SRI LANKA
2002


"Venom"

Anuradhapura, North-Central Province

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, with its guard-wall of elephants, was construced by King Dutugemunu
who reigned from 161-137 BC.
click on images to enlarge

 

Map of Anuradhapura showing location of our hotel, the hospital and Nuwara Wewa.
Mouse-over to view satellite map


Anuradhapura is an ancient city which has several times been the capital of the island now known as Sri Lanka. It is also one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world having been inhabited from between the 10th and 5th Centuries BC, and a capital from the 4th Century BC until the 11th Century AD when it was superceded by Polonnaruwa.

Anuradhapura is located 250 km and 6 hours north of Colombo. Enroute we sighted Common garden lizard (Calotes versicolor) and a band of Common mongooses (Herpestes edwardsi, note: not 'mongeese').

Anuradhapura is a prime tourist destination being now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of eight in Sri Lanka, with a host of ancient ruins, dagobas (great mounds of masonary, usually said to contain a Buddhist relic and also known as stupas), pokunas (formal ornamental ponds) and other constructions from the past.

Everywhere there are stupas protruding above the trees.
2nd Century BC Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba on the left and
1st Century BC Abhayagiri Dagoba on the right,
viewed from the east.

 

Filming in sacred Buddhist sites requires that you remove your footwear, so we did.
Curiously some members of the crew left on their snake-proof gaiters!

Filming at Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba
(l-r) Matthew Catling (AP, logging shots),
Mark Stokes (camera),
Mark McMullen (director), and Terry Meadowcroft (sound)

 

 

1st Century BC Kuttam Pokuna, twin bathing ponds, at Anuradhapura.
Detail of the five-headed cobra from the image above right

Anuradhapura is also in the centre of a great area of rice-irrigation which was established several decades ago, with the influx of a large population of poor people. This area is also home to a large population of medically important snakes with the resultant snakebite toll. Anuradhapura Government Hospital is one of the most hard-pressed hospitals in Sri Lanka, treating a great many snakebite victims.

Anuradhapura was to be our primary destination for twospells during filming (7th-10th and 18th-27th March) during which time we would film in and around the city and at the hospital, and use Anuradhapura as our base for trips out to other locations like Nikaweratiya. We also stationed our second cameraman (Jon Pinkney) in Anuradhapura to pick up footage of snakebite treatment at the hospital.

We used the Miridiya Hotel as our headquarters. Quite and comfortable, it has extensive and little-used gardens where I could photograph some of the specimens captured in the field, and was only a short walk from Nuwara Wewa, a 'tank*' with abundant waterfowl, water buffalo and frogs.

Entrance to Miridiya Hotel Our rooms at Mirigiya Hotel

* A tank is an area of standing water, a reservoir rather than a lake or pond, because all these water-courses in Sri Lanka, and there are probably thousands, some being huge, are man-made with brick and mud bottoms. There are reputedly no natural lakes in Sri Lanka.

My main contributor on the film was my old friend Anslem de Silva, a lecturur at the University of Peradeniya, Kandy and not only the most international renowned Sri Lankan herpetologist, but also a considerable expert on the ethnology of snakes in Sri Lankan custom and myth, and the history of the numerous ruins and temples we were to visit.

On the medical site, the epidemiology and treatment of snakebite, I was teaming up with another long-time friend (and the instigator of the idea for this film) Professor David A Warrell of Oxford University, without doubt one of the greatest experts on snakebite in the entire world, and Doctor Ariaranee Ariaratnam of the University of Colombo, a Sri Lankan doctor with a long experience of treating snakebite, particularly at Anuradhapura Hospital.

Anslem de Silva and Mark O'Shea in the ground of the Miridiya Hotel Mark O'Shea with Dr Ariaranee Ariaratnam & Prof David A Warrell in the ground of the Anuradhapura Hospital

We filmed on several occasions at Anuradhapura Hospital, a hospital burdoned by a much greater number of snakebites than many similar sized regional hospitals in Asia - on our first day there we saw 10 snakebite victims.

We placed our second cameraman (Jon Pinkney) at the hospital while we were elsewhere in the country, to pick up snakebites as they occurred and were treated. He filmed the aftermath of at least one fatality but all filming of patients was done as tastefully as possible and with their full agreement and cooperation.

Anuradhapura Government Hospital, nice grounds but hard-pressed inside
Prof David Warell and Dr Ariaranee Ariaratnam visiting snakebite victims at Anuradhapura Hospital Filming snakebites in the Anuradhapura Hospital
(l-r) Mark Stokes, Terry Meadowcroft, Mark McMullen, and Matthew Catling

Particularly relevant to the epidemiology of Russell's viper bites in Sri Lanka, we filmed and followed the stories of two children, a boy and a girl, bitten and treated at Anuradhapura Hospital. Fortunately both of these snakebite victims suvived.

Suresh, the little Russell's viper snakebite victim

 

An Ayurvedic physician who claims success
treating snakebites
Anslem and Mark doing and interview for
Rajarata Sevaya Radio

Whilst in Anuradhapura we visited an Ayurvedic physician to discover more about the 'alternative' method of snakebite treatment, which involves herbs, potions and tonics accompanied by prayer and incense. These physicians claim a high degree of success in the treatment of snakebite but they treat all snakebites, venomous and nonvenomous, the latter being much more common and never likely to cause a fatality, so this factor could affect the statistics in favour of saving many patients. On the occasion of our first visit there was a critical snakebite victim lying in a 'medicine boat' but when we returned 2-3 days later the patient had gone. It was inconceivable he could have recovered enough to leave.

* A medicine boat is a stone or metal bath in which a snakebite victim is immersed in a mixture of oils, water and herbs. Some of these boats are ancient - Mark tried out one that was 800 years old at Polonnaruwa.

Anslem and I also initiated the help of the local populace in our search for Russell's vipers, asking that we be informed should a viper be found in the rice paddy or on a track, whereupon we would come and capture it. To this end we did a lengthy recorded interview on the local radio station in Anuradhapura, talking about snakes of Sri Lanka, snakebite, snakebite first aid and conservation of harmless species etc. It was only when we had finished this long discussion with the show's host that it was discovered that the technician in charge of recording the show for transmission was so fascinated by its content, that he had forgotten to press 'RECORD'!

So we had to do the entire interview again.

So well received was the interview that the radio station kept calling up asking us to go in again the next day. We explained if we spent 2-3 hours a day in the radio station we would not find many snakes and certainly be unable to complete our film. The radio station then changed tack and decided to demand payment for having used their station to put out our message.