The Lankan Gypsies

Driving from Welimada to Bandarawela, I saw a man walking along an isolated patch of road with a monkey. The little fella with a long tail was clad in bright coloured clothes and was kept by the owner in a long dog-chain.

Little did I realise that a few hours later both of them would show up on our doorstep.

The Sri Lankan nomads (gypsies/ahikuntaka) are a minority community in the country, slowly disappearing in their numbers. Threatened by the change and technology, they find it hard to fit in to the common culture even though some of them have successfully integrated in to the main Sinhala community. The gypsies are believed to have come from India, (when exactly not known) and some of them still speak Telegu while they are also fluent in Sinhala and Tamil.

These gypsies would travel from place to place with their donkey-caravans, set up camp in an abandoned plot of land where there is potable water, and able men and women would roam the countryside making a living by palm-reading and earning with their performing animals. Its the women who are conversant with palm reading, while the men stick to the animals (no pun intended). Usually, a gypsy man would carry a performing-monkey and a snake; and a python in his bag would be a bonus photo-opportunity.

The men would go from door to door sounding their snake-charmer’s flute – a trademark sound known to possibly every Sri Lankan kid. Hearing the flute, kids would trouble their parents for an opportunity to witness the “dancing cobra” or the “performing monkey;” and the whole neighbourhood would flock to join in the entertainment. At the end of each performance – which lasts less than half an hour – the monkey usually goes around and collects the “fees” from the spectators. The gypsies would prefer to negotiate a pre-agreed amount these days, they know not to take a chance at the end of a hard day’s work.

The women read palms, and there’s more entertainment value than truth. Most comments are generic, and universal truths, and when they say “Sir, something really good is going to happen to you soon,” one would, naturally, makeup one’s mind to double the tip. Gypsy men charm the snakes and their women charm us.

It is said that the gypsies wouldn’t camp in one place for more than seven days. Probably they couldn’t either, even if they wanted to – due to sanitary and hygienic reasons.

Over the years, the donkeys who used to carry the camping gear and the woven palm leaves that made shelter, have dwindled in numbers, possibly giving way to motorised transport and polythene sheets. The coconut shell that was once a drinking cup is no more, there’s a plastic cup instead.

The gypsies are, almost, a forgotten community. There are no records of them (such as births, marriages and deaths), or even addresses. Therefore, they never have most of the basic human rights, including the right to vote. Gypsy kids aren’t admitted to schools, for they lack any documentation. Public transport wouldn’t accept them in, at least not without frowning upon them.

However, recently there had been a few initiatives to improve their lifestyle. In one occasion, a Public Health Inspector helped a gypsy community of 18 families settle down in Mahakandarawa, and helped them send 18 of their kids to school. There has been some other such reports as well.

In a way, it is a blessing to hear that these people living in sub-human conditions receive the basic rights they rightfully deserve. At the same time, it would also be sad to see them get integrated in to the mainstream and see them disappearing from the face of the earth...

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