IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
by Chandra Arulpragasm
As a disclaimer, I need to state that I am not a Catholic, although a Christian. Nor do I claim to have walked in the spiritual footsteps of this man of God. I seek only to narrate my own experiences when I tried to trace the physical footsteps of St. Francis during his peregrinations in Italy. I must also state that whereas St. Francis walked all the way up and down the Umbrian and Tuscan Apennines in the summer sun and the rainy cold of winter, I had the relative luxury of doing the same journeys by car. I had this opportunity only because I happened to live in Italy for many years. For readers who know little of St. Francis of Assisi, I provide a brief biography, but only as background to my personal story of following the physical footsteps of this remarkable saint.
St. Francis was born in 1811 to the family of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi in the province of Umbria, near the Tuscan border. He was named ‘Francesco’ (little Frenchman) because of his French mother. He grew up among the idle rich, spending his youth in carousing and rowdy partying. Although his father wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his successful cloth trade, Francis only wanted glory at that time, in pursuance of which, he set out for the Crusades. But he already seemed to be undergoing a spiritual transformation. For he had hardly gone a few miles from his home, when seeing a poorly clad beggar in Spoleto, he stripped off his expensive clothes to wrap them around the beggar. (There is a graphic painting of this scene in Assisi). He was thus compelled to return to his family in shame and dishonour, for which his father never forgave him.
Meanwhile, his spiritual proclivities increased and he spent more time in prayer and penance. One day, while praying before an old Byzantine crucifix in the abandoned church of San Damiano in the woods, he believed that he heard the voice of Christ speaking to him from the cross asking him ‘to repair my church’. (I still have a small copy of this crucifix in my room).Taking the words literally, St. Francis soon went to work to repair the decrepit old Church of San Damiano with his own hands, brick by brick. It was only later that he realized that the call was to repair the mission and fabric of the Catholic Church, which was fast losing its way through wealth and corruption.
Taking to heart Christ’s teaching, he embraced the vow of poverty, assuming the model of poverty and service to Christ by tending to the spiritual and physical needs of the poor. He was a happy man doing God’s work, singing all the while, even when derided in the early days as being ‘God’s Fool’. Despite untold hardships, he and his twelve early followers were able to attract 5,000 friars to their calling within a period of 10 years. Being a born leader, Francis even went to the Church in Rome where, through his sincerity and holiness, he was able to convince Pope Innocent III to initiate a Franciscan Order, pledged to the ideals of poverty and service to God. Francis was not a rebel against his own Church: he was only trying to restore it to its original values of Christ’s teaching. It is heartening to see that the new Pope, Francis I has not only taken the name of Francis, but is also trying to do the same for the ideals and direction of the church. St. Francis stressed God’s brotherhood with man, with all people, rich or poor. In fact, he widened this spiritual embrace to all creation, including the birds of the air, the beasts of the field and to the entire universe. It is for this wider vision that he is now acclaimed as the patron saint of animals, the environment and indeed of all nature itself.
I now try to paint a picture of his life, as revealed to me by following in his physical footsteps. I start with St. Francis in his little church of the Porziuncola, which is associated with the start of his ministry. The Porziuncola was the shell of a little old church dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels, which Francis restored with his own hands. It is here that he later gathered his followers to start his small Order of Friars Minor. It is also the place where he received Clare (later Santa Chiara) into the service of God. The Porziuncola itself is very small, measuring barely 11 x 7 metres. Although gracefully adorned with paintings and frescoes, it is its stunning spiritual vibration that takes one’s breath away. It has made an indelible impression on me, compelling me to return to its spiritual space (the Proziuncola) repeatedly. It was also the place closest to St. Francis’ heart. On his deathbed, he was brought here and actually died within yards of it. Today this unassuming little church is covered by the massive Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels), which not only dwarfs but almost devours it. Nowadays one has to navigate this great and graceless Basilica to get to its vibrant spiritual heart, the Porziuncola. But it is still a visit worth making.
From there we go again to San Damiano, a church restored with Francis’ own hands. It was during these visits to the woods that he started communing with the birds and composed his famous canticle to the birds. He asked them to praise the Lord for their freedom to fly, for not having to sow or weave in order to feed and clothe themselves. Completely blind in his dying days, he composed his famous Canticle to the Sun in which he praises all God’s Creation, including Brothers Sun, Moon and Stars, Brothers Wind, Fire and Water, praising them all as part of God’s Creation. It is this universality of humankind and its bond with the rest of the universe that has made him the patron saint of nature and the environment.
