The End of an Archery Tradition
Sri Lankan Archery

by Douglas Elmy

republished with permission of
the Society of Archer-Antiquaries,
(Journal of the Society of Archery-Antiquaries, Volume 43, 2000.
Pages 49 - 55)
Copyright Reserved

Little has been written about the archery of Sri Lanka. Most of what has been written relates to the use of the bow by the Veddah tribesmen, who used the bow primarily for hunting and at times for war. The Veddah policy of seclusion in the jungle undoubtedly preserved many of their customs and way of life until at least the 1930s when the tribesmen are still known to have carried and used the bow. Because of the sources of information being so limited I regret that I have had to draw somewhat heavily on the reports by both the Seligmans and Hiller and Furness which, incidentally, are well worth reading in their entirety.

The Veddahs
Despite the everyday use of the bow their archery was never brought to a sophisticated conclusion; they were not, apparently, outstanding marksmen and had to rely upon their skills in stalking to bring them close to their quarry. When studying the Veddahs and other aboriginal tribes there are interesting customs and practices to be found. For instance we know that the Veddah did not use the knife, using instead their bladed arrowheads for tasks that included the skinning of game. Honey gathering was another pursuit and this is described below.

According to the Seligmans, "The only toys were bows and arrows, and these were possessed by every male child. We never saw a little girl play with a bow and arrow, but mothers made them for the baby boys while they were still crawling about. Such toys of course are small and roughly made, but bigger boys of five years and upwards make quite neat little bows, and shoot them tolerably well; but they do not feather their arrows. Lads would be encouraged by their elders to shoot at a mark with their bows and arrows and later they would stalk small birds and shoot fish."

Here then we have some details of early training in the use of the bow and, if the training was not as thorough as that given in more militaristic societies, it did at least familiarise the boys and youths with the weapon. It follows that the young bowmen would accompany their elders on the hunt as soon as they were able or allowed to do so, for the greater part of the Veddah economy was based on hunting.

In the making of the adult weapon "the wood of the Kobbeval (Allophylus cobbe) is used for making the bow (malali); a sapling is peeled and shaved down until the required amount of flexibility is obtained, it is then stained black." The result of these labours was a crude self bow of between 69 and 72 inches (183 -195cm) that is, judging from photographs. The bows appear to be round in cross-section and perhaps some of them were, but Hiller and Fumess collected bows which were "ovoid in section.." The bow-string was made of bast (bark) of a tree called arulu (Terminalia chebula), the same is used to bind that part of the shaft of an arrow pierced by the tang of the arrowhead." Apparently "no spells are recited or no other magic used when making axes or bows and arrows.

Having made the bow and its string, the way in which it was strung is reminiscent of the way Arrian describes northern Hindu archers performing the same task. "The bow, to which the string is securely fastened at one end, is carefully unstrung when not in use. To string it, this end (the lower nock) is placed on the ground, the upper part of the shaft (bow-stave) and the string being held in the hands, the sole of one foot is then placed against the middle of the shaft which is then steadied, we might almost say gripped, between the big toe and the second toe. Much of the weight of the body is thrown against the middle of the shaft while the hands pull down the upper end to which the string is quickly secured."

This prehensile method of stringing the bow was a widespread one and a variation of it is still used by present-day Japanese archers. The fact that the Veddah appreciated that a bow should be unstrung when not is use is interesting for, when a bow is made from freshly cut timber, having very little or no seasoning time, then the immediate fault is for the bow to follow the string. In doing so the bow becomes pleasant to use but there is a subsequent loss of power. The Veddah may possibly have made the bows quite strong, initially, to counteract this fault.

"The shaft of the arrow is commonly made of the wood of the welam tree (Pterospermum suberfolium). Generally between 34 and 42 inches (86-107cm) in length, the shafts carried three flights", although Stone quoting Cowper says that the latter stated that some Veddah arrows carried five flights, but says that he was not able to substantiate this. "The feathers of peacocks, herons and hawks were especially used in feathering arrows, any of these birds could be shot with an ordinary arrow." Perhaps the most interesting part of the arrow was its head. The Veddah were not themselves ironsmiths and therefore had to rely upon the Sinhalese smiths to make their arrowheads for them. "It has been reported to me by many people that the wilder sort of them, when they want Arrows (arrowheads) will carry their load of Flesh in the night, and hang it up in a smith's shop, also a leaf cut in the form they will have their Arrows made, and hang by it. Which if the smith do make according to their pattern they will requite, and bring him more flesh; but if he make them not, they will do him a mischief one time or another by shooting in the night. If the smith make the Arrows, he leaves them in the same place, where the Veddahs hung their Flesh."

