The Children of a Demon Queen
Amidst all the ethnic strife of Sri Lanka, it’s easy to forget that, hidden away in the interior, there remains the country’s aboriginal race. Impoverished, persecuted, and endangered, the Veddahs have often been overlooked. In this extract from his new book, Elephant Complex, author John Gimlette sets out to meet them:
What lay ahead was not worrying but it did feel unknown. Of all the island’s regions, the southeast always seemed the most mysterious and the most remote. The ancient chronicles hardly mention it, and, on early maps, it’s just a blank dappled with scrub. It would be defined by what it did not have, in particular, rain, reservoirs and rivers. Victorian mapmakers left huge chunks of it empty, or marked ‘Unknown mountainous region’. Where names did appear, they looked hurried and inept, like ‘Westminster Abbey’ or ‘Capello de Frade’, The Friar’s Hood. Even in the 1920s, visitors like R. L. Spittel tended to think of themselves as explorers, uncertain what they would find.
The region still felt unvisited. If the island were a clock-face, between three o’clock and six, there was almost nowhere to land a ship. Meanwhile, inland, there were fewer roads than anywhere else, and only one railway veering off to the north. It seemed that anything could be out there, lurking in the bush. In 1924, it was a man-eating leopard, but more recently it’s been bands of guerrillas, hiding out in caves. Then there were all the creatures of local mythology. One, called the Gawara, was said to have the head of a buffalo and a tongue so rough it could lick away flesh. Worse, perhaps, were the Nittaewo, a race of miniature cannibals, who attacked in huge numbers, filleting the locals with their long fingernails. To those planning a visit, none of this was particularly encouraging.