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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Face to face with the holy cobras

During the Hindu festival of the snake god, farmers capture cobras from their fields and let villagers shower them with offerings. They believe it will bring good fortune for next year. Jeremy Grange joined some of them in Shirala, in the Indian state of Maharashtra.

Snakes kill up to 30,000 people a year in India

There is something peculiarly hypnotic about a cobra, especially close up.

So, as I sit in the tiny upstairs room of a village house just a few feet away from four of them, I am utterly hypnotised. Or am I paralysed by fear?

The cobras which snake charmers hawk around India's tourist hotspots are cruelly de-fanged to ensure that they cannot inflict a bite.

The snakes in front of me now, however, with fangs fully intact, are not only highly venomous but also rather annoyed. In classic cobra posture, their heads are raised high and their hoods spread.

Their coppery bodies dilate and narrow, as they expel each breath in a warning hiss. Occasionally there is a particularly explosive hiss, as the snake strikes at the clay pot being waved in front of it.

About 70 snake handlers take part in Naga Panchami (the festival of the snake god) so there are usually 300 or 400 cobras in town for the big day.

Sooner or later the full force of wildlife legislation will no doubt catch up with Naga Panchami and the snakes will not feature in the day at all
I tagged along for the morning with one of the handlers, who I met among a group of villagers.

Four clay pots sealed with colourful cloths were ranged in a neat row on the steps of the house beside them.

I did not need to be told what those contained. And warming up nearby was the 10-piece brass band the snake handler had hired for the day.

Trays of offerings

With a nod from one of the men, the band struck up, the group grabbed their venomous cargo and we set off through the streets of Shirala.

At the temple we pushed our way through the crowd to a stone platform where a ritual was performed which I would see repeated many times during the morning.

Lines of snakes on the ground
After the festival, the cobras will be released back into the fields

The cobras were tipped from their containers and, while some of the group held them lightly but firmly by the tail, others kept the snakes' attention - and bites - focused on the pots from which they had just been extracted.

From my ringside seat on the platform, I watched the snakes sway and strike.

I turned to one of my companions, Ajit, and asked him whether the handlers or members of the crowd were ever bitten.

"Oh Yes," he replied. "There are always bites. During Naga Panchami the local hospital expects a few snakebite patients."

Determined not to be one of them, I edged a little further back into the crowd.

Wherever the snakes were paraded - first in the temple and later in village houses - women stepped forward with trays of prasad (traditional temple offerings) which they sprinkled over the snakes.

As crimson kumkum powder, flower petals, rice, milk and even 100-rupee notes showered down on the cobras' heads, I asked Ajit what it was all for.

He explained that the main purpose was to ensure a productive harvest in the coming year. But it was also to placate the snakes and to try to prevent them biting farmers in the fields.

I stared at the four cobras, now provoked to new levels of hissing and hooding by the offerings raining down on them, and felt that they looked anything but placated.

Protected by law

Perhaps at this point I should explain that everything I had witnessed was actually illegal.

In India snakes are protected by law and you cannot collect them from the wild without a licence - a licence that none of the snake handlers at this festival possessed.

Map of India

However, the authorities seem to have turned a blind eye to a festival that is so culturally and religiously important - or, at least, to its morning's activities.

What they do enforce, though, is a ban on snakes in the afternoon parade.

Until two years ago, the climax of Naga Panchami was a procession of decorated trailers carrying the snake handlers and their cobras.

Now, however, the authorities insist that the cobras are left at home as they await their release back into the fields.

Meanwhile, the snake handlers ride the trailers, enjoying the adulation of the crowds who flood into the village in their thousands.

Dancing girls

The bigger trailers carry massive sound systems which pump out music at ear-splitting levels.

Most snake handlers have simply replaced their snakes with dancing girls - local teenagers who gyrate on a platform while crowds of young men shout encouragement and throw money at them.

The parade progressed, the music pulsed, the crowd heaved and flowed down the streets and, in the stifling humidity, the dancers' expressions changed from determined enjoyment to grim endurance.

I began to feel quite sorry for them, although I would have felt considerably sorrier for the snakes if they had been aboard the trailers. At least the dancers had a choice.

But without the cobras is it not really just another carnival?

Sooner or later the full force of wildlife legislation will no doubt catch up with Naga Panchami and the snakes will not feature in the day at all.

Of course it is right that these beautiful reptiles are protected but, all the same, I cannot help feeling that, without its cobras, Naga Panchami will - in every sense - have lost its fangs.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 4 October, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: India
26 Jul 07 |  Country profiles


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