Sleeping with danger
In poet-saint Basavanna’s Karnataka, a king cobra tucked away in a cool bathroom gets fussed over while the snake catchers are warned not to harm it
We haven’t used the bathroom for three days,” said the man apologetically in Kannada on the phone. No medical problem prevented his family from using the room. They had a different issue—a king cobra had moved in. His family was now desperate to regain use of the bathroom.
Like any traditional Malnad house, a concrete lip of single brick thickness demarcated the square bathing area in one corner of the room. The family and neighbours crowded the doorway. As the snake catchers’ eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw the black snake coiled on the red floor. Golden yellow lines circled its body at regular intervals like nodes on a bamboo culm. A gunny sack lay nearby.
“The concrete is chipped there,” the lady of the household in Agumbe explained. “We were worried the snake may hurt itself crawling over the rough edge.”
As the snake catchers debated the plan of action, the family wanted repeated assurances that no harm would befall the snake. “If there’s any chance that it will get hurt, please don’t catch it,” the man said.
Instead of clobbering the king cobra to death, the family left the bathroom door ajar so it could find its way out on its own. When it showed no signs of taking the hint, neighbours convinced the family to call snake catchers. During those three days, the snake could have stretched up over the wall, crawled along the rafters, and entered any other room at any time.
What kind of family stops using the bathroom for three days, prevents a wild snake from hurting itself, and sleeps in the same house with it? The snake they fussed over was no ordinary being. The 10-foot snake was a member of the world’s largest venomous snake species.
Across India, people worship snakes. Our temple iconography shows these reptiles as the ornaments of Siva, the bed of Vishnu, and the umbrella of Buddha. For their religious fervour, Indians pay a high price. No other nation loses as many of its citizens to snake-bite every year.
Only a small percentage of the nearly 300 species are venomous. To our eyes, they all look alike—coils of rope that pack a punch. It’s no surprise that many people can’t abide the reptiles and look for quick ways of despatching them from this world.
Basavanna, a poet-saint from 12th-century Karnataka, captured our conflicted feelings towards snakes thus:
When they see a serpent carved in stone, they pour milk on it,
if a real serpent comes, they say, ‘Kill, kill’.
(The Great Integrators: The Saint Singers of India)
King cobras are unmistakable, as no other Indian species looks or acts like them. It ought to be easy for Malnad farmers in Basavanna’s State to exterminate them. But they don’t. Instead, they go to extreme lengths to share their lush plantations and gardens with the majestic creatures. King cobras, like the proverbial camel, take full advantage, holing up in bathrooms, beneath beds, and on roofs. Occasionally, they even attempt to stow away in automobiles.
Like people everywhere, some residents of Agumbe can be hostile to snakes. If living with snakes is the norm, what makes the minority want to kill them? King cobras spread their hoods and hiss to intimidate their predators. The tactic works on people too. Large snakes may seem especially threatening. Any that enter houses where there are children, elderly or the sick, would cause consternation. Encountering snakes after dark or in badly-lit situations may trigger panic. In short, a large king cobra ensconced in a dark bathroom is asking to be killed. Yet, the residents were calm.
Researchers at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station examined the attitudes of people in more than 100 king cobra rescues. They discovered that while people did fear king cobras because they can sit up high and spread their hoods, none of the other conditions were true.
People have the urge to kill when the chances of succeeding at it are greater. Smaller king cobras are easier to kill than large ones. Their ability to smash the snakes is greater out in the open than in the confines of a house. King cobras are active during the day when people are more likely to run into them. Humans can see what they are doing better in daylight, so they tend to raise their weapons above their heads then. This ought to doom a lot of king cobras.
The silver lining is that of more than 100 instances, in only 15 cases did residents say they would have killed had the snake catchers not shown up. The majority recognise king cobras for what they are—intelligent giants unwilling to waste their golden venom on inedible morsels like us. King cobras bite so few people, not counting inept rescuers, that one has to dig through the archives to find the last case. However, Agumbe’s villagers realise the snakes perform a valuable service, readily gobbling up smaller snakes like vipers and cobras that kill thousands of people.
This may seem like common sense, but such understanding is rare outside Agumbe. To the family that shared its home with a king cobra, these utilitarian arguments were irrelevant. Even though it had caused them a lot of discomfort and the snake catchers caught it with skill, the family prayed for forgiveness from the inconvenienced divinity.
Basavanna sang about the hypocrisy of the majority, but he didn’t sing paeans to his fellow countrymen who lived by their beliefs.
First published by The Hindu