Adjoining the Church of San Damiano is the nunnery where Santa Chiara (St. Clare) lived in a single-room dormitory with her sister-nuns for more than 30 years. In her last years, afflicted with tuberculosis, she moved to an adjoining room with a balcony. It is from this balcony that she is reputed to have stopped the invading armies of Frederick II and later of Muslim invaders by holding up the monstrance (the host) while praying for God’s intervention. (This scene is captured in a famous painting in Assisi). Most touching of all is the refectory table where the mark of St. Clare’s plate for 40 years has left a deep indent in the 700 hundred year old table! A bowl of fresh flowers marks the spot, as a poignant reminder of her dedicated life. The nuns’ quarters also possessed a picturesque cloister, around which the sisters walked in meditation. Their cloistered courtyard still holds the 13thcentury well from which they drew their water.
Much of St. Francis’ life is brought to life by the frescoes and paintings which adorn the walls of the Basilica in Assisi. No attempt is made here to describe this treasure trove of religious art, since the reader can access it in any travel book. Hence reference will only be made to a few which illustrate particular aspects of his saintly life. The Basilica of St. Francis is actually comprised of three parts: the Upper Basilica, the Lower Basilica and the Crypt, where the remains of the saint lie buried. The Lower Basilica contains a number of frescoes and paintings, including one by the 13th century master Cimabue, who lived closest to Francis’ time. Unfortunately these frescoes are fading away; but we do have a contemporary 13th century portrait of St. Francis by Cimabue (a copy of which I still retain in my room). The Lower Basilica also contains the painting by Pietro Lorenzetti known as the Madonna of the Sunset because a wayward ray of light from the setting sun finds its way into the dark interior to light up this picture in brilliant gold. (My wife and I retained a framed copy of this painting in our bedroom for over 30 years). The Upper Basilica has the famous frescoes of St. Francis, attributed to Giotto, including especially his communion with the birds. The frescoes go on to illustrate further events in St. Francis’ life, including his receipt of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his own body.
There is also a painting of St. Francis’ encounter with the fierce wolf of Gubbio. The latter is a picturesque medieval town near the border of Umbria with Abruzzo, quite far from St. Francis’ usual haunts. It is a completely walled-off town, with steep cobbled streets which it strives to keep alive in its medieval splendour. It is said that in St. Francis’ time, a savage wolf used to attack the villagers, even carrying off little children to feed itself. When St. Francis visited this village, the people beseeched him to save them from this ravenous wolf. Addressing the animal as ‘Brother Wolf’, Francis was able to pacify it. He is even said to have made a pact between the wolf and the village, whereby the wolf undertook not to harm the villagers, while they undertook to feed and look after it. The wolf ultimately died of old age, as the village pet! There is even a painting of St. Francis accosting the wolf at the entrance to the town. Today the town of Gubbio is touted to tourists as a medieval town that is frozen in time. Archery contests are held here in imitation of old times, with the men dressed in medieval costumes unfurling their different cantonal flags, while the women parade the streets in their medieval finery. Heralds with banners and trumpets issue the challenge of Gubbio to an archery contest (on parchment written in 15th century style) to other medieval towns such as Sienna and San Marino. Then the rival archers, armed with old-style crossbows (but jazzed up with high-tech telescopic sights) vie with each other in the highly decorated central piazza. It is a lot of fun – and attracts much tourism.
