Snakes are considered sacred in India because of their descriptions found in the Hindu mythological scripts. As well as Jainism and Buddhism also consider snake as sacred having divine qualities. It is believed that once a Cobra snake saved the life of Buddha whereas, in another incidence protected life of Jain Muni Parshwanath. Snakes are worshipped from ancient times and there are many reasons besides being sacred and one of them is to control rat population. The rats are one of the main prays of snakes and a common pest for the crops. Snakes help farmers to save their crops from the rats by controlling their population. It is well-known that the rats are prolific breeders with a short gestation period of around 21-24 days and give birth to at least four to seven kittens in a single parturition. These are some of the probable reasons why this tradition may have been established. There are some superstitions and the misunderstandings that were created and profoundly embedded in the minds of common people. Some of them are offering milk, vermillion and turmeric, ‘Nagmani’ because of rumours spread by snake charmers and cinema.
Snakes are cold blooded and carnivorous reptile there are around 300 known species. Amongst them only few are venomous, some are mildly venomous and most of them are non-venomous. They are defenceless, timid, vulnerable animal without any acoustic organ, hiding from its enemies all its life. Some of the species are endangered. No snake will deliberately attack a human unless provoked. It is observed that due to lack of knowledge about the different species and behaviours of snakes creates phobia among common people. The charmers take advantage of this fear to earn their livelihood.
Nag-panchami is the worship of serpent God, it is offered on the fifth day of bright half of Lunar month of Shravana (July/August), according to the Hindu calendar.
Before the festival, snake charmers capture these snakes from various locations from all over the country mostly from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and keep them in captivity for several days. The snake charmers do not provide water and food to these snakes which are captured by them for the purpose of road shows and demonstrations. Because of the unavailability of drinking water for a long period of time the snake unwillingly and helplessly drinks the milk which is offered on the day of 'Nag-Panchami' to satisfy its hunger and thirst. It is known to all, that milk is not the natural diet of snakes. After the consumption of the milk if it is not properly digested then the snake dies due to secondary infections since undigested milk is a very good medium for the growth of various disease causing organisms. Sometime milk forced down their open gullets and enters their lungs lead to pneumonia and death. Thus, by forcing the snakes to drink the milk we are indirectly killing them on the day of 'Nag-panchami'. The snake has an extremely thin oesophagus and force-fed food may pears the delicate membrane leading to painful deaths. The vermillion and turmeric leave damage snake's eyes and cause other infections as they inhale it. The force feeding of milk to snakes along with the long duration of captivity in unhygienic bamboo baskets and sacs results in deadly health related problems such as injuries of the rostral scales, mouth rots and pneumonia.
Albeit, it is banned under the 1972 Wild life protection act, snake charmers from many places in the country carry different varieties of snakes including venomous and non-venomous. Most of the times they carry Indian spectacled cobra (Naja naja) because of its values and tales as described in the Hindu mythology. The snake charmers suture and tie the skin of upper and lower part of their mouth known as labial scales with cotton or nylon threads that causes deep and life threatening wounds and sometimes use feviquick (glue) to resist them to open their mouth and many times they remove their fangs without which they are unable to kill their prey and dies due to starvation.
Every year forest department seized many snakes from snake charmers during festival of Nagpanchami. But, there is no set protocol of forest department for rescuing and handling of seized snakes. They are seized and bring to the veterinarian for the health assessment before release where the facilities are available. During this time the snakes are kept in the same baskets in which they are seized. The reptiles are often rescued under various stressful conditions such as moderate to severe injuries and dehydration. Several snakes die during this period. However, the practice of health assessment is not followed everywhere and depends more on the awareness of the forest department. Forest department should be provided with awareness workshops and hands on training program on snakes and their handling. The legal and ethical issues must also be taken into consideration while handling the reptiles.
For the welfare and rehabilitation of the reptiles local NGOs, wildlife enthusiasts and forest officials should come together and exchange their knowledge and experiences regarding their rescue, ecology, behaviour and population dynamics. The snakes which are seized from the charmers are usually from different locations and hence they are from different habitats. The forest officers usually release these snakes at a single spot without sorting their species and unknowing their natural habitat. By doing so they are interfering with the microenvironment of the area by disturbing the prey and predator ratio.
One of the study conducted at School of Wildlife Forensic and Health, Nanaji Deshmukh Veterinary Science University, Jabalpur, Madhyapradesh revealed that out of total 460 snakes, the distresses faced during the Nagpanchami included maximum percentages (39.35%) of unscientific handlings, followed by unscientific transportation (36.96%). The external observations in 460 reptiles showed maximum reptiles having broken jaw/ fangs (36.08%) followed by suturing of labials (28.69%), skin abrasion (13.26%) and muscular injury (8.69%).
Table 1: Different kinds of distresses faced by snakes during Nagpanchami
Figure 1: Different kinds of distresses faced by snakes during Nagpanchami
To sum up the present assert snakes are friends, not foes. It is considered as a sacred due to mythological description and it benefits to the farmers. They feed on rats, mice, frogs, small birds, insects, earthworms, and even scorpions and not on milk. There are numerous superstitions and misunderstandings about snakes. All these misunderstandings are need clear through logical and scientific backgrounds by creating awareness amongst people.
1 School of Wildlife Forensic and Health, Nanaji Deshmukh Veterinary Science University, Jabalpur, Madhyapradesh
2 Maharashtra Animal and Fishery Science University, Nagpur, Maharashtra.