Again referring to Knox, "They are so curious of the Arrows that no smith can please them: The King (presumably one of the Sinhalese kings) once to gratifie (sic) them for a great Present they brought him, gave all of them his best made Arrow-blades which nevertheless would not please their humour for they went all of them to a Rock by a River and ground them to another form. The Arrows they use are of a different fashion from all other, and the Chingulays (?) will not use them."

Hiller and Furness described the points (arrowheads) they obtained from the Veddah as having "Large leaf-shaped iron points..." and other writers concur with this. The Seligmans go further -

"Having made arrow-heads the shape of Na leaves.

Of the shape of Bo leaves from hill to hill."

They quote Parker who says that he considers this invocation important, since it shows that the arrow-heads were of two shapes, a narrow one with nearly parallel sides (resembling the leaf of the ironwood tree) like some Sinhalese arrows, and a broader one (resembling the Bo leaf). "At the present day the heads of the Veddah arrows are long and relatively narrow, that is, roughly the shape of the leaf of the Na tree. We have not seen any arrow-heads whose shape recalled the leaf of the Bo tree (Pipal religiose)."

Among the items obtained by barter from the Sinhalese were areca nut-cutters (see Fig. 1) It was observed that they "are used as tools for we have seen the final polishing and trimming of arrow shafts performed with these."

Quivers were not used, for the bowmen carried at most two or three arrows (moriankatu), also most of the photographs one sees of the Veddahs, either at rest or full draw, show them holding their spare shafts in the bow hand. Hiller and Furness add that, while shooting, they hold these (spare) arrows between their thighs."

Longman, who comments briefly upon the Veddah bow, discusses how some primitive forms of bow have a groove or furrow sometimes running down the back of the bow-stave. He says, "In the Pitt Rivers Collection at Oxford is a Veddah bow with the same groove." A Tongan bow shown in Longman's text does have a groove holding an arrow but the practice is not alluded to elsewhere.

The Veddah style of shooting leaves much to be desired from the modem viewpoint. Yet their way is not wholly to be derided, for most archers will shoot in a way which produces the best results for them. Describing, from photographs, how the Veddah shoot would be to say that a stance is taken with the feet 12 to 20 inches (30-50cm) apart. The head and body erect, but on full draw being reached, the head is held away from the bowstring. They seem, also, to thrust the bow forward to the extent of the arm and to draw the string from there. The draw was apparently made with three fingers perhaps assisted by the thumb. Photographs shown here depict the tribesmen poised to shoot in an upright stance, but this position might have been only occasionally used because of jungle conditions. An old Veddah who was questioned about the styles of shooting "had seen Veddahs shoot lying on their backs and holding the bow with their feet, but this was only done for amusement and to show their skill, no serious shooting was done in this way."

Despite their seclusion in the jungle the Veddah emerged for other reasons than to have arrowheads made. "The King once having occasion of a hasty expedition against the Dutch, the Governour (sic) summoned them all to go with him, which they did, and with their Bows and Arrows did as good service as any of the rest but afterwards when they returned home again, they removed further into the woods, and would be seen no more, for fear of being afterwards prest to serve the King."

Life did not always go well in the jungle either. "They have their bounds in the Woods among themselves, one company of them is not to shoot or gather honey beyond these bounds. Near the borders stood a Jack-tree (a breadfruit tree), one Veddah of the next division saw him, and told him he had nothing to do to gather Jacks from that Tree, for that belonged to them. They fell to words and from words to blows, and one of them shot another. At which more of them met and fell to skirmishing so briskly with their Bows and Arrows, that twenty or thirty were left dead on the spot."

While the tribesmen hunted virtually all the game within their territory, and are even said to have hunted and shot elephants, gathering honey was another main occupation. "A lad of thirteen collected some green leaves and tied them together with a creeper, then taking an arrow, a toy masliya, and a broken gourd tied with a creeper, which hung over his arm for a maludema (?) he set fire to the leaves and climbed the ladder. While lowering the smoker and letting the smoke blow into the crevice in the rock where the comb was supposed to be, he pretended to cut round its sides with an arrow and thrust at it with his masaliya, from which he transferred the honey to the gourd. A masaliya is a wooden instrument which is used as an extension of the arm to reach the honey."

This report might well have started at the birth of a Veddah, for even here the arrow played a part. "Birth takes place in the cave; no screen is put up, and any woman may assist the parturient woman; the (umbilical) cord is cut with an arrow - the common tool for all cutting purposes."

The monitor lizard was frequently hunted and the Veddah had a 'charm verse' which offers advice on which parts of the lizard's body to shoot at.

