The monitor lizards are large lizards in the genus Varanus. They are native to Africa, Asia and Oceania. Currently, a total of 79 species has been recognized.
The Bengal monitor lizard, also known as the common Indian monitor lizard, is found in Asia and Africa.
The length of this large, mainly terrestrial lizard, can range from about 61 to 175 cm (24 inches to 69 inches) from the tip of the snout to the end of the tail. While the adults mainly hunt on the ground preying on arthropods, small terrestrial vertebrates, ground birds, eggs and fish, the young monitors are more arboreal.
In Sri Lanka, there are two types of monitor lizards: (1) the Water Monitor (Varanus salvator) (Sinhala: kabaragoya-කබරගොයා; Tamil: kalawathan-களவத்தன்) and (2) the Land Monitor (Varanus bengalensis) (Sinhala: thalagoya-තලගොයා; Tamil: Udumbu-உடும்பு). While the former is shunned as poisonous, the latter is considered somewhat harmless.
It is widely said that Tanaji Malusare, a general in the army of the Maratha ruler Shivaji used the land monitors to scale the fort of Kondana in Pune, India because these lizards have a firm grip. In Tamil, ‘a firm grip’ is expressed as udumbu pidi (உடும்புப்பிடி).
In India, the skin of this lizard has traditionally been used in making the Kanjira, a South Indian classical percussion instrument. Now, however, the skin of the lizard is not in vogue owing to the increased awareness to the dwindling population of the lizard.
In Tamil Nadu and all other parts of South India, the monitor lizards are listed under the Protected Species Act.
The lizard evokes mixed responses from the people across the world. It is killed for sport in North Eastern India.
In Sri Lanka, the meat of the thalagoya is considered a delicacy.
Way back in 1947, when I was 6 years old, I was boarded at St. Gabriel’s School in Yatiyantota, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
In the evenings, we, about 40 boarders walked in two-by-two formation to the playground a kilometre or so away from the school.
On our way, when our seniors saw a thalagoya they immediately broke away from the queue and went after the thalagoya with stones and sticks which they picked up on the roadside.
After killing the thalagoya, two seniors would return to the boarding house kitchen carrying the carcass and hand it over to the chief cook. That night we had thalagoya curry.
It was an unwritten rule that the person who threw the fatal stone should be honoured. The cooked tongue of the thalagoya inserted into a hollowed out ripe banana was ceremoniously presented to the ‘killer’. It is believed that the tongue of the thalagoya is a cure for stammering and asthma.
While travelling to Trincomalee by bus, the drivers used to stop the vehicle at a roadside boutique cum eatery for lunch at Dambulla. The waiter after sizing up the people who sat at the tables would ask in hushed voice whether they would like to savour thalagoya curry. On three occasion I ordered the delicacy and it was not costly.
In 1974, my neighbours at Layards Broadway, Colombo -14, spotted a thalagoya in a vacant plot. It might have sneaked in from the Sebastian Canal that connects with the Kelani Ganga. After killing and skinning the reptile, they inquired whether my wife who was born and bred in Badulla and known as an excellent cook would cook it for them. My wife refused, saying she had never cooked thalagoya meat. That night around 11 pm one of the neighbours brought a dish of the thalagoya meat curry prepared by his wife. My wife and children were apprehensive and refused to eat it and with curiosity watched me eating the delicacy.
The following day one of my neighbours told me he had given the skin of the thalagoya to a maker of musical (percussion) drums.