My main interest centered, however, around St. Francis’ activities in La Verna. The latter was hardly habited in St. Francis’ time, being set in woodland forests littered with mountains and caves. It is a long 123 km climb from Assisi, climbing high into the Apennines of Tuscany through many miles and mountains of slippery slopes in winter rains. St. Francis used to spend some months each year meditating and praying in these caves. There are many stories about those times, one of which is about a hawk that used to fly into his cave to wake him up at 3 o’clock every morning. Instead of upbraiding the hawk, St. Francis sang an ode thanking ‘Brother Hawk’ for waking him up in time to praise the Lord! There was also a rough robber named Rufino (Rufus) who came to rob Francis while he was praying. Francis spoke to Rufus in words to this effect: ‘Brother, I have no money to give you; but come pray with me, so that you will find even greater riches in the Lord’. So Rufino knelt and prayed with Francis, and thereafter became his staunchest follower. So much so that Brother Rufus is now buried opposite the Saint in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
The whole area of La Verna is heavily wooded, adding to its sylvan beauty. Nearby is a Franciscan Sanctuary with its white-pillared arcade set into the side of a hill, while fluttering white turtle-doves provide a further peaceful picture. On the adjoining hill lies La Verna with its Basilica of the Sanctuary of La Verna. My wife and I have been visiting La Verna for 20 years (till we left Italy) when the place was unheard of and largely deserted. Now it has been built up with so many additional buildings, including tourist accommodation.
When we were reconnoitering around, we chanced upon a small cell in which St. Anthony, also of the Franciscan Order, used to meditate and pray during his stay at La Verna. It was a very small cell, hardly 8 ft x 8 ft, but with a wonderful view of the valley below. On walking farther on the hilltop, we stumbled upon an embedded rock whose writing proclaimed it to be the spot where St. Francis received the stigmata or wounds of the crucified Christ. The stigmata are wounds of nail-pierced hands and feet like those of Christ, with an added wound on the side. St. Francis was the first person to receive such a manifestation of his faith, but suffered greatly from these wounds.
Walking farther on the hill, we came across a quaint little chapel, seemingly frozen in time. Not knowing what it was, we nosed our way into its dim interior. It is now known as the Chapel of the Stigmata. We just had time to note the ornate choir stalls when we heard the sound of sonorous chanting in the distance, but coming ever closer to us. Soon a little old friar bustled in, fissy-fussing to tidy up before the oncoming procession. He almost died of shock to see us there: for no one was supposed to be there, least of all a woman (my wife). Although outraged, he could not chase us out into the path of the oncoming chanting procession. Not knowing what to do, he shoved us behind a narrow curtain and hushed us with fierce warning signs. Soon the procession entered. Not being a church man, I had never seen the likes of this before, and stood transfixed! The monks had apparently taken the vow of silence, coming out of their cells once a day to this chapel to sing praises to their Lord. They filed in two by two, heavily cowled so that one could not see their faces, looking rather sinister to me in the dimly lit church. There was pin-drop silence, except for their deep Gregorian chants. Entering the chapel, the monks peeled off to the left and to the right in well-known order, with each side taking its stand in the ornate choir stalls facing each other. Their faces could not be seen, nor was any word spoken: their leader only called out a line and the friars chanted their response. After about 20 minutes, they suddenly stopped without any word or sign, and peeled off in formation with cowled heads bowed, one following the heel of the other, with no word spoken! It left me breathless! It was not long, however, before the officious little friar descended upon us, berating us for our intrusion on this sacred ritual. It was an experience, however, that I will never forget.
And so we come to the death of this immortal saint. He was ailing for a long time, blind and suffering from his stigmatized wounds. In death, he wanted to be brought to his beloved Porziuncola, his spiritual home, where he was attended by his spiritual partner St. Clare (Santa Chiara). In his dying days he composed his wonderful Canticle to the Sun, which is a song of praise for God’s whole creation. He died in the year 1226 at the age of 44 and was canonized two years later. The government of Assisi had to send soldiers to guard his remains, for in the medieval superstition of those days, everyone wanted a piece of the saint! Thus ended the earthly life of this saintly man, whose physical footsteps I was privileged to follow. I can only conclude with the prayer attributed to St. Francis: a prayer relevant to all religions and one which I continue to keep by my bedside:
Lord, make me the instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is error, the truth; Where there is doubt, the faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek To be comforted as to comfort; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
(The writer, a member of the former Ceylon Civil Service, lived in Italy working for the FAO in Rome for many years)
If you have a heart, say no to tobacco!
BY Dr. Gotabhya Ranasinghe
(MBBS, MD, FCCP, FRCP, FAPSIC, FACC, FESC)
Consultant in General & Interventional Cardiology, NHSL
Tobacco harms practically all of the body’s organs and is a key risk factor for heart disease!
