John Gim­lette

The Chil­dren of a De­mon Queen

The London Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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