Tennent's Natural History of Ceylon - 1861

[Last] [Home] [Next]



LIZARDS. Iguana.—One of the earliest, if not the first remarkable animal to startle a stranger on arriving in Ceylon, whilst wending his way from Point-de-Galle to Colombo, is a huge lizard of from four to five feet in length, the Talla-goyā of the Singhalese, and Iguana 1 of the Europeans. It may be seen at noonday searching for ants and insects in the middle of the highway and along the fences; when disturbed, but by no means alarmed, by the approach of man, it moves off to a safe distance; and, the intrusion being at an end, it returns again to the occupation in which it had been interrupted. Repulsive as it is in appearance, it is perfectly harmless, and is hunted down by dogs in the maritime provinces, and its delicate flesh, which is believed to be a specific in dysentery, is converted into curry, and its skin into shoes. When seized, it has the power of inflicting a smart blow with its tail. The Talla-goyā lives in almost any convenient hollow, such as a hole in the ground, or a deserted nest of the termites; and some small ones, which frequented my garden at Colombo, made their retreat in the heart of a decayed tree.

[pg 272]

A still larger species, the Kabara-goyā 2 , is partial to marshy ground, and when disturbed upon land, will take refuge in the nearest water. From the somewhat eruptive appearance of the yellow blotches on its scales, a closely allied species, similarly spotted, formerly obtained amongst naturalists the name of Monitor exanthematicus, and it is curious that the native appellation of this one, kabara 3 , is suggestive of the same idea. The Singhalese, on a strictly homoeopathic principle, believe that its fat, externally applied, is a cure for cutaneous disorders, but that taken inwardly it is poisonous. The skilfulness of the Singhalese in their preparation of poisons, and their addiction to using them, are unfortunately notorious traits in the character of the rural population. Amongst these preparations, the one which above all others excites the utmost dread, from the number of murders attributed to its agency, is the potent kabara-tel—a term which Europeans sometimes corrupt into cobra-tel, implying that the venom is obtained from the hooded-snake; whereas it professes to be extracted from the "kabara-goyā." Such is the bad renown of this formidable poison, that an individual suspected of having it in his possession, is cautiously shunned by his neighbours. Those especially who are on doubtful terms with him, suspect their servants lest they should be suborned to mix kabara-tel in the curry. So subtle is the virus supposed [pg 273] to be, that one method of administering it, is to introduce it within the midrib of a leaf of betel, and close the orifice with chunam; and, as it is an habitual act of courtesy for one Singhalese on meeting another to offer [pg 274] the compliment of a betel-leaf, which it would be rudeness to refuse, facilities are thus afforded for presenting the concealed drug. It is curious that to this latent suspicion has been traced the origin of a custom universal amongst the natives, of nipping off with the thumb nail the thick end of the stem before chewing the betel.


In the preparation of this mysterious compound, the unfortunate Kabara-goya is forced to take a painfully prominent part. The receipt, as written down by a Kandyan, was sent to me from Kornegalle, by Mr. Morris, the civil officer of that district; and in dramatic arrangement it far outdoes the cauldron of Macbeth's witches. The ingredients are extracted from venomous snakes, the cobra de capello, the Carawilla, and the Tic-polonga, by making incisions in the head of these reptiles and suspending them over a chattie to collect the poison as it flows. To this, arsenic and other drugs are added, and the whole is "boiled in a human skull, with the aid of the three Kabara-goyas, which are tied on three sides of the fire, with their heads directed towards it, and tormented by whips to make them hiss, so that the fire may blaze. The froth from their lips is then added to the boiling mixture, and so soon as an oily scum rises to the surface, the kabara-tel is complete."

It is obvious that arsenic is the main ingredient in the poison, and Mr. Morris reported to me that the mode of preparing it, described above, was actually practised in his district. This account was transmitted by him apropos to the murder of a Mohatal 4 and his wife, which had been committed with the kabara-tel, and [pg 275] was then under investigation. Before commencing the operation of preparing the poison, a cock has to be sacrificed to the yakhos or demons.

This ugly lizard is itself regarded with such aversion by the Singhalese, that if a kabara enter a house or walk over the roof, it is regarded as an omen of ill fortune, sickness, or death; and in order to avert the evil, a priest is employed to go through a rhythmical incantation; one portion of which consists in the repetition of the words

Kabara goyin wan dōsey Ada palayan e dōsey.

"These are the inflictions caused by the Kabara-goya—let them now be averted!"

It is one of the incidents that serve to indicate that Ceylon may belong to a separate circle of physical geography, that this lizard, though found to the eastward in Burmah 5 , has not hitherto been discovered in the Dekkan or Hindustan.

Blood-suckers.—The lizards already mentioned, however, are but the stranger's introduction to innumerable varieties of others, all most attractive in their sudden movements, and some unsurpassed in the brilliancy of their colouring, which bask on banks, dart over rocks, and peer curiously out of the chinks of every ruined wall. In all their motions there is that vivid and brief energy, the rapid but restrained action associated with their [pg 276] limited power of respiration, which justifies the accurate picture of—

"The green lizard, rustling thro' the grass,

And up the fluted shaft, with short, quick, spring

To vanish in the chinks which time has made." 6


The most beautiful of the race is the green calotes 7 , in length about twelve inches, which, with the exception of a few dark streaks about the head, is as brilliant as the purest emerald or malachite. Unlike its congeners of the same family, it never alters this dazzling hue; whilst many of them possess, but [pg 277] in a less degree, the power, like the chameleon, of exchanging their ordinary colours for others less conspicuous. One of the most remarkable features in the physiognomy of those lizards is the prominence of their cheeks. This results from the great development of the muscles of the jaws; the strength of which is such that they can crush the hardest integuments of the beetles on which they feed. The calotes will permit its teeth to be broken, rather than quit its hold of a stick into which it may have struck them. It is not provided, like so many other tropical lizards, with a gular sac or throat-pouch, capable of inflation when in a state of high excitement. The tail, too, is rounded, not compressed, thus clearly indicating that its habits are those of a land-animal.

The Calotes versicolor; and another, the Calotes ophioimachus, of which a figure is attached, possess in a remarkable degree the faculty, above alluded to, of changing their hue. The head and neck, when the animal is irritated or hastily swallowing its food, become of a brilliant red (whence the latter species has acquired the name of the "blood-sucker"), whilst the usual tint of the rest of the body is converted into pale yellow. 8 The sitana 9 , and a number of others, exhibit similar phenomena.

The lyre-headed lizard 10 , which is not uncommon in the woods about Kandy, is more bulky than any of the species of Calotes, and not nearly so active in its movements.

[pg 278]

As usually observed it is of a dull greenish brown, but when excited its back becomes a rich olive green, leaving the head yellowish: the underside of the body is of a very pale blue, almost approaching white. The open mouth exhibits the fauces of an intense vermilion tint; so that, although extremely handsome, this lizard presents, from its extraordinarily shaped head and threatening gestures, a most malignant aspect. It is, however, perfectly harmless.

Chameleon.—The true chameleon 11 is found, but not in great numbers, in the dry districts to the north of Ceylon, where it frequents the trees, in slow pursuit of its insect prey; but compensated for the sluggishness of its other movements, by the electric rapidity of its extensible tongue. Apparently sluggish in its general habits, the chameleon rests motionless on a branch, from which its varied hues render it scarcely distinguishable in colour; and there patiently awaits the approach of the insects on which it feeds. Instantly on their appearance its wonderful tongue comes into play.


Though ordinarily concealed, it is capable of protrusion till it exceeds in length the whole body of the creature. No sooner does an incautious fly venture within reach [pg 279] than the extremity of this treacherous weapon is disclosed, broad and cuneiform, and covered with a viscid fluid; and this, extended to its full length, is darted at its prey with an unerring aim, and redrawn within the jaws with a rapidity that renders the act almost invisible. 12

Whilst the faculty of this creature to assume all the colours of the rainbow has attracted the wonder of all ages, sufficient attention has hardly been given to the imperfect sympathy which subsists between the two lobes of its brain, and the two sets of nerves that permeate the opposite sides of its frame. Hence, not only has each of the eyes an action quite independent of the other, but one side of its body appears to be sometimes asleep whilst the other is vigilant and active; one will assume a green tinge whilst the opposite one is red; and it is said that the chameleon is utterly unable to swim, from the incapacity of the muscles of the two sides to act in concert.

Ceratophora.—This which till lately was an unique lizard, known by only two specimens, one in the British Museum, and another in that of Leyden, was ascertained by Dr. Kelaart, about five years ago, to be a native of the higher Kandyan hills, where it is sometimes seen in the older trees in pursuit of insect larvæ. The first specimen brought to Europe was called Ceratophora Stoddartii, after the name of its finder; and the recent discovery of several others in the National Collection has enabled me, by the aid of Dr. A. Günther, to add some important facts to their history.

