leaders participated at this gathering.

This year for the first time in 64 years community leaders from Aligambe, Kanchanakuda, Andarabedda and Kalawewa will be participating at this unique event.

Batticaloa seems to be currently having the largest number of families, from where there would be four representatives, and one each from Kekirawa and Andarabedda and two from Kudagama.

The ‘varigasabha’ will be conducted with the assistance of the Thambuttegama Divisional Secretariat. This unique meeting is to be conducted in Telengu with participants of at least six persons from each village.

During the meeting the participants and village leaders are expected to discuss their core problems and how to preserve their longstanding customs and traditions that have today become a fast fading aspect of their lifestyles among the present generation.

Following the discussions they are likely to reach a consensus on various issues and submit a declaration that is set to impact on the lives of this community and give them the space and purpose for their sustenance.

Arachchi, the community leader in Andarabedde

Some of the key issues concerning them are the wild elephants that have destroyed huts and plant life. Another major concern is the insipid water present in the area that has to be addressed for the daily living. But these are only a few common to those of the Andarabedde community of the Ahikuntika people.

In addition it is expected to ensure that these people will be capable of preserving their unique identity for their future generations and the rest of the world at large.

The draft of the charter will form the identity of these people and their future will be told on these papers along with their pressing issues of the day. This is expected to be presented to a Government official for their charter to be upheld.

Wanderers fast dwindling

The Gypsies or Ahikuntika people are among the few isolated communities in the country like Vaddahs and Rodiyas, say experts. But unlike their counterpart groups such as the Roma people, these Ahikuntika people are limited in their knowledge for the need to preserve their own identity.

It is this lack of a need to nurture their identity and its uniqueness due to being ignored by the majority communities in the country that has led to most of the youth wanting a change. This change has been adopted and they are now different indeed in their perceptions and ideas although the thought process has to still be cultivated for the good of their community.

Gypsies are always around in Anuradhapura during Poson and Vesak when pilgrims flock to the vicinity. And even today their women, mostly the older females, walk around the country tunelessly singing their signature songs and asking to read your palm.

Ahikuntika people are today found along Kalawewa, Mihintale and Kudagama. At present the community’s population has only grown up to about 5,000 in the Andarabedda village in Galgamuwa, with about 40 families living together speaking their vernacular Telengu, although they are conversant in Sinhala as well.

Kudagma has the largest community with about 380 families present; Aligambe has 280 families where certain customs and traditions are practiced including snake charming; in Kanchikuda there are about 62 families most of whom are Hindus and devotees of Lord Ganesh who engage in palm reading; Kalawewa has 54 families; and Andarabedde has 42 families.

Their homes cannot be called houses, huts or tents but something beyond that, although this concept has changed significantly with every one of them living in homes as anyone else would. At one time they used to live in a ‘kudarama,’ but this is no longer done.

The youth of today that live among these communities are not always like their ancestors or even their fathers and have changed their lifestyles. Some of them have married into Sinhalese families and are now living as one with the majority community.

Living in Sri Lanka

Arachchi or Miyagalewa Rengasamige Masanna (71) is the head of his community in Andarabedda living with his wife Timmanage Engatakka and son. As the leader, he is supposed to be able to support the welfare of the community that he heads and look after them, which is the manner in which such selection is carried out.

When we first met him he was attending a meeting with the villagers of his community and was eager to talk to us, after which we met him at his residence to understand more about this interesting community.

He related that according to his knowledge and understanding, his people had arrived in this land during the time of Prince Vijaya and Kuveni. He insisted that this community could not be dismissed and chased away from this land therefore as ‘kallathoni’ as this is not who these people are supposed to be.

On the other hand, it is believed that they came here to Sri Lanka from Andra Pradesh, the reason for their use of the Telengu language.

Back in 1969 the Ahikuntikas were given land by the Government in Irattaperiyakulama in Vavuniya through the intervention of Government Agent Neville Jayaweera. The community had been living there for about 14 years and had later settled down in the central, western and eastern parts of the country.

