NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
Snakes abound everywhere throughout India; and it will be difficult, or impossible, in such a wide territory and with such large areas of forest, hill, and jungle, ever wholly to eradicate them; though they have numerous enemies, birds, mangooses, monkeys, wild pigs, as well as mankind. Though generally small creatures, these reptiles compel the notice of man, for a very little one may by its bite cause death within an hour or two. The monstrous pythons in the hills, some thirteen or more feet in length, are not venemous, while the deadly cobra rarely exceeds three or four feet in length.
The great abundance of snakes may be gathered from the fact that in Burdwan district a dozen years ago above Rs. 30,000 were paid in a short time for the destruction of poisonous snakes, though only two annas were paid for each head; and in 1880 in the Bombay Presidency 177,078 snakes were destroyed, as many municipalities there have begun to offer rewards for their destruction.
It is difficult to realize the melancholy fact that 20,000 human lives and over 50,000 head of cattle are yearly lost in India through the ravages of wild beasts and snakes; by far the greater proportion of the loss of human life being caused by serpents, while cattle are more frequently carried off by wild beasts. These odious reptiles kill about 17,000 persons annually throughout India; while, on the other side of the account, about 200,000 snakes are killed.
The number of deaths reported is, doubtless, far short of the actual truth, as many parts of the country are beyond the minute observation of Europeans and officials. The Governor-General in Council has recently urged increased attention to the subject to diminish this grievous and augmenting, but preventible mortality.
Although no statistics of deaths by snake bite have ever been published in the Travancore Government reports, there is no reason to suppose that deaths are fewer in proportion than in other parts of India; and I know from painful experience that such deaths frequently occur.
The whole country is full of cobras, and I have known many deaths, and still more narrow escapes — snakes falling on the shoulders or hands when doors or windows are opened; snakes winding round the leg of the chair on which one is sitting; snakes found under the bed or the floor mat, in bedrooms and verandahs, or darting out when houses long closed are opened; not to speak of laying the hand unwittingly on one coiled up on the bough of a tree, another gliding over me while resting on the floor of a chapel, and a lady gathering flowers for a bouquet actually seizing and clipping off the head of a snake along with an opening rosebud, besides all kinds of risks in travelling, bathing, gardening, or botanizing in the jungles. The good providence of God and his constant guardian care over our lives is ever needed.
It is no wonder, then, that the serpent should be regarded with dread, and that this dread should assume a religious aspect. The endeavour is ignorantly made to pacify the serpent by worshipping it as a deity, instead of using the appropriate means, and following the example of the Jews, who said in their time of need, “Pray unto the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” Most nations of antiquity appear to have rendered divine homage to serpents.
The serpent is mixed up with all the superstitions, mythology, and traditions of India. Various places are named after it, as Nagore, Negapatam, Nagercoil, Nagpore. The last-named place is said by Sir W. Elliott to be called after the Nags, a race of Scythian lineage, who invaded India about 600 B.C., and had the figure of a snake as their national emblem and standard.
Certain demigods are fabled to exist, called Nagas, having a human face with the tail of a serpent, and the expanded neck of a cobra. The king of the serpent race, Ananta, is described as superior in wisdom and intelligence, having one thousand heads, on one of which he supports the world. He is reputed as forming both the couch and canopy of Vishnu, and is venerated in various parts of India. Snake worshippers expect after death to go to a heaven called Nagaxxxx. where many snakes live, and are happy.
Siva wears a snake as an ornament in the hair of his head; and the same creature is worn as a ring by his wife. Legends are told of the gods churning the sea to recover the elixir of immortality, with a great mountain for a churning stick, and the five-headed serpent Ananta for a rope, the poison issuing from whose mouth was drunk up by Siva, and made his neck blue. He is hence called Neelakandan, a favourite name in Travancore.
Natives are careful not to speak disrespectfully of such powerful creatures: as the Malayalies of the Shervaroy Hills while hunting the tiger only speak of it as a dog — so the cobra is called nalla tamburan “the good lord,” or nalla pambu “the good snake.”
