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Rodi or Rodiya are one of the widely reported untouchable social group or caste amongst the Sinhalese people of Sri Lankamarker. Their status was very similar to all the Untouchable castes of India with segregated communities, ritualized begging, eating off the refuse of upper castes and refusal for the women and men to cover their upper bodies. Just like all debased lineages across India, they too claim one time Royal ancestry.
A rare image of Rodiya people, probably in the hill station of Sri Lanka

Origins

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding their origins and their former debased status. Many sociologists and anthropologists and even linguists have documented and commented on their status. The common theory is that at one time Rodiya were like the Veddas of Sri Lanka, hunting and gathering tribe that eventually came to survive on the margins of civilized society and got incorporated as a caste.

But why as an untouchable versus the assimilation of many Veddas as Govigama or the highest castes of the land? That question is also generally answered by the alleged cannibalistic past of the caste. Either the community itself indulged in cannibalism or were propitiating their deity Ratnavali also known as Navaratna Valli with human sacrifice. Valli is the name of the tribal consort of Hindu deity Murukan in South India and Sri Lanka.

Origin myths

About 100 years ago, Hugh Nevill, a prominent British civil servant, recorded the following tradition current among the Rodi as to their origins: `At King Parakrama Bahu's court the venison was provided by a certain Veddha archer. Who during a scarcity of game substituted the flesh of a boy he met in the jungle and provided it as venison for the royal palace. Navaratna Valli, the beautiful daughter of the king discovered the deception and fascinated by a sudden longing for human flesh ordered the Veddha hunter to bring this flesh. The Veddha accordingly waylaid youths in the woods, and disposed of their flesh to the royal kitchen. The whole country was terrified by the constant disappearance of youths and maidens. It happened one day that a barber came to the palace to complain of the disappearance of his only son. While waiting, the servants of the royal scullery gave to him a leaf of rice and venison curry to snack on.

Just as he was about to eat he noticed on his leaf the deformed knuckle of the little finger of a boy. Recognizing it by the deformity as that of his son he fled from the palace and spread the alarm that the king was killing and eating the youths of the city. The facts then came to light. The king stripped his daughter of her ornaments, called for a scavenger (or Chandala) to appear before him, and gave his daughter to the scavenger as wife. The king had a neighboring yard cleared, banished her from the palace, and forced her to earn her living in her husband's class.

No one has found any evidence of this myth and Parakarama Bahu is a common name amongst many Sri Lankan kings.

Robert Knox’s version

Robert Knox an Englishmarker prisoner of the native Kandyanmarker Kingdom noted the following story. According to him, the original legend narrated in his `Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681). `The predecessors of these people from whom they sprang were Dodda Veddas which signifies hunters: to whom it did belong to catch and bring venison for the king's table. But instead of venison they brought man's flesh. Unknown; which the king liking so well commanded to bring him more of the same sort of venison. The king's barber chanced to know what flesh it was and disclosed it to him. At which the king was so enraged that he accounted death too good for them; and to punish only those persons that had so offended not a sufficient recompense for so great an affront and injury as he had sustained by them. Forthwith therefore he established a decree that both great and small that were of that rank or tribe should be expelled from dwelling among the inhabitants of the land and not to be admitted to use or enjoy the benefit of any means or ways or callings whatsoever to provide themselves sustenance; but what they should beg from generation to generation from door to door, through the kingdom, and to be looked upon and esteemed by all people to be so base and odious as not possibly to be more.' Many were the restrictions placed on the Rodi during the Kandyan period.

Says Knox: `And they are to this day so detestable to the people that they are not permitted to fetch water out of their wells; but do take their water out of holes or rivers. Neither will any touch them lest they should be defiled.' Until fairly recent times till about 100 years ago this was still true of the Rodi in the Kandyan areas.

Caste of the unwanted

According to Robert Knox `Many times when the king (i.e. Rajasinghe II) cuts off great and noble men against whom he is highly incensed he will deliver their daughters and wives unto this sort of people reckoning it as they also account it to be far worse a punishment than any kind of death.' Constant intercourse with the women of the Kandyan nobility may well account for the aristocratic looks and stately carriage of Rodi women to this day. This may perhaps also explain the claims of the Rodi to royal status.

Some believe that the later Kandyan dynasty was ruled by Hindu Nayaka royal family and the status off Rodi worsened during these years as the Nayaka dynasty imposed restrictions it has seen in South India on similar groups of people. The fact is further corroborated by the name of their settlement. Which is called a Kuppam, a typical Tamil term for a settlement of lower castes in Tamil Nadumarker.