Around the period of 1985 following the LTTE making its mark, the Ahikuntika clan had come down to these areas as they were being chased by the terrorists at the time, Arachchi said.

There were 35 families at the time after which they shifted to the Anuradhapura Vishrama Shalawa or resting halls, where they lived for about one week. Later the community had moved location again to Kudagama, where they lived for about eight years.

It was around the 1990s that this clan had shifted to Galgamuwa where they reside presently on an area of 20 acres, with 18 acres provided for the families numbering now 42 and the rest used as a cemetery.

Arachchi related how their clan was divided into the separate sects that were either snake charmers or palm readers and had tamed performing monkeys.

Asked about their religion, he opined that while they had a few generations that were Buddhists, some had been converted to the Christian faith and were part of the Assembly of God sect.

Accordingly, the only celebrations these people have today are the Sinhala New Year and Christmas. However, they do not hesitate to mention that they worship the Hindu deity Ganesha before leaving for the wild. Devotion to Ganesha is widely diffused and extends to Jains, Buddhists and beyond India.

 Customs, traditions and caste

The Ahikuntikas are said to have their own customs and traditions and this is also unique when it comes to their system of marriage.

According to Arachchi, the custom was firstly for the parents of the boy’s family to inform the paternal aunts if they wish to get their daughters married off to that family’s son. Following this, a date is fixed after which the girl’s family would meet the prospective son-in-law’s family.

The wedding traditions are carried out within the course of five days commencing on a Friday, which is the set date to buy the necessary food provisions including alcohol, but there will be no meat or fish being consumed during this timeframe.

On Saturday and Sunday the boy and girl are bathed outside each other’s homes on the given days. On Tuesday the black ‘thalla’ is being placed around the bride’s neck, effectively symbolising the completion of being married under these traditions.

But Arachchi noted that today much had changed and that no one actually carried out these traditions due to the want of money as it was expensive. In fact in recent times there have been intermarriages between the various castes.

The different castes or ‘kula’ are: ‘Babaloru’ or barbers, ‘Kumbaloru’ or potters, ‘Papaloru’ or snake charmers and ‘Wadiga’ or monkey performers.

The others he described who are also part of other clans although separate from them are the Rodee, Kutani and Madggili clans.

Another unique aspect about these people at one time has now spread around, which is the tattoos on their bodies. They also engage in the preparation of their own medicine, which is said to be found nowhere among their own community any longer as none are interested in studying this art, Arachchi said.

He opined that even the youngest generation was hardly able to speak in Telengu as they were more fluent in Sinhala, which is the widely spoken language in their homes today. In fact although the Ahikuntika speak Telengu, they are unaware of how to read or write this language.

 Wanderers losing identity

The youth have found new ways of moving on with their lives. Their children will not know what it would mean to be among their community or be exposed to the negative connotations associated with being part of the Ahikuntika people.

This is mainly because their fathers have ensured that they do not suffer the same fate or face similar consequences but are secured for life by blending with the rest of the majority community in the areas in which they continue to inhabit.

The youth believe it is high time their children receive a proper education and provided with a fine upbringing. In order to achieve these goals these youth have now become engaged in jobs that are vastly different from what their community is identified with. This would mean that they would give up their former livelihoods of wandering around, as a result of which is now only done by the older womenfolk.

The younger women, on the other hand, intend to stay at home to look and after their young ones and not allow themselves or their children to get engaged in this industry of entertainment that was once unique to this clan.

These young children are now sent to the village school where they are obtaining a well-rounded education alongside with other school-going children in the country.

Today there is one of them, Maduka Ahatuwewa, studying for the Advanced Level (A/L) while Sandamali Ahatuwewa will be sitting for the Ordinary Level (O/L) examinations this year from Saliya Raja Vidyalaya in Galgamuwa.