[pg 280]

This lizard is remarkable for having no external ear; and it has acquired its generic name from the curious horn-like process on the extremity of the nose. This horn, as it is found in mature males of ten inches in length, is five lines long, conical, pointed, and slightly curved; a miniature form of the formidable weapon, from which the Rhinoceros takes its name. But the comparison does not hold good either from an anatomical or a physiological point of view. For, whilst the horn of the rhinoceros is merely a dermal production, a conglomeration of hairs cemented into one dense mass as hard as bone, and answering the purpose of a defensive weapon, besides being used for digging up the roots on which the animal lives; the horn of the ceratophora is formed of a soft, spongy substance, coated by the rostral shield, which is produced into a kind of sheath. Although flexible, it always remains erect, owing to the elasticity of its substance. Not having access to a living specimen, which would afford the opportunity of testing conjecture, we are left to infer from the internal structure of this horn, that it is an erectile organ which, in moments of irritation, will swell like the comb of a cock. This opinion as to its physiological nature is confirmed by the remarkable circumstance that, like the rudimentary comb of the hen and young cocks, the female and the immature males of the ceratophora have the horn exceedingly small. In mature females of eight inches in length (and the females appear always to be smaller than the males), the horn is only one half or one line long; while in immature males five inches in length, it is one line and a half.


Among the specimens sent from Ceylon by Dr. Kelaart, and now in the British Museum, there is one which so remarkably differs from C. Stoddartii, that it attracted my attention, by the peculiar form of this rostral appendage. Dr. Günther pronounced it to be a new [pg 281] species; and Dr. Gray concurring in this opinion, they have done me the honour to call it Ceratophora Tennentii. Its "horn" somewhat resembles the comb of a cock not only in its internal structure, but also in its external appearance; it is nearly six lines long by two broad, slightly compressed, soft, flexile, and extensible, and covered with a corrugated, granular skin. It bears no resemblance to the depressed rostral hump of Lyriocephalus, and the differences of the new species from the latter lizard may be easily seen from the annexed drawing and the notes given below. 13

Geckoes.—The most familiar and attractive of the lizard class are the Geckoes 14 , that frequent the sitting-rooms, and being furnished with pads to each toe, they are enabled to ascend perpendicular walls and adhere to glass and ceilings. Being nocturnal in their habits, the pupil of the eye, instead of being circular as in the diurnal species, is linear and vertical like that of the cat. As soon as evening arrives, the geckoes are to be seen in every house in keen and crafty pursuit of their prey; emerging from the chinks and recesses where they conceal themselves [pg 282] during the day, to search for insects that then retire to settle for the night. In a boudoir where the ladies of my family spent their evenings, one of these familiar and amusing little creatures had its hiding-place behind a gilt picture frame. Punctually as the candles were lighted, it made its appearance on the wall to be fed with its accustomed crumbs; and if neglected, it reiterated it sharp, quick call of chic, chic, chit, till attended to. It was of a delicate gray colour, tinged with pink; and having by accident fallen on a work-table, it fled, leaving part of its tail behind it, which, however, it reproduced within less than a month. This faculty of reproduction is doubtless designed to enable the creature to escape from its assailants: the detaching of the limb is evidently its own act; and it is observable, that when reproduced, the tail generally exhibits some variation from the previous form, the diverging spines being absent, the new portion covered with small square uniform scales placed in a cross series, and the scuta below being seldom so distinct as in the original member. 15 In an officer's quarters in the fort of Colombo, a geckoe had been taught to come daily to the dinner-table, and always made its appearance along with the dessert. The family were absent for some months, during which the house underwent extensive repairs, the roof having been raised, the walls stuccoed, and the ceilings whitened. It was naturally surmised that so long a suspension of its accustomed habits would have led to the disappearance of the little lizard; but on the return of its old friends, it made its entrance as usual at their first dinner the instant the cloth was removed.

[pg 283]

Crocodile.—The Portuguese in India, like the Spaniards in South America, affixed the name of lagarto to the huge reptiles that infested the rivers and estuaries of both continents; and to the present day the Europeans in Ceylon apply the term alligator to what are in reality crocodiles, which literally swarm in the still waters and tanks in the low country, but rarely frequent rapid streams, and have never been found in the marshes among the hills. The differences, however, between the two, when once ascertained, are sufficiently marked, to prevent their being afterwards confounded. The head of the alligator is broader and the snout less prolonged, and the canine teeth of the under jaw, instead of being received into foramina in the upper, as in the crocodile, fit into furrows on each side of it. The legs of the alligator, too, are not denticulated, and the feet are only semi-palmate.

The following drawing exhibits a cranium of each.


The instincts of the crocodiles in Ceylon do not lead to [pg 284] any variation from the habits of those found in other countries. There would appear to be two well-distinguished species found in the island, the Eli-kimboola 16 , the Indian crocodile, inhabiting the rivers and estuaries throughout the low countries of the coasts, attaining the length of sixteen or eighteen feet, and ready to assail man when pressed by hunger; and the marsh-crocodile 17 , which lives exclusively in fresh water, frequenting the tanks in the northern and central provinces, and confining its attacks to the smaller animals: in length it seldom exceeds twelve or thirteen feet. Sportsmen complain that their dogs are constantly seized by both species; and water-fowl, when shot, frequently disappear before they can be secured by the fowler. 18 It is generally believed in Ceylon that, in the case of larger animals, the crocodile abstains from devouring them till the commencement of decomposition facilitates the operation of swallowing. To assist in this, the natives assure me that the reptile contrives to fasten the carcase behind the roots of a mangrove or some other convenient tree and tears off each piece by a backward spring.

There is another popular belief that the crocodile is exceedingly sensitive to tickling; and that it will relax its hold of a man, if he can only contrive to reach and rub with his hand the softer parts of its under side. 19 An [pg 285] incident indicative of some reality in this piece of folklore, once came under my own observation. One morning, about sunrise, when riding across the sandy plain near the old fort of Moeletivoe, we came suddenly upon a crocodile asleep under some bushes of the Buffalo-thorn, several hundred yards from the water. The terror of the poor wretch was extreme, when it awoke and found itself discovered and completely surrounded. It was a hideous creature, upwards of ten feet long, and evidently of prodigious strength, had it been in a condition to exert it, but consternation completely paralysed it. It started to its feet and turned round in a circle hissing and clanking its bony jaws, with its ugly green eye intently fixed upon us. On being struck with a stick, it lay perfectly quiet and apparently dead. Presently it looked cunningly round, and made a rush towards the water, but on a second blow it lay again motionless and feigning death. We tried to rouse it, but without effect, pulled its tail, slapped its back, struck its hard scales, and teased it in every way, but all in vain; nothing would induce it to move till accidentally my son, then a boy of twelve years old, tickled it gently under the arm, and in an instant it drew the limb close to its side and turned to avoid a repetition of the experiment. Again it was touched under the other arm, and the same emotion was exhibited, the great monster twisting about like an infant to avoid being tickled. The scene was highly amusing, but the sun was rising high, and we pursued our journey to Moeletivoe, [pg 286] leaving the crocodile to make its way to the adjoining lake.

The Singhalese believe that the crocodile can only move swiftly on sand or smooth clay, its feet being too tender to tread firmly on hard or stony ground. In the dry season, when the watercourses begin to fail and the tanks become exhausted, the marsh-crocodiles have occasionally been encountered in the jungle, wandering in search of water. During a severe drought in 1844, they deserted a tank near Kornegalle and traversed the town during the night, on their way to another reservoir in the suburb; two or three fell into the wells; others in their trepidation, laid eggs in the street, and some were found entangled in garden fences and killed.

Generally, however, during the extreme drought, when unable to procure their ordinary food from the drying up of the watercourses, they bury themselves in the mud, and remain in a state of torpor till released by the recurrence of rains. 20 At Arne-tivoe, in the eastern province, whilst riding across the parched bed of the tank, I was shown the recess, still bearing the form and impress of a crocodile, out of which the animal had been seen to emerge the day before. A story was also related to me of an officer attached to the department of the Surveyor-General, who, having pitched his tent in a similar position, was disturbed during the night by feeling a movement of the earth below his bed, from which on the following day a crocodile emerged, making its appearance from beneath the matting. 21

[pg 287]

The fresh water species that inhabits the tanks is essentially cowardly in it instincts, and hastens to conceal itself on the appearance of man. A gentleman (who told me the circumstance), when riding in the jungle, overtook a crocodile, evidently roaming in search of water. It fled to a shallow pool almost dried by the sun, and, thrusting its head into the mud till it covered up its eyes, remained unmoved in profound confidence of perfect concealment. In 1833, during the progress of the Pearl Fishery, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton employed men to drag for crocodiles in a pond which was infested by them in the immediate vicinity of Aripo. The pool was about fifty yards in length, by ten or twelve wide, shallowing gradually to the edge, and not exceeding four or five feet at the deepest part. As the party approached the bund, from twenty to thirty reptiles, which had been basking in the sun, rose and fled to the water. A net, specially weighted so as to sink its lower edge to the bottom, was then stretched from bank to bank and swept to the further end of the pond, followed by a line of men with poles to drive the crocodiles forward: so complete was the arrangement, that no individual could have evaded the net, yet, to the astonishment of the Governor's party, not one was to be found when it was drawn on shore, and no means of escape for them was apparent or possible except by their descending into the mud at the bottom of the pond.

