Nag Panchami not just about snake worship, but subjecting the object of veneration to needless agony, death

Why am I distressed about a festival in Karnataka, where 20 foxes are mutilated and killed annually, when a far greater atrocity takes place each year in Maharashtra and its surrounding areas – an orgy of killing thousands of innocent creatures in the name of religion? No, I am not talking about Bakr Id... I am talking about Nag Panchami.

On Nag Panchami, the fifth day of the lunar month of Shravana (July/August) the snake god is worshipped. Snake charmers display cobras for worship and collect money and offerings of food. Housewives bring out diluted, raw milk, the snakes' mouths are forced open and a few drops of milk or lassi are poured in. Each snake is smeared with gulal. Then they move to the next house, where they are again 'worshipped'.

In Maharashtra, the trapping of snakes begins up to a month before Nag Panchami. Thousands of burrows are dug up and snakes are pulled out with sticks and put into earthenware pots, which are then hung for weeks on tree branches. One in four dies during the extraction and keeping, while the venomous snakes have their fangs pulled out.

Sixty to seventy thousand snakes die each year on Nag Panchami. Reuters

Sixty to seventy thousand snakes die each year on Nag Panchami. Reuters

Considering the fact that poison organs in snakes are not just meant for self-defence, but rather to speed up the digestive process (snakes have no teeth, so they need other digestive help), they are left with very little time to live once their fangs are pulled out (so far no one has been able to keep poisonous snakes – that have been deprived surgically of their venom – alive for any length of time).

On the day of worship, these pots are loaded on bullock carts and taken through towns and villages. The snakes are fondled constantly. Since most of them are harmless, young louts drape them like garlands around their necks and dance to show how brave they are. Competitions take place on who can hold a snake aloft and straightened out the longest. That the snake suffers unimaginable agony during these games is not important. The snakes are brought out at temples, and sticks are used to curb them. In the evening, the snakes are released. They slither away, hurt, wounded and in every scenario, they end up dying.

Sixty to seventy thousand snakes die each year on Nag Panchami – several thousand die during the trapping; many die because they are handled roughly during the games, and most die due to the fact that snakes are allergic to milk. The milk forced down their open gullets finds its way to their lungs. They die of choking, of pneumonia for the milk is cold, and of lung infection.

The snake has an extremely thin oesophagus. Even in the best managed zoos, snakes that are force-fed die painful deaths, because food being shoved through the mouth pierces this delicate membrane. No snake survives milk. Some are sold after the ceremonies to skin dealers.

It seems strange that a festival, to venerate a creature so useful to us, should result in its mass slaughter after prolonged torture.

A snake is a timid, defenceless, vulnerable animal, hiding from its enemies all its life. No snake will deliberately attack a human unless provoked. Even then, its main defence is raising its hood, or vomiting to frighten. Other than that defence, it has nothing. Elaborate stories have found their way into folklore of snakes chasing humans. In reality, even a female King Cobra, guarding her nest, seeks to escape when encountered.

Unless injured or cornered deliberately, the instinct of all snakes is to get away. There are very few serious snake bites. The book, Wild India, gives the comparative figures: "For example, it was reported that whereas only four people in Mumbai were hospitalised for snake bites in a year, no fewer than 20,000 were admitted with serious rat bites, most of them children bitten while sleeping."

The Vedas contain hymns revering the snake. It forms a strong part of the Hindu religion – the garland of Shiva, the protector of Balarama, the bed of Vishnu, the girdle of Ganesh, the sacred thread of the Brahmin, the upholder of the Earth. Krishna’s brother Balarama is considered a snake chieftain. Manasa, the snake goddess, is one of the main deities of Bengal.

This year, when Nag Panchami comes around, celebrate the existence of the snake by distributing food at the temples. Don’t let the man with the live snake come near your house. If you know people who, out of a genuine spirit of worship, feed milk to the snake, explain the consequences to them. It is useless worship if the object of your veneration is subjected to needless agony and death.

Also remember that the snake charmer is breaking the law. Under the Wildlife Protection Act, he is not allowed to use any wild animal for ritual, worship or amusement; and this is all three. Please study the Act so that you can have the man arrested if you are really concerned.

Also, I would like the administration/government of Maharashtra to bring out advertisements, starting April, on the harmfulness and illegality of this ritual. Certainly, if you see the photograph of any politician taking part, send it to me and we shall prosecute him under the Act.

Snakes are friends, not foes. There are 237 sub-species of snakes in India. Nearly all are not only harmless but actually beneficial to man in controlling the vast rodent population. Without snakes, mongooses and owls, India might not be able to feed itself. Rats consume tons of grain stored in bins in villages and towns. Though the export of snake skins – which had reached 10 million a year by 1968 – has been banned, an enormous amount of smuggling, close to nearly half that amount, still continues.

Snakes feed on rats, mice, frogs and small birds; smaller ones prey on insects, earthworms, and even scorpions. The big snakes are endangered because of the cutting down of evergreen forests for coffee and tea plantations. However, other snakes have proliferated in rat-infested areas like paddy fields. Skin dealers catch them there, aggravating India’s food problem as rats continue to chew their way through half of the country’s rice production. Each skin handbag or shoe has cost the country dearly in terms of food.

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Updated Date: Feb 06, 2017 15:32:24 IST

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