In the early years the community had faced issues from people from other villages who were not fond of them at all and were averse to travelling along with them in the bus or washing clothes at the same public well. It is in this respect that the youth of this community have come to understand the need to reform and become one with the majority community of the area.

One of the youth who spoke with us, Angatannage Ratna, a father of three, said that a pressing concern was the consumption of alcohol among their elders, both men and women. It is said that according to their traditions, even when a fine is imposed for a crime committed by any of their folk, it has to be followed by providing alcohol to those who impose this fine as well.

“We can take it forward but if the fine can be used for the welfare of the people in village, it is okay,” he said.

He pointed out that alcohol consumption was high and welcomed by the older generation as part of the old tradition, but was not welcome by the younger generations.

Saving money is also a key issue as there isn’t much money to save and since they do not have any electricity, they are unable to have a TV in their homes for their children to watch, although it is a common feature in most other homes.

The majority of the young people living in Andarabedde expressed their desire to improve themselves. “We like to do a government job or join the armed forces,” Ratna said, lamenting that none of them had even reached the position of policeman or a teacher. “We like to be a part of the larger community.”

This generation does not have the same their parents were identified with. In fact, the youngest generation of this community today have names similar to their Sinhala counterparts.  This is mainly because they do not want these children to be segregated in school. Mutu Kumari, attending the Siyambala Wewa Montessori, danced with her friend to show us how they performed at the recent concert. Both of them are from this community.

Conserving a lifestyle

Dilmah is currently working on building up on this network of the Ahikuntika community in a bid to ensure that these people are better linked across their geographies. This is being carried out through its Dilmah Conservation initiative, aimed at assisting this community to preserve its lifestyle.

Currently work is going on in the conduct of research of these people and their lifestyles, including traditional rituals, beliefs, medicine and the documentation of most of their rituals.

The organisation is also aiming at establishing a website in a bid to ensure that others not yet identified as part of this community would be able to get in touch with them and establish communication links among their people.

Dilmah Conservation is currently conducting a baseline survey in Kudagama to gather socioeconomic information about the community, for which the research team head has already met with three community leaders in this respect.

In addition, the organisation will be laying the foundation stone for the construction of a community centre or cultural facility and a museum tomorrow. This is being carried out in a bid to earn some economic benefits for them through the cultural event.

Moreover, the livelihoods of these people are to be preserved and conserved through the use of their talents at a cultural event to be held hopefully on a monthly or quarterly basis in a bid to gain increased tourist attractions.

Plans are underway to work together with the Kandalama and Dambulla Hotels Association in this regard. An open art theatre will also be constructed along the banks of the Rajangana Tank with the approval of the District Secretariat and the Chief Minister, who have allocated a land area of 1.5 acres for this purpose. This is being designed by the fourth year students of the Moratuwa University’s Architecture Faculty.

It is believed that 99% of this community now follows other religions and are a fast vanishing tribe.  Another key fact that was of concern was that the day Arachchi or Masanna passes away, 20% of the information of his community would be lost to the world.

With only about 10 of them having information about their culture, it is imperative that this fast-dwindling community’s heritage be restored for the continuation of their clan.

Aiding integration

Krishantha of Galgamuwa is a man who has won the hearts and minds of the Ahikuntika people of Andarabedde. This is mainly because of his efforts to enable them to become what they are today.

This young man who was raised by his grandmother is the link between the outside world and the world they once knew. The gypsies of this area were taught how to live as other people would and become the kind of people who would be accepted in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Today’s youth are grateful to his hard work and tireless efforts in assisting them to come up and lead a way of life to which they are now adjusting themselves.

“I used to teach them how to maintain cleanliness and lead a healthy lifestyle,” he said, adding that this has resulted in them reforming to a significant level.

However, he too now believes that while ensuring that these people are living a life of good quality, they also need to preserve their past and uphold the customs and traditions that are fast fading among this society.

Pix by Upul Abayasekara