The Hurs: A Criminalized Tribe in Pakistan
Meeting president-to-be of Afghanistan and an eight-hour drive to deliver a cake
by Jayantha Perera
From 1991 to 1996, I was the Socio-Economist of the World Bank’s Indus River Left Bank Outfall Drain Project in Sind Province of Pakistan. The Pakistan Government in 1994 proposed to the World Bank to build a reservoir in the swamp-filled depression called Makhi Dhand in central Sind. The project objectives were to encourage irrigated agriculture among scattered, mobile communities and to develop one of the most backward areas in Sind. The name of the proposed reservoir was Chortiari, and my task was to conduct a socio-economic survey among the affected communities and prepare a resettlement and income improvement plan.
In early 1995, Asraf Ghani, a resettlement specialist of the World Bank (who later became the President of Afghanistan), visited the project area on a mission. I met him at Sanghar, a local town not far from Makhi Dhand. Ghani had brought several pieces of hand-held GPS machines. I was mesmerized when he demonstrated how to use GPS to record houses, farms, small ponds, and patches of forest. The field team, Ghani, and I traveled to the Chortiari area by two four-wheel drive jeeps, mainly through high savannah grass.
Upon arrival, Ghani called an impromptu meeting in the shade of the only tall tree in the vicinity. From there, we could see only about ten meters because of the savannah grass that surrounded us. It was a sunny hot day. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the temperature was about 50 centigrade. I was afraid that I might catch the ‘laughing sickness’ – heat attack on jaw movements creating an impression of a laughing person. After the discussion, Ghani wanted to know roughly how many households would be affected by the reservoir. The local irrigation officials were clueless. Then he asked them how many families were in the settlement where we stood. The officials talked to each other but could not even provide an estimate. Ghani climbed the tree with his shoes and scanned the surrounding area. He came down and declared that the village where we were might have about 35 households (after the survey, the final tally of the affected households was 38). We spent an hour discussing the main topics of the socio-economic study and how to deal with non-titled farmers’ claims and absentee landlords in our survey.
After the meeting, I drove back to Hyderabad with Ghani. We discussed the history of Makhi Dhand and its role in various anti-colonial uprisings, its relationship with Afghanistan during the Kalifat movement in Sind. He was happy that he could help the most miserable and backward community in Makhi Dhand escape poverty and marginalized life. I told Ghani that I would stay in the project area with the field team for three weeks. He cautioned me to be safe from dacoits who kidnapped people for ransom.
Sir Edward Cox, in 1909 said that notorious criminals found refuge in its secret recesses because villagers were in sympathy with those ‘Robin Hoods’ and supplied food and other necessities. In 1995, Makhi Dhand had the same notoriety. Then it was known as the breeding ground of dacoits and other ‘miscreants.’ The households were scattered in far apart settlements, and settlers were subsistence farmers and herdsmen. There were no schools or a hospital in Makhi Dhand. The settlers had to go to the nearest town Sanghar for medical help.
The survey team stayed at a semi-abandoned guest house built in the 1890s. The house did not have doors or windows and was built on the principle of cross ventilation. There were two dirty punkas (cloth fans) hanging from the roof in a bedroom and dining area. A cook and a punka vallah (fan operator) arrived from Sanghar to serve us. The punka vallah was a lazy man and pulled the fans for us for about two hours just after dinner. As a result, we suffered through the night the unbearable heat, mosquitos, and other insects. The punka vallah disappeared soon at 10 pm and re-emerged only in the morning. The cook was a fine man with a Sindi cap and a well-preened large mustache. He dressed differently from the punka vallah. He served us parathas with fried okra and local fish for all three meals.
The survey team members were from Sanghar town and knew important personalities in the project area. One of them was the Pir, who lived in Chortiari. His name was Variyam Fakkir. Variyam told me that although people treated him as a Pir, he was only a second-tier Sufi saint who had not yet reached the full Pirhood. He was a religious and political leader. People in the area venerated him as a Sufi saint. He occupied a large land area in Chortiari, and his followers cultivated the land as his haris (tenants).
