The first account of the Indian python (Python molurus) in English literature concerning the island is by Robert Knox in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681). He uses the common Sinhala name pimberah (pimbura). Knox’s account contains an ancient and universal misconception – that the small appendages on the tail (anal spurs in fact) are [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Python tales


The first account of the Indian python (Python molurus) in English literature concerning the island is by Robert Knox in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681). He uses the common Sinhala name pimberah (pimbura). Knox’s account contains an ancient and universal misconception – that the small appendages on the tail (anal spurs in fact) are hooks to either secure prey or to hold the snake to the ground while striking. He also mentions an incident where a python had its tail coiled around a tree while consuming a deer. Many authors of the period state that such anchorage is a prerequisite for constriction or consumption of prey. This is not generally the case, although pythons may occasionally exhibit such behaviour.

“. . . the Pimberah, the body of whereof is as big as a man’s middle, and of a length proportionable,” Knox begins. “It is not swift, but by subtlety will catch his prey; which are Deer or other Cattel; He lyes in the path where the Deer use to pass, and as they go, he claps hold of them by a kind of peg that growes on his tayl, with which he strikes them. He will swallow a Roe Buck whole, horns and all; so that it happens sometimes the horns run thro his belly, and kill him.

Knox continues by recounting an experience that is hard to believe: “A Stag was caught by one of these Pimberahs, which seized him by the buttock, and held him so fast, that he could not get away, but ran a few steps this way and that way. An Indian, seeing the Stag run thus, supposed him in a snare, and having a Gun shot him; at which the Stag gave so strong a jerk, that it pulled the Serpent’s head off, while his tayl was encompassing a Tree to hold the Stag the better.”

Some 170 years after Knox, the belief that the anal spurs acted as hooks was still prevalent. For instance, Charles Henry Sirr states in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850): “The creature has two horny excrescences, or spurs, near the tail, and these enable the reptile to cling with greater security to the branches of the trees, from which it will swing, ready to seize upon and entwine around any animal that may come within its reach.”

It is believed that the Indian python sometimes attains the awesome length of 4.5m, which places it, along with the anaconda, in the zoological category of “giant snake.” According to several early English writers, the Sinhalese were convinced that it grew to such a length. James Cordiner claims in A Description of Ceylon (1807): “The Cingalese . . . positively assert that there is a snake 30 feet [9m] in length, and ten inches in diameter: one which has been taken with a hog in its belly; and in another has been found the horn of a buffalo.”

John Davy, in An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821), echoes Cordiner’s assertion: “It is said by the natives . . . to be found occasionally 25 and 30 feet [7.5 and 9m] long, and of the thickness of a common-sized man.” Sirr (1850) is more conservative: “A full grown snake will measure from 17 to 20 feet [5 to 6m], and we have heard it asserted that one 25 feet [7.5m] long, and whose body was two and a half feet in circumference, was killed by our informant.”

Edward Sullivan remarks in The Bungalow and the Tent, or a Visit to Ceylon (1854): “Though I heard of several that within the memory or tradition of men had been killed, measuring 30 feet [9m], I never heard that size exceeded; but this by no means proves that their growth is limited to that length, or that they may not exist in large numbers.”

These references, though, are all based on hearsay. From times past the largest specimen on record in Sri Lanka is considered to be that documented by Robert Percival in An Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803). Percival was the first of many 19th century writers to refer to the Ceylon python as the rock-snake: “The rock-snake is an immense animal . . . I have myself seen one 22 feet [6.7m] long, and about the thickness of a man’s thigh: and I was told that much larger ones were to be found in the island. I had a transient glimpse of another as he glided past me through the bushes in the neighbourhood of Columbo; in size he seemed to exceed the one I had formerly seen.”

Second place goes to a 17-foot [5-metre] specimen that, as James Emerson Tennent reports in Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon (1861), was easy to measure as it was secured to a pole. “But,” he continues, in much the same manner as Percival, “one more fully grown, which crossed my path at Pusilawa, considerably exceeded these dimensions. Another which I watched in the garden at Elie House, near Colombo, surprised me by the ease with which it erected itself almost perpendicularly in order to scale a wall upwards of 10 feet [3m] high.”

As far as contemporary records are concerned, Sri Lanka’s largest Indian Python was found in a village called Pathanpaha in the Matale District in 2012. Veterinary officers said that the male python is believed to be the longest, 6.5m, and heaviest, 87kg, found in the country.

Of all the references to the python in English literature concerning Sri Lanka, one eclipses all others due to its dramatic nature. Taking into consideration the monstrous qualities of the python, and the many reports of dramatic encounters with pythons elsewhere in the world (as well as with similarly monstrous anacondas in South America), it is surprising to discover that the following account stands alone.

Jacob Haafner, in his Travels on Foot through the Island of Ceylon (Eng. trans. 1821) claims a 50-foot [15-metre] python attacked him. The Dutchman was on a trek to Jaffna when he heard a loud hissing accompanied by an “uncommon motion” in a nearby tree. He fled in terror and eventually summoned up the courage to look round. Horrified, he saw “a monstrous serpent” pursuing him. “At this sight the earth seemed to open under my feet; I uttered a horrible yell, and courage and hope instantly forsaking me, I stood as if thunderstruck. I saw the terrific monster ready to swallow me; I saw his eyes glaring, and his throat swelling with fury.”

He decided that the best course of action was to scale a rock nearby. “During this anxious struggle, I expected every moment to be devoured by the monster,” he relates. “Fortunately it was not one of the species that crawl upon their tails, with their heads erect, like the cobra.

“The monster made several circuits round the place, raising up the sand with its long tail, and still continuing the same terrible hissing. At last it departed. I gazed with horror upon its enormous body, covered with yellow and black spotted scales; it sometimes raised its terrific head, and crept with a slow and regular motion. It appeared to be 50 feet long, and its body was considerably thicker than mine.”

Frank Wall writes in The Snakes of Ceylon (1921): “It seems probable that many of the great lengths given by travellers and sportsmen were guessed at, and the snake not actually measured. The creature is very thick relative to its length, perhaps three of four times the girth of a Russell’s viper of similar length. If a python’s length were judged from its girth, the estimate would grossly exceed the real measurement.”

Guessing the length of a python may be difficult due to Wall’s theory of proportional illusion. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the python has achieved 6m or more in Sri Lanka in the past. Whether the species is able to do so now is another matter altogether, for the reduction of the python’s aquatic and forest habitat has meant that few specimens reach full maturity.

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