Smoking can impact all aspects of the cardiovascular system, including the heart, blood, and blood vessels. I know from my experience over the years that about 25% of the patients who seek treatment from me for heart conditions smoke.
Is there a strong link between smoking and heart disease?
Of course, there is! Smoking definitely contributes to heart disease. The majority of smokers experience heart attacks.
Some claim that the only people at risk for heart attacks or strokes are those who are classified as heavy smokers. Although this is the case, did you know that smoking even one or two cigarettes a day might result in heart attacks?
Young smokers are on the rise, which unfortunately brings more cardiac patients between the ages of 20 and 25 to the cardiology unit.
Why is tobacco poison for your heart?
The harmful mix of more than 7,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, including nicotine and carbon monoxide, can interfere with vital bodily functions when inhaled.
When you breathe, your lungs absorb oxygen and pass it on to your heart, which then pumps this oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body through the blood arteries. However, when the blood that is circulated to the rest of the body picks up the toxins in cigarette smoke when you breathe it in, your heart and blood arteries are harmed by these substances, which could result in cardiovascular diseases.
What does cigarette smoke do to your heart?
Atherosclerosis (Building up of cholesterol deposits in the coronary artery)
Endothelium dysfunction leads to atherosclerosis. The inner layer of coronary arteries or the arterial wall of the heart both function improperly and contribute to artery constriction when you smoke cigarettes. As a
result, the endothelium-cell barrier that separates the arteries is breached, allowing cholesterol plaque to build up. It’s crucial to realize that smoking increases the risk of endothelial dysfunction in even those who have normal cholesterol levels.
The plaque accumulated in the arteries can burst as a result of continued smoking or other factors like emotional stress or strenuous exercises. Heart attacks occur when these plaque rupture and turn into clots.
Coronary artery spasm
Did you know you can experience a spasm immediately after a puff of smoke?
A brief tightening or constriction of the muscles in the wall of an artery that supplies blood to the heart is referred to as a coronary artery spasm. Part of the heart’s blood flow can be impeded or reduced by a spasm. A prolonged spasm can cause chest pain and possibly a heart attack.
People who usually experience coronary artery spasms don’t have typical heart disease risk factors like high cholesterol or high blood pressure. However, they are frequent smokers.
An erratic or irregular heartbeat is known as an arrhythmia. The scarring of the heart muscle caused by smoking can cause a fast or irregular heartbeat.Additionally, nicotine can cause arrhythmia by speeding up the heart rate.
One of the best things you can do for your heart is to stop smoking!
Did you know the positive impacts start to show as soon as you stop smoking?
After 20 minutes of quitting smoking, your heart rate begins to slow down.
In just 12 hours after quitting, the level of carbon monoxide in your blood returns to normal, allowing more oxygen to reach your heart and other vital organs.
12 to 24 hours after you stop smoking, blood pressure levels return to normal.
Your risk of developing coronary heart disease decreases by 50% after one year of no smoking.
So let us resolve to protect and improve heart health by saying no to tobacco!
Religious cauldron being stirred; filthy rich in abjectly poor country
What a ho ha over a silly standup comedian’s stupid remarks about Prince Siddhartha. I have never watched this Natasha Edirisuriya’s supposedly comic acts on YouTube or whatever and did not bother to access derogatory remarks she supposedly introduced to a comedy act of hers that has brought down remand imprisonment on her up until June 6. Speaking with a person who has his ear to the ground and to the gossip grape wine, I was told her being remanded was not for what she said but for trying to escape consequences by flying overseas – to Dubai, we presume, the haven now of drug kingpins, money launderers, escapees from SL law, loose gabs, and all other dregs of society.
Of course, derogatory remarks on any religion or for that matter on any religious leader have to be taboo and contraveners reprimanded publicly and perhaps imposed fines. However, imprisonment according to Cassandra is too severe.
Just consider how the Buddha treated persons who insulted him or brought false accusations against him including the most obnoxious and totally improbable accusation of fatherhood. Did he even protest, leave along proclaim his innocence. Did he permit a member of the Sangha to refute the accusations? Not at all! He said aloud he did not accept the accusations and insults. Then he asked where the accusations would go to? Back to sender/speaker/accuser. That was all he said.