The lagoon of Batticaloa, and indeed all the still waters of this district, are remarkable for the numbers and prodigious size of the crocodiles which infest them. Their teeth are sometimes so large that the natives mount them with silver lids and use them for boxes to carry the powdered chunam, which they chew with the betel leaf. During one of my visits to the lake a crocodile was caught within a few yards of the government agent's [pg 288] residence, a hook having been laid the night before, baited with the entrails of a goat; and made fast, in the native fashion, by a bunch of fine cords, which the creature cannot gnaw asunder as it would a solid rope, since they sink into the spaces between its teeth. The one taken was small, being only about ten or eleven feet in length, whereas they are frequently killed from fifteen to nineteen feet long. As long as it was in the water, it made strong resistance to being hauled on shore, carrying the canoe out into the deep channel, and occasionally raising its head above the surface, and clashing its jaws together menacingly. This action has a horrid sound, as the crocodile has no fleshy lips; and it brings its teeth and the bones of the mouth together with a loud crash, like the clank of two pieces of hard wood. After playing it a little, the boatmen drew it to land, and when once fairly on the shore all courage and energy seemed utterly to desert it. It tried once or twice to regain the water, but at last lay motionless and perfectly helpless on the sand. It was no easy matter to kill it; a rifle ball sent diagonally through its breast had little or no effect, and even when the shot had been repeated more than once, it was as full of life as ever. 22 It feigned death and lay motionless, with its eye closed; but, on being pricked with a spear, it suddenly regained all its activity. It was at last finished by a harpoon, and then opened. Its maw contained several small tortoises, and a quantity of broken bricks and gravel, taken medicinally, to promote digestion.

[pg 289]

During our journeys we had numerous opportunities of observing the habits of these hideous creatures, and I am far from considering them so formidable as they are usually supposed to be. They are evidently not wantonly destructive; they act only under the influence of hunger, and even then their motions on land are awkward and ungainly, their action timid, and their whole demeanour devoid of the sagacity and courage which characterise other animals of prey.

TESTUDINATA. Tortoise.—Land tortoises are numerous, but present no remarkable features beyond the beautiful marking of the starred variety 23 , which is common in the north-western province around Putlam and Chilaw, and is distinguished by the bright yellow rays which diversify the deep black of its dorsal shield. From one of these which was kept in my garden I took a number of flat ticks (Ixodes), which adhere to its fleshy neck in such a position as to baffle any attempt of the animal itself to remove them; but as they are exposed to constant danger of being crushed against the plastron during the protrusion and retraction of the head, each is covered with a horny case almost as resistant as the carapace of the tortoise itself. Such an adaptation of structure is scarcely less striking than that of the [pg 290] parasites found on the spotted lizard of Berar by Dr. Hooker, each of which presents the distinct colour of the scale to which it adheres. 24

The marshes and pools of the interior are frequented by terrapins 25 , which the natives are in the habit of keeping alive in wells under the conviction that they clear them of impurities. These fresh-water tortoises, the greater number of which are included in the genus Emys of naturalists, are distinguished by having their toes webbed. Their shell is less convex than that of their congeners on land (but more elevated than that of the sea-turtle); and it has been observed that the more rounded the shell, the nearer does the terrapin approach to the land-tortoise both in its habits and in the choice of its food. Some of them live upon animal as well as vegetable food, and those which subsist exclusively on the former, are noted as having the flattest shells.

[pg 291]

The terrapins lay about thirty eggs in the course of several weeks, and these are round, with a calcareous shell. They thrive in captivity, provided that they have a regular supply of water and of meat, cut into small pieces and thrown to them. The tropical species, if transferred to a colder climate, should have arrangements made for enabling them to hybernate during the winter: they will die in a very short time if exposed to a temperature below the freezing point. 26

The edible turtle 27 is found on all the coasts of the island, and sells for a few shillings or a few pence, according to its size and abundance at the moment. A very repulsive spectacle is exhibited in the markets of Jaffna by the mode in which the flesh of the turtle is sold piece-meal, whilst the animal is still alive, by the families of the Tamil fishermen. The creatures are to be seen in the market-place undergoing this frightful mutilation; the plastron and its integuments having been previously removed, and the animal thrown on its back, so as to display all the motions of the heart, viscera, and lungs. A broad knife, from twelve to eighteen inches in length, is first inserted at the left side, and the women, who are generally the operators, introduce [pg 292] one hand to scoop out the blood, which oozes slowly. The blade is next passed round, till the lower shell is detached and placed on one side, and the internal organs exposed in full action. A customer, as he applies, is served with any part selected, which is cut off as ordered, and sold by weight. Each of the fins is thus successively removed, with portions of the fat and flesh, the turtle showing, by its contortions, that each act of severance is productive of agony. In this state it lies for hours, writhing in the sun, the heart 28 and head being usually the last pieces selected, and till the latter is cut off the snapping of the mouth, and the opening and closing of the eyes, show that life is still inherent, even when the shell has been nearly divested of its contents.

At certain seasons the flesh of turtle on the south-western coast of Ceylon is avoided as poisonous, and some lamentable instances are recorded of deaths ascribed to its use. At Pantura, to the south of Colombo, twenty-eight persons who had partaken of turtle in October, 1840, were immediately seized with sickness, after which coma supervened, and eighteen died during the night. Those who survived said there was nothing unusual in the appearance of the flesh except that it was fatter than ordinary. Other similarly fatal occurrences have been attributed to turtle curry; but as they have never been proved to proceed exclusively from that source, there is room for believing that the poison may have been contained in some other ingredient.

[pg 293]

In the Gulf of Manaar turtle is frequently found of such a size as to measure between four and five feet in length; and on one occasion, in riding along the sea-shore north of Putlam, I saw a man in charge of some sheep, resting under the shade of a turtle shell, which he had erected on sticks to protect him from the sun—almost verifying the statement of Ælian, that in the seas off Ceylon there are tortoises so large that several persons may find ample shelter beneath a single shell. 29

The hawksbill-turtle 30 , which supplies the tortoise-shell of commerce, was at former times taken in great numbers in the vicinity of Hambangtotte during the season when they came to deposit their eggs. This gave rise to the trade in tortoise-shell at Point de Galle, where it is still manufactured into articles of ornament by the Moors; but the shell they employ is almost entirely imported from the Maldives.

If taken from the animal after death and decomposition, the colour of the shell becomes clouded and milky, and hence the cruel expedient is resorted to of seizing the turtles as they repair to the shore to deposit their eggs, and suspending them over fires till heat makes the plates on the dorsal shields start from the bone of the carapace, after which the creature is permitted to escape to the water. 31 In illustration of the resistless influence [pg 294] of instinct at the period of breeding, it may be mentioned that the identical tortoise is believed to return again and again to the same spot, notwithstanding that at each visit she may have to undergo a repetition of this torture. In the year 1826, a hawksbill turtle was taken near Hambangtotte, which bore a ring attached to one of its fins that had been placed there by a Dutch officer thirty years before, with a view to establish the fact of these recurring visits to the same beach. 32

An opportunity is afforded on the sea-shore of Ceylon for observing a remarkable illustration of instinct in the turtle, when about to deposit its eggs. As if conscious that if she went and returned by one and the same line across the sandy beach, her hiding place would be discovered at its farthest extremity, she resorts to the expedient of curving her course, so as to regain the sea by a different track; and after depositing the eggs, burying them about eighteen inches deep, she carefully smoothes over the surface to render the precise spot indiscernible. The Singhalese, aware of this device, sound her line of, march with a rod till they come upon the concealed nest.

Snakes.—It is perhaps owing to the aversion excited by the ferocious expression and unusual action of serpents, combined with an instinctive dread of attack 33 , that exaggerated ideas prevail both as to their numbers in Ceylon, and the danger to be apprehended from encountering them. The Singhalese profess to distinguish a great many kinds, of which they say not more than [pg 295] one half have as yet been scientifically identified 34 ; but so cautiously do serpents make their appearance, that the surprise of persons long resident is invariably expressed at the rarity with which they are to be seen; and from my own journeys through the jungle, often of from two to five hundred miles, I have frequently returned without observing a single snake. Mr. Bennett, who resided much in the south-east of the island, ascribes the rarity of serpents in the jungle to the abundance of the wild peafowl, whose partiality to young snakes renders them the chief destroyers of these reptiles. It is likely, too, that they are killed by the jungle-cocks; for they are frequently eaten by the common barn-door fowl in Ceylon. This is rendered the more probable by the fact, that in those districts where the extension of cultivation, and the visits of sportsmen, have reduced the numbers of the jungle-cocks and pea-fowl, snakes have perceptibly increased. The deer also are enemies of the snakes, and the natives who have had opportunities of watching their encounters assert that they have seen deer rush upon a serpent and crush it by leaping on it with all its four feet. As to the venomous powers of snakes, DR. DAVY, whose [pg 296] attention was carefully directed to the poisonous serpents of Ceylon 35 , came to the conclusion that but four, out of twenty species examined by him, were venomous, and that of these only two (the tic-polonga 36 and cobra de capello 37 ) were capable of inflicting a wound likely to be fatal to man. The third is the carawala 38 , a brown snake of about two feet in length; and for the fourth, of which only a few specimens have been procured, the Singhalese have no name in their vernacular—a proof that it is neither deadly nor abundant. But Dr. Davy's estimate of the venom of the carawala is below the truth, as cases have been authenticated to me, in which death from its bite ensued within a few days. The effect, however, is not uniformly fatal; a circumstance which the natives explain by asserting that there are three varieties of the carawala, named the hil-la, the dunu, and the mal-carawala; the second being the largest and the most dreaded.

