Ahikuntika culture is fast disappearing | Sunday Observer

Ahikuntika culture is fast disappearing

28 June, 2020

Tambuttegama: These days the future of his community and its traditions rests heavily on the mind of 60-year-old Engethennage Podi Mahattaya. After the demise of his uncle, the former headman, Muttu Sami Appu, Podi Mahattaya took over as the village headman in Kudagama, Tambuttegama, a small hamlet of nomadic people locally known as the Ahikuntika community. Podi Mahattaya says they now prefer to call themselves Sri Lankan Telgus to ensure that their children are not stigmatised by a society which once looked down upon them.

The Telugus

Today, there are nearly 30 000 Telugu people in Sri Lanka spread across seven villages in Tambuttegama, Batticaloa, Vavuniya, Ampara, Galgamuwa, Kalawewa and Mihintale. Originally, coming from Andhra Pradesh in India and once-living a nomadic lifestyle, the Telugus were known to travel from town to town, village to village with their belongings stacked on donkeys while rearing goats and making a living through soothsaying, snake charming and performing monkeys.

Land ownership and a permanent address was an alien concept to them. Podi Mahattaya recalled that their ancestors had instead opted to live in temporary shelters by a road or on any suitable empty land. In a matter of days, they would once again pack up and take to the roads. “That was our tradition,” Podi Mahatataya said.

But all this changed when Podi Mahattaya’s father and others of his generation were given Sri Lankan citizenship in the 1970s. “President Ranasinghe Premadasa granted us citizenship,” Podi Mahattaya said, adding that the community was also given land to settle on, creating Telugu villages in the North-Western and Eastern provinces of the country.

Drastic changes

Since then, the lives and traditions of the Telugu people have changed drastically. They no longer travel from place to place. Instead of Telugu, they speak a mix of it with Sinhala. Those in Tamil-speaking areas now mainly speak in Tamil.

“It is easier for the children to speak and learn the language used in school as opposed to Telugu which is only used within the community,” Podi Mahattaya said.

Many have embraced either Buddhism or Christianity. He said other traditions such as trial by boiling oil to find a wrongdoer has also been done away with. “I have advised people and asked them to go to the Police to resolve any issue,” he said.

Many have also given up their former means of livelihood. Podi Mahattaya belongs to a fast-disappearing group of those who still engage in snake charming and making monkeys perform.

Traditional livelihoods

“Traditionally, the Telugu people often made money by snake charming. We take cobras, vipers and pythons to show the public,” he said adding that making monkeys perform for entertainment was also a popular means of livelihood. According to him, while the men engaged in these activities to make a living, the women would read the palms of people for money.

“We can make around Rs. 4,000 a day by just monkey performances,” he said. One palm reading would earn them around Rs. 200.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic means that the past few months have been difficult for the community as they were no longer able to travel to engage in their traditional livelihoods. “The people stayed within the village as both the Police and Public Health Inspectors told us we cannot venture out,” he said. Even though the curfew has been lifted, Podi Mahattaya said that they are still unable to earn a living.

“We try to wear masks and visit Anuradhapura town to perform but the Police prevent us,” he said. However, he is hopeful they will be able to continue snake charming and making monkeys perform in a few months. “Soothsaying may not be possible as it requires touching the hand of another person” he pointed out.

Younger generation

But Podi Mahattaya also wonders out aloud if the pandemic would be the final nail on the coffin for their traditional livelihoods. “Already the younger generation is rejecting it and doesn’t even like to handle animals,” he said. According to him, the accusations of animal abuse against the community has also made the youngsters seek different forms of employment.

However, he also wants people to know that they treat their animals well. “We bathe them once in two days and feed them including the reptiles thrice a day. We take care of them and love them because our livelihoods depend on them” he added.

The younger generations' rejection of the traditional livelihoods means they even try to influence their elders to give it up. “They are educated now and leave the village for other jobs. They even ask the parents to give up our traditional jobs” he said.

“But what other choice do we have?” he asked. His children prefer engaging in various businesses to make a living. His brother’s son who will take over as headman after Podi Mahattaya’s death has also opted to engage in business to earn his living.

However, Podi Mahattaya said he understands that the community will only be uplifted through education and better employment. Some youth from the village have now even gone on to receive a university education.Something that was unthinkable for those in their community many years ago.

According to him, many elders have listened to the requests of their children and moved away from soothsaying and snake charming to make a living. “All my sister’s children, for example, are in the Army now. Thus, my sister and husband have stopped going out to earn,” he said.

Though Podi Mahattaya does not oppose many of the changes taking place in his community he is nevertheless concerned about their loss of identity, culture and traditions. “Many of our traditions are already lost,” he said.

While an Ahikuntika Resource Centre (ARC) was set up at Kudagama with the intention of making the Ahikuntika village a tourist hub with facilities to display their traditional livelihoods such as snake charming, monkey performing and a museum to house the traditional Ahikuntika arts and crafts, according to Podi Mahattaya, it has already fallen into disrepair and has been looted.

“Some use the place to do drugs now,” he said. Though the Divisional Secretariat has officers dedicated to preserving culture, Podi Mahattaya said they rarely visit the village or take any interest in it.

He lamented that in a decade all things unique to his community will be lost. “We can’t protect our culture now. We are fighting a losing battle,” he said.