Thus, any person or persons, or even all following a religion which is maligned should ignore what was said. Let it go back and reside with the sayer/maligner. Of course, the law and its enforcers must spring to action and do the needful according to the law of the land.
One wonders why this sudden spurt of insults arrowed to Buddhism. Of course, the aim is to denigrate the religion of the majority in the land. Also perhaps with ulterior motives that you and Cass do not even imagine. In The Island of Wednesday May 31, MP Dilan Perera of Nidahas Janatha Sabawa (difficult to keep pace with birth of new political parties combining the same words like nidahas and janatha to coin new names) accused Jerome Fernando and Natasha E as “actors in a drama orchestrated by the government to distract people from the real issues faced by the masses.”
We, the public, cannot simply pooh pooh this out of hand. But is there a deeper, subtler aim embedded in the loose talk of Jerome and his followers? Do we not still shudder and shake with fear and sympathy when we remember Easter Sunday 2019 with its radical Muslim aim of causing chaos? It is said and believed that the Muslim radicals wanted not only to disrupt Christian prayer services on a holy day but deliver a blow to tourism by bombing hotels.
Then their expectation was a backlash from the Sinhalese which they hoped to crush by beheading approaching Sinhala avenging attackers with swords they had made and stacked. This is not Cass’ imagination running riot but what a Catholic Priest told us when we visited the Katuwapitiya Church a couple of weeks after the dastardly bombing.
It is believed and has been proclaimed there was a manipulating group led by one demented person who egged the disasters on with the double-edged evil aim of disrupting the land and then promising future security if … Hence, we cannot be so naïve as to believe that Jerome and Natasha were merely careless speakers. Who knows what ulterior moves were dictated to by power-mad black persons and made to brew in the national cauldron of discontent? Easiest was to bring to the boil religious conflict, since the races seem to be co-living harmoniously, mostly after the example of amity set before the land and internationally of Sri Lankans of all races, religions, social statuses and ages being able to unite during the Aragalaya.
We have already suffered more than our fair share of religious conflict. The LTTE exploded a vehicle laden with bombs opposite the Dalada Maligawa; shot at the Sacred Bo Tree, massacred a busload of mostly very young Buddhist monks in Aranthalawa. This was on June 2, 1987, particularly pertinent today. They killed Muslims at prayer in a mosque in Katankudy after ethnically cleansing Jaffna and adjoining areas of Muslim populations.
The Sinhalese, led by ultra-nationalists and drunken goons ravaged Tamils in 1983 and then off and on conflicted with Muslims. Hence the need to nip all and every religious conflict in the bud; no preachers/ Buddhist monks/overzealous lay persons, or comedians and media persons to be allowed to malign religions and in the name of religion cause conflict, least of all conflagration.
Comes to mind the worst case of religious intolerance, hate, revenge and unthinkable cruelty. Cass means here the prolonged fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie (1947-), British American novelist of Indian origin who had a ransom set aside for his life declared by the then leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, soon after Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses was published in 1988. The British government diligently ensured his safety by hiding him in various places. After nearly two decades of tight security around him, he ventured to the US on an invited visit. He settled down in New York, believing he was now safe from the fatwa and mad men. It was not to be. In New York on stage to deliver a lecture in 2022, Rushdie was set upon by a lone assailant who stabbed him in the eye, blinding him in that eye and necessitating his wearing an eye band. What on earth was his crime? Writing a fictitious story to succeed many he had written and won prizes for like the Booker.
Religious fanaticism must never be permitted to raise its devilish head wherever, whenever.
Farmer’s fabulously rich son
Often quoted is the phrase coined by the Tourist Board, Cass believes, to describe Sri Lanka. Land like no other. It was completely complementary and justified when it was first used. We were an almost unique island where every prospect pleased, particularly its smiling, easy going people and the wonderful terrain of the land with varying altitudes, climates and fauna and flora.
Then with the decline of the country engineered and wrought by evil, self-gratifying politicians, their sidekicks and dishonest bureaucrats, disparities became stark. Sri Lanka is now in the very dumps: bankrupt, its social, economic and sustainability fabric in shreds and people suffering immensely. But since it is a land like no other with a different connotation, only certain of its population suffer and undergo deprivation and hardship. Others live grand even now and have money stashed high in–house and overseas in banks, businesses and dubious off shore dealings. Some lack the few rupees needed to travel in a bus but most political bods drive around in luxury cars; infants cry for milk and children for a scrap of bread or handful of rice. Plain tea is drunk by many to quell pangs of hunger while the corrupt VIPs quaff champaign and probably have exotic foods flown over from gourmet venues.