"The monitor lizard is sprawling on the log.
Shoot dear cousin,
Shoot at the head - You All miss the head;
Incline (the arrow) towards the tail, by the ribs.
Shoot (it) in the middle; it will die.
Kill the buffalo, cousin."

or another verse runs.

"Go and drop behind the body of a monitor lizard;
Pierce it dear cousin.
Leave that place, arrow-brother,
Go and cleave it in the angle (or edge) of the back.
Leave that place arrow-brother,
Go and doubly cleave in the tail.
Leave that place, arrow-brother,
Go and cleave in the tail.
Leave that place arrow-brother,
Go and doubly cleave it in the stomach.
Leave that space, arrow-brother,
Go and fix (yourself) in the middle of the armpit."

(The arrow-brother being the arrow itself).

Some Veddah lived on the coast of Sri Lanka and adapted their archery and arrows to their environment in the following way. "The Coast Veddahs have become expert fishermen... for shooting fish they use the usual Veddah bow, but the arrow has become a harpoon with a shaft as long as the bow into which the iron (arrowhead) with its running line fits loosely...

The Veddah fishing head is unlike any other seen and would appear unwieldy for its job had we not the assurance that it was efficient ... The length of the Veddah bow and harpoon shaft (shown in Fig. 2) are 82 inches (208cm) and 86 inches (220cm) respectively. The bow is an extremely powerful weapon, in diameter being at it widest part 1 inches (3.3 cm)."

The Aude

The Aude is unique and has no known parallel in any other group of archers, and because of its use by a primitive society who one would not suspect of having such a ritual object.

"Arrows play a considerable part in the Veddah religion, two forms of arrows being used. The first is an ordinary arrow used for shooting game, the second a ceremonial arrow called 'aude' with a blade 10 inches (27cm) to 17 inches (45cm) long, which is usually but not always hafted into a handle often considerably shorter than the blade... With regard to the long-bladed and short-handled ceremonial arrows, the handles of these are sometimes covered with incisions so roughly executed that they do not form a pattern and can hardly be decorative in intention, so that probably they only serve the useful purpose of preventing the hand from slipping. Such ceremonial arrows are generally heirlooms, not necessarily passed from father to son but rather handed down in apostolic succession from shaman to shaman, and among the village Veddahs of Binterne I have handled one such blade with a history running back for five generations."

"These arrows are carefully preserved by the shaman... This is generally done by keeping them in some comparatively remote spot such as a cave or in a roof thatch. It is necessary that the shaman should hold one of these arrows in his hand when invoking Kande Yaka; He should also have one for Bilindi Yaka; though as a matter of practice Kande Yaka and Bilindi Yaka were often invoked using the same aude."

With regard to the metal aude, were they originally Sinhalese? There is a passage in the Seligman work where: "He brought with him to show us two ceremonial arrows with which he invoked the spirits. One of these arrows is in the shape of a Hindu trident, the other is of the usual Veddah shape and is noticeable on account of the silver Bo-leaf with which the blade is inlaid (Fig.2.2). Both of these had been presented by the Sinhalese king to one of his ancestors, apparently 100 years ago. The story was that when this ancestor, who was a Veddah headman and a shaman of great fame, gave up his jungle life and began to cultivate, the Sinhalese king sent him two aude as tokens that he granted the land on which he settled on him and his descendants forever." These aude were in fact "seisin" (legal possession of a freehold estate) and were considered the equivalent of a "sannasa", the inscribed metal plate or rock face on which grants of land were formerly recorded The ceremonies conducted by the shamans were simple affairs and one of their invocations, to Indiallae Yaka, is intriguing

"Having brought a thousand arrows (and) decorated Bowstrings."


"(She has) brought a thousand arrows, and bowstrings made with strength to pierce."

Here the expressions 'decorated bowstrings' and 'bowstrings with the strength to pierce' catch the eye. Until now, the bowstring has seemed nothing but a rough cord. From the invocations, however, it would appear that in former times it was more than this and was perhaps dyed by some means. An invocation to the god overseeing the gathering of honey adds another puzzle

".. as we have made with wax golden arrows, 0 Chief, Gini Rahu, as we have made with wax golden arrows."

When a girl was married her father usually made over to his son-in-law a tract of land, generally known to be inhabited by colonies of the bambera or rock bee (Opia indica), or give a piece of personal property such as a bow and one or two arrows (Manduna). A Veddah well known to the Seligmans received a bow and one arrow from his father-in-law who when presenting them accompanied his gift with the remark "With this bow you must get food for my daughter... In one settlement of village Veddahs, Bulugaladena, we were told that the bridegroom takes a first present to the bride's father and leaves his bow and arrow in his hut until his second visit with further presents four days later."

