Sri Lanka is home to an array of ethnic groups, the smaller of which live partly outside the mainstream of society. Undoubtedly, the best known of these are the Veddah, who conform to the aboriginal, hunter-gatherer archetype. A lesser-known community, the only ‘untouchable’ group until the 1950s, is the Rodi. Indeed, the Rodi’s intriguing myth of origin, their tragic history and the much-renowned beauty of their women, have combined to distinguish them. Not only has the tribe transformed into an oppressed caste in the mists of history, but the Rodi women have suffered disproportionately due to the burden of myths about their sexuality. While their beauty has been romanticised, the mystique of their sexual prowess has inspired both desire and fear in men of higher castes.
Although their beginnings are far from certain, it is possible that the Rodi were originally a hunting tribe from the Subcontinental mainland. Their current numbers are unknown, as Sri Lanka ceased to include caste in the population census over a hundred years ago. Anthropologist Nireka Weeratunge’s research in 1988 (the most recent to date) found one of the villages studied to have a larger population than the figure that had previously been used for the Rodi population for the Northwestern Province as a whole. While definite numbers thus cannot be cited, the Rodi population is today estimated to be around 25,000.
As regards their origins, one theory is that the first members arrived as bowmen in the retinue that accompanied the sacred bo (or pipal) tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, as it made its journey from the empire of Ashoka to the magnificent north-central city of Anuradhapura 22 centuries ago. However, the Rodi also have a gruesome oral tradition that ascribes to them both a local origin and a royal lineage. Over the generations, this myth of origin has acquired subtle variations. Nevertheless, the commonest version is that which was recorded by the British civil servant Hugh Nevill in the June and August 1887 issues of his journal, The Taprobanian:
At [King] Parakramabahu’s court, the venison was provided by a certain Veddah 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 Household. Navaratnavalli (or Ratnavalli), the beautiful daughter of the king, discovered the deception and, fascinated by a longing for human flesh, ordered the hunter to bring this flesh daily.
According to this story, youths and young women began to vanish with alarming regularity. This continued until, one day, a barber who had come to the palace to complain of the disappearance of his son discovered the child’s finger in a meal given to him by royal servants. “The facts then came to light,” writes Nevill, “and the King, stripping his daughter of her ornaments, and calling up a scavenger then sweeping out a neighbouring yard, gave her to him as wife and drove her out to learn her living in her husband’s class.” The Rodi are said to be the offspring of this outcast princess.
Relegated to rodda
History confirms that the Rodi were indeed outcastes, who suffered many prohibitions under the laws of the Kandyan Kingdom during the Middle Ages. They were considered the scum of humanity, and were given the name Rodi, derived from rodda, filth. They were forbidden to enter Buddhist temples, to till the soil, to use a ferry or to draw water from the common well. Even a stream on which their shadow fell was considered defiled, at least temporarily. Men and women alike were not permitted to wear any clothing above the waist, and were compelled to salute everyone they met by making low obeisance. They were forced to live in segregated hamlets known as kuppayam, which had to be constructed with only a back wall of mud and a roof of palm leaves. Such caste restrictions, including untouchability, have been prohibited by Sri Lankan law since 1957. However, the Rodi have continued to face varying levels of discrimination from neighbouring communities in rural areas, especially in the sharing of food, and access to education and jobs.
Unlike the hunter-gatherer Veddah, the Rodi were integrated into the caste system of the island. It is not clear why exactly, except perhaps that they were a later immigrant group than were the Veddah, who are believed to be the original inhabitants of the island. Either way, the Rodi were placed at the very bottom of the hierarchy. While the Sinhalese caste system was characterised by social distance, it was tempered to some extent by Buddhist principles; physical violence against lower-caste members, and ‘cleansing’ following encounters with them, were generally absent. Yet an English sea captain named Robert Knox, who wrote the first comprehensive description of the Rodi in English in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), perpetuated their vilification:
There is one sort of People, and they are the Beggars who for their transgression, have by former Kings been made so low and base, that they can be no lower or baser … These Men being so low that nothing they can do, can make them lower, it is not unusual with them to lay with their Daughters, or for their Son to lay with his Mother, as if there was no Consanguinity among them.