And most of those who drive luxury cars, eat and drink exotically and live the GOOD life, did not inherit wealth, nor earn it legitimately. Young men who had not a push bike to ride or Rs 25 to go on a school trip to Sigiriya are now fabulously wealthy. Cass does not want to list how they demonstrate immense wealth possession now.
One case in the news is Chaminda Sirisena, who seems to be very, very wealthy, wearing a ring that is valued at Rs 10 million, and then losing it to cause severe damnation to its stealer. Goodness! Cass cannot even imagine such a ring. Well, he lost it and 5,000 US $ and Rs 100,000. The suspect is his personal security guard. Having never heard of this brother of the ex Prez and he not being the paddy multimillionaire owning hotels, Cass googled. Here is short reply, “Chaminda Sirisena. Owner Success Lanka Innovative Company, Sri Lanka, 36 followers, 36 connections. (The last two bits of info completely incomprehensible and no desire at all to verify). He sure is comparable to Virgin Airways Branson and other top global entrepreneurs to become so wealthy being a son of a man who served in WWII and was given a small acreage to cultivate paddy in Polonnaruwa. When his brother Maitripala became Prez of Sri Lanka it was with pride the comparison was brought in to the American President who moved from log cabin to the White House.
Hence isn’t our beloved, now degraded Sri Lanka, a land like no other with Midases around?
We now have another maybe thief to worry about. No further news of the poor mother whose life was quashed for the sake of a gold ring, leaving three children motherless and probably destitute. When we were young, we were told very early on that if we lost anything it was more our fault; we were careless and placed temptation to less fortunate persons. The Tamil woman who died after being in remand was such a one who needed extra protection from temptation. To Cass her employer is more to blame for the probable theft and for the tragedy that followed.
Snakes of Sri Lanka
By Ifham Nizam
Snake bites are a serious public health issue in Sri Lanka. It has been estimated that nearly 80,000 snake bites occur here every year.Due to fear and poor knowledge, hundreds of thousands of snakes, mostly non-venomous ones, are killed by humans each year.The state spends more than USD 10 million a year on treating snake bite patients.
According to health sector statistics between 30,000 and 40,000 snake bite patients receive treatment in hospitals annually, says Dr. Anjana Silva, who is Professor in Medical Parasitology, Head/ Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Rajarata University.
To date, 93 land and 15 sea snake species have been recorded from Sri Lanka. While all 15 sea snakes are venomous, only 20% of the land snakes are venomous or potentially venomous.
The term, ‘venomous snakes’ does not mean they cause a threat to human lives every time they cause a bite. The snakes of highest medical importance are the venomous ones which are common or widespread and cause numerous snakebites, resulting in severe envenoming, disability or death,” says Dr. Silva who is also Adjunct Senior Research Fellow – Monash Venom Group,Department of Pharmacology, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University and Research Associate- South Asian Clinical Toxicology Research Collaboration, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya.
Only five snakes could be considered to be of the highest medical importance in Sri Lanka: Russell’s viper, Indian krait, Sri Lankan cobra, Merrem’s hump-nosed viper and Saw-scaled viper. All but Merrem’s hump-nosed vipers are covered by Indian Polyvalent antivenom, the only treatment available for snake bites in Sri Lanka.
There are another five snake species with secondary medical importance, which are venomous snakes and capable of causing morbidity, disability or death, but the bites are less frequent due to various reasons (Sri Lankan krait, Highland Hump-nosed viper, Lowland hump-nosed pit viper, Green-pit viper and Beaked sea snake)
The snakes of highest medical importance in Sri Lanka are as follows:
- Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) (Sinhala: Thith Polanga/ Tamil: Kannadi viriyan)
Medically the most important snake in Sri Lanka. It is found throughout South Asia. It is responsible for about 30% of snake bites in Sri Lanka and also about 70% of deaths due to snake bites in Sri Lanka.
