Sandesaya founder J. V. Fonseka: silent and unsung scholar-patriot
Founder of BBC’s Sandesaya which made one of the earliest Sinhalese broadcasts possible over British radio and the first Deputy Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia- J.V. Fonseka had no parallels. Yet his contribution to Sri Lanka’s cultural firmament is sadly unsung. Sunday Island revisits the life and work of this gentle giant unknown to many today.
by Randima Attygalle
Prof. G.P. Malalasekera in his testimonial of his exceptionally gifted student J.V. Fonseka who graduated in 1931 from the Ceylon University College, stated: “academically, Mr. Fonseka is one of the best qualified of our graduates because, besides his knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit and allied cultures and civilizations, he has made a very good study of the Western classics and has read widely in many fields of learning.” The Principal of the Ceylon University College (present University of Colombo), Robert Marrs endorsed, “I have personally come into contact with his English which is of an unusually high quality… I can recommend him for a favourable consideration in any capacity in which his knowledge of the Eastern Classical languages and of Sinhalese and English will find a place.”
Marrs went on to say he sincerely hoped that whatever profession Fonseka selects, “he will find opportunities of bringing his language gifts to bear on inter-lingual problems of scholarship and literature.” This, J.V. Fonseka or JV/ JVF or ‘Fons’ as he came to be known among diverse circles, proved true.
Joseph Vincent Fonseka was born in Wewala, Piliyandala on May 29, 1908. He came from a long line of teachers of the Wanniarachchi and Samarakoon families of Kotte. His mother, Martha Alwis Samarakoon, was the headmistress of the Horetuduwa Maha Vidyalaya. His uncle was the well-known educationalist H.S. Perera and his cousin, the composer of the national anthem- Ananda Samarakoon. He entered Prince of Wales College Moratuwa from Horetuduwa Buddhist School, and later Ceylon University College. He passed his Inter-Arts Examination in 1926 in Latin, English, Sinhala and Logic. JV’s association with Kumaratunga Munidasa kindled his interest in Pali and Sanskrit which eventually made him lose interest in Latin and Greek. Having read for his B.A. Hons. Degree in Indo-Aryan Studies, JV won an open exhibition at the Final Examination which enabled him to go to England for his post-graduate studies.
Manel Tampoe writing to The Ceylon Daily News in July, 1979 after his death (on May 30, 1979) notes that ‘he belonged to a very small band of university men who in the 1920s, opted to swim against the tide and specialize in Sinhala and the oriental classics, when the majority devoted their energies to mastering Latin and Greek in addition to English.’ She notes that ‘in Mr. Fonseka’s case the choice was doubly remarkable, because he was very proficient in English from the outset…’
JV’s PhD research in the London University was on the Sinhala verb. His supervisor was Prof. R.L. Turner. Although he subsequently studied law, he never completed his finals. His stay in England extended to 23 years, out of which 15 were spent with the BBC. “My father was told he had got his BBC job on my birthday, March 18, 1942,” recounts his eldest daughter, Manel Fonseka. JV’s work at the BBC began with a bi-weekly newsletter- a commentary in Sinhalese on all aspects of British life and institutions and on matters affecting his home country, Ceylon, as viewed in the British press. Sandesaya which was broadcast over BBCs Eastern Service was founded by him shortly after the country gained Independence.
Prof. K.N.O Dharmadasa in his work on JV under the title- ‘The scholar who shunned the limelight: J.V. Fonseka’ in The Island, May 21, 1993, notes that the weekly broadcast from London was received by Radio Ceylon and relayed here every Tuesday evening. ‘It catered to the interests of the expatriates as well as the home listener. Tastefully selected Sinhala folk music added to the programme while its highlight was the London Liyuma or London Letter’ written and delivered by JVF.’ In JVs’ own words, Sandesaya ‘won a coveted popularity among Sinhalese listeners’. Comprising features, discussions, interviews, answers to listeners’ questions, into London Letter ‘were drawn week after week, Ceylonese of all walks of life from cooks and seamen to professors and prime minister, but more especially university students and teachers. I had thus maintained close and unbroken contact with Ceylon students.’
