THE STORY OF COBRA PROTECTION IN VISAKHAPATNAM
Education & Awareness Positively Change Views Toward Other Living Beings In Our
Nagula Chavithi is a Hindu festival celebrated to worship the serpent Gods. Every living creature except for the human, takes their role in sustaining the environment for all living beings seriously. Snakes’ role as pest managers in the forest, agriculture, and the urban, as food for animals, and in medicine is vital to the health of these ecosystems. Snake worship is considered important in Hindu culture due to this reason.
The study of snakes is called herpetology, a branch of zoology.
The festival holds religious significance in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. On this day, people perform puja, offer prayers, and seek blessings from Naga Devathas. The festival is associated with Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, Lord Kartikeya, and Lord Ganesha, who have a bond with snakes.
Married women observe fasts and pray for the well-being of their families and children. Nagula Chavithi in 2023 fell on November 17, generally falling on the 10th day after Diwali.
Naga or Nagula Chavithi is the worship of the Cobra. The Cobra (Naja naja) and the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) are two different snake species. The King Cobra eats other Cobras, and both are venomous. Both of these species are found in Visakhapatnam. However, the Cobra is more easily trapped and brought to this festival.
Worshipping of Cobras is done throughout India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka on different dates and under separate names. This snake is poorly associated with India via snake charmers, and its exploitation promotes false beliefs via mythology, folk traditions, comics, and film.
Snakes are amazing beings; however, their association with humans is built-up around fear for right and wrong reasons, all of which cause harm to these special animals with LOTS to teach us.
The following is Pradeep Kumar Nath’s story and his observations and work via VSPCA.
As a child around age five, on this day, he began observing humans dressed up in their finest, coming to the “snake charmer” with many cobras to exploit and raise money for a living. This godman/charmer/”expert” is a middleman/agent, often an ex-tribal member, who purchases the Cobra from tribals who catch these animals about ten days before the Festival. During this time, the snakes’ fangs are removed, and their mouths stitched up—which is excessively cruel—to leave a small opening for the tongue to emerge in a display for the devotees. We do not doubt the faith of these devotees; however, their blind beliefs are the reason for the demand of these snakes. Cobras remain in baskets for ten days without food or water. The cost of a snake is about Rs. 200/- and tribals come to the city by buses, trains, and autos to make the most of the festival.
Early morning at 5:00 am, the snake men would make their way to the Town Kotha area, a few hundred steps from the VSPCA office near the Hindu Reading Room. To the left of this building, in a radius of one km, they would line up with their open baskets prodding the snakes’ spines to get them to remove their tongue in agony. Families and people from far-and-wide, come to offer eggs, rub vermillion on the forehead of the snakes, and forcibly take turns pouring milk into the slight opening of a snake’s mouth. Worse, they attempt to feed it eggs assuming they are giving food to this animals. Most do not know that its mouth is sewed up. To heighten the torture, incense sticks and crackers are lit causing the snakes to become more fearful in their pain and continue writhing, only to heighten the worship.
This sad situation for the snakes would go on for a minimum of four hours until the auspicious time or the “muhurtam” comes to an end. The exhausted, pained, and severely dehydrated snake often dies. The snake man simply removes its skin for further exploitation of the snake’s body, and its flesh is thrown in dustbins. Those half-dead are merely alive for a few more hours of pain and suffering until eaten or fed to other animals.
The Cobra is one of the most feared snakes in the world. To see them/their sophisticated defense powers in their venom, fangs, and extraordinary strength broken down in illegal activity in the name of religion, had Pradeep start investing time in Cobra protection under the Indian Wildlife Act (of 1972). Cobras are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 2010. That such illegal activity went on undeterred bringing traffic to a standstill with no intervention from the Police or Forest Department, made Pradeep feel deeply for the plight of these powerful snakes, atypically helpless in the hands of the snake men.
He began to think about addressing the ignorance of the huge crowds of these snake worshippers.
Getting to the root cause is always the way forward.
In India, in his fight to protect animals, Pradeep has studied the Laws to rise up to the situation in its context:
The Constitution of India, The Indian Penal Code, 1860, The Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, The Police Acts and The Municipal Corporation Acts to fight their case.
He studied the situation, documented, the problem, conducted surveys, researched the solution, and started to campaign for the Cobras. He began to write down the solution and educate employing pamphlets in Telugu and English. Many devotees were offended at this direct onslaught on their beliefs. Pradeep sought the support and intervention of the Police & Forest Departments for the protection to his life. He was attacked on several occasions in this work.
Soon, the Forest and Police Departments, seeing the Law on their side based on Pradeep’s study of it, felt the pressure to join hands with him to stop the deep exploitation, cruelty, and extinction of Cobras in this region.
It took six years of painstaking consistency to reach all devotees with pamphlets showing how the snakes were made docile and helpless.
It shook them in their understanding that this is certainly not God’s way for God’s creatures: to cause so much pain. Most were completely ignorant of the behind-the-scenes doings of these snake men.
Pradeep visited the areas and homes of the tribals and many nomads who caught the snakes. He ended up at the Head Hunter and his Assistant’s homes meeting their families.
A strange coincidence is that, in due course, the Head Hunter and his Assistant died from Cobra bites. The Head Hunter was bitten by his own pet Cobra and the Assistant died trying to provoke a Cobra from its den. As a witness, Pradeep did not think it appropriate to impart knowledge, provide counseling, or speak to awareness with these families. The men were seasonal hunters, and the women strung beads and wove baskets for a living.
Through happenstance, the deaths of these humans cut off the supply of Cobras majorly in Kasimkota, about ten km from Anakapalle township, the hub for Cobra profiteering. It was a dangerous mission for Pradeep but Nature was on his side. Beyond this incident of the deaths of the Cobra head hunters, the project was well-armed with the Media, awareness, education, and the legal backing to aid the halting of Cobra worship with live snakes.At this point, the VSPCA team began to create alternative ways to worship the Cobra such as making a silver replica of the Cobra for house worship, Cobra images/drawings on tree trunks and walls of public buildings where people could anoint vermillion and perform rituals, and importantly, the set-up of exclusive temples with naga idols for worship, along with artificial pits around the dens of Cobras to place ritual items. The public was sympathetic and accepting of these alternative ways of worship. Alongside, they were learning about the role of the snakes in the environment through VSPCA’s team’s diligent education program. The residents of the city joined hands with VSPCA. The timing was ripe as the worship was at its peak in many decades of Cobra worship. Many incidents came to light. In a last-ditch effort, tribal women employed by tribal men, hid baby Cobras in their sarees. As they were confronted, they threw the baby snakes at the VSPCA team, volunteers, and city residents engaged in this protection. In one season alone, VSPCA was able to save 920 snakes from direct harm. Many of course, had to be treated. In removing stitches, their mouths often yawned widely, emanating acrid smells from the deep infections to the mouth and lips. Several survived but some could not survive the ill-treatment of man. With help from the Andhra Pradesh Zookeepers, many hundreds of snakes were released into their habitats. The Cobras too, were looking for ways to survive. VSPCA and Pradeep are very proud that for over 20 years, there hasn’t been a single Cobra brought into Visakhapatnam. It is a matter of pride that the city residents are aware of this project and are on alert to snake charmers around the city. This year too, the monitoring team from VSPCA visited with devotees to share their thanks and join in the worship of the Cobra via idols and be with trees where snakes are believed to be.