The vederala and the kaparula

Among the Casey Wood papers in the Osler Library (box file 4/6/5)  is a paper entitled ‘The Outfit of a Native Doctor (Vederala) in Ancient and Medieval Times’ that he intended for publication in the journal Annals of Medical History. As far as I know, the paper was never actually published.

The article describes the dress and daily practise of the Vederala, or ‘native doctor’.


The picture of the Vederala in full dress is presumably intended to belong to the late sixteenth century. Casey Wood writes:

The Vederala impersonating this figure belongs to a family of Native Doctors whose ancestor was a Court Physician under King Vimala Dharma Surya of Kandy in 1594. Note his small wallet, ceremonial or ranking stylus and dagger, ola, chambered staff and scarf. The attendant carries the bulat-payiya for extra clothing, medico-surgical supplies etc. a large embroidered, velvet wallet indicative of his status that corresponds to the European saddle bag.

Casey Wood had already described the Vederala in his ‘Ayurvedic Medicine in Ancient and Medieval Ceylon’, reprinted from Annals of Med. Hist. VIII, 4, (1927) 435-445. Here he paints a picture of the Vederala as a respected figure, living off gifts and perquisites, performing religious duties at the temple or in his own house, directing assistants at the pharmacy, dictating to pupils, and making the rounds of his patients. In the later paper, he adds a few more details, noting the common custom of patients of presenting to the doctor bulath burulla, forty betel leaves, tied in a bundle. He also notes that favourable omens for the day could include the sighting of a pretty maid with a pot of water or a milch cow.

In ‘‘The Outfit of a Native Doctor’, Casey Wood goes into more detail about some of objects the Vederala is carrying in his reconstruction. Some of these objects are indications of status: for example the dagger and ceremonial stylus. Several of these daggers remain in the Redpath Museum and are beautiful objects, sometimes with silver or gold inlaid blades and hilts carved into the shapes of mythological beasts, which themselves could serve as an indication of rank.


Neem_design_dagger (2)

The sheaths of these daggers also contained the ceremonial stylus


As Casey Wood noted, a ceremonial stylus would have been difficult to write with, and the Vederala would have ordinarily used a shorter instrument for writing prescriptions on ola leaves. In a letter to  Dr. Irvine S. Cutter, Dean Northwestern Medical School, he wrote:

I am informed that the Native Doctor sometimes did use his ceremonial stylus or one carried by his assistant, for writing short notes, directions to his students or prescriptions, but the formal book manuscript was nearly always written by a stylus twice as long as the ceremonial instrument, and used in a very different manner

In the same letter, Wood adds that;

[O]n ceremonial occasions, especially on visits to a noble’s or royal court, the gilt, silver, or jewel hilt of the dagger and the ornamented head of the stylus was exposed in the sheaths much as I have tied them for inspection – like unto the academic togs of the many-degreed in our day

The chambered staff carried by the Vederala could also be an indication of rank, as well as functioning as a conveniently portable pill box. The staffs were often made from horn or ivory, high-status materials controlled by the Kandyan court.


These staffs remain both among the Casey Wood collection and in the National Museum in Colombo.

Closer inspection of two staffs in the Colombo Museum threw up some questions about the Vederala and another figure described by Casey Wood: the Kaparula.



The two staffs are very similar and in the labels that accompany the exhibit, they are both described as ‘doctor’s staffs’. However, as the current Curator of the Museum pointed out to me, the staff on the bottom belongs to the Kaparula, or ‘devil dancer’.

Casey Wood also photographed the Kaparula for his files, he is shown here with the yak-sanni demons performing a ritual against fever.


Casey Wood also describes the practise of the Kaparula, in his article entitled ‘Sinhalese and South Indian Ceremonials in the Prevention and Treatment of Disease’, Annals of Medical History, 1934, pp. 483-490. Here he explains the widespread belief that illness can be caused by evil spirits called ‘Yaka’, who form a large community governed by a king with a series of officers under him. These spirits may be defeated by the use of mantras, written in number of languages on ola leaves. Other treatments include transferring the disease to an inanimate object or ‘cutting it out’; fumigration, the use of strings or threads to draw out disease, and ceremonies to involving deities (which he compares to Catholic ceremonies).

The idea behind the ‘devil dance’ that is photographed is said to be that the devils will look upon the dancers with a sort of brotherly compassion (as a fellow devil) and so that when his influence is transferred from the patient to them, they have no further malign influence. During the dance, the dancer should recite the devil’s verses, yak-kavi, giving the name, birth, parentage and other details of the demon in question so that the demon can see that the dancer is ‘the knowing one’ and that his demands must be met. With his customary attention to material detail, Wood note that the ‘devil drum’, or yak-beraya’ is made from the wood of the Talipot tree.

While Wood was more open to describing the spiritual aspect of healing than many others of his generation he did not hestitate to mock beliefs he regarded as the province of the uneducated lower classes or the ceremonials that reminded him too much of Catholicism:

 [T]he same bastard alliance between religion and therapeutics has held sway among about the same class and to about the same extent, among the peoples of the Orient as it has done in occidental countries.

Wood returns to his Vederala to imagine his view on the subject, concluding that his relationship with the Kaparula was ambivalent at best. But, if Wood was convinced that the Kaparula possessed a lower status than the Vederala, the Kaparula’s staff, every bit as ornate as that of the Vederala, seems to tell a different story.



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