In the mid-19th century, Pir Wazir claimed that he was a direct descendant of holy men in Arabia. They were the members of the Sufi faction of Islam. He organized the residents in Makhi Dhand and Thar Pakar desert into a close-knit brotherhood called Jamiat. The Jamiat had two tiers: salims – the ordinary people who venerated the Pir and depended on him for their subsistence; second, farqis – diehard Pir followers who formed an anti-colonial revolutionary group called ‘Hur.’ Hur membership in the early 20th century spread to Thar Pakar desert, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Bengal. At that time, devoted landowners and big cattle herders in rural Sind supported the movement. Such supporters were known as khalifas.
Variyam’s great grand uncle in the 1910s and his grand uncle in the 1940s had led the Hur revolts against the British and served long jail sentences. His grand-uncle, Pir Pagaro, went to the gallows in 1943 for high treason. After the Independence of Pakistan, salims and farqis joined together, dropped their resistance to the state, and became settled farmers and cattle herders. Variyam became a strong ‘vote bank.’ No regional or national political party could ignore him in local and general elections.
The residents in the Chortiari project area were proud people. They delighted in talking about their past adventures and bravery, including their century-long resistance (1850 to 1948) to British administration, especially to its Police and armed forces. The residents ascribed their current rampant poverty and marginalized status to the imposition of the Criminalized Tribes Ordinance in 1871. The British used the law and its regulations to control the Hur movement, restrict residents’ freedom, control Pirs, and destroy their property, crops, and animals.
After sunset we lay on charpoys (cots) in Variyam’s compound and listened to his breathtaking stories while drinking hot tea and munching local sweets. We were happy to lie down on charpoys (cots) with rough hemp ropes interwoven into small squares to enjoy the cool desert breeze. After sunset, the compound was dark and we could not see each other. I was scared of dacoits and I thought that they would emerge from the tall grass to kidnap us. Variyam assured us that nothing would happen to us because we were his guests.
In the evenings, a giant comet covered a part of the dark sky. Variyam interpreted its presence as a bad omen and predicted that India might attack Pakistan. He wanted to know when the Chotiari reservoir would be built. Variyam lamented that the construction of the tank would wipe out old archeological ruins and the thick forest cover that sustains local communities for many centuries. He wanted to know our “genuine” thoughts about the proposed reservoir. He told us that he could stop the project overnight by calling his followers to boycott the survey. He laughingly said that dacoits might kidnap me for a ransom of Rs one million because that was the prize the dacoits would demand for a kidnapped foreigner.
I explained to Variyam that when irrigation water is supplied from the reservoir, the people could form into settled agricultural communities. Irrigation water supplies would enable them to cultivate at least two crops a year, giving them a regular household income throughout the year. As part of the project, I told him that basic facilities such as roads, schools, and hospitals would be constructed. Each evening, he repeated his concerns about the state encroachment into the Hur territory. He explained that the British established permanent settlements under the 1871 Act by bringing loyal tribes and communities from Punjab, Rajasthan, and Bengal. In addition, the movement of original inhabitants was restricted, and army posts were erected to supervise them. In some locations, villagers were relocated into new settlements. They could not leave without a pass, and the army roll-called twice daily to check their movements. The justification for such draconian rules was to prevent evil characters from visiting the rebellious Hurs. He wondered whether the same would happen to the Hurs with the World Bank project.
Variyam loved to dramatize from his charpoy how his grand-uncle, as a 12-year boy, led the Hur uprising in the 1930s. In the 1920s, the British found it difficult to maintain law and order in Makhi Dhand. His grand-uncle and followers openly challenged the British rule in Sind. He imitated how the cannons boomed and the sound of firing machine guns. The Delhi Government dispatched platoons of soldiers to Sind to control chaos and Hur attacks on Police stations and government offices. The young Piro Pagaro organized his followers in Thar Pakar and in central Sind and continued to harass the government until the British captured him in 1927. Ali Jinnah, a famous lawyer from Bombay (the future founding father of Pakistan), defended him at a session court in Karachi. He pointed out to the judge that with the imposed draconian laws, the Hur people could not live in Makhi Dhand as ‘human beings.’ The court sentenced the young man to eight years in prison.
When released from prison in 1936, Pir Pagaro rekindled the revolutionary zest among his followers and declared war against the British. The British declared martial law in 1942 and introduced the ‘Special Hur Act’ to deal with ‘miscreants’ under the martial law. Variyam told us that the army and the air force did not spare even their pots and pans after dynamiting and looting their communities. They raided their cattle and goats and stole their gold jewelry. He could not continue his talk as he was distraught, and on several occasions, he wiped his eyes with his shawl. He told us with a broken voice that the British hanged the Pir in 1943 at the Hyderabad jail with several other Hur leaders.
