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20th June 1999

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Gamini G. Punchihewa follows up on Richard Boyle's cobra series

Deadly encounters

last week

Richard Boyle's fourpart series about the cobra that appeared in The Sunday Times recently made delightful reading.

It evoked nostalgic memories. I lived and worked (with the now defunct Gal Oya Development Board/River Valleys Development Board) in the great wilderness of the Gal Oya Valley for fifteen long years and later in the Walawe Basin for still another 25 years.

Cobra in dressing table box

In these regions, I have had several encounters with cobras and other poisonous snakes which intruded into our living rooms and gardens.

I recalled some of them in my book Souvenirs of a Forgotten Heritage, in a chapter titled 'In a Kingdom of Reptiles.' Readers may find this amusing but chilling incident of interest.

"One fine morning (when we were living at Uhana, a neighbour of ours (a bachelor) had a surprise visitor in his home-made dressing table - just a wooden box. He put his hand into the box to get his razor set and immediately withdrew it, as he felt a cold object. He raised an alarm. His other friends hurried and examined the box with care. They stood aghast at the sight before them. A huge cobra had happily made a bed for itself inside the box.

"The occupant inside was quite unmoved by the spectators. Though our friend could not have his morning shave, he had a narrow shave indeed from being bitten by the cobra. Cobras, as popularly believed, should not be killed. In deference to this age-old convention they did not want to kill this creature. One plank of the box was removed.

It was replaced by a wire netting which was securely nailed. His 'guest' became a virtual prisoner. Unlike our local human prisoners, this reptilian prisoner was well looked after and fed wholesomely too by its 'jail guards'. Its victuals were rich in vitamin foods. Five to ten eggs a day was its daily menu!"

"The cage with its captive was taken to the Uhana Kachcheri. It became an exhibit there. Curious spectators who hopped in there did not come empty-handed. For they brought with them eggs. In this way, this cobra had a daily feast on eggs alone, which it gulped down with gusto. Some Kachcheri officials wanted to despatch it to the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwela as it was supposed to be a member of the royalty of Cobras (Naga Rajya). But distance prevented them from doing so.

"Instead they transferred their 'treasured cobra friend' to a Batticaloa school where its destiny ended fatally in a bottle of formalin as a research exhibit!

Snake Stones and Encounters

I also came across efficacious snake stones turned out by a Catholic Priest, Rev. Fr. Edirisuriya (then of the Roman Catholic Church, Matara). As we were prone to snake bites while living and working in the Gal Oya Valley and later in the present Walawe Basin, we got down one or two snake stones by post from Fr. Edirisuriya. They were priced at Rs. 7.50.

We were made to understand that the stones contained some herbal medicines procured from Madagascar. We kept these snake stones in our household and it was not only useful to us, but also to the farming communities.

When I came to know of any snake-bite victims, I would give it to them for use. It was so effective. They did not resort to any native or western medical treatment and most never returned the stones.

According to native traditions, they say that once the snake stone is used, it should be immersed in mother's breast milk and not in coconut milk. Richard Boyle also mentions snake stone/pellets used by the roving gypsies - the Ahikuntakayas. In the eastern sector of the Gal Oya Valley there were two well- known gypsy encampments, one at Aligam Bay close to Akkaraipattu and the other called Rufous Kulam off Pottuvil. I have visited these gypsy encampments often and again in my book in a chapter titled 'Gypsy Farmers of Gal Oya', refer to the root called Velli Erukillai which gives out a nauseating smell that keeps the cobra away when it is held over its head. It is also called Nagatharan. As to the ingredients of this snake stone, here is its composition:

"We were also shown snake stones in the form of pellets which are sold for a living. As to its ingredients one of them reluctantly divulged how these were made:

(i) The bile of several animals and birds, viz. the wild boar, bandicoot, mongoose, coucal, mouse, porcupine and the crocodile, was extracted. Wild herbs were also used.

(ii) The roots of the visa kura tree (this jungle tree has anti-poison properties). It is said the mongoose resorts to biting this after its deadly encounter with the cobra. The poison of the following animals was also extracted - viper (polonga), cobra (naga polonga), centipede, scorpion. As to the extraction of the poison from the king cobra (naga rajaya), and viper, this gypsy told me that the jaw of these creatures was held by the fingers and with a piece of broken glass, a few incisions were made into the poison sac. Then the poison would trickle down which was then collected in a kuppiya (a small bottle).

"The bile taken out from the above mentioned animals were then crushed with a pestle until it formed in a fine powder and it was put into an earthen vessel and heated over a fire. This cauldron of poison and serpents, reminded me of Shakespeare's 'Cauldron of the Seven Witches' mentioned in 'Macbeth'." The whole decoction later turned into a very thick concentration. It was then allowed to dry in the sun for one whole day, when it would transform into a thick cake like substance. This parched up hardened formation was then cut into pellets which finally formed the snake stone.

"John Still in his 'Jungle Tide', gives the following description of this snake stone: "I have never made snake stones, but I know the recipe. Take a portion of the sambhur antler and char in red ashes still calcined. Bury the produce in black mud for twelve months, then dig it up again, wash it, break it into pieces of suitable size and polish each of them with a stone. Finally dish up with sauce and get what you can for them."

Richard Boyle also writes of a deadly encounter between the cobra and mongoose.

Dr. Spittel who in an experiment staged a fight between a cobra and a mongoose, in his book "Far Off Things" writes that the mongoose has natural immunity to cobra venom. "That the mongoose has a relative natural immunity to cobra venom, the issue of the encounter we have described is plainly proven. This does not mean that a mongoose will survive large doses of collected venom injected hypodermically, but only such doses as a snake ordinarily injects when attacking."

In the footnote of Dr. Spittel's book an account is given of a fight between a mongoose and cobra (also staged), which had been culled from Madras Times of July, 1863. It had occurred in an army mess premises in Trichinopoly, India where the witnesses were a Major K. Macaulay, Capt. C.J. Combe and Lt. H.G. Synons.

"So that was how the bloody battle between the cobra and mongoose ended - the victor being the mongoose." In this extract it is mentioned how the party of three army officials had examined the wounds made by the cobra on the mongoose, with the aid of a pocket lens. The lens had shown the broken fang of the cobra deeply embedded in the head of the mongoose.

"To discover whether a prophylactic exists in the blood of this extraordinary animal rendering it innocuous to the bite of a reptile fatal to all the other animals, we have had the mongoose confined ever since (now four days) and it is still as healthy and lively as ever. We consider, therefore, that there no longer exists a doubt that in the blood of the mongoose there is a prophylactic and that the idea that it derives its immunity from a herb is one of the many popular errors. We subscribe ourselves as witnesses to the above narrated encounter." Major K. Macaulay, Capt. C.J. Combe, Lt. H.G. Seynons, Trichin–opoli.

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