Snakes, world over are feared worshiped and respected for their sheer majestic appearance, venom and beauty. Be it a tiny worm snake or an anaconda. This mix of respect and fear has made the snakes feature in the mythology of many nations but more often than not, the fear has caused people to beat them to death on sighting one, irrespective of being harmless or venomous. These are creatures that have a very special place in nature but also in my heart. Having the influence of snakes in my name itself, this does not sound surprising. There was a point in the little time that I have managed to live where I feared the snakes more than respecting them and shared the intention of the numerous men of clubbing one to death at sight! It took many hours of snake shows on TV and holding a tiny water snake shoved into my hand by the “Snake shyam" of mysore to get over the fear and start caring and respecting these snakes.
The respect grew and I had this dream of becoming a herpetologist! ( I also dreamed of being a pilot, soldier, philosopher and what not!).Though that I am not sure of having become anything yet, I am quite happy that I have been able to stick around with nature and wilderness and witness these gentle creatures in their own world and have had numerous encounters with them both dead and alive in a couple of years- and even got bitten by a rat snake once! With this fascination, respect and whatever you want to call it of snakes standing the test of time, I wanted many more encounters and experiences which would make this little life on earth a worthy one to live. And there is one snake which I always wished to see and know more about like any other snake lover at least in India. The legendary King cobra.
This snake, being the longest venomous snake in this big and wide country is on the hitlist of anyone who loves these cold blooded seemingly mis-evolved creatures. The highly venomous yet gentle and majestic snake, seldom seen is an important predator in the evergreen forests and is restricted to parts of the Western Ghats and the forests of Orissa and further east. With human encounters being far and few between, the respects this snake gains is phenomenal and is called with equally respectful names in colloquial terms.
It is the only snake to build a nest and eat other venomous snakes, it can[album][/album] pump in enough venom to kill a full grown man 20 times over and can grow up to 15 ft and as thick as a human fore arm! And there is no anti venom for this snake in case someone gets bitten by these clever and bold snakes.
My first encounter with this snake was in 2007. I was a volunteer with Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore and was part of a team monitoring the presence of tigers and their prey in the forests across the Western Ghats of India. Balehonur in central Western Ghats is one place where the snakes are seen and while returning from field work to Shimoga district, we happen to see a thick snake crossing the road. It was so long that I could not see its head or tail but the body was covering the whole width of the road. We were able to take only a couple of pictures before the snake moved into the thickets and we never got to see the head. A round of discussion and pouring over field guides proved it to be his majesty himself!! (Or must I say her?). That was a seemingly un-exciting encounter with this majestic snake but none the less, a great sighting. This incident has been now refreshed with an even better and an unforgettable experience I had a few days back in 2010 in Mundanturai. With the campaign asking people to be better ancestors during the Lord Sorimuthian festival in KMTR coming to an end, I was packing up to leave to Pondicherry and had just finished the much needed shower which had not seen me for almost 4 days when I heard my colleague Prashanth bolting into the dormitory and asking for Rajkamal. Having not seen him for few hours, I asked what was all the excitement about and Prashanth managed to utter between catching his breath that there was a huge snake in the Servalaar river and it was just seen getting washed away in the water. And going by its monstrous size, it seemed like a king cobra.
I had this little confusion in my mind for two reasons- one the snake was not to be found in the deciduous habitat in Mundanthurai and the other was the reluctance to go out in search of a snake wearing shorts and bathroom slippers! However, the snake got the better of me and in a few minutes it had us both running after it after I grabbed my binocular alone assuming my camera battery was completely dead! The bridge across the river had already gathered the policemen manning it and the discussions were on about the snake, how big it was and other stories blown out of proportion. A quick chat while scanning the bank for the snake with Anthony of the Papanasam bus service revealed that they had actually seen the King and were not lying as I had thought in the back of my silly over confidant mind. The urge to see it again made run across to the other side of the river and soon prashanth and self were on the other bank after a fast bolt with Smrity following us at a rather slow pace. On the other bank, we started having discussions of how the snake came to be there and it became clear that the snake was possibly washed down the river from the upper ever green forests beyond servalar when the dam was opened. If this were to be true, I guessed that the snake would, on reaching the bank rest for quite some time after the exhaustive swim in the cold waters of the river. Being cold blooded, this sudden exercise would have drained the battery of the snake too and it would wait for quite some time to recuperate from it. Soon, the bank saw us traversing looking for the snake and being over cautious as to not step on the tiered snake and the numerous human dung piles. We spent a good 15 mins in search of the snake and there was no luck. We got down closer to the bank when a bunch of people bathing further down the river started shouting and we were there in less than a minute to hear that the snake had just went past them. They were so afraid that they did not even tell us if the snake went in water or on land. I crashed thru the thorny shrubbery followed by the other two and began looking for the snake. Another 15mins were spent in a seemingly futile search for the elusive snake and I turned back and told prashanth that the snake must have gone and there was no point searching further and as I was getting late to leave to Pondicherry in a short while, we turned back with Smrity following us 50m away. While cautiously walking avoiding all the shit, in one corner of my eye, I saw something move and it was indeed the king. This huge snake was right next to where we had passed a couple of minutes earlier and all the three of us had missed it. My joy knew no bounds as I was seeing this snake thru the binoculars with close focus and was staring right into the eye of this huge snake which indeed seemed to be of monstrous proportion. The eyes of this snake immediately attract all the awe and respect it duly deserves and I had an overdose of adrenalin and ushered prashanth and asked smrity to come quickly. While prashanth spotted it in a jiffy, smrity could not and I had to hold her by her head and show the snake! All three of us were almost going berserk with the amounts of excitement and I snatched her small camera which seemed like a flimsy toy in front of this huge serpent. Stepping closer to the snake well into the biting range, I began filming the snake with her camera in which I did not know where the controls were. One thing for sure was that I was shivering of both the excitement and the fear the snake generates when one stares into its deep dark eyes.
Having wanted to kick myself for not taking the camera which I always hang around my neck even when eating, I cursed my good self and kept one eye on the snake and the other on the viewfinder and after a while the snake, in water, started moving and that is when the length of the snake became evident! It was not less than 12ft! It is indeed simply amazing to see such huge snakes in the natural setting and such experiences are some of those which keep the energy burning and the enthusiasm going.
The video was shot and the snake moved and so did we, as we did not want to die of adrenalin overdose and more so wanted to leave the snake alone to get back to its senses. The bathing family who had seen the snake was all huddled together and was overwhelmed at our courage, tenacity and sheer defiance of the fear to have gone after this snake and photograph it!
Soon a round of video showing and correcting their versions of the story began and prashanth realized that he, In spite of being over cautious had stepped badly on shit and decided to discard his pants, shoes and socks. On reaching the bridge, the policemen and Anthony of bus service were happy to see us back alive and to see the video of the “Raja naag”.
What followed was an endless round of bragging and showing off and this I shall not mention here. The only thing worth mentioning was that just that morning, I was cribbing to Saleem that I had not seen a single snake this season and thanks to the best wishes of Lord sorimuthian, I was bestowed with the sight of the king himself!
The fate of the snake however remains unknown as the river leads to another dam and if the snake floats into it, it’s pretty much dead. If it does not and decides to cross over into the evergreens, it would still be pretty much dead thanks to the numerous roads and heavy vehicular density on them.
Whether the sighting is a blessing to me by Lord sori or a curse of doom to the snake, I do not have answers.