Serpent worship is closely connected with demon worship, and the figure is frequently carved on their shrines. Images of the serpent god are very common. In the Fort at Trevandrum about fifty of these images stand together under the shade of a noble banyan-tree. Idol gods are often surrounded by numerous figures of serpents and elephants.
The origin of this cultus in Malabar is stated as follows in the Keralolpatti :— The first Brahman colonists brought by Parasu Rama did not long remain, because they were unable to bear the incessant attacks of serpents which infested the country. After they left Kerala, it was for some time under the undisturbed control of the serpents. Other Brahmans were then brought by Parasu Rama; their kudumi was removed from the back to the front of the head to prevent their returning to their former home and people. Dividing them into sixty-four villages, he granted to them freehold lands in various parts of the country; and a portion of the Brahmans’ estates he allotted to the serpents who had injured them before, ordering the Brahmans to regard these as their demigods, and to present offerings to them.
The serpents were thus pacified. Parasu Rama established the goddess Durga on the sea-coast, Sastavu on the hills, and serpents and Boothas (demons) in the interior, and dedicated temples to all. Hearing of the pleasant and peaceful settlement of things in Kerala, the Brahmans who had fled from the serpents returned, and became the Tulu Brahmans, distinct from the “Sixty-four Villagers.”
The snake is to this day an object of worship to the Namburi Brahmans. It is also prominent in the image of Patmanabhan, or Vishnu, and in the legend of his fane in Trevandrum, which is properly Tiru-ananta-puram “the city of the serpent Ananta.” One form of the legend is given in “Land of Charity,” p. 161 : another version states that Rama and his brother appeared at Ananta Kadu to a priest, who prepared food for them. After eating, Rama fell asleep, and Latchmana, finding no mat or pillow for his brother’s comfort, kindly changed himself into a large five-headed snake, and made Rama sleep on this.
It is singular, however, that the killing of the black serpent Kaliya was one of the most momentous of Krishna’s exploits, frequently represented in sculpture, a fine example of which may be seen in the temple at Tenkasi in Tinnevelly, The story is given by Maurice* thus : —
“The monster’s infectious breath had poisoned the whole current of the Jumna. The great envenomed serpent Kali naga thus determined to try his strength with Krishna. Cattle and men died as soon as they drank. Krishna restored them to life, combated with the serpent, which aimed at once a thousand bites with his thousand heads, and twisted his folds round Krishna’s body. He at length took hold of the serpent’s heads, one after another, and tearing them from his body, set his foot on them, and began to dance in triumph on each of them.”
Some figures are said also to show the reptile biting his foot.
Snake worship is especially common in the west and south of India. Throughout the whole of Travancore this strange and degrading superstition prevails. Silver representations of Vishnu trampling under foot a snake are kept by Brahmans in their houses and worshipped in private.** But the worship is practised chiefly by Sudras, Brahmans of an inferior order officiating as their priests. When Sudras find a snake, they catch it by a cord with a noose tied to the end of a long rod, place it carefully in an earthen pot, and bring it to the place of worship, or let it loose in the jungles.
Should they find others killing these precious reptiles, they earnestly beg for their protection, or lavish abuse on the persons who have committed the sacrilegious act. Offerings of fruits, cakes, flour, milk, or rice are made to the snake god, and once a year a lamp is kept burning before it.
Live snakes are kept in small temples dedicated to them, and fed and worshipped by the people. Sometimes wealthy Nayars spend much money in this worship, even in cases where members of their own families have been bitten and died.
Snakes were formerly used in the trial by ordeal. “When a man will not confess a crime, they take a mantle and wrap up in it one of these reptiles : after calling on the gods, the accused must thrust his hand into the mantle and lift up the snake. If he be bitten, he is considered guilty. To such an extent do the Canarese carry the superstition, that whenever they find a dead cobra they consider themselves bound to burn its body with a small piece of sandalwood, a grain of gold dust, corals, &c., using the same ceremonies as at the burning of the body of one of the high castes.”(Canter Visscher.)