In like manner, the tic-polonga, particularised by Dr. Davy, is said to be but one out of seven varieties of that formidable reptile. The word "tic" means literally the "spotted" polonga, from the superior clearness of the markings on its scales. Another, the nidi, or "sleeping" polonga, is so called from the fact that a person bitten by it is soon prostrated by a lethargy from which he never awakes. 39 These formidable serpents so infested [pg 297] the official residence of the District Judge of Trincomalie in 1858, as to compel his family to abandon it. In another instance, a friend of mine, going hastily to take a supply of wafers from an open tin case which stood in his office, drew back his hand, on finding the box occupied by a tic-polonga coiled within it. During my residence in Ceylon, I never heard of the death of a European which was caused by the bite of a snake; and in the returns of coroners' inquests made officially to my department, such accidents to the natives appear chiefly to have happened at night, when the animal, having been surprised or trodden on, inflicted the wound in self-defence. 40 For these reasons the Singhalese, when obliged to leave their houses in the dark, carry a stick with a loose ring, the noise 41 of which as they strike it on the ground is sufficient to warn the snakes to leave their path.

[pg 298]

Cobra de Capello.—The cobra de capello is the only one exhibited by the itinerant snake-charmers: and the truth of Davy's conjecture, that they control it, not by extracting its fangs, but by courageously availing themselves of its well-known timidity and extreme reluctance to use its fatal weapons, received a painful confirmation during my residence in Ceylon, by the death of one of these performers, whom his audience had provoked to attempt some unaccustomed familiarity with the cobra; it bit him on the wrist, and he expired the same evening. The hill near Kandy, on which the official residences of the Governor and Colonial Secretary are built, is covered in many places with the deserted nests of the white ants (termites), and these are the favourite retreats of the sluggish and spiritless cobra, which watches from their apertures the toads and lizards on which it preys. Here, when I have repeatedly come upon them, their only impulse was concealment; and on one occasion, when a cobra of considerable length could not escape, owing to the bank being nearly precipitous on both sides of the road, a few blows from my whip were sufficient to deprive it of life. 42

[pg 299]

A gentleman who held a civil appointment at Kornegalle, had a servant who was bitten by a snake, and he informed me that on enlarging a hole near the foot of the tree under which the accident occurred, he unearthed a cobra of upwards of three feet long, and so purely white as to induce him to believe that it was an albino. With the exception of the rat-snake 43 , the cobra de capello is the only serpent which seems from choice to frequent the vicinity of human dwellings, doubtless attracted by the young of the domestic fowl and by the moisture of the wells and drainage.

The young cobras, it is said, in the Sarpa-dosa, are not venomous till after the thirteenth day, when they shed their coat for the first time.

The Singhalese remark that if one cobra be destroyed near a house, its companion is almost certain to be discovered immediately after,—a popular belief which I had an opportunity of verifying on more than one occasion. Once, when a snake of this description was [pg 300] killed in a bath of the Government House at Colombo, its mate was found in the same spot the day after; and again, at my own stables, a cobra of five feet long, having fallen into the well, which was too deep to permit its escape, its companion of the same size was found the same morning in an adjoining drain. 44 On this occasion the snake, which had been several hours in the well, swam with ease, raising its head and hood above water; and instances have repeatedly occurred of the cobra de capello voluntarily taking considerable excursions by sea. When the "Wellington," a government vessel employed in the conservancy of the pearl banks, was anchored about a quarter of a mile from the land, in the bay of Koodremalé, a cobra was seen, about an hour before sunset, swimming vigorously towards the ship. It came within twelve yards, when the sailors assailed it with billets of wood and other missiles, and forced it to return to land. The following morning they discovered the track which it had left on the shore, and traced it along the sand till it was lost in the jungle. On a later occasion, in the vicinity of the same spot, when the "Wellington" was lying at some distance from the shore, a cobra was found and killed on board, where it could only have gained access by climbing up the cable. It was first discovered by a sailor, who felt the chill as it glided over his foot.

One curious tradition in Ceylon embodies the popular legend, that the stomach of the cobra de capello occasionally contains a precious stone of such unapproachable [pg 301] brilliancy as to surpass all known jewels. This inestimable stone is called the nāga-mānik-kya; but not one snake in thousands is supposed to possess such a treasure. The cobra, before eating, is believed to cast it up and conceal it for the moment; else its splendour, like a flambeau, would attract all beholders. The tales of the peasantry, in relation to it, all turn upon the devices of those in search of the gem, and the vigilance and cunning of the cobra by which they are baffled; the reptile itself being more enamoured of the priceless jewel than even its most ardent pursuers.

In BENNETT'S account of "Ceylon and its Capabilities," there is another curious piece of Singhalese folk-lore, to the effect, that the cobra de capello every time it expends its poison loses a joint of its tail, and eventually acquires a head resembling that of a toad. A recent addition to zoological knowledge has thrown light on the origin of this popular fallacy. The family of "false snakes" (pseudo typhlops, as Schlegel names the group) have till lately consisted of but three species, of which only one was known to inhabit Ceylon. They belong to a family intermediate between the serpents and that Saurian group-commonly called Slow-worms or Glass-snakes; they in fact represent the slow-worms of the temperate regions in Ceylon. They have the body of a snake, but the cleft of their mouth is very narrow, and they are unable to detach the lateral parts of the lower jaw from each other, as the true snakes do when devouring a prey. The most striking character of the group, however, is the size and form of the tail; this is very short, and according to the observations of [pg 302] Professor Peters of Berlin 45 , shorter in the female than in the male. It does not terminate in a point as in other snakes, but is truncated obliquely, the abrupt surface of its extremity being either entirely flat, or more or less convex, and always covered with rough keels. The reptile assists its own movements by pressing the rough end to the ground, and from this peculiar form of the tail, the family has received the name of Uropeltidæ, or "Shield-tails." Within a very recent period important additions have been made to this family. which now consists of four genera and eleven species. Those occurring in Ceylon are enumerated in the List [pg 303] appended to this chapter. One of these, the Uropeltis grandis of Kelaart 46 , is distinguished by its dark brown colour, shot with a bluish metallic lustre, closely approaching the ordinary shade of the cobra; and the tail is abruptly and flatly compressed as though it had been severed by a knife. The form of this singular reptile will be best understood by a reference to the accompanying figure; and there can, I think, be little doubt that to its strange and anomalous structure is to be traced the fable of the transformation of the cobra de capello. The colour alone would seem to identify the two reptiles, but the head and mouth are no longer those of a serpent, and the disappearance of the tail might readily suggest the mutilation which the tradition asserts.


The Singhalese Buddhists, in their religious abstinence from inflicting death on any creature, are accustomed, after securing a venomous snake, to enclose it in a basket woven of palm leaves, and to set it afloat on a river.

The Python.—The great python 47 (the "boa," as it is commonly designated by Europeans, the "anaconda" of Eastern story), which is supposed to crush the bones of an elephant, and to swallow the tiger, is found, though not of such portentous dimensions, in the cinnamon gardens within a mile of the fort of Colombo, where it feeds on hog-deer, and other smaller animals.

[pg 304]

The natives occasionally take it alive, and securing it to a pole expose it for sale as a curiosity. One that was brought to me tied in this way measured seventeen feet with a proportionate thickness: but one more fully grown, which crossed my path on a coffee estate on the Peacock Mountain at Pusilawa, considerably exceeded these dimensions. Another which I watched in the garden at Elie House, near Colombo, surprised me by the ease with which it erected itself almost perpendicularly in order to scale a wall upwards of ten feet high.

The Singhalese assert that when it has swallowed a deer, or any animal of similarly inconvenient bulk, the python draws itself through the narrow aperture between two trees, in order to crush the bones and assist in the process of deglutition.

It is a singular fact that the small and innocuous ground-snakes called Calamariæ, which abound on the continent of India and in the islands are not to be found in Ceylon; where they would appear to be replaced by two singular genera, the Aspidura and Haplocercus, These latter have only one series of shields below the tail, whilst most other harmless snakes (Calamaria included) have a double series of sub-candals. The Aspidura has been known to naturalists for many years 48 ; the Haplocercus of Ceylon has only recently been described by Dr. Günther, and of it not more than three existing specimens are known: hence [pg 305] its habits and the extent of its distribution over the island are still left in uncertainty. 49

Of ten species of snakes that ascend trees in Ceylon to search for squirrels and lizards, and to rifle the nests of birds, one half, including the green carawala, and the deadly tic polonga, are believed by the natives to be venomous; but the truth of this is very dubious. I have heard of the cobra being found on the crown of a coco-nut palm, attracted, it was said, by the toddy which was flowing at the time, it being the season for drawing it. Surrounding Elie House, near Colombo, in which I resided, were a number of tall casuarinas and India-rubber trees, whose branches almost touched the lattices of the window of the room in which I usually sat. These were a favourite resort of the tree-snakes, and in the early morning the numbers which clung to them were sometimes quite remarkable. I had thus an opportunity of observing the action of these creatures, which seems to me one of vigilance rather than of effort, the tongue being in perpetual activity, as if it were an organ of feeling; and in those in which the nose is elongated, a similar mobility and restlessness, especially when alarmed, affords evidence of the same faculty.