Under Kandyan law, one form of punishment for miscreants and female members of the families of noblemen who had fallen out of favour with the king was to consign them to live with the Rodi. “Many times when the King 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 to be far worse punishment than death,” Knox writes.
The answer to the Rodi fall from grace may lie in the religious and mythical traditions of the community. 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,
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,
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 points out in Handsome Beggars: The Rodiyas of Ceylon (1957), the references 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. If a Kali-like Ratnavalli cult existed, then the stigma attached to the Rodi might be due to their membership in it. After all, a cult that involved human sacrifice would certainly have been anathema to early and late Buddhists alike.
As the induvara flower
Whatever the interpretation of the myth, there are aspects of the Rodi that are indisputable, such as the strength of their women and the relatively high status they have in their community. As noted previously, the Rodi attribute this to their descent from a royal princess, as well as to the occasional subsequent introduction of noble blood. Their ‘womanly charm’ has often been wrongly interpreted, though, by non-Rodi men, including Europeans. “We regret to say, for the sake of morality, that the women belonging to the Rhodias are not viewed with the same abhorrence which is evinced towards the men, and as the former in their youth are especially handsome, they form the pastime of many an idle hour,” Henry Charles Sirr commented in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850). “Their want of chastity is proverbial, as the current saying in Kandy is that, ‘A Pariah dog and a Rhodia woman are born unchaste.’ ”
Rodi women typified Western fantasies of Eastern sexuality. This was epitomised in the romance between a Rodi girl and a tea planter in Robert Standish’s novel Elephant Walk (1948), subsequently adapted as a film starring Peter Finch and Elizabeth Taylor. “Wilding had seen the beauty of women in the sophisticated centres,” the author writes of the hero’s first meeting with his Rodi girl. “Now in the hills of Ceylon there stood before him the loveliest creature of all. Here was innocence, but it was not the clumsy, bucolic innocence of the village, for the girl who stood so proudly before him, had the bearing of a princess.”
Standish introduces his Rodi character, Rayna, by describing her beauty and her inevitable fate: “Her skin, of so light a brown that it could scarcely be called brown, had the translucence of youth and bounding health. She held herself with pride, walking as gracefully as a young deer. Firm young breasts, perfectly rounded, seemed to accentuate the pride of her bearing.” Rayna puts on a blouse and enters Wilding’s bungalow to meet and seduce the Englishman. After explaining to Wilding that she is a Rodi, she tells him:
‘There is a law which says we must not wear anything above the waist. Of course, there are no Rodiya people here, so it does not matter, but although this’ – she touched the blouse – ‘is very pretty, it is not very comfortable. I only wore it because I had to look very beautiful the first time you saw me. I think now I shall take it off.’ With the greatest unconcern, Rayna removed her blouse. ‘That is better,’ she said, more at ease, stroking her breasts luxuriously.’
‘Yes,’ said Wilding, ‘that is better…’
Other stigmas aside, a certain pride of place was very definitely carved out for Rodi women. Rodi beauty clearly moved certain sections of the indigenous population as well, as is clear from a traditional ballad:
Fair of face like the full-blown lotus
Thy rosy lips match the red lilies
Thine eyes blue as the induvara flower
With swelling swan-like breasts;
Shine resplendent, the livelong day.
O, Rodi girl; the full moon over Ratnapura sky
In a more enlightened age, with a new social and economic order, the Rodi are today rejecting their former status. In this attempt, however, they could risk losing with it many of the positive aspects of their past, which have afforded them a distinct group identity. But that, perhaps, is the price to be paid for jettisoning a history of discrimination.
~ Richard Boyle is an English writer who has lived in Sri Lanka for 25 years. His latest book is Sinbad in Serendib.