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Traditional Medicine:
Keeping The Ancient Art Of The Sri Lankan Snake Bite Doctor Alive

In Sri Lankan villages unofficial “snake bite doctors” treat patients who have been stung or bitten, using traditional remedies. They believe the ancient art must be passed on.

30.05.2017  |  
The snake bite doctor collects herbs for a cure.

In Sri Lankan villages, a venomologist is a little bit different from the kinds of doctors one would normally encounter in a hospital. In the villages of this island nation, local snake bite doctors ply their trade with a range of unproven therapies that have been passed down through generations and that they insist work well.

“Back in the day we believed only in God and native medicine,” explains Sellaththambi Vallipuram, a local specialist in curing insect bites in Katchenai village in Manmunai, in the district of Batticaloa. He is known as the local “snake bite doctor” there. “We saved people who had been bitten by snakes or scorpions or anything else. Today people get injections even for a headache!”

There are certain chants that can be done that will reduce the impact of the poison. Even a small mistake in the mantra can have a detrimental effect.

Vallipuram, 65, says he inherited the trade from his grandfather. “I now have all the books and literature he was using.” Vallipuram believes that the traditions and techniques he has learned should be passed on to the next generations, despite the fact that modern medicine has now overshadowed these ancient arts.

The snakebite doctor even remembers how he first started saving locals who had been bitten. “It was in 1993. I was so scared but I prayed to God and put all my trust in him,” Vallipuram says. “It was successful, the patient was saved. After I managed to treat five more patients successfully, I became more confident and less frightened.”

In earlier days, Vallipuram says the snake bit doctors were not paid for their work. But now they accept gifts or donations. The snakebite doctors cannot advertise or try to bring patients in because they are not licensed medical practitioners. “But I handle emergency cases in the village,” he notes.

There are various methods of treating the snake or insect bites. These also include prayer. At one stage an individual who had been bitten by a cobra came to Vallipuram for treatment. The person was becoming unconscious and it seemed clear that the treatment was not working. The people who had brought the person in became angry.

“I felt that things were getting out of hand so I started chanting a mantra. To everyone’s surprise, the victim was revived and started responding to treatment,” Vallipuram recounts. “When we visited the place where the snake bite happened, we found the snake was there and it was dead.”

There are certain chants that can be done that will reduce the impact of the poison, Vallipuram argues. After having identified which kind of snake has bitten the individual by observing the person’s behaviour and posture and other symptoms, the snake doctors decide which chant is best. “We will chant the mantras while administering other treatments. Belief in God is the main factor,” Vallipuram says.

Although it is hard to believe in this modern age, that a chanted prayer could have an effect on snakebite victims, Vallipuram and his fellow snakebite doctors believe it works. Even a small mistake in the mantra can have a detrimental effect, they say.

The other part of the treatment involves a mixture of herbal remedies – leaves, bark and milks well as piece of special stone to absorb the venom.

A stone? “This is a special sort of stone from our area, usually obtained from gypsies,” Vallipuram explains. “We cut open the wound and wash it with coconut milk, then place the stone in the wound so that it absorbs the venom from the body. After the stone is used, we wash it again with milk and keep it.”

Treatment for snakebite victims take between an hour and up to three days.

Vallipuram says recently he lost a patient. “The girl was brought in, completely drenched from the rain and unconscious. By the time I made the medicine and brought it to her, she was dead,” Vallipuram says regretfully. “It was the first death in over a hundred people.”