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Can Kerala learn to live with snakes?

A recent murder points to Kerala’s long, conflicted history with snakes—and now, app creators are trying to protect these reptiles

Uthra and Suraj Kumar.
Uthra and Suraj Kumar. (Social media)

Last week, a 27-year-old man from Kerala, Suraj Kumar, was found guilty by a local court of killing his wife by forcing a cobra to bite her. It took a detailed—and unusual—investigation by the Kerala police, and a careful presentation of scientific evidence, to get the sentence of a double life term plus 17 years’ rigorous imprisonment and a penalty of 5 lakh.

Also read: How useful are snake apps

People dying of snake bite in Kerala is not uncommon—what made the police and the family suspicious was the fact that the woman, Uthra, had been sleeping in a room on the first floor, far from the reach of regular cobra. She’d just returned from a nearly two-month hospital stay to recover from a viper bite. The marriage had been an abusive one, and police found that Suraj Kumar had spent months plotting, learning about snakes, bought a couple and forced them to bite her. Why kill instead of divorce? Because, police say, he didn’t want to lose the 95 sovereigns of gold, the car and money her parents had given as dowry. Even as the investigation continued, Suraj Kumar tried to convince Uthra’s parents that since she was bitten twice by snakes within such a short period, she must have in some way angered Naga, the snake god.

It’s the kind of statement that would have been believed in some circles as snakes are both feared and revered. Kerala’s long history is intertwined with snakes. The legend goes that this sliver of land rose when Parashurama, considered an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his mighty axe into the Arabian Sea, but the land was filled with salt and not habitable. So, Parashurama sought the help of Vasuki, the king of snakes, whose venom turned it into fertile, forested land. But one problem solved, another problem cropped up: The reclaimed land was now full of poisonous snakes and people refused to settle there. Parashurama prayed to the snake gods once again to protect the inhabitants. At their behest, he set up sarpa kavus or sacred groves for snakes where they could live in peace and be worshiped by the humans they were to protect. Most traditional homes had their own sarpa kavus in a specific corner. Some exist to this day.

A king cobra.
A king cobra. (Photo by asad on Unsplash)

In 1980, I had a rather bizarre assignment. I had to interview three snake charmers living with poisonous snakes in glass cages in the heart of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) and aiming to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. That was before the era of animal rights and animal welfare laws. Street entertainers still used performing animals—bears, monkeys and, of course, snakes. These sarpa yagnas, as they were dubbed, attracted such large crowds that the city corporation started collecting entertainment tax.

Velayudhan, then 33, was a Kerala State Electricity Board employee with big plans. He had performed with snakes all over the country and he and his wife Sarojini, also a snake handler, wanted to go global, he told me. But, to do that, he needed to get into the Guinness Book, get noticed, and secure invitations to perform abroad. He had 125 poisonous snakes inside the glass cage, he said, and in the course of his career, he’d had “about 10,000 bites”. He reclined on a chair inside the cage and patted cobras on the head as his assistants ran around outside with loudspeakers lauding his feat. I don’t really know if the poisonous snakes were defanged or not, but it was certainly a scary sight to see them slithering around the cages.

In the next cage was 24-year-old Joy Moonjaly who ran a snake park and research centre in Angamali, near Kochi. He’d been sitting in the cage for 20 days with 250 poisonous snakes. A group of young volunteers from his research institute showed me a pit full of wriggling serpents. One of them held a snake up and explained to me how much venom it had to inject for its bite to prove fatal. Moonjaly boasted of handling deadly African snakes as well. As we were speaking, a crate arrived from Bengaluru marked “live poisonous snakes”.

The third enclosure was a simple cage in which Khadija Bibi, wife and daughter of snake charmers, sat barefoot, dressed in a simple cotton sari and chewing paan. Around her 101 snakes wriggled. She had lived with snakes all her life, she said. When I asked her if she was also aiming for a world record, she said, “Yes, yes, I want that too”.

Renowned snake catcher Vava Suresh in Thiruvananthapuram in 2016.
Renowned snake catcher Vava Suresh in Thiruvananthapuram in 2016.

The crowds that flocked to that “show” in Thiruvananthapuram were a pointer to snakes’ power to fascinate and revile. India records about 58,000 deaths from snakebite every year, according to a 2020 study led by the Centre for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto. Most of these deaths could be avoided if appropriate action had been taken in time. An example is the recent death of 10-year-old Shehala who was bitten by a poisonous snake in her classroom in Wayanad, a forested area. She could have been saved if she’d been taken to a hospital sooner and the hospital had been quick to administer an antidote. 

It’s exactly this reality that a number of experts and volunteers are banding together to change. Several startups have created homegrown apps which create a community that not only provide instant information for snake bite victims but also connect snake rescuers and provide a wealth of information on snakes. They also aim to dispel myths and superstitions about these intriguing reptiles. At least seven Android apps—Snakepedia, SARPA, SnakeHub, Snake Lens, SERPENT, Snake Friend, Snakebite and Poison Information—have been launched in the last four years.

Also read: Catching snakes, releasing fear

Snakepedia, released in February this year, collates years of research and documentation by wildlife experts, doctors, photographers and researchers from all over the world. SARPA (Snake Awareness, Rescue and Protection App) was launched in 2020 by the Kerala Forests and Wildlife Department in association with Wildlife Trust of India. The idea is to educate people and encourage them to rescue snakes instead of killing them.

The app creators hope to change negative perceptions of snakes and reduce human-snake conflict. It’s definitely a step towards learning to live with these reptiles—and hopefully, not use them as tools for murder.

Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.

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