The following is a reprint of an excerpt, "The Bow", Chapter 7 of Stories of HumanKind, Volume 1. It is told from the perspective of Dominica Zhu, written in 2015, on recording a serpent medicine man and returning these recordings back to the community.


— W. Sumanapala; Serpent Physician

We were blessed with countless soulful interactions- one after the other. People from all walks of life, wearing the experiences of a hard worked life and a journey well lived. After conducting a few recorded dialogues with my team, one special man stood out to me in particular. He lived at the outskirts of the village, a little bit more remote from the neighboring homes. He was a physician specializing in curing serpent bites. Long recognized as a specialist in his village, he talked of his experiencing of saving lives due to his experience and knowledge. Serpents are a large problem for this largely agriculture-dependent village. Farmers spend long days under the hot sun in patty fields, where snakes are plentiful and lurking about. Sumanapala learned from his teacher who passed down the snake medicine wisdom orally. During his lifetime, Sumanapala has created his own dictionary for the system and his own personal medical notes. At the age of 75, he has never had any students of his own; though many others had once promised him they would learn. In the recent years, he has undergone cataract surgery and found it more and more difficult to read like he used to. At the last minute leg of our trip, we decided I would return to record his knowledge system for the community.

The days that followed remain vivid in my mind. Each day, the Sinhalese translator–– who grew to be a close friend––and I would walk forty-five minutes alongside rivers and through marshes to arrive at Sumanapala’s remote, tucked away home. He would greet us at the edge of his house with a few of his handwritten books in one arm and his grandchild in the other. His wife and daughter would frequent the small plastic table set up on the side of their home, silently smiling and curious about their new guests. The medical dictionaries he had written were filled with detailed pictures and diagrams of local snakes, plants, and venomous snake bites.

As the week passed, this serpent physician shared generations of treatments for various venomous poisons for every single type of serpent found in the village and surrounding areas. Each treatment was preceded by a blessing chant that was sourced from the Buddhist spirit. The treatments were hidden in riddle poems, as the older generations did not write things down. The elders knew that the rhymes were more comfortable to memorize and could be passed down orally. Each treatment utilized medicinal plants that could all be found in the Palagama area. 

Although Nature introduced serpents which transferred venomous poisons, the cure could be found through the right combinations of medicine in the same natural area. This was the first time it had occurred to me that, before the chaotic nature of global migration and travel, the problem and solution were often found in adjacent sources.

We arrived at Sumanapala’s home to begin the daily recordings at 7 am and left right before sundown each evening. As the days passed, I observed Sumanapala’s life energy increase. The very first day we had arrived, he was slower moving and methodical. By the fourth day, he closed out the day with a wide smile––eyes gleaming with satisfaction and hope. I watched him eagerly share with us the recitations that he had inherited and expounded upon in his lifetime. 

Similar to my mother’s thorough teachings of the body, Sumanapala’s teachings explained layers of complex ailments, characteristics of the venomous snakes that reside in the village, and tenants of the local plant medicine. He was ferociously generous with his knowledge, not leaving any secret treatments in his own mind. He shared everything he knew in the hopes that someone else in the world could benefit from what he spent a lifetime mastering.

The experience of listening to an elder was rewarding beyond measure. Protecting an elders’ knowledge through these recordings is a gift with countless visible and invisible beneficiaries, not only for the person recording but also for the potential healing and gratifying effect for the person sharing their knowledge. The process can be seen as a ceremonial closure for an elder’s earnest life: to have the opportunity to be a teacher and have students that are willing to learn and protect the experiences of a valuable human life.

As I left his home every day, I frequently had to hold back my tears. I was reminded of the many elders in other areas sitting on Earth's medicine and how our rapidly changing society is no longer supporting them to be heard anymore. I was also reminded of myself––in the position of the youth––and the gift of the ancient medical system that was passed on to me from my mother.

There is a cyclical nature of life through which ancient wisdom becomes recycled in modern times, but it can easily become diluted and its messengers not properly honored.

When collected in its culmination, these experiences, stories, and wisdom make up the fabric of a culture. I am grateful that with this simple interaction, an entire snake medical system had the chance to be recorded and preserved. We did not keep our recordings, but gave it back to the community. 

The memory of a group of people stays within that community. The enchantments and textures of memories, practices, and traditions remain sprinkled in familiar spaces. They exist within the knowledge of the trees, the cuts in the curved dirt roads, the wrinkles on smiling faces, the crisp bends of well-worn shirts, and the slight undulations of voices as secrets--- knowledge--- whisper down from one generation to the next.

Dominica Zhu, Founding Director

Founding Director

Dominica is part of the Chinese diaspora (Dai/Tibetian) and is an experienced practitioner, organizer, and advocate in social justice, cultural preservation, and government space, utilizing humanitarian principles to foster understanding and change that is both subtle and profound.