[pg 306]

The general characteristic of the Tree-snake is an exceedingly thin and delicate body, often adorned with colours exquisite as those of the foliage amongst which they live concealed. In some of the South American species the tints vie in brilliancy with those of the humming-birds; whilst their forms are so flexible and slender as to justify the name conferred on them of "whip-snakes." The Siamese, to denote these combinations of grace and splendour, call them "Sun-beams." A naturalist 50 , describing a bright green species in Brazil (Philodryas viridissimus), writes: "I am always delighted when I find that another tree-snake has settled in my garden. You look for a bird's nest, the young ones have gone, but you find their bed occupied by one of these beautiful creatures, which will coil up its body of two feet in length within a space no larger than the hollow of your hand. They appear to be always watchful; for at the instant you discover one, the quick playing of the long, black, forked tongue will show you that you too are observed. On perceiving the slightest sign of your intention to disturb it, the snake will dart upwards through the branches and over the leaves which scarcely appear to bend beneath the weight. A moment more, and you have lost sight of it. Whenever I return to Europe, you may be sure that in my hot-house those harmless, lovely creatures shall not be missing."

[pg 307]
TREE SNAKE. Passerita fusca TREE SNAKE. Passerita fusca.

Ceylon has several species of Tree-snakes, and one of the most common is the green Passerita, easily recognized from its bright colour and from the pointed moveable appendage, into which the snout is prolonged. The snakes of this genus being active chiefly during the night, the pupil of the eye is linear and horizontal. They never willingly descend from trees, but prey there upon nocturnal Saurians, geckoes, small birds and their young; and they are perfectly harmless, although they often try to bite. It is strange that none of the numerous specimens which it has been attempted to bring to Europe have ever fed in captivity; whilst in South America they take their food freely in confinement, provided that some green plants are placed in their cage.

In Ceylon I have never seen any specimen of a larger size than three feet; whilst they are known to attain to more than five on the Indian Continent.

The inference is obvious, that the green coloration of the majority of tree-snakes has more or less connection with their habits and mode of life. Indeed, whenever a green-coloured snake is observed, it may at once be pronounced, if slender or provided with a prehensile tail, to be of the kind which passes its life on trees; but if it be short-bodied then it lives on the prairies. There are nevertheless tree-snakes which have a very different coloration; and one of the most remarkable species is the Passerita fusca or Dryinus fuscus, of which a figure is annexed. It closely resembles the green Passerita in form, so that naturalists have considered it to be a mere variety. It is entirely of a shining brown, shot with purple, and the yellow longitudinal stripe which runs along the side of the belly of the green species, is absent in this one. It is much more rare than the green one, and [pg 308] does not appear to be found in Hindostan: no intermediate forms have been observed in Ceylon.

Water-Snakes.—The fresh-water snakes, of which several species 51 inhabit the still waters and pools, are all harmless in Ceylon. A gentleman, who found near a river an agglutinated cluster of the eggs of one variety (Tropidophis schistosus), placed them under a glass shade on his drawing-room table, where one by one the young reptiles emerged from the shell to the number of twenty.

The sea-snakes of the Indian tropics did not escape the notice of the early Greek mariners who navigated those seas; and amongst the facts collected by them, Ælian has briefly recorded that the Indian Ocean produces serpents with flattened tails 52 , whose bite, he adds, is to be dreaded less for its venom than the laceration of its teeth. The first statement is accurate, but the latter is incorrect, as there is an all but unanimous concurrence of opinion that every species of this family of serpents is more or less poisonous. The compression of the tail noticed by Ælian is one of the principal characteristics of these reptiles, as their motion through the water is mainly effected by its aid, coupled with the undulating movement of the rest of the body. Their scales, instead of being imbricated like those of land-snakes, form hexagons; and those on the belly, instead of being scutate and enlarged, are nearly of the same size and form as on other parts of the body.

[pg 309]

Sea-snakes (Hydrophis) are found on all the coasts of Ceylon. I have sailed through large shoals of them in the Gulf of Manaar, close to the pearl-banks of Aripo. The fishermen of Calpentyn on the west live in perpetual dread of them, and believe their bite to be fatal. In the course of an attempt which was recently made to place a lighthouse on the great rocks of the south-east coast, known by seamen as the Basses 53 , or Baxos, the workmen who first landed found the portion of the surface liable to be covered by the tides, honeycombed, and hollowed into deep holes filled with water, in which were abundance of fishes and some molluscs. Some of these cavities also contained sea-snakes from four to five feet long, which were described as having the head "hooded like the cobra de capello, and of a light grey colour, slightly speckled. They coiled themselves like serpents on land, and darted at poles thrust in among them. The Singhalese who accompanied the party, said that they not only bit venomously, but crushed the limb of any intruder in their coils." 54

Still, sea-snakes, though well-known to the natives, are not abundant round Ceylon, as compared with their numbers in other places. Their principal habitat is the ocean between the southern shores of China and the northern coast of New Holland; and their western limit appears to be about the longitude of Cape Comorin. It has long since been ascertained that they frequent the seas that separate the islands of the Pacific; but they have never yet been found in the Atlantic, nor even [pg 310] on the western shores of tropical America. And if, as has been stated 55 , they have been seen on a late occasion in considerable numbers in the Bay of Panama, the fact can only be regarded as one of the rare instances, in which a change in the primary distribution of a race of animals has occurred, either by an active or a passive immigration. Being exclusively inhabitants of the sea, they are liable to be swept along by the influence of currents; but to compensate for this they have been endowed with a wonderful power of swimming. The individuals of all the groups of terrestrial serpents are observed to be possessed of this faculty to a greater or a less degree; and they can swim for a certain distance without having any organs specially modified for the purpose; except, perhaps, the lung, which is a long sac capable of taking in a sufficient quantity of air, to keep the body of the snake above water. Nor do we find any peculiar or specially adapted organs even in the freshwater-snakes, although they can catch frogs or fishes while swimming. But in the hydrophids, which are permanent inhabitants of the ocean, and which in an adult state, approach the beach only occasionally, and for very short times, the tail, which is rounded and tapering in the others, is compressed into a vertical rudder-like organ, similar to, and answering all the purposes of, the caudal fin in a fish. When these snakes are brought on shore or on the deck of a ship, they are helpless and struggle vainly in awkward attitudes. Their food consists exclusively of such fishes as are found near the surface; a fact which affords ample proof that they do not descend to great depths, although [pg 311] they can dive as well as swim. They are often found in groups during calm weather, sleeping on the sea; but owing to their extreme caution and shyness, attempts to catch them are rarely successful; on the least alarm, they suddenly expel the air from their lungs and descend below the surface; a long stream of rising air-bubbles marking the rapid course which they make below. Their poisonous nature has been questioned; but the presence of a strong perforated tooth and of a venomous gland sufficiently attest their dangerous powers, even if these had not been demonstrated by the effects of their bite. But fortunately for the fishermen, who sometimes find them unexpectedly among the contents of their nets, sea-snakes are unable, like other venomous serpents, to open the jaws widely, and in reality they rarely inflict a wound. Dr. Cantor believes, that, they are blinded by the light when removed from their own element; and he adds that they become sluggish and speedily die. 56

SEA SNAKE Hydrophis subloevis SEA SNAKE Hydrophis subloevis

Those found near the coasts of Ceylon are generally small,—from one to three feet in length, and apparently immature; and it is certain that the largest specimens taken in the Pacific do not attain to greater length than eight feet. In colour they are generally of a greenish brown, in parts inclining to yellow, with occasionally cross bands of black. The species figured in the accompanying drawing is the Hydrophis subloevis of Gray; or Hydrus cyanocinctus of Boie. 57 The specimen from which the drawing is taken, was obtained by Dr. Templeton at Colombo.

[pg 312]

The use of the Pamboo-Kaloo, or snake-stone, as a remedy in cases of wounds by venomous serpents, has probably been communicated to the Singhalese by the itinerant snake-charmers who resort to the island from the coast of Coromandel; and more than one well-authenticated instance of its successful application has been told to me by persons who had been eye-witnesses to what they described. On one occasion, in March, 1854, a friend of mine was riding, with some other civil officers of the Government, along a jungle path in the vicinity of Bintenne, when he saw one of two Tamils, who were approaching the party, suddenly dart into the forest and return, holding in both hands a cobra de capello which he had seized by the head and tail. He called to his companion for assistance to place it in their covered basket, but, in doing this, he handled it so inexpertly that it seized him by the finger, and retained its hold for a few seconds, as if unable to retract its fangs. The blood flowed, and intense pain appeared to follow almost immediately; but, with all expedition, the friend of the sufferer undid his waistcloth, and took from it two snake-stones, each of the size of a small almond, intensely black and highly polished, though of an extremely light substance. These he applied, one to each wound inflicted by the teeth of the serpent, to which they attached themselves closely; the blood that oozed from the bites being rapidly imbibed by the porous texture of the article applied. The stones adhered [pg 313] tenaciously for three or four minutes, the wounded man's companion in the meanwhile rubbing his arm downwards from the shoulder towards the fingers. At length the snake-stones dropped off of their own accord; the suffering of the man appeared to subside; he twisted his fingers till the joints cracked, and went on his way without concern. Whilst this had been going on, another Indian of the party who had come up took from his bag a small piece of white wood, which resembled a root, and passed it gently near the head of the cobra, which the latter immediately inclined close to the ground; he then lifted the snake without hesitation, and coiled it into a circle at the bottom of his basket. The root by which he professed to be enabled to perform this operation with safety he called the Naya-thalic Kalanga (the root of the snake-plant), protected by which he professed his ability to approach any reptile with impunity.