A cannibalistic cult

Some of the answers to these questions appear to lie in religious and mythical traditions of the Rodi. For example, the narration of the Rodi myth is usually followed by the recitation of a set of invocatory verses to Ratnavalli, who is portrayed in them more as a deity than a princess:

     *Leaning against the tree of thick green foliage,
     *Oh! Woman,
     *With your heavy bluish braided tresses,
     *Oh! Ratnavalli,
     *Like the peacock resplendent,
     *Descend from the green telambu tree.
     *Wrapped in wreaths of cool, balmy sal flowers,
     *Oh! woman,
     *At whose incantations diseases vanish,
     *Who wears the fearsome string of corals,
     *Oh, Ratnavalli,
     *Respond to our call and descend.
     *The name Ratna-tilaka Valli befits you;
     *With rituals awe-inspiring I propitiate you;
     *And those whose twentieth year has Passed,
     *You shall not go without the taste of flesh.


As the anthropologist M. D. Raghavan pointed out in a 1950s' study, the references in these verses to the worship of Ratnavalli in a sacred grove of trees, her braided hair and frightening necklace of human skulls, together with the offering of human flesh, are all aspects associated with the cult of Kali. Significantly, the cult has its origin in the early forms of worship practiced by tribal groups in India.

Ratnavalli seems to have been a goddess worshipped in the north-central area of the island. Tradition has it that her abode was a telambu tree at Anuradhapura, and when the site was chosen for the construction of the magnificent Ruwanvali Dagoba in the 2nd century BC, the mastermind behind it, King Dutugemenu, is said to have offered sacrifices to appease the goddess. Indeed, the dagoba was apparently named after Ratnavalli, for ruwan and ratna have the same meaning - golden or precious.

If a Ratnavalli cult existed, as seems likely, then the exile status and the stigma attached to the Rodi might be due to their membership of it. Buddhism was going though a period of consolidation during Dutugemenu's reign, and a cult that involved human sacrifice would have been anathema to the Budhist population. However, the Rodi have not worshipped Ratnavalli for a considerable time, even though the women are still able to recite the invocatory verses to their former goddess. Nowadays, the Rodi are mostly Buddhist by faith and they insist that Ratnavalli was nothing more than a princess, the daughter of king Parakramabahu, and not a deity.

Entertainers

During former times the Rodi entertained devotees attending many of the island's religious festivals. Even today, Rodi women travel from villages in the northwest province to the famous temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Munneswaram, near Chilawmarker, for the annual festival during July and August.

Seated in a row, they ritualistically spin their plates while reciting the invocatory verses to Ratnavalli, hoping that the devotees' hearts will melt towards them, Curiously, although the myth is generally learned by both sexes, the verses are almost exclusively handed down through the female line. The women would sing hymns in praise of their legendary ancestress Ratnavalli and spin brass plates while the men played a one-sided drum known as Bum-mendiya.

However, the value of such traditions is rapidly diminishing in Rodi eyes. In a more enlightened age, with a new social and economic order, many Rodi are rejecting their former status - although they risk losing with it many of the positive aspects of their past that afforded them a distinct group identity. Now many wish to assume a new identity, mostly as crafts-persons engaged in cane-work in which they have long excelled. These changes are not new but part of a process that began in 1815 with the capitulation of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, after which the social structure, including the occupational demarcations of the caste system, began to erode. Representing far less than one per cent of Sri Lanka's population, the Rodi today are poised for assimilation.

Nation apart

In the past, the Rodi chieftain was known as Hula-valiya (torch-bearer), which Raghavan believes is 'a traditional institution from the days when the Rodiya was a tribe of hunters.' Today, the Rodi have lost their sense of clans.

In former times, the Rodi in the Vanni regions were divided into 12 exogamous clans. Some of the clans are,

  • Mahappola
  • Vapolla
  • Alpaga


while those in other areas also had distinct clan identities. Certain persons are still devoted to particular services, In the Kandayn Kingdom known as Villi or Villi Durea. These Villi Dureas inhabit several large and important villages such as Maduve, Malie-Elle etc., whose services to the king under Kandyan Government consisted in the supply of venison to the palace.

It is further observed, "every Rodiya proper name has the suffix Villiya, is not without its own significance also seems obvious. Villi or Villiya as in Rodiya names such as Jayaratne Villiya or Someratne Villiya, is a specialty of Rodiya personal names, and would seem to mean a 'bow-man' or hunter.

Durai is a Tamil word, denoting headman. Villu is also a Tamil word denoting a bow. Villi Duraya would thus mean a head bowman of the Rodiyas. The Rodi are found concentrated in the up-country areas of the former Kandyan kingdom especially in the central north western Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces.

Current Status

The last census which enumerated the Rodi as a separate community was in 1911. It returned a total of 1,572 Rodi. The traditional life-style of the Rodi is fast dwindling though some characteristics peculiar to Rodi culture still live on. Rodi women are said to have enjoyed a high social status in the past. Even to this day these enterprising and progressive minded women are said to dominate domestic life.

They commonly arrange the marriages of their children and earn a considerable income from entertainment and agriculture. The allure of the charming Rodi girls have captivated the hearts of many an `upper caste' youth.

See also



References

  • Ratnavalli’s Children, Myth and Mystery of the Rodi by Richard Boyle
  • Handsome Beggars, The Rodiyas of Ceylon. 1957 by M.D. Raghavan


External links




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