Leprosy Hospital in Hendala is believed to be the first hospital built in the country by western rulers. It also stakes a claim to be the oldest functioning hospital in the world.
Built in 1701 and still continuing to function into its fourth century, Hendala Leprosy Hospital is recognised as the first leprosy hospital in Asia and it is also thought to be the first hospital established after the reign of the Sinhala Kings in the country.
However in the past this hospital had remained as an isolated institute due to the fears people had regarding the leprosy disease.
Leprosy wasn’t a well-known disease in the past and as a result all patients were separated from their families and the society during their entire lifetime, so as to receive medical treatment.
The first incident of leprosy in Sri Lanka was recorded around the year 1670. This was during the Dutch period when several Portuguese soldiers and few Dutch nationals were diagnosed with leprosy.
There are evidences of several children of local mothers, married to foreign soldiers, having being diagnosed with leprosy.
A Dutch doctor, who arrived in Sri Lanka accompanied by Dutch soldiers in the 1670s, stated in a letter that he had been sent by the Dutch Royal Council. The mission given to him was to do a door-to-door search and seek whether there were leprosy patients. The patients who tested positive for leprosy were believed to have been retained in tents prepared on other side of the Kelani River.
In the past there was neither definite nor advanced treatment for leprosy. Patients presenting with a severe condition had disfigured and deformed bodies. Back then it was the practice in some countries to sent these patients into jungles or to an island to live, separating them from the rest of the society.
The path leading to the hospital building
The social attitude toward members of the leper community was also regretfully unpleasant. Most patients, after being cured, were reluctant to return home because they were unwelcome.
But with advances made by Western Medicine with regard to treating leprosy patients the number of patients has drastically dropped. Authorities at Hendala Leprosy Hospital say that most patients return to their families after being cured.
The patient who had the longest life at the Hendala Leprosy Hospital was 90-year-old E.A. Alwis. He was born in 1928 and had been brought to the hospital in 1943 when he was diagnosed with leprosy at the age of 14.
“I was then a student living in Dehiwala and the youngest of five brothers. One day a public health inspector came to the school where I was studying to check for small pox disease. During his routine examination he had found symptoms of leprosy on my face and had advised the principal to immediately remove me from the school. Later he had also forced my parents to admit me to the leprosy clinic at the hospital in Punchi Borella. My parents, who were in tears, reluctantly brought me to the Borella Hospital from where I was sent to this hospital. I was taken in a fully covered single bullock cart. I have been living here for the past 76 years. I could not stop weeping and crying for several months because I lost the love and company of my parents and brothers. From time to time they visited the hospital to see me, but by now all of them have died,” reminisced Alwis with tears in his eyes.
B.M. Kiribanda, aged 96, of Meepitiya Dodangaslanda is another inmate who has spent 62 years in the hospital. He has been an inmate of the hospital since 1956. He too was a student at the time he was brought to the Hendala Leprosy Hospital. According to Kiribanda there had been about 1000 patients in the hospital at the time he was being admitted. He said he had seen many deaths due to this disease during his stay at the hospital.
Kiribanda learned to work as a cobbler while staying in the hospital. He has engaged in making shoes for the patient. He says making shoes for the fellow patients is a very difficult task as the legs of most patients are deformed and warped.
The cart used to transport a deceased patient whose religion is Christianity
Spirit of a Dutch Prince
There are many stories associated with the leprosy hospital. Both Alwis and Kiribanda related a story about a Dutch Prince whose spirit frequents the hospital in night. The prince is said to be seen mounted on a white horse. They say he loves those in the hospital and protects them.
There are many antique utility items that have been used at the hospital during its long history. Among them are two carts made by the inmates themselves. These carts have been used to carry dead bodies to the cemetery; one for Buddhists and the other for Catholics. The washing machine found in the hospital is said to be the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. It’s a British machine and has the brand name ‘Thomas’ and is said to be made in 1934.
At present the Leprosy Hospital has been restored as a hospital museum under the Ministry of Health.
A Buddhist place of worship at the leprosy hospital
The name board which shows the period during which the hospital was begun