The Sunday Leader

Gypsies Of Sri Lanka The Ahikuntaka

by Tia Goonaratna

As Sri Lankans, we have grown accustomed to seeing palm readers, snake charmers and monkey tricksters all around island. While most of us deemed them as doing just a job, in reality these trades derive from a certain nomadic culture. The Ahikuntaka community is very much alive and active, and according to the Dilmah Conservation project, this community has a rich history as well as their own strict customs. As true to their nature, these communities also used to move from village to village. While some of them still do, some of the clans have found settlement on donated land, and by converting to Christianity.

The Ahikuntaka community in Sri Lanka is known by many names. The Ahikuntaka is from the Sinhala language, whilst among other communities they are known as ‘Kuravar’ as well as names such as ‘Kuthandi’, ‘Kurawan’, and ‘Kattuvasi’. Their common tongue is Telengu, but Sinhala and Tamil are used as well. Their communities are divided in to caste systems; the high class is known for vocations in cultivation, and the low caste does jobs such as washing clothes and cutting hair. The caste is divided by vocation and appearance. Most of the activities are divided by these classes, and the colour of the skin and hair will play a major role.

The deities and gods are separated by their needs. There are Angates Sami, Kanamma Sami, Masamma, Sallapuramma, Pullayar, and Madu Meniyo who cater to different needs and call for different kinds of offerings. Some of them call for blood sacrifice, but the more controversial ceremonies have been last taken place as far as 1953 and 1990. There is talk that they honour others such as Kataragama deity.

The Ahikuntaka community maintain their own court system where alcohol plays a major role. It is used as payment and respect to the ‘judges’ ensuring wild court sessions. They also have their own methods of medications – made with herbs and medicine stones. As they engage in snake charming, they are said to some of the best cures for snake bites and poisonings.

The talents of this community is divided by clans. The snake charmers are one community while the monkey training community – Maddili – are another. Maddili community has a settlement in Galgamuwa Gorobawa with about 60 families. Mahakandarawa is a village made up of 34 families that were given permanent housing in 1999. There are two clans living here – some calling themselves Lankan Telingu and the others claiming their origins from the ancient gypsies. The men would tend to monkey training and snake charming, while the women would be busy with palm reading. Some of them have converted to Christianity, while others hold on to their own beliefs as well as Buddhism.

The Ahikuntaka Varigasabha or the tribal meeting was held in 2011 after 6 decades with the aid of Dilmah Conservation. The event took place in the banks of Rajangana tank in Kudagama and was attended by the five community leaders representing all the gypsy communities. This meeting encouraged and enabled the Ahikuntaka community to get together and discuss the issues they face and how to move forward. The need to create a strong infrastructure brought the ‘Kudagama Charter of the Sri Lanka Ahikuntaka Community’ to light. The significance of this event was quite large as it recognised an integral part of the Sri Lankan culture.

Even though Sri Lankans recognise these tradesmen, it is noteworthy to understand that the snake charmers, palm readers and monkey tricksters are part of a very real and active community.

With the driven help from Dilmah Conservation project, a part of Sri Lankan history and culture is preserved in this way.

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