We walked to village settlements with a local guide through tall savannah grass. At some settlements, there were only three or four households. They were poor and hardly had any food at home. Questions about their income, expenditure, and livelihoods did not make sense to them. Most residents wanted to believe that they were pastoralists who moved from one place to another with their cattle. They pointed out that the idea of land ownership is alien to their culture.
Most villagers first refused to talk to us, but when we told them that we were their Pir’s friends, they accepted us and responded to our questions. A man told us not to waste time visiting houses because each household had the same story of poverty, discrimination, and wounded pride. Several old people were waiting for the second coming of Pir Pagaro, who sacrificed his life to redeem the Hurs from their agony and destitution. In that context, they were worried about development programs that the project planned to start in the area with the involvement of the state and the World Bank. One man told us that a descendant of Pir Pagaro in the future would bring sweeping changes including independence and economic prosperity to Makhi Dhand. He opined our patchwork of development might betray his grand plan.
The government officials, who had refused to join the survey, told us that the residents including Variyam did not own any land in the area. The British had confiscated all Hur land under martial law in the early 1940s. In this context, they queried why the state should compensate for the land taken from Hurs for the reservoir. This was the critical issue that I had to deal with in formulating the resettlement and income improvement plan.
One day, I completed an interview with a family before four pm in a remote settlement. I waited with the translator for other team members to return to walk back to the guest house about seven miles from that location. Two unknown young men emerged from the forest and walked towards us. They talked to the translator for a few minutes. Then they approached me and asked what was I doing in their settlement? The translator translated the question and winked at me. I did not know why he winked at me. I told them that we were doing a survey before building a reservoir in the area to irrigate their fields.
One man raised his voice and asked me, “have you obtained our permission to build a tank on our land?”
“Yes, we have already talked to your Pir and several settlers, and they think the project would be beneficial for them,” I told him.
“But you did not talk to us about the reservoir?” He retorted.
“It is our plan to talk to all households before planning the reservoir,” I told him.
The two men talked again with the translator.
The translator told me, “please be careful with these two fellows. They can harm us.”
I smiled and asked him, “where are their guns if they are dacoits?”
My response annoyed the translator. He talked to the two men again. All three laughed, and one man went to a nearby hut and came back with an AK-47 rifle.
The translator told me, “didn’t I tell you to be careful. Now they have an AK-47 rifle. They can take us whereever they wanted to go. Especially they might like to take you with them to get a ransom.”
Fortunately, at that time, the other team members returned. One of them recognized one of the two men. They talked to each other and shook hands. Before leaving us, the gunmen told me through the translator, “do not roam in our area after two pm.” I asked him why. The translator said that “dacoits get active then, and you might meet them on the road as you did this afternoon.”
I told Variyam about my encounter with the dacoits. He thought for a minute. In a sad voice, he said to me that “the problem with my people is their impatience and foolishness in making enemies from outside.” He asked me not to report the incident to the Police or to the officials at Sangar or Hyderabad. He reassured us that no one would harm us while we were in Makhi Dand. In the same evening, he organized a musical party for us and served delicious food. The songs focused on Hurs’ bravery, purity of Sufism, the pan-regional spread of the Hur brotherhood. Sometimes, the singer cried and waited for the audience to respond to his wailing.
I sat next to Variyam, and he told me how his father organized similar evenings and got a special cake from Bombay called ‘Bombay cake’ for such occasions. He vividly remembered the cake. It had a generous sprinkle of dried raisins on top of it and its crust was thick and hard. He said that he had not seen a Bombay cake for about 30 years. He asked me to get a Bombay cake for him. I asked a friend in Bombay to bring a Bombay cake for me when he visited his uncle in Karachi. After three months, my friend delivered a Bombay cake to my residence in Hyderabad.
The cake was large. It was nicely wrapped in a box. My friend told me that the cake would stay fresh for two weeks as a ‘dry’ cake. Purkahn, my driver, and I drove eight hours with the cake to Chortiari. Variyam was delighted to see me and the cake. We ate a small piece of the cake, and I saw tears in his eyes. He wanted me to come back to Chortiari so that he could tell me the whole story of the Hurs. I promised that I would visit him again, and left his house with a feeling of respect and gratitude.
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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