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Ahikuntaka community, people with untold aspirations

During my childhood, I immensely enjoyed the comic strip Sathweni Dawasa (created by Bandula Harishchandra and Published in the Silumina) which presented a dissection of gypsy life and their tragedies in the face of rapid social change. In this popular strip cartoon, the gypsies (Ahikuntakas) were pictured as tragic heroes in the process of evolution and in their struggle to avoid being sidelined in society.

The subsequent cinematic work based on this comic strip redoubled the appeal of the original story which strongly implies that Ahikuntakas, confronted by the onset of rapid development are unable to find a way to fit in with the rest of society. In total contrast, today they no longer reside in traditional tents as they had done for centuries.

Sri Lankan Ahikuntikas

They have gradually assimilated into the life style of the general population and live in permanent dwellings practising various trades and vocations. Their unorthodox lifestyle include shifting to a new camping ground every seven days (Sathweni Dawasa) and engaging in vocations such as fortune telling, taming monkeys for performing tricks and snake charming.

Now it is often interesting to find them working as labourers, tailors, soldiers and small-scale businessmen in buses.

But they seem to be fighting a losing battle to enhance their social standards, and to revive their vanishing culture and tradition.

Gypsies who are a minority community gradually disappearing in Sri Lanka establish a unique identity as a people who live in tents, wander from place to place and earn basic living by palm reading, snake charming and training monkeys for entertainment purposes.

Tribal

Historically, Sri Lankan gypsies trace their origin from a primitive tribal group who had immigrated to Sri Lanka from Andra Pradesh. They are probably the descendants from wondering tribesmen called "Koravar" who still continue their vagrancy in provinces of Kerala, Madura and Pandya.

Apart from speaking their vernacular language 'Teligu', they are equally conversant in Sinhala and Tamil as they are the major lingo in the society they live in.

A march of gypsies is generally characterised by donkeys, trained monkeys, hounds, people carrying reed boxes with poisonous snakes in them and ladies wearing colourful garments and carrying children in cloth bags. Interestingly enough, these people save nothing for future, build no house for permanent residence but centre their whole life on monkeys, fortune telling, snake charming and something hunting.

The gypsy community live scattered in many parts of the country and have succeeded in preserving their social characteristics. They are mostly seen engaging in their trades and vocations in areas such as Galgamuwa, Anuradhapura, Moratuwa and Puttalam. Traditionally, the most wealthy, intelligent, fair and dignified persons in the tribe is frequently chosen as the leader or the chief in the group.

"Korala" and "Vidanearachchi" are other responsible positions in gypsy tradition which are formally conferred on the most intelligent and experienced members of Ahikuntaka tribe according to the ideals and ethics of the tribe. Quite naturally, the customs and traditions of Ahikuntaka community strongly underpin allegiance to the leadership.

The Ahikuntaka community is well bound up by a texture of religious beliefs formulated from multiple faiths. God Shiva is their Chief God and all their religious rituals centred around Hinduism. Apart from that, Gypsies have strong faith in Buddhasami (Buddha), Ayyanayaka, Vishnu and Skandha Kumara.

Sri Lankan gypsies (Ahikuntikas) are compelled to engage in daily labour to sustain themselves owing to the current economic pressures.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between Ahikuntakas and other Sinhala counterparts as they share similar names. However, the traditional gypsy names are Agatanna, Vannaku, Anavattu, Rengasami, Thangamma, Lechchami and Mangamma.

Lifestyle

Most Ahikuntika children are tempted to obtain a higher education and shed their traditional lifestyle in order to become accepted into the society they live.

A historic event on the part of gypsy community in Sri Lanka took place upon the banks of Rajanganaya tank in Thambuttegama on January 28, 2011. A "Varigasabha" (a tribal meeting) was held there with all the gypsies and their leaders brought together from all over the country to one place.

At this tribal meeting, the Ahikuntaka leaders came together and discussed the core issues and the ways and means to address them. An elaborate cultural ceremony that commenced with flute playing and a traditional dance by the women. The tribal leaders exploited this Varigasabha to talk of their lives, changing times and concerns that affect their very existence.

For the first time in the history of minority communities, a special charter for the Ahikuntaka community was adopted to upgrade their unity and to strengthen their cultural identity.

The Varigasabha held in 2011, introduced "Kudagama Charter for Sri Lanka Gypsy community" and five community leaders representing the gypsy communities endorsed it formally.

At this tribal meeting, Ahikuntaka youth expressed their views and attitudes regarding their culture and trends. It is important to note that the aspirations of youth are critically different to those of their elders and they recognise a dramatic change in their life styles in order to be part of the greater society they live in.

The Ahikuntaka youth are much enthusiastic to progress beyond the old generation and to shed their traditional livelihood methods.

At the same time they develop a trend to conceal out the stigma of alcoholism that is often related to the gypsy community.

While the elders strictly stick to the traditional values, the youth directly aspire to be educated, to be employed in recognised institutions and to provide systematic education to their children in government schools.

The youth are also of the view that they are incapable of convincing their parents of the urgency to change their lifestyles in order to be "in".

A greater effort to alter and enhance public perception regarding the gypsy community and to upgrade their living conditions, is the need of the day.

 

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