In another instance, in 1853, Mr. Lavalliere, then District Judge of Kandy, informed me that he saw a snake-charmer in the jungle, close by the town, search for a cobra de capello, and, after disturbing one in its retreat, the man tried to secure it, but, in the attempt, he was bitten in the thigh till blood trickled from the wound. He instantly applied the Pamboo-Kaloo, which adhered closely for about ten minutes, during which time he passed the root which he held in his hand backwards and forwards above the stone, till the latter dropped to the ground. He assured Mr. Lavalliere that all danger was then past. That gentleman obtained from him the snake-stone he had relied on, and saw him repeatedly afterwards in perfect health.

The substances used on both these occasions are now [pg 314] in my possession. The roots employed by the several parties are not identical. One appears to be a bit of the stem of an Aristolochia; the other is so dried as to render its identification difficult, but it resembles the quadrangular stem of a jungle vine. Some species of Aristolochia, such as the A. serpentaria of North America, are supposed to act as specifics in the cure of snakebites; and the A. indica is the plant to which the ichneumon is popularly believed to resort as an antidote when bitten 58 ; but it is probable that the use of any particular plant by the snake-charmers is a pretence, or rather a delusion, the reptile being overpowered by the resolute action of the operator 59 , and not by the influence [pg 315] of any secondary appliance. In other words, the confidence inspired by the supposed talisman enables its possessor to address himself fearlessly to his task, and thus to effect, by determination and will, what is popularly believed to be the result of charms and stupefaction. Still it is curious that, amongst the natives of Northern Africa, who lay hold of the Cerastes without fear or hesitation, impunity is ascribed to the use of a plant with the juice of which they anoint themselves before touching the reptile 60 ; and Bruce says of the people of Sennar, that they acquire exemption from the fatal consequences of the bite by chewing a particular root, and washing themselves with an infusion of certain plants. He adds that a portion of this root was given him, with a view to test its efficacy in his own person, but that he had not sufficient resolution to make the experiment.

As to the snake-stone itself, I submitted one, the application of which I have been describing, to Mr. Faraday, who has communicated to me, as the result of his analysis, his belief that it is "a piece of charred bone which has been filled with blood perhaps several times, and then carefully charred again. Evidence of this is afforded, as well by the apertures of cells or tubes on its surface as by the fact that it yields and breaks, under pressure; and exhibits an organic structure within. When heated slightly, water rises from it, and also a little ammonia; and, if heated still more highly in the air, carbon burns away, and a bulky white ash is left, retaining the shape and size of the stone." This ash, as is evident from inspection, cannot have belonged to [pg 316] any vegetable substance, for it is almost entirely composed of phosphate of lime. Mr. Faraday adds that "if the piece of matter has ever been employed as a spongy absorbent, it seems hardly fit for that purpose in its present state: but who can say to what treatment it has been subjected since it was fit for use, or to what treatment the natives may submit it when expecting to have occasion to use it?"

The probability is, that the animal charcoal, when instantaneously applied, may be sufficiently porous and absorbent to extract the venom from the recent wound, together with a portion of the blood, before it has had time to be carried into the system; and that the blood which Mr. Faraday detected in the specimen submitted to him was that of the Indian on whose person the effect was exhibited on the occasion to which my informant was an eye-witness. The snake-charmers from the coast who visit Ceylon profess to prepare the snake-stones for themselves, and to preserve the composition a secret. Dr. Davy 61 , on the authority of Sir Alexander Johnston, says the manufacture of them is a lucrative trade, carried on by the monks of Manilla, who supply the merchants of India—and his analysis confirms that of Mr. Faraday. Of the three different kinds which he examined—one being of partially burnt bone, and another of chalk, the third, consisting chiefly of vegetable matter, resembled bezoar,—all of them (except the first, which possessed a slight absorbent power) were quite inert, and incapable of having any effect except on the imagination of the patient. Thunberg was shown the snake-stone used by the boers at the [pg 317] Cape in 1772, which was imported for them "from the Indies, especially from Malabar," at so high a price that few of the farmers could afford to possess themselves of it; he describes it as convex on one side, black and so porous that "when thrown into water, it caused bubbles to rise;" and hence, by its absorbent qualities, it served, if speedily applied, to extract the poison from the wound. 62

Coecilia.—The rocky jungle, bordering the higher coffee estates, provides a safe retreat for a very singular animal, first introduced to the notice of European naturalists about a century ago by Linnæus, who gave it the name Coecilia glutinosa, to indicate two peculiarities manifest to the ordinary observer—an apparent defect of vision, from the eyes being so small and embedded as to be scarcely distinguishable; and a power of secreting from minute pores in the skin a [pg 318] viscous fluid, resembling that of snails, eels, and some salamanders. Specimens are rare in Europe owing to the readiness with which it decomposes, breaking down into a flaky mass in the spirits in which it is attempted to preserve it.

The creature is about the length and thickness of an ordinary round desk ruler, a little flattened before and rounded behind. It is brownish, with a pale stripe along either side. The skin is furrowed into 350 circular folds, in which are imbedded minute scales. The head is tolerably distinct, with a double row of fine curved teeth for seizing the insects and worms on which it is supposed to live.

Naturalists are most desirous that the habits and metamorphoses of this creature should be carefully ascertained, for great doubts have been entertained as to the position it is entitled to occupy in the chain of creation.

Batrachians.—In the numerous marshes formed by the overflowing of the rivers in the plains of the low country, there are many varieties of frogs, which, both by their colours and by their extraordinary size, are calculated to excite the surprise of a stranger. In the lakes around Colombo and the still water near Trincomalie, there are huge creatures of this family, from six to eight inches in length 63 , of an olive hue, deepening into brown on the back and yellow on the under side. A Kandyan species, recently described, is of much smaller dimensions, but distinguished by its brilliant colouring, a beautiful grass green above and deep orange underneath 64 .

[pg 319]

In the shrubberies around my house at Colombo the graceful little tree-frogs 65 were to be found in great numbers, sheltered under broad leaves to protect them from the scorching sun;—some of them utter a sharp metallic sound at night, similar to that produced by smacking the lips.

In the gardens and grounds toads 66 crouch in the shade, and pursue the flies and minute coleoptera. In Ceylon, as in Europe, these creatures suffer from the bad renown of injecting a poison into the wound inflicted by their bite. 67 The main calumny is confuted by the fact that no toad has yet been discovered furnished with any teeth whatsoever; but the obnoxious repute still attaches to the milky exudation sometimes perceptible from glands situated on either side behind the head; nevertheless experiments have shown, that though acrid, the secretions of the toad are incapable of exciting more than a slight erythema on the most delicate skins. The smell is, however, fetid and offensive, and hence toads are less exposed to the attacks of carnivorous animals and of birds than frogs, in which such glands do not exist.

In the class of Reptiles, those only are included in the order of Batrachians which undergo a metamorphosis before attaining maturity; and as they offer the only example amongst Vertebrate animals of this marvellous transformation, they are justly considered as the lowest in the scale, with the exception of fishes, which remain during life in that stage of development which is only the commencement of existence to a frog.

[pg 320]

In undergoing this change, it is chiefly the organs of respiration that manifest alteration. In its earliest form the young batrachian, living in the water, breathes as a fish does by gills, either free and projecting as in the water-newt, or partially covered by integument as in the tadpole. But the gills disappear as the lungs gradually become developed: the duration of the process being on an average one hundred days from the time the eggs were first deposited. After this important change, the true batrachian is incapable any longer of living continuously in water, and either betakes itself altogether to the land, or seeks the surface from time to time to replenish its exhausted lungs. 68

The change in the digestive functions during metamorphosis is scarcely less extraordinary; frogs, for example, which feed on animal substances at maturity, subsist entirely upon vegetable when in the condition of larvæ, and the subsidiary organs undergo remarkable development, the intestinal canal in the earlier stage being five times its length in the later one.

Of the family of tailed batrachians, Ceylon does not furnish a single example; but of those without this appendage, the island, as above remarked, affords many varieties; seven distinguishable species pertaining to the genus rana, or true frogs with webs to the hind feet; two to the genus bufo, or true toads, and five to the Polypedates, or East Indian "tree-frogs;" besides a few others in allied genera. The "tree-frog," whose [pg 321] toes are terminated by rounded discs which assist it in climbing, possesses, in a high degree, the faculty of changing its hues; and one as green as a leaf to-day, will be found grey and spotted like the bark to-morrow. One of these beautiful little creatures, which had seated itself on the gilt pillar of a lamp on my dinner-table, became in a few minutes scarcely distinguishable in colour from the or-molu ornament to which it clung.

List of Ceylon Reptiles.

I am indebted to Dr. Gray and Dr. Günther, of the British Museum, for a list of the reptiles of Ceylon; but many of those new to Europeans have been carefully described by the late Dr. Kelaart in his Prodromus Faunæ Zeylanicæ and its appendices, as well as in the 13th vol. Magaz. Nat. Hist. (1854).