Some of the priests and temples profess to be able to grant special immunity from snakebite, or miraculous cures; and the ignorant credulity of the people, as well as the uncertainty, after a snake has escaped, whether it was venomous or innocuous, aids in maintaining the imposition. Incantations are sometimes performed by the charmers to the loss of the life of the unfortunate patient. Sacred ashes are kept in the pagoda of Perunturi Koilappan, or Siva, at Vaikkam, a dose of which is administered in case of snakebite.
Nagercoil (snake-temple) is one of the centres of this worship, near Cape Comorin. The principal image of Naga Amman, or “the Snake Mother,” of copper-gilt, and in the form of a serpent, is carried in procession in a car, like other idols, once a year. Inside the temple and without, are numerous stone images of snakes. People assemble on Sundays and other special days from many quarters, bringing milk, sugar, and cocoanuts to worship the serpent goddess. The priests keep up the report that within a circuit of a mile from the temple no snakebite will be mortal; and daily some sand from the sea-shore is distributed from the temple as a charm or protection. Live snakes also are said to be kept there for purposes of worship.
Perhaps the principal seat of this superstition in Travancore is at Manarchala in Kartigapalli district, which I visited in 1880. All that country is devoted to serpent worship. At a distance we heard extraordinary tales of this place, even from intelligent natives — that there was a vast grove, in which was a kind of cave where snakes were kept in large numbers — the priestess, a Namburi virgin devoted to this service, who cannot leave the grove, and is fed by her mother carrying food to her — no one else dare approach the reptiles — she becomes very beautiful and shining in appearance, and lives to a great age — milk is put in a tub and offered to the serpents at evening, and has all been drunk up by the morning !
A very different state of things was found on a personal visit. Situated in a fine rich country, dotted with comfortable houses of Nayars and Syrians, and many domestic groves, so that it is a common saying that each Hindu house has one, the temple is readily approached by boat, as water-ways abound. The place steadily shrunk in importance as we approached it. Instead of a grove miles in extent, there was a fine clump certainly, containing noble specimens of Hopea, Vateria, Hydnocarpus, and Calophyllum trees, but only, say a hundred and fifty yards in diameter, besides another grove much smaller. Instead of a sacred virgin of resplendent beauty, we found Nambiar or Ilayathu priests, a low class of Brahmans living with Sudra concubines.
The priests have a good tiled dwelling-house, adorned with excellent wood carvings and brass decorations, provided with a vegetable and fruit garden, and a neat courtyard, in the centre of which stands a small group of trees — Tamarind, Palmyra, and Poinciana — having a circular platform built round the stems, as is common in the vicinity of temples. On the other side of the road stood a neat little cottage, where their wives resided. Several small buildings, consisting of a house for purificatory ablutions, the principal temple, and lesser fanes dedicated respectively to the snake king and the snake goddess, in which the large images are kept, stood in the centre of the grove.
These are surrounded by a long wall, and on two sides of the temple projects a square platform of stone, raised about a yard above the ground, as a stand for the display of the stone images of the snake, which are ranged along the outer edge of the platform, and number nearly a thousand in all. The images are of several kinds, most of them about a foot in height, but some very small, many of them copies of the usual representation of the serpent; others having three or five heads, others Krishna, or Siva, or the Siva lingam, engraved within the hood.
These figures have been presented from time to time by devotees or persons exposed to danger from snakes. In such cases offerings are made at this shrine. While we were there, some one brought an offering of raw rice, and laid it on the platform. We could see no live snakes, and, of course, could not be allowed to enter either the grove or the temple.
The annual festival is held in September, on Ayilliam day, auspicious for serpent worship, and is attended by all castes. Wealthy people usually offer two or three rupees; the poorer classes a quarter or half a rupee. Some Hindus in time of sickness present golden jewels and five-headed serpents to this temple and grove. Pulayars also come to make presents, but are kept standing at a great distance, whence they must send their gifts. They are told that if they do not propitiate the serpents, they shall suffer from them, and that they must not attempt to kill snakes, else they will be afflicted with leprosy as a punishment. Thus the priests, the more intelligent and influential order, for their own purposes, actually terrify and hinder the poor and uninstructed from protecting themselves.