“My father began to lose his hair quite early and was not happy about it. He adapted something that Krishna Menon wore. He wore a cap outside and a black beret at home. (JV came to know Krishna Menon when supporting the Indian independence movement). My father used to travel to Bush House where the Overseas Section of the BBC was, by tube to Oxford Circus and walk from there. Every morning he’d cross paths with an Englishman who greeted him with “Salaam alai kum”. And my father simply responded “Alaikum salaam”. Just that, nothing more.
“The traditionally reserved Englishman was extending a warm hand of respect and friendship. And my father never disabused him, nor did it bother him being taken for a Muslim. Incidentally, there were several Muslim and Tamil law students sharing a house with him in my earliest years, one or two of whom became quite famous here. Crossette Thambiah was one who became a very close friend,” recollects Manel who goes on to add that her father used to interview many visiting Ceylonese icons such as Dr. Lester James Peries, L.T.P Manjusri, Deva Suriyasena, J.R. Jayewardene and many more. She also recounts that the celebrated artist Manjusri later did five paintings for the Fonseka family. “He also had friends through the BBC such as Paul Robeson, Dylan Thomas and Walter de La Mare.”
J.V. Fonseka, Manel Tampoe documents, ‘possessed the sophistication of outlook that made him acceptable to an institution such as the BBC’. Through his programme Sandesaya, he was ‘instrumental in influencing the style of many programmes of the old Radio Ceylon, by providing a model in such respect as dignified yet pleasantly informal tone and suitable diction and intonation,’ says the writer. JV is also credited for having deposited in London, every Sinhalese song that had been recorded here at home. Many songs which have disappeared forever from the Sri Lankan musical firmament have been preserved in London in the collection JV painstakingly built.
Thevis Guruge, Director General of the SLBC at the time of JV’s demise, who spoke at the funeral, remarked: ‘It was Mr. Fonseka who first conceived and put into practice the way to make a Sinhalese radio programme popular amongst listeners. He also made recordings of Sinhalese folk music and various other media, putting them into BBC archives; in this, he performed a valuable service.” Dr. J. Thilakasiri in a letter to JV in 1950 wrote, ‘having heard your newsletter consecutively for several weeks, I found that your style was easy and natural in contrast to the bombastic tone of the announcers of Radio Ceylon. The Oriental section here is in a mess and the quality of the programmes and talks is poor. So I didn’t hesitate to write to the Head of the Eastern Service (BBC) saying how useful the programme is and mentioning your fine newsletter etc. ending with the suggestion for providing an additional half-hour. A friend of mine- a lecturer in Sinhalese at the Varsity also finds your programme and talks interesting and refreshing in contrast to what we get here.’
In keeping with his “very retiring and self-effacing nature and extremely modest character,” daughter Manel notes, a great deal of her father’s writing was published anonymously. “At some stage he began sending articles, poetry, etc., to the press. In 1955, when we returned to Sri Lanka from England, my father’s close cousin, Ananda Samarakoon, told me that he and his brother Cyril, used to hang on the railings by Lake House on days they were expected to appear! He sometimes used the pen-name, ‘Enoch’. I think that must be an echo of Tennyson’s poem, Enoch Arden.” Her father wit
h ‘such a beautiful voice’ which Manel and her siblings were hardly conscious of as children, gifted to them the love of language. “In our childhood he read French, German and Italian to us. And my sisters remember, even now, some of the poetry of Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke.”
The coming together of her father and English mother, Lily Margaret Walker, 102 today, is rather extraordinary, says Manel. A blue-eyed blonde Lily was in her Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF) uniform on a station platform in 1939 when JV first saw her. “My mother was born in 1919 in London, daughter of an army officer. She was the eldest of five children and was taken out of school and set to work to help support four siblings. As the war was on the horizon she joined the WAAF. My father, usually reserved, but perhaps encouraged by the slight defrosting of the English during the tensions of war, was struck by this blonde, blue-eyed, young woman, standing all alone, went up to her and asked her what her uniform was. At the time my father was working at the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service where all students had to register to be available for assistance for air raid precaution.”