Some 2-5% bites by Russell’s viper are fatal. Widely distributed throughout the country up to the elevations of 1,500m from sea level. Highly abundant in paddy fields and farmlands but also found in dry zone forests and scrub lands. Bites occur more during the beginning and end of the farming seasons in dry zone. It can grow up to 1.3m in length. Most bites are reported during day time.
Over 85% of the bites are at the level of or below the ankle. It is a very aggressive snake when provoked. Spontaneous bleeding due to abnormalities in blood clotting and kidney failure have life-threatening effects.
- The Sri Lankan Russell’s vipers cause mild paralysis as well, which is not life threatening. Indian Polyvalent antivenom covers Russell’s viper envenoming. Deaths could be due to severe internal bleeding and acute renal failure.
- Indian Krait (Bungarus caeruleus) (Sinhala: Thel Karawala/ Maga Maruwa; Tamil: Yettadi virian/ Karuwelan Pambu)
It is distributed in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is found across the lowland semi-arid, dry and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka. Almost absent in the wet zone. Usually, a non-offensive snake during the daytime; however, it could be aggressive at night.
Common kraits slither into human settlements at night looking for prey. People who sleep on the ground are prone to their bites.
Most common krait bites do occur at night. Bites are more common during the months of September to December when the north-east monsoon is active. Most hospital admissions of krait bites follow rainfall, even following a shower after several days or months without rain.
Since most bites do occur while the victim is asleep, the site of bite could be in any part of the body.
As bite sites have minimal or no effects, it would be difficult to find an exact bite site in some patients. Bite site usually is painless and without any swelling. Causes paralysis in body muscles which can rapidly lead to life threatening respiratory paralysis (breathing difficulty).
- Sri Lankan Cobra (Naja polyoccelata; Naja naja) Sinhala: Nagaya; Tami: Nalla pambu
Sri Lankan cobra is an endemic species in Sri Lanka. It is common in lowland (<1200m a.s.l), close to human settlements. Cobras are found on plantations and in home gardens, forests, grasslands and paddy fields. It is the only snake with a distinct hood in Sri Lanka.
Hood has a spectacle marking on the dorsal side and has two black spots and the neck usually has three black bands on the ventral side. When alarmed, cobras raise the hood and produce a loud hiss.
Cobra bites could occur below the knee. They are very painful and lead to severe swelling and tissue death around the affected place. Rapidly progressing paralysis could result from bites, sometimes leading to life-threatening respiratory paralysis (breathing difficulty). Deaths could also be due to cardiac arrest due to the venom effects.
- Merrem’s hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale) Sinhala: Polon Thelissa/ Kunakatuwa; Tamil: Kopi viriyan.
Small pit-vipers grow up to 50cm in length. Head is flat and triangular with a pointed and raised snout. They are usually found coiled, they keep the heads at an angle of 45 degrees. Merrem’s Hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale) is the medically most important Hump-nosed viper as it leads to 35-45% of all snake bites in Sri Lanka.
Merrem’s Hump-nosed vipers are very common in home gardens and on plantations and grasslands. Bites often happen during various activities in home gardens and also during farming activities in farmlands in both dry and wet zones. Hands and feet (below the ankle) are mostly bitten. Bites can often lead to local swelling and pain and at times, severe tissue death around the bite site may need surgical removal of dead tissue or even amputations. Rarely, patients could develop mild blood clotting abnormalities and acute kidney failure. Although rare, deaths are reported due to hypnale bites.
- Saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus), Sinhala: Weli Polanga; Tamil: Surutai Viriyan
This species is widely distributed in South Asia. However, in Sri Lanka, it is restricted to dry coastal regions such as Mannar, Puttalam, Jaffna peninsula and Batticaloa. In Sri Lanka, this snake grows upto 40-50cm. It is a nocturnal snake which is fond of sand dunes close to the beach. It could be found under logs and stones during daytime. Bites are common during January and February.
It is a very aggressive snake. A distinct, white colour ‘bird foot shape’ mark or a ‘diamond shape’ mark could be seen over the head. When alarmed, it makes a hissing sound by rubbing the body scales. Although this snake causes frequent severe envenoming and deaths in other countries, its bites are relatively less severe in Sri Lanka. Bites could lead to mild to moderate swelling and pain on the affected place and blood clotting abnormalities and haemorrhage and rarely it could lead to kidney failure.
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