Snakes have devine power in Hinduism, it kills 50,000 Indians each year

Snakes on a Plain: Living With Cobras Outside Calcutta

Bites Are a Problem Priests
Can’t Always Deal With;
Malati Dhara Sees a Doctor
By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
November 26, 2007 WSJ

MUSHARI, India — A five-foot monocled cobra slithered through a throng of barefoot children one afternoon recently. Not even the toddlers recoiled in fear.

“We sleep with the snakes, we eat with the snakes, we live with the snakes here,” shouted 14-year-old Chinmoy Mahji proudly. “We are not scared.”

Talk about a snake pit. The deadly serpents are everywhere here in Mushari and its three adjoining villages, set amid muddy ponds and rice fields on the hot Bengali plains northwest of Calcutta.

A dozen yards from the assembled children, another cobra was lazily trying to swallow a frog that, under the effects of the snake’s poison, had ballooned to the size of a melon. One more cobra emerged from a pond where village women washed their pots and nonchalantly made its way under a nearby house.

Samir Chatterjee, a school headmaster here, says that according to his census, more than 3,000 cobras live just in Choto Pashla, one of the three hamlets that abut Mushari. “Whenever I lie down in my bed, a cobra will just slide on top of me, without hurting me,” boasts Narottom Sain, a Mushari village leader.

While Mr. Sain has yet to be bitten, many others are not so lucky. The area’s chief Hindu priest, Shyamal Chakraborty, says that several villagers are attacked by cobras every month.

What to do when that happens is a matter of contention here, as India’s ancient ways and taboos clash with slowly encroaching modernity. Snakebites are a serious problem in India: According to estimates cited by the World Health Organization, serpent attacks kill as many as 50,000 Indians each year.

Compounding the problem is the widespread belief in the snakes’ divine powers, and a religious prohibition on harming the deadly reptiles. The cobra, in particular, occupies a hallowed place in the Hindu religion. The god Vishnu is often portrayed with a halo of cobra heads, their hoods flaring, above his head. Another major Hindu god, Lord Shiva, is usually depicted with a cobra wrapped like a scarf around his neck.

According to legend widely believed here in Mushari, the monocled cobras — black serpents with a characteristic clear circle on their hoods — first settled in the area in the year 911, on the orders of the snake goddess Manasa.

The reptiles, one of a number of cobra species that live in India, are revered as incarnations of gods. Only Brahmins — members of Hinduism’s priestly caste — are allowed to touch them. Even the skins shed by the snakes are covered by the taboo. With the cult attracting thousands of pilgrims, Mushari’s priests are eager to maintain their authority — and the impression that their magic alone can properly treat the frequent snakebites.

“If you don’t visit the doctor and just come to us, the bite will be cured in two, three days,” explains Mr. Chakraborty’s son Nayan, himself a saffron-clad priest, as he plays with a hissing cobra on the village square. “But if you choose to go to a doctor, your limb will swell up and there will be complications. We tell people that if you don’t listen to god and go to a hospital, it’s at your own risk.”

The priestly treatment consists of making bite victims bathe in a shallow pond by the ancient ocher-colored temple, rubbing special mud into the wound and performing incantations. In many cases, it seems to work. “When the snake bit me three months ago, I just ran to the priest, and soon it all healed,” says 9-year-old Srabani Kundu, as she points to faint fang marks on her right foot.

Asked whether anyone has died of snakebites in the area, villagers grudgingly admit that it does happen — but, they add hastily, only as a result of attacks by nonresident cobras, or by other snakes — vipers or kraits, perhaps. “Our sacred cobras only kill ducks and chickens, but never humans,” assures Mr. Sain.

Puzzled by the apparent mystery, the Zoological Survey of India, a government institution, sent in a team of scientists led by reptile specialist D.P. Sanyal in the early 1990s. Dr. Sanyal says he determined that the serpents teeming around Mushari are indeed “monocled cobras, highly poisonous no doubt.”

But he didn’t get much further: Local villagers, eager to uphold the religious taboos, didn’t allow him to collect venom samples and prevented him from taking one of the snakes to Calcutta for examination.

These religious taboos — and faith in the priests’ magical powers — are slowly beginning to crumble. Facing the prospect of death after a bite, some villagers nowadays are opting for more conventional medicine. One such snakebite victim is Malati Dhara, a young woman who was attacked by a cobra as she watered her garden last year.

At first, Ms. Dhara tried to follow the old custom. She called on Mr. Chakraborty, the chief priest, and spent the first hours after the bite applying mud and chanting. But in her case, the traditional rite didn’t do the trick. Soon, her foot became bloated and blue, and she vomited.

Feeling her body go rigid, Ms. Dhara asked to be rushed to the nearest hospital, in the town of Burdwan, about 25 miles away. There, she was injected with a broad-spectrum antivenom. “The priest had assured me that he will heal the bite, but it didn’t happen,” she says. “When I finally got to a doctor, he told me — you’ve come so late, you’re lucky to be alive.” Ms. Dhara still has a disfiguring scar on her foot where the snake got her.

“A cobra is highly neurotoxic, and no one will survive without the antidote if the poison is properly injected,” says Indranil Banerjee, the emergency medical officer at the Burdwan hospital. “I see this often. After being treated by witch doctors, people come here too late and just die.”

To infuse its lethal venom into the bloodstream, a cobra must turn its head, squeezing out poison that’s connected to its fangs. The frequent survival of victims in Mushari, Dr. Banerjee says, can be explained by the fact that local villagers manage to shake off the cobras immediately when they bite. Also, he adds, a snake that has recently bitten a mouse or a frog may be fresh out of poison.

Ms. Dhara’s near-death experience — and rapid recovery after the antidote — dented somewhat the priestly authority in the area. Other villagers have since gone to the hospital with snakebites. On a recent day, as Ms. Dhara recounted her tale, 21-year-old Gora Chand Dey nodded in approval. “Now, everyone knows you have to see a doctor,” he said loudly. “People no longer believe in these priests.”

Still, the age-old taboos aren’t quite dead. Breaking up this conversation, Ms. Dhara’s mother-in-law, Sandhya Dhara, stepped into the crowd. “We have to follow our traditions and go to the priests when the snakes bite,” she insisted. “Their rituals are the only cure.”

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