This worship is a source of much profit to the priests, who pretend that no one bitten within the distance of a mile from the place dies. They showed a Sudra who had been bitten, but he admitted that the accident occurred at night, and that he could not, therefore, be certain that it was caused by a cobra. In conversation the priest justified this cult from the Keralolpatti, according to the legend given above. A Namburi in the neighbourhood is applied to by any who have suffered from snakes, and he gives them a stone repeating mantrams over it, and promising that if it be kept in their houses they shall not be molested in future.
Superstitious natives are unwilling to kill snakes, believing that revenge will be taken upon them for the offence. In the Tamil country the curse of the cobra is supposed to be inflicted on a person for killing it, and this is supposed to prevent off-spring. A five-headed cobra is made and worshipped to expiate the sin of killing it by a person or his ancestors. In North Travancore, Syrian Christians kill snakes when they come in their way, but other classes do not. In Trevandrum, while a colporteur was reading to some people, a serpent passed by him into the courtyard. He wished to kill it, but was forbidden. “It is our god,”they said.
Dr. Doran, of Cottayam, mentions that he met with a family in the Cochin country who made a household god of a cobra. It dwelt on the premises where they resided, and was served with daily offerings of food by each member of the family; while, at the same time, its power as a divinity was regarded with uncommon awe. It happened that one day a native girl, one of the children of the family, about ten years of age, was bitten by it, and Dr. Doran, in the course of his visits to the people, approached the dwelling just as she had breathed her last.
On hearing the cause of the poor child’s death, he asked them if they had killed the snake, and he relates that never will he forget the expression of countenance of the child’s mother when she replied : “Sir, if we were to kill the cobra, which is still about the house, all the other members of the family would die likewise.”
When the serpent gods are supposed to be offended in any way, domestic or local festivals may be held to propitiate them. At Vakkam, near Anjengo, such a festival was conducted in a private garden, of which the following account was given : —
“In former days there was a grove in this place, where the Serpent King resided. An inhabitant cut down the grove, and built houses instead, for which he was cursed by the offended god. Most of his family died, and those who survived were reduced to poverty. To remove the curse, an astrologer, who was consulted, advised the celebration of a festival in honour of the god, and at an expenditure of no less than a thousand fanams.”
Not long since, at Warkkala, several members of a family of Ilavars having been attacked, one after another, with leprosy, they had recourse to witchcraft to find out the cause of the calamity. The sorcerer advised them that they had failed to pay due homage to Naga Raja the serpent king, and should erect a domicile for him to reside in, and make special offerings to pacify his wrath. A large quantity of rice, cocoanuts, and other provisions was offered; and a number of Kuravars were invited to feast upon these, after going through some ceremonies.
In a lecture on Travancore by Sir Madava Row, the subject is treated in a rather humorous manner. He says : —
“Though people die from their venomous bites, serpents are worshipped as a living deity. Respectable natives deem it a duty to set apart a cool patch in their gardens for the comfortable residence of snakes. Occasionally they creep out, and get out into the house itself, just by way of a little change. He had seen many title-deeds in which the snakes of the estate are conveyed along with other rights to the purchaser. It is reserved to the rising generation of Travancore lawyers to determine whether the snakes constitute movable or immovable property. Cobras wander about freely, and in broad day-light, in certain of the famous Pagodas.
"There is a temple dedicated to Krishna, which is peculiarly sacred to cobras. Every time he visited the temple he was greeted by one or more of these reptiles. Once he saw a huge cobra quietly passing a few yards off, followed by a band of devotees with clasped hands. Suddenly it turned, and began to wriggle on towards the speaker, who instantly recollected that he had some urgent business elsewhere, and hurriedly left the sacred precincts ! “
In parts of the country where these dangerous reptiles are regarded with most veneration, it is possible that the danger to human life arising from the great abundance of snakes is slightly diminished by the comparative tameness of the creatures, though of course this would not lessen the risk from inadvertently treading on them in the dark, or turning over them in sleep, and thus forcing them to bite.