NOTE.—The following species are peculiar to Ceylon (and the genera Ceratophora, Otocryptis, Uropeltis, Aspidura. Cercaspis, and Haplocercus would appear to be similarly restricted);—Lygosoma fallax; Trimesurus Ceylonensis, T. nigromarginatus; Megæra Trigonocephala; Trigonocephalus hypnalis; Daboia elegans; Rhinophis punctatus, Rh. homolepis, Rh. planiceps, Rh. Blythii, Rh. melanogaster; Uropeltis grandis; Silybura Ceylonica; Cylindrophis maculata; Aspidura brachyorrhos; Haplocercus Ceylonensis; Oligodon sublineatus; Cynophis Helena; Cyclophis calamaria; Dipsadomorphus Ceylonensis; Cercaspis carinata; Ixalus variabilis, I. leucorhinus, I. poecilopleurus; Polypedates microtympanum. P. eques.


Monitor dracæna, Linn. Among the barbarous nostrums of the uneducated natives, both Singhalese and Tamil, is the tongue of the iguana, which they regard as a specific for consumption, if plucked from the living animal and swallowed whole.


Hydrosaurus salvator, Laur. Tail compressed; fingers long; nostrils near the extremity of the snout. A black band on each temple; round yellow spots disposed in transverse series on the back. Teeth with the crown compressed and notched.


In the Mahawanso the hero Tissa, is said to have been "afflicted with a cutaneous complaint which made his skin scaly like that of the godho."—Ch. xxiv. p. 148. "Godho" is the Pali name for the Kabara-goyā.


A native head-man of low rank.


In corroboration of the view propounded elsewhere (see pp. 7, 84, &c), and opposed to the popular belief that Ceylon, at some remote period, was detached from the continent of India by the interposition of the sea, a list of reptiles will be found at p. 319, including not only individual species, but whole genera peculiar to the island, and not to be found on the mainland. See a paper by Dr. A. G&ÜNTHER on The Geog. Distribution of Reptiles. Magaz. Nat. Hist. for March, 1859, p. 230.


ROGERS' Pæstum.


Calotes sp.


The characteristics by which the Calotes ophiomachus may be readily recognised, are a small crest formed by long spines running on each side of the neck to above the ear, coupled with a green ground-colour of the scales. Many specimens are uniform, others banded transversely with white, and others again have a black band on each side of the neck.


Sitana Ponticereana, Cuv.


Lyriocephalus scutatus, Linn.


Chameleo vulgaris, Daud.


Prof. RYMER JONES, art. Reptilia, in TODD'S Cyclop. of Anat. vol. iv. pt. i. p. 292.


The specimen in the British Museum is apparently an adult male, ten inches long, and is, with regard to the distribution of the scales and the form of the head very similar to C. Stoddartii. The posterior angles of the orbit are not projecting, but there is a small tubercle behind them; and a pair of somewhat larger tubercles on the neck. The gular sac is absent. There are five longitudinal quadrangular, imbricate scales on each side of the throat; and the sides of the body present a nearly horizontal series of similar scales. The scales on the median line of the back scarcely form a crest; it is, however distinct on the nape of the neck. The scales on the belly, on the extremities, and on the tail are slightly keeled. Tail nearly round. This species is more uniformly coloured than C. Stoddartii; it is greenish, darker on the sides.


Hemidactylus maculatus, Dum. et Bib., H. Leschenaultii, Dum, et Bib; H. frenatus, Schlegel. Of these the last is very common in the houses of Colombo. Colour, grey; sides with small granules; thumb short; chin-shields four; tail rounded with transverse series of small spines; femoral and preanal pores in a continuous line. GRAY, Lizard, p. 155.


Brit. Mus. Cat. p. 143; KELAART's Prod. Faun. Zeylan., p. 183.


Crocodilus biporcatus. Cuvier.


Crododilus palustris, Less.


In Siam the flesh of the crocodile is sold for food in the markets and bazaars, "Un jour je vis plus de cinquante crocodiles, petits et grands, attachés aux colonnes de leurs maisons. Ils es vendent la chair comme on vendrait de la chair de porc, mais à bien meilleur marché."-PALLEGOIX, Siam, vol. i. p. 174.


A native gentleman who resided for a long time at Caltura tells me that in the rivers which flow into the sea, both there and at Bentotte, crocodiles are frequently caught in corrals, formed of stakes driven into the ground in shallow water, and so constructed, that when the reptile enters to seize the bait placed within, the aperture closes behind and secures him. A professional "crocodile charmer" then enters muttering a spell, and with one end of a stick pats the creature gently on the head for a time. The operator then boldly mounts astride upon its shoulders, and continues to soothe it with his one hand, whilst with the other he contrives to pass a rope under its body, by which it is at last dragged on shore. This story serves to corroborate the narrative of Mr. Waterton and his alligator.


HERODOTUS records the observations of the Egyptians that the crocodile of the Nile abstains from food during the four winter months.—Euterpe, lviii.


HUMBOLDT relates a similar story as occurring at Calabazo, in Venezuela.—Personal Narrative, c, xvi.


A remarkable instance of the vitality of the common crocodile, C. biporcatus, was related to me by a gentleman at Galle: he had caught on a baited hook an unusually large one, which his coolies disembowelled, the aperture in the stomach being left expanded by a stick placed across it. On returning in the afternoon with a view to secure the head, they found that the creature had crawled for some distance, and made its escape into the water.

"A curious incident occurred some years ago on the Maguruganga, a stream which flows through the Pasdun Corle, to join the Bentolle river. A man was fishing seated on the branch of a tree that overhung the water; and to shelter himself from the drizzling rain, he covered his head and shoulder with a bag folded into a shape common with the natives. While in this attitude, a leopard sprang upon him from the jungle, but missing its aim, seized the bag and not the man, and fell with it into the river. Here a crocodile, which had been eyeing the angler is despair, seized the leopard as it fell, and sunk with it to the bottom."—Letter from GOONE-RATNE Modliar, interpreter of the Supreme Court, 10th Jany., 1861.


Testudo stellata.


HOOKER'S Himalayan Journals, vol. i. p. 37.


Cryptopus granum, SCHÖPF; DR. KELAART, in his Prodromus (p. 179), refers this to the common Indian species, C. punctata; but it is distinct. It is generally distributed in the lower parts of Ceylon, in lakes and tanks. It is the one usually put into wells to act the part of a scavenger. By the Singhalese it is named Kiri-ibba.


Of the Emys trijuga, the fresh water tortoise figured on preceding page, the technical characteristics are;—vertical plates lozenge-shaped; shell convex and oval; with three more or less distinct longitudinal keels; shields corrugated; with areola situated in the upper posterior corner. Shell brown, with the areolæ and the keels yellowish; head brown, with a yellow streak over each eye.


Chelonia virgata, Schweig.


ARISTOTLE was aware of the fact that the turtle will live after the removal of the heart.—De Vita et Morte, ch. ii.


[Greek: "Tiktontai de ara en tautê tê thalattê, kai chelônai megistai, ônper oun ta elytra orophoi ginontai kai gar esti kai pentekaideka pêchôn en chelôneion, ôs hypoikein ouk oligous, kai tous hêlious pyrodestatous apostegei, kai skian asmenois parechei."]—Lib. xvi. c. 17. Ælian copied this statement literatim from MEGASTHESES, Indica Frag. lix. 31. May not Megasthenes have referred to some tradition connected with the gigantic fossilised species discovered on the Sewalik Hills, the remains of which are now in the Museum at the East India House?


Caretta imbricata, Linn.


At Celebes, whence the finest tortoise-shell is exported to China, the natives kill the turtle by blows on the head, and immerse the shell in boiling water to detach the plates. Dry heat is only resorted to by the unskilful, who frequently destroy the tortoise-shell in the operation—Journal Indian Archipel. vol. iii. p. 227, 1849.


BENNETT'S Ceylon, &c., c. xxxiv.


Genesis iii. 15.


This is not likely to be true: in a very large collection of snakes made in Ceylon by Mr. C.R. Butler, and recently examined by Dr. Günther, of the British Museum, only a single-specimen proved to be new.

There is, however, one venomous snake, of the existence of which I am assured by a native correspondent in Ceylon, no mention has yet been made by European naturalists. It is called Māpilā by the Singhalese; it is described to me as being about four feet in length, of the diameter of the little finger, and of a uniform dark brown colour. It is said to be often seen in company with another snake called in Singhalese Lay Medilla, a name which implies its deep red hue. The latter is believed to be venomous. It would be well if some collector in Ceylon would send home for examination the species which respectively bear these names.


See DAVY'S Ceylon, ch. xiv.


Daboia elegans, Daud.


Naja tripudians, Merr.


Trigonocephalus hypnale, Merr.


The other varieties are the getta, lay, alu, kunu, and nil-polongas. I have heard of an eighth, the palla-polonga.

Amongst the numerous pieces of folk-lore in Ceylon in connexion with snakes, is the belief that a deadly enmity subsists between the polonga and the cobra de capello, and that the latter, which is naturally shy and retiring, is provoked to conflicts by the audacity of its rival. Hence the proverb applied to persons at enmity, that "they hate like the polonga and cobra."