One of the more curious uses of the arrow: "but in addition to this, the shooting arrow is used as a protection to infants, being commonly thrust into the ground by the side of a sleeping child when the mother is forced to leave it. We heard of this custom in several communities, and at Sital Wanniya, where arrows were scarce, were shown a wooden bladed arrow which was said to be used in this way. These facts are important as showing the power of the arrow lies in itself and not in its iron blade... The protective power of the arrow was (also) noted by Nevill who stated that the Nilgala Veddahs: 'regard the symbol of the arrow, placed by their babes, an efficient protection for it. They leave their tiny babes on the sand for hours, with no other guard than an arrow stuck in the ground by their side. Their belief in the efficacy of this has received no shock. They never knew such a child to be attacked by wild beasts, pigs, leopards jackets etc. or harmed."

The Sinhala Bow and Arrow

Although a more 'finished' bow of Sinhala origin is mentioned by the Seligmans, it is to be regretted that they were not able to include a figure of the weapon. "It appears that painted and lacquered arrows were sometimes presented to the Veddahs by Sinhalese kings as signs or gratitude or favour. Such a bow and arrows were said to have been possessed by a community of sophisticated Veddahs and these ultimately found their way to the Candy Museum. Among the peasant Sinhalese of Nilgala we heard of a lacquered bow said to have been lost recently (and) which according to tradition had been presented many generations ago to the Veddah ancestors of its last owner by one of the last kings of Ceylon."

A visit by the Seligmans to see the arrow confirmed that "the arrow is feathered in the usual Veddah style, the condition of the lacquer on it shows that it is of considerable age. The iron (arrowhead) which is said to belong to it is loose, and it is unlike any arrowhead we have seen. Instead of having a tang it has a socket, and there is a shoulder or "stop" upon the iron. The bow shown us as having been acquired with the arrow was in much better condition and had a small band of silver or some metal resembling silver around it." This is interesting in that the only other bows seen with silver bands are the horn bows formerly used in Java, and which are said to have originated in India. Sinhala weapons were, in general, elaborately carved and decorated so perhaps the use of metal bands on bow-staves may have been a common feature.

For a survey of Sinhala weapons no better source can be found than Deraniyagala. In his list of weapons he gives details of the Sinhala bow from its simple form to the more complex "built" and compound weapons. He starts by describing the self bow which he names Maha Dunna or Usa Dunna (Dunna meaning bow). "This is a simple cylindrical stave... Each end is either notched or with a thick ring of fibre and gum fixed an inch from the tip... the loop of the bowstring, usually of Nuga Ahatu fibre, or Niyanda (?) or Sambhur intestine is kept in place by one or the other of these methods. One end of the bowstring is often firmly attached to one tip of the bow, and the other fastened only prior to use."

The Maha Dunna or Usa Dunna is a simple longbow, generally exceeding the height of the user by two or three spans. A smaller but thicker and presumably more efficient form is the Miti Dunna which is commonly depicted on ancient frescoes and battle scenes. Some of them are self bows with the cylindrical staff of the Danu Liya. The cylindrical handle or grip of the Danu Mundava, is convex or planed flat on the outer edge or 'back', but planed down into a triangular section from the grip to each bow tip along the inner edge or the belly.

The Bammi Dunna or 'built bow' is more specialised, where lengths of two or more types of timber and horn are bound together to increase the resilience and power of the weapon. The flat inner length is usually the hard outer wood of the areca nut or kital palm, while the usual bow-making woods such as Gata vera,(?) Tharandu,(?) cane, or Kukuru marn (?) were employed for the outer convex length... Ancient frescoes and carvings show the wood fastened together by three bands near the middle of the bow or eight or nine bands equally spaced apart at short intervals from tip to tip; in some instances they show a trident or axe at one tip evidently for use after the supply of arrows was expended.

The crossbow existed in a variety of forms such as the Harras dunna, Danu Madalaya and Yaturu dunna; some were compound, others composite, or both .

Towards Palmadulla in Sabaragamuva the tradition exists that the archers of that area employed bows consisting of three pieces which were joined together when they were needed for use. The men were required to render military service for 15 days each year and the Patabanda and Vaddhi Lekam, or Officer in command of the archers or Danukareyo of Udakara near Palmadulla would marshall their men, collect provisions and march to Kandy via Balangoda and Kotiagala when summoned by the king.

