2010 Update: This year there were no incidents of cobras being brought into the city for the Nagulachavithi festival. It was a gradual but definite transformation from previous years of cruel catching, trapping, stitching of the mouth, and water deprivation for 10 to 15 days prior to the festival date. Almost all cobras die after this ordeal. It took us six years, but we're now in the 3rd year of zero cobras being used during the festival. It required a lot of awareness education and media publicity, coupled with raids with the Forest Department.
Today the devotes pray in a makeshift snake resting place to an artificial image. Long live the Cobra!!!
Pradeep Nath writes:
Diwali is a very festive time in India. Two or three weeks afterwards we have the Nagala Chauvathi festival. Devotees worship the cobra during this time for health, wealth and general auspiciousness. All Hindus are required to perform these pujas.
But I always found it curious and very disturbing at the way the cobras were being treated in the name of religion.
A stitched mouth of the Cobra being displayed on the occasion of "Nagachaviti" festival.
Ignorant devotees, not knowing of the sad consequences to the snake, gather in large numbers and pour milk on them, rub vermilion on their head, light firecrackers in front of them and offer incense sticks to the hapless snakes. At the end of this the snake just dies of suffocation and exhaustion and the snake charmers remove the skin for further sale. Those snakes that are still alive are killed or throw away ill and injured into the nearby bushes and forests.
This all goes hand in hand with the tribal people living near the edge of the forest whose livelihood depends on supplying snakes for entertainment and religious occasions. Specifically there is a tribe nicknamed "Snake People" who reside 40 kms. from Visakhapaatnam.
But these are all illegal activities violating the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Indian Wildlife Act wherein the cobras are placed on Schedule I of the Act which gives should very high protection to them!
Once I became aware that these actions could be stopped I took action through two ways: religious education and legal means. Since 1996 when our animal shelter officially began I studied the situation and tried to understand all the surrounding circumstances and customs.
The next few years I started approaching The Forest Department educating them of these events and their illegalities. They had to oblige with field staff and a vehicle. In those early days our animal shelter had no vehicle of our own.
We worked hard to convince the media and the public. We were almost beaten up during these years by the ignorant devotees who didn't realize we had the best interest of animal welfare and the law at heart. However due to the help of the supportive media we were able to prove the sad endings of the very snakes they were worshipping. Our awareness campaign through press releases finally worked in creating public awareness!
The dramatic turnaround happened in 2002 when not a single tragic incident of snake abuse occurred in the city and has continued until this day. It is wonderfully astonishing to observe the definite change among the devotees who were so hostile just two years ago. It took us nearly four years to convince them that the cobras were actually dying after their prayers.
Now the same people were seen bringing in toy snakes, setting up of snake-like images with clay and sand (picture above) and digging of artificial holes. In the "snake pits", the holes they have dug, they put in huge chicken eggs offered by the devotees and pour milk over everything. Afterwards, the snake charmers collect the eggs and sell them as holy offerings. It is a good revenue for them and they cannot say that they have lost their income because they are not using snakes anymore. We felt that they were also happy that their income from this festival was now easier than before when they had to hunt for the snakes--keeping them confined in baskets for days--removing their fangs, stitching their mouths (picture at right) even though there is no question of feeding them in that cruel way.
Our new Conservator of Forest, Mr.Padmanabham was also happy at the outcome although we did the vigil all alone this year without any of the enforcing authorities. The entire city wore a festive look in what we felt was an auspicious and humane direction.
Visakhapatnam is now devoid of these merciless practices but now we have to expand to the rural and surrounding areas. What is still happening is that the snakecharmers catch the cobras nearly ten days before the festival; remove the fangs with primitive methods and then stitch up their mouths and leave them in small baskets without any food.
On the occasion during this three hours hectic ordeal the snakes can barely move and are almost dehydrated. Most of the 228 snakes that we rescued during these many raids had severe mouth swellings and ulcerations and had to be laboriously hand fed. For the best treatment we handed them over to the zoo but we do not know the ultimate fate in the longrun because after release it is doubtful all could go back to their habitat and lead the same life as they did before they were captured and disabled.
Regardless we are very happy about the gains we have made so far and wish to continue in the same spirit. This was our the second triumph in turning cruel religious acts towards nonharming and peaceful worship. The first was when we stopped the sea turtle slaughter. May we find for the all the other suffering animals such practical solutions.