When it was learnt in Ceylon that JV would be leaving the BBC, Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi, Chief Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia immediately canvassed for him to be invited to be the Deputy Editor. Having heard of the paradise of his childhood, Ceylon was a dream for his England-born children. “Both we and he were rudely awakened when we actually came,” recollects Manel. She adds that at first her father rejected the idea of returning home when the invitation came, but her mother who had heard such wonderful things about the country for years, urged him to take it up. “I was devastated at the idea of leaving everything I knew and loved. Plus, we had just seen Elephant Walk and I thought cholera stalked the country. But it was decided. My father wrote and accepted, said when exactly he would be arriving and that he would report to work the next day which he did! And then began a very difficult time for all of us.”
Crowds gathered to welcome JV of Sandesaya fame at the Colombo harbour when he arrived with his family in 1955. As JV’s wife Lily who was fondly called ‘Nikki’ recounted in her communication years later, ‘every relative who could make the journey to Colombo was either on the ship or waiting dockside. Press and Radio were there in force. We were garlanded.’ Among the bevy of relatives was Ananda Samarakoon to greet the family so warmly, says Manel. “My father started work the very next day and my mother and the three children were left with his sister in her house in Kotte which appeared to be a jungle to us at that time! Having been wrenched from everything familiar to us in England, we suffered culture shock for quite a while. The bright side was when the Sinhala Encyclopaedia office was transferred to the glorious Peradeniya campus.”
The Sinhala Encyclopaedia became JVs life. ‘If one were to drop in at the Encyclopaedia office at any time of the day, even during lunch or tea breaks, he was invariably seated at his desk,’ documents Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa, recollecting his Peradeniya days in the late 50s and 60s when the Sinhala Encyclopaedia was housed in the back rooms of an old building which had been used by the South Asia Command during the war. ‘JVF joined the Sinhala Encyclopaedia when he was 47-years old. His maturity in age, learning and experience would have enhanced the quality of his contribution to the project.’
Prof. H.L. Seneviratne, an assistant editor at the Encyclopaedia who was supervised by JV, writing to Manel Fonseka notes that JV expected ‘stellar performance’ from all assistant editors who specialized in different fields, but never used any compulsion. ‘He was the gentlest of supervisors, and had profound confidence in his assistant editors He himself was deeply committed to work and cheerfully embraced the task of going through and editing the writings of each and every assistant editor, not to mention the commissioned articles from outside specialists. Personally he was extremely kind to his employees ranging from the assistant editors to minor employees.’
Prof. Seneviratne further notes that the only personal matter he recalls JV mentioning to him, ‘which he did with sadness and a sense of rightly felt injustice,’ was the government’s decision to change the opening line of the national anthem composed by his cousin. Ananda Samarakoon’s death soon after was attributed to this act of the government done for superstitious reasons – Namo namo maatha was changed to Sri Lanka maatha in the belief that the former was ‘inauspicious’. “Knowing my father’s complete lack of superstition, I am certain he was disgusted and probably angry about the changing of the original words,” says Manel.
In 1973, although JV retired as the Deputy Editor at 65, after many extensions, he continued to be an external editor up to his death. In November, 1973, Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi, Chief Editor, wrote to Dr N.M. Perera, the Minister of Finance, urging a further extension. ‘It is by no means easy to find a substitute for Mr. Fonseka… it is men of Mr. Fonseka’s calibre whom we should have on the editorial staff of an encyclopaedia.’
JV who was responsible for most of the actual work of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia was lauded for his ‘singular devotion’ by many of his colleagues. D. P. Ponnamperuma who had worked under him for many years as Senior Assistant Editor wrote: ‘He was not an administrator of service but an example of service. He cared little for his own rights, higher wages or security of service and we now recall instances when he faced even criticism on account of this…Until he was bed-ridden he carried the Sinhala Encyclopaedia not only in his heart but on his shoulders too.
‘One could say there isn’t a single article in the Sinhala Encylopaedia that had not been vetted by his pen. The loss his death left for the Sinhala Encyclopaedia is irreparable. It must be said that the whole nation is indebted to Mr. Fonseka for the success of this project. Educated Sinhala society should deeply regret its failure to show appreciation and felicitate the services of this silent patriotic scholar during his lifetime and it would be at least some consolation if the name of Mr. J.V Fonseka be immortalized with an honorary award or title even posthumously.’
Sadly, the nation is yet to see this unsung hero celebrated in the manner he truly deserved.
(Photo credit: Manel Fonseka)
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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