Any archer who distinguished himself was honoured with gifts and the rank of 'Dhauderaya'. Some of these bows were used from a sitting posture, for it is known that ordinary Sinhala self bows were converted into crossbows by the user sitting down, placing the weapon horizontally against the soles of his feet, and employing both hands and his body swing in drawing the bowstring." Bows were also drawn with the archer kneeling or standing upright.

"The type of draw and release of the Sinhala archer was generally with the first and second fingers, hooked round the bowstring with the thumb keeping the arrow in position. Arm bracers or guards of broad metal bracelets were also worn. The position of the arrow varied and it frequently crossed the forearm of the hand holding the bow. The arrows show a greater diversity of form than the bows and the more archaic survive as temple weapons. The earliest arrowheads were leaf-like and were probably wedged into a cleft in the shaft; later the Gokkana type possessed a posterior tang, which was driven into it, the development of a socket for receiving the latter followed. The lanceolate arrowhead is common, and is the form employed by the so-called Veddahs who use the Sinhala longbow.

"Rankling arrows, where the shaft was so loosely fixed as to drop off when the head buried itself in the foe, were also employed. This prevented easy withdrawal of the barbed head, some arrowheads possessing four barbs. Crescent shaped heads with the points directed forward and variations of the trident were also common, but the most recent type of Sinhala war arrow carried a small head no wider than the shaft, which doubtless increased its powers of penetration. The number of vanes to the arrow varied, some bearing as many as five. These were made of peacock feathers or even parts of stiff leaves and were either bound to the shaft with fibre and fixed with glue, or set in thin slots and glued. Immediately in front of the nock the shaft was bound with fibre and strengthened with resin varnish to prevent the wood splitting.

"The science of archery was complex... For example, archers or even javelin throwers were trained to shoot by ear, guided by the cry of an animal or shout of a foe and considered it unbecoming to hit any part of the body other than the mouth or the throat from which the sound issued. Others... cultivated speed of attack and were expected to kill a foe revealed momentarily by a flash of lightning. Others specialised in accuracy till an exponent could sever a hair held taut as a target, while another section developed velocity sufficient to drive an arrow completely through a hundred folds of hide, a metal plate or a bag of sand.

"The Gal Dunna is a pellet bow and the old war bows were said to have been 'built' ones. The handle is cylindrical but the belly is planed into a triangular surface. The bowstring is taken twice round to form two parallel strands which are kept apart from one another by a short length of wood fixed transversely at each end of the bow. Opposite the handle a web about four inches (10 x 10cm) is woven between two strings and this receives the pellet of baked clay which is then propelled in place of an arrow."


Apart from Deraniyagala's list, nothing else can be found which gives additional information about Sinhalese archery. However, from it we can see how the bow passed from the simple self-bow and culminated in the more sophisticated 'built' weapon. Unusual features are the 'triangular section' of one type of bow, and the three-piece bow.

The latter type of bow was known from early times in India and is described in one of the Jataka Tales. It was a take-apart weapon and could possibly have been used as part of a crossbow and one wishes that Deraniyagala and Knox had given more detail on this point.

The attachment of a small trident to the upper end of a bow shows a distinct Hindu influence and has a parallel in the Japanese yumiyari (or bow-spear). This was a short-bladed and socketted spear-point, forged with string shoulders and which was sometimes fitted over the top nock of the bow.

The "ordinary Sinhala self-bows were converted into crossbows by the user sitting down, placing the bow horizontally against the soles of the feet" was, incidentally, widely practised by a number of aboriginal tribes of central India-and elsewhere. It is a very old type of shooting and archery history refers to it at any age. By using the combined muscles of the arms and legs a very powerful bow may be used. Can we postulate that the 'velocity' archers used this method? Sinhala arrowheads and their methods of attachment, the trident and crescent-headed arrows all have echoes of those used in India.


Seligman, G.C, and B. Z., The Veddahs, Cambridge University Press, 1911.

Hiller, Dr. E. M., Fumess, Dr. W. H. Notes on a trip to the Veddahs of Ceylon, 1906.

Stone, G. C. A. Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of arms and armour in all countries and in all times, Portland, Maine, 1934, reprinted 1961.

Cowper, H. S., The Art of Attack and Development of Weapons, Ulverston, 1906.

Know, (Alexander?)  who was held captive in Ceylon for 20 years and who wrote of his experiences on his return to England.

Mr. Parker was a retired government official who helped the Seligman's with details of Veddah life.

Longman, C.J., The Badminton Library (Archery), 'Forms of bow and their Distribution', p. 42, 1894

Deraniyagala, P., 'Sinhala Weapons and Armour', Journal R. A. S. (Ceylon), vol.  XXXV No. 95, 1942.