The revenge of the cobra

by Fr. Nascimento Mascarenhas

It was a warm, sunny day in Saligao, back in the sixties. At the seminary, it was business as usual for us seminarians. The staff were going about their daily routine and the seminarians and priests were either attending classes, or studying/praying, as was their wont were they to have an hour or so free between assignments. Suddenly, one of the kitchen helpers spotted a large snake – a cobra – slithering across one of the corridors. He shouted out loud to draw the attention of the others and soon there was quite a commotion all around.

Saligao Seminary corridor

Saligao Seminary corridor

The helper along with another colleague scurried around trying to keep track of the movements and whereabouts of the deadly venomous snake in our midst. Someone went to summon Sashikant, a snake-catcher from Donvaddo in the village of Saligao below. He arrived in a jiffy, carrying the simple implement of his unusual trade – a not-too-stout, specially-shaped stick. He was directed to the corner in which the cobra had coiled itself. With a deft flick of the wrist he soon had the cobra aloft on the stick, and proudly displayed his trophy to all of us. He grasped it below the head and we marvelled at his skill and fearlessness. Then he took out a white handkerchief from his pocket, apparently to remove the venomous snake’s fangs. From my vantage point at a safe distance, the cobra’s large round eyes seemed to be glaring wrathfully and its nostrils widened and fuming in protest.

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Somehow, the cobra slipped out of Sashikant’s grasp. It raised itself about half-a-metre from the ground, its hood – with the characteristic “U” mark – flared up, it hissed once and sprang forward and struck at Sashikant. He collapsed onto the floor and almost immediately broke out into uncontrollable convulsions. We were all terrified and somebody proclaimed, “Dêdd odicho par’ro sorop.”  Even as Sashikant was lifted into the seminary’s jeep and rushed to hospital, some workers chased the snake and battered it to death (unfortunate as this was, in those days ‘animal lovers’ and ‘conservationists’ were rarely heard of, and least of all in the context of a venomous snake that had just bitten a man). It turned out that Sashikant died on the way to the Mapuça hospital. We were of course rather distressed, and some of us, along with the seminary beadle, paid a condolence visit to Sashikant’s family.

Snake folklore in India

Indian cobra snake

Indian Cobra. Pic by Julie Anne Workman

In Indian mythology and the Hindu religion, snakes play a prominent role. The Hindu pantheon features snakes in many different ways-Lord Ganesh has a snake wrapped around his waist, almost like a belt; Lord Shiva has a snake around his neck, kind of like a scarf; and, Lord Vishnu is depicted as resting on a coiled snake.

In the village folklore of India, there are innumerable stories of snakes seeking revenge on humans, and the cobra is especially singled out for this unnerving trait. Village elders talked of how a cobra snake that had lost a mate at the hands of a human would keep following the killer regardless of distance or time until it took appropriate revenge, sometimes extending that revenge to the killer’s entire family! One can understand how these stories assumed credibility, in an era before antidotes to snake venom were easily available and the probability of getting bitten by a snake, and succumbing to the poison, was very much higher than today.

Poison vs venom

Russell's viper snake

Russell's viper. Pic by Abinav Chawla

In popular parlance we frequently use the term “poisonous snake” but all the poisonous snakes in India are in fact “venomous snakes”. The main difference between poison and venom is that venom refers to toxins that affect the victim by entering the blood/lymphatic system via a bite or sting, whereas poison is something ingested or inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Even the so-called “spitting cobra” is venomous and squirts its venom into the eyes of victims where the venom is then absorbed by the blood capillaries in the eyes. Spitting cobras are found mainly in Africa, Burma and some parts of South-East Asia, but not in India.

There are about 250 species of snakes in India of which about 50 are venomous. The “Big Four”, considered to be the deadliest in India because they live close to human habitation, are the Indian cobra (Naja naja), common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) and saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus). Some sea snakes are also venomous. Rat snakes, pythons, water snakes and the tree snake are non-venomous. One can find about 35 species of snakes in Goa of which roughly half are venomous or mildly venomous or poisonous.

Common krait snake

Common krait

I remember another incident that took place when I was young. A man in our neighbourhood was bitten by a venomous snake known as nanettto. A tight tourniquet was tied around his leg above the wound. Five or six small live chickens were held against the wound – they died as they absorbed the venom. As the man was transported to the hospital, he complained of severe pain and the region around the wound swelled up. The snake species was identified and a specific anti-venom injection was administered to him. He survived, and returned back home after a few days, with everyone around much relieved and happy.

First aid for snakebite

Of course the method of treating snakebite mentioned above has long since fallen out of favour. First aid treatment for snakebite in India is based around the mnemonic “Do it R.I.G.H.T.” Reassure the patient. 70% of all snakebites are from non-venomous species. Only 50% of bites by venomous species actually envenomate the patient.  Immobilise in the same way as a fractured limb. Use bandages or cloth to hold the splints, not to block the blood supply or apply pressure. Do not apply any compression in the form of tight ligatures or tourniquets — they don’t work and can be dangerous! Keep the patient as immobile and still as possible. Get to Hospital immediately. Traditional remedies have no proven benefit in treating snakebite. Tell the doctor of any systemic symptoms that manifest on the way to hospital.

Saw-scaled viper snake

Saw-scaled viper. Pic by Saleem Hameed

I have heard that the Green Cross NGO has snake rescue volunteers in Saligao and other parts of Goa who, when called, will come immediately, catch (rescue) the snake and release it into the wild. The contacts are:

Griselda Nobay, Donvaddo, Saligao: 9923802842, 0832-2278567
Tarika and Suhail, Donvaddo, Saligao: 0832-2409999, 0832-2278276
Alfred D’Mello, Nagoa: 9823053474, 0832-2278903
Suneel Korajjkar, Mapusa: 9822123042, 0832-2253715
Sagar Kambli, Mapusa: 9823937930
Mario Fernandes, Calangute: 9923667665
Rahul Alvares, Parra: 0832-2278740, 9881961071

Anti-snake-venom (ASV) is available in hospitals and primary health centres in Goa. Close to Saligao, ASV is available at the Asilo Hospital in Mapusa (0832-2262372/2265119) and the Primary Health Centre in Candolim (0832-2489035/2276035).

Snake and mongoose story

The enemy of the cobra snake is the mongoose, romanticised in Rudyard Kipling’s story Riki Tiki Tavi. Fiction and folklore allude to the female cobra’s desire to avenge the death of a mate, but whether this is true in reality is a matter of speculation. Snakes rely mainly on their senses of smell and touch to get around, although they are not blind, as many people believe. Snakes hear by detecting vibrations of sound waves conducted through the ground (I remember elders in the house telling us that banging a stick on the ground was the best way to drive away a snake that had strayed from its natural habitat into the house); some low frequencies of sound waves conducted through the air can also be picked up by the snake. Snakes do not have a sense of taste; in fact, the tongue serves as a secondary organ of smell. Indeed, snakes do follow the scents of their mates during the breeding season, but extending that to sniffing out a human enemy for revenge is most likely far beyond the realm of reason!

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