Serpents, happily, do not chase men, or seek to attack them, but rather try to escape; they only bite when trodden upon or driven to bay. No doubt they are more familiar, and even audacious, where the poor superstitious people fear to drive them away or annoy them, but only throw a piece of stick or clap their hands, crying Po, ada “Go, you fellow“; and it usually goes off. But it is quite an error to say that they never do injury, for a recent instance occurred of a Namburi Brahman dying at Ambalapuley of snakebite.
A serious practical difficulty, involving many human lives and the interests of many families, arises out of this miserable superstition in the reluctance of most Hindus to kill snakes, and of the Sirkar to offer rewards for their destruction. It is very remarkable that no reference is made in any State Administration Report to the number of deaths by snakebite, except to the few cases who survive long enough, and reside sufficiently near, to be brought to the hospitals, and thus included in the reports of the European physician.
There might be some difficulty in collecting full and reliable statistics of all deaths from this cause in the more distant and hilly parts of the country, but no attempt at a separate enumeration of this class of accidents is made, and one cannot but fear that it is the superstition alone which leads the authorities to dread looking the facts in the face.
The contrast between British India and Travancore as regards the offer of rewards for the destruction of venomous serpents is very marked, and is often referred to by those who take an interest in the subject. In a little corner of the territory, Tangacherry, which belongs to the British, two annas are paid per head; and in the Cantonment of Quilon, considerate British officers frequently offer rewards and take a great interest in the protection of the lives of their people; while in Travancore nothing of this kind is ever done.
The missionaries endeavour to help in a good cause by offering small rewards, but, from the scanty means at their disposal, their efforts are scarcely worth mentioning in view of the importance of the whole subject.
It is most distressing to think of such trifling with the lives of men under the cover of religious prejudice. “Akimsa paramo dharmmah’ “Not killing “— the first law of Buddhism — “is the highest charity,” has been adopted as the official motto of the Cochin State; but charity to the snake is death to the poor man and his children. It is often said that there is something good in every religion; but it is extremely difficult to see any good whatever in the serpent cultus. A cruel selfishness and apathy must probably bear a part of the blame. Each one thinks that himself will escape, and cares little for others, so that men will often not take the trouble to remove a dangerous stone out of the road, much less to destroy a dangerous reptile.
To Europeans the risk is practically almost nil; I have never known a death amongst them from snakebite. The few wealthy natives, also, who have conveyances, servants, lamps, and other conveniences, and are able to exercise caution, are proportionately less exposed to danger. The peril increases in proportion to the poverty and rough work, the thoughtlessness and exposure of the people.
Yet the lives of the poor and labouring classes are not without their value to the State by their money earnings and production, not to speak of the value of their lives to themselves and those dependent upon them. And even the highest are not quite exempt from this danger; it threatens every household; nowhere is there absolute security. Serpents most infest the fields, woods, and waste places, to procure their prey of small animals; but they also get into houses and towns, haunting holes in the gardens, or the roofs and purlieus of dwellings, whence they dart out and kill people.
Cases of snakebite usually, in fact, occur near habitations; for while twenty times as many more cattle than persons are killed by tigers and other wild beasts, snakes kill many more human beings than cattle. The greater proportion of casualties occur in the night time, and more than half of these during sleep. The reptile creeps near the sleeper for warmth, or in its quest for prey — he turns in his sleep, or throws out a hand or foot, and is bitten. Death takes place after great suffering in from two to twelve hours. It is rare that cases of mortal bite reach the hospitals; and there seems to be no specific yet discovered for the poison of the cobra.
We look to the spread of enlightenment and true religion to abolish the superstitious veneration of the serpent, and the havoc and miseries thence arising. The Sirkar might, however, very well adopt immediate measures to encourage Christians, Muhammadans, and others, to join together in exterminating these hateful and noxious reptiles, and so reduce the present melancholy loss of life.