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Sri Lankan Lizards: kabaragoyas & Thalagoyas
The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon
by Richard Boyle Part XII

Apart from the snakes already examined, there are the names for two lizards and a terrapin among the reptiles associated with Sri Lanka recorded in the second editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) and Hobson-Jobson (H-J2). The inclusion of kabaragoya is to be expected, for this name is applied to one of the most awesome lizards in the world. On the other hand, the inclusion of knob-nosed lizard (better known as the "hump-nosed lizard". a species endemic to Sri Lanka) is more surprising. Thalagoya, the name for another largish lizard species often employed together with kabaragoya, is likely to be included in OED3. Date of first use is provided in brackets.

Ceylonese terrapin (1896). Sinhala gal ibba. In the entry for terrapin in the OED2 it is explained: "The catalogue of Animals in the London Zoological Gardens, 1896, contains thirty-three species of Terrapin, with distinctive appellations, such as . . . Ceylonese . . ." This name was applied to the species now known as The Hard Terrapin or Common Terrapin, Melanochelys trijuga.

Kabaragoya (1681). "[Etymology unknown.] The watermonitor, Varanus salvator, a large lizard found in south-eastern Asia." The statement "Etymology unknown" is one of a small number of errors I have found in the entries for Anglo-Sri Lankan words, for kabaragoya is of course Sinhala in origin. This error will be rectified in the OED3. Furthermore, the word will be identified with Sri Lanka.

The earliest reference in the dictionary is by Robert Knox from An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681:30): "There is a Creature here called Kobberaguion, resembling an Alligator. The biggest may be five or six feet long, speckled black and white. He lives most upon the Land, but will take the water and dive under it: hath a long blew forked tongue like a sting, which he puts forth and hisseth and gapeth, but doth not bite nor sting, tho the appearance of him would scare those that knew not what he was. He is not afraid of people, but will ly gaping and hissing at them in the way, and will scarce stir out of it. He will come and eat Carrion with the Dogs and Jackals, and will not be scared away by them, but if they come near to bark or snap at him, with his tayl, which is about an Ell long like a whip, he will so slash them, that they will run away and howl. This Creature is not eatable."

Being such a remarkable reptile, there are many later references to the kabaragoya in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka, only one of which is recorded in the dictionary. The first reference after Knox is by Amelia Heber in Reginald Heber's Narrative of a Journey (1825:III.167): "In a valley, near the road side, I saw a Cobra Guana: it is an animal of the lizard kind, with a very long tail, so closely resembling an alligator, that I at first mistook it for one, and was surprised to see a herd of buffaloes grazing peacefully around it. It is perfectly harmless, but if attacked will give a man a severe blow with its tail."

James Emerson Tennent writes in Ceylon (1859[1977]:I.151n): "In the preparation of the mysterious poison, the Cobra-tel, which is regarded with so much horror by the Singhalese, the unfortunate Kabra-goya is forced to take a painfully prominent part . . . The ingredients are extracted from venomous snakes, the Cobra de Capello, the Carawella, and the Ticpolonga, by making an incision in the head and suspending the reptiles over a chattie to collect the poison. To this, arsenic and other drugs are added, and the whole is to be 'boiled in a human skull, with the aid of three Kabragoyas, 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 to be added to the boiling mixture, and so soon as an oily scum rises to the surface, the cobra-tel is complete."

The following reference by Constance Gordon Cumming from Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892:176) is included in the dictionary: "On our homeward journey, as we drove through a cool shady glade, the horses started as a gigantic lizard, or rather iguana, of a greenish-grey colour, with yellow stripes and spots, called by the natives kabaragoya, awoke from its midday sleep and slowly, with the greatest deliberation, walked across the road just in front of us."

John Still writes in Jungle Tide (1930[1992]:226): "We put up a kabaragoya, a huge amphibious lizard four or five feet in length, who fled into the nearest covert where the stream ran rapidly through a narrow filled with boulders. Kabaragoyas are the creatures whose skins are made into ladies' shoes. They are flesh-eating animals, very strong, fairly swift, and armed with sharp teeth and a whiplash tail. We hunted him just as we were, swimming, wading, plunging deep among the rocks, and following him as hotly as hounds follow an otter. He never attempted to leave the stream, but he led us a chase from pool to rapid and rapid to waterfall, until at last I tailed him as he dived between two boulders. It took the three of us to drag him out, and before his head could whip round and seize one of us we slew him like Goliath with a smooth stone from the bottom of the stream."