The Singhalese believe the polonga to be by far the most savage and wanton of the two, and they illustrate this by a popular legend, that once upon a time a child, in the absence of its mother, was playing beside a tub of water, which a cobra, impelled by thirst during a long-continued drought, approached to drink, the unconscious child all the while striking it with its hands to prevent the intrusion. The cobra, on returning, was met by a tic-polonga, which seeing its scales dripping with delicious moisture, entreated to be told the way to the well. The cobra, knowing the vicious habits of the other snake, and anticipating that it would kill the innocent child which it had so recently spared, at first refused, and only yielded on condition that the infant was not to be molested. But the polonga, on reaching the tub, was no sooner obstructed by the little one, than it stung him to death.


In a return of 112 coroners' inquests, in cases of death from wild animals, held in Ceylon in five years, from 1851 to 1855 inclusive, 68 are ascribed to the bites of serpents; and in almost every instance the assault is set down as having taken place at night. The majority of the sufferers were children and women.


PLINY notices that the serpent has the sense of hearing more acute than that of sight; and that it is more frequently put in motion by the sound of footsteps than by the appearance of the intruder, "excitatur pede sæpius."—Lib, viii. c. 36.


A Singhalese work, the Sarpadosā, enumerates four castes of the cobra;—the raja, or king: the bamunu, or Brahman; the velanda, or trader; and the gori, or agriculturist. Of these the raja, or "king of the cobras," is said to have the head and the anterior half of the body of so light a colour, that at a distance it seems like a silvery white. The work is quoted, but not correctly, in the Ceylon Times for January, 1857. It is more than probable, as the division represents the four castes of the Hindus, Chastriyas, Brahmans Vaisyas, and Sudras; that the insertion of the gori instead of the latter was a pious fraud of some copyist to confer rank upon the Vellales, the agricultural caste of Ceylon.


Coryphodon Blumenbachii. There is a belief in Ceylon that the bite of the rat-snake, though harmless to man, is fatal to black cattle. The Singhalese add that it would be equally so to man were the wound to be touched by cow-dung. WOLF, in the interesting story of his Life and Adventures in Ceylon, mentions that rat-snakes were often so domesticated by the native as to feed at their table. He says: "I once saw an example of this in the house of a native. It being meal time, he called his snake, which immediately came forth from the roof under which he and I were sitting. He gave it victuals from his own dish, which the snake took of itself from off a fig-leaf that was laid for it, and ate along with its host. When it had eaten its fill, he gave it a kiss, and bade it go to its hole." Major SKINNER, writing to me 12th Dec., 1858, mentions the still more remarkable case of the domestication of the cobra de capello in Ceylon. "Did you ever hear," he says, "of tame cobras being kept and domesticated about a house, going in and out at pleasure, and in common with the rest of the inmates? In one family, near Negombo, cobras are kept as protectors, in the place of dogs, by a wealthy man who has always large sums of money in his house. But this is not a solitary case of the kind. I heard of it only the other day, but from undoubtedly good authority. The snakes glide about the house, a terror to thieves, but never attempting to harm the inmates."


PLINY notices the affection that subsists between the male and female asp; and that if one of them happens to be killed, the other seeks to avenge its death.—Lib. viii. c. 37.


PETERS, De Serpentum familia Uropeltaceorum. Berol, 4. 1861.


The Uropeltis grandis of Kelaart, which was at first supposed to be a new species, proves to be identical with U. Phillippinus of Cuvier. It is doubtful, however, whether this species be found in the Phillippine Islands, as stated by Cuvier; and it is more than, probable that the typical specimen came from Ceylon—a further illustration of the affinity of the fauna of Ceylon to that of the Eastern Archipelago. The characteristics of this reptile, as given by Dr. GRAY, are as follows:—"Caudal disc subcircular, with large scattered tubercles; snout subacute, slightly produced. Dark brown, lighter below, with some of the scales dark brown in the centre near the posterior edge. GRAY, Proceed. Zool. Soc. 1858, p. 262.


Python reticulatus, Gray.


Boie in Isis 1827 p. 517.


G&ÜNTH. Col. Snakes, p. 14. In the hope that some inquirer in Ceylon will be able to furnish such information as may fill up this blank in the history of the haplocercus, the following particulars are here appended. The largest of the specimens in the British Museum is about twenty-five inches in length; the body thin, and much elongated; the head narrow, and not distinct from the neck, the tail of moderate length. Forehead covered by three shields, one anterior and two posterior frontals; no loreal shield; one small shield before, two behind the eye; seven shields along the upper lip, the eye being above the fourth. The scales are disposed in seventeen longitudinal series; they are lanceolate and strongly keeled. The upper parts are uniform blackish or brown, with two dorsal rows of small indistinct black spots; occiput with a whitish collar, edged with darker. The lower parts uniform yellowish.


Dr. WUCHERER of Bahia.


Chersydrus granulatus, Merr.; Cerberus cinereus. Daud.; Tropidophis schistosus, Daud.


"[Greek: Plateis tas ouras."

ÆLIAN, L. xvi. c. 8.

Ælian speaks elsewhere of fresh-water snakes. His remark on the compression of the tail shows that his informants were aware of this speciality in those that inhabit the sea.


The Basses are believed to be the remnants of the great island of Giri, swallowed up by the sea.—Mahawanso, ch. i. p. 4. They may possibly be the Bassæ of Ptolemy's map of Taprobane.


Official Report to the Governor of Ceylon.


Proc. Zool. Soc. 1858.


Catal. Mal. Rept. p. 136.


Its technical characteristics are as follows,—Body rather slender; ground colour yellowish with irregular black rings. Scales nearly smooth; ventral plates broad, six-sided, smooth, some divided into two, by a slight central groove. Occipital shields large, triangular, and produced, with a small central shield behind them; a series of four large temporal shields; chin shields in two pairs; eyes very small, over the fourth and fifth labials; one ante-and two post-oculars; the second upper labial shield elongated.


For an account of the encounter between the ichneumon and the venomous snakes of Ceylon, see Ch. I. p. 39.


The following narrative of the operations of a snake-charmer in Ceylon is contained in a note from Mr. Reyne, of the department of public works: "A snake-charmer came to my bungalow in 1851, requesting me to allow him to show me his snakes dancing. As I had frequently seen them, I told him I would give him a rupee if he would accompany me to the jungle, and catch a cobra, that I knew frequented the place. He was willing, and as I was anxious to test the truth of the charm, I counted his tame snakes, and put a watch over them until I returned with him. Before going I examined the man, and satisfied myself he had no snake about his person. When we arrived at the spot, he played on a small pipe, and after persevering for some time out came a large cobra from an ant hill, which I knew it occupied. On seeing the man it tried to escape, but he caught it by the tail and kept swinging it round until we reached the bungalow. He then made it dance, but before long it bit him above the knee. He immediately bandaged the leg above the bite, and applied a snake-stone to the wound to extract the poison. He was in great pain for a few minutes, but after that it gradually went away, the stone falling off just before he was relieved. When he recovered he held a cloth up which the snake flew at, and caught its fangs in it; while in that position, the man passed his hand up its back, and having seized it by the throat, he extracted the fangs in my presence and gave them to me. He then squeezed out the poison on to a leaf. It was a clear oily substance, and when rubbed on the hand produced a fine lather. I carefully watched the whole operation, which was also witnessed by my clerk and two or three other persons. Colombo, 13th January 1860.—H.E. REYNE."




Account of the Interior of Ceylon, ch. iii. p. 101.


Thunberg, vol. i. p. 155. Since the foregoing account was published, I have received a note from Mr. HARDY, relative to the piedra ponsona, the snake-stone of Mexico, in which he gives the following account of the method of preparing and applying it: "Take a piece of hart's horn of any convenient size and shape; cover it well round with grass or hay, enclose both in a thin piece of sheet copper well wrapped round them, and place the parcel in a charcoal fire till the bone is sufficiently charred.

"When cold, remove the calcined horn from its envelope, when it will be ready for immediate use. In this state it will resemble a solid black fibrous substance, of the same shape and size as before it was subjected to this treatment.

"USE.—The wound being slightly punctured, apply the bone to the opening, to which it will adhere firmly for the space of two minutes; and when it falls, it should be received into a basin of water. It should then be dried in a cloth, and again applied to the wound. But it will not adhere longer than about one minute. In like manner it may be applied a third time; but now it will fall almost immediately, and nothing will cause it to adhere any more.

"These effects I witnessed in the case of a bite of a rattle-snake at Oposura, a town in the province of Sonora, in Mexico, from whence I obtained my recipe; and I have given other particulars respecting it in my Travels in the Interior of Mexico, published in 1830. R.W.H. HARDY. Bath, 30th January, 1860."


A Singhalese variety of the Rana cutipora? and the Malabar bull-frog, Hylarana Malabarica. A frog named by BLYTH Rana robusta proves to be a Ceylon specimen of the R. cutipora.


R. Kandiana, Kelaart.


Polypedates maculatus, Gray.


Bufo melanostictus, Schneid.


In Ceylon this error is as old as the third century, B.C., when, as the Mahawanso tells us, the wife of "King Asoka attempted to destroy the great bo-tree (at Magadha) with, the poisoned fang of a toad."—Ch. xx. p. 122.


A few Batrachians, such as the Siren of Carolina, the Proteus of Illyria, the Axolotl of Mexico, and the Menobranchus of the North American Lakes, retain their gills during life; but although provided with lungs in mature age, they are not capable of living out of the water. Such batrachians form an intermediate link between reptiles and fishes.

[pg 323] [Last] [Top] [Next]