A more recent reference is by Michael Ondaatje from Running in the Family (1982:74): "As children we knew exactly what thalagoyas and kabaragoyas were good for. The kabaragoya laid its eggs in the hollows of trees between the months of January and April. As this coincided with the Royal-Thomian cricket match, we would collect them and throw them into the stands full of Royal students. These were great weapons because they left a terrible itch wherever they splashed on skin."

H-J2 does not include an entry for kabaragoya, but there is one for guana (iguana), the Anglo-Indian name often given to monitor lizards during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Knob-nosed lizard (1905). Sinhala karamal bodiliya, khandu bodiliya. "Having a knob-shaped nose."

The sole reference, from the Westminster Gazette (October 2, 1905), reads: "The knob-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) from Ceylon." However, Deraniyagala (1953) and other writers refer to this species as the "hump-nosed lizard".

Thalagoya (1681). Ever since Robert Knox, English writers have often described the thalagoya in relation to the kabaragoya merely because these lizards are by far the largest to be found on the island. As there are many references to the word in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka, I have passed them on to the OED as historical evidence to enable the editors to determine whether the word merits an entry in the third edition. My suggested definition (which should conform to the revised definition of kabaragoya): "In Sri Lanka, the name given to the land monitor, Varanus bengalensis bengalensis."

The reference by Knox (1681:31) reads: "There is the Tolla guion very much like the former, which is eaten, and reckoned excellent meat. The Chingulays say it is the best sort of flesh; and for this reason, That if you eat other flesh at the same time you eat of this, and have occasion to vomit, you will never vomit out this tho you vomit all the other. This creature eats not carrion, but only lives on herbs; is less of size than the kobbera guion, and blackish, lives in hollow Trees and holes in the Humbosses: And I suppose is the same with that which in the West Indies they call the Guiana."

The first reference after Knox is by John Davy from An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821:117). Davy writes of the way Veddas hunted talagoyas with packs of dogs: "Their dwellings are huts made of the bark of trees; their food, the flesh of deer, elk, the wild hog, and the inguana. . . . They have dogs, but they do not employ them in hunting, except the Talagowa." In a footnote to the word inguana Davy states: "The 'Tala gowa' of the natives; 'Le Monitor Terrestre d'Egypte' of M. Cuvier."

William Dalton provides a reference from fiction in Lost in Ceylon (1861:366): "This lizard, called by the Singhalese Talla-goya, is the guana of the Europeans . . . Now, the Singhalese not only eat the flesh of this reptile, but use its fat for the cure of cutaneous diseases." In a further reference Dalton (Ibid.368) employs a shortened form: "Take talla to Massa Bob, for cook; it berry good eat."

Gordon Cumming (1892[1901]:81) writes: "Another lizard very nearly as large, called Talla-goya, is so tame that it scarcely moves away from human beings, and even comes and lives in gardens, though it courts its doom - its flesh being considered as delicate as that of rabbit, and its skin being in request for shoe-making. Certainly its appearance is not prepossessing."

Alan Walters observes in Palms and Pearls; Or Scenes in Ceylon (1892:187): "Another variety of iguana is Monitor dracaena or talla-goya, small, and sometimes hunted by dogs, and turned onto a curry by no means to be despised. I have often watched a talla-goya busy at work up and down a hedge-ridge after insects. The natives take out the tongue from the living animal and use it in a cure for consumption."

Ondaatje (1983.73) writes: "Kabaragoyas and thalagoyas are common in Ceylon and are seldom found anywhere else in the world. The kabaragoya is large, the size of an average crocodile, and the thalagoya smaller - a cross between an iguana and a giant lizard . . .

"The thalagoya... will eat snails, beetles, centipedes, toads, skinks, eggs and young birds, and is not averse to garbage. It is also a great climber, and can leap forty feet from a tree to the ground, breaking its fall by landing obliquely with its chest, belly and tail. In Kegalle the thalagoyas would climb trees and leap onto the roof or onto the house.

"The thalagoya has a rasping tongue that 'catches' and hooks objects. There is a myth that if a child is given a thalagoya tongue to eat he will become brilliantly articulate, will always speak beautifully, and in his speech be able to catch and collect wonderful, humorous information."

Carl Muller provides a more recent reference from fiction in Once upon a Tender Time (1995:114): "He stuffed his catapault into his pocket. No telling, but he could bag a thalagoya - the iguana - and Daddy liked thalagoya flesh."


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