Years ago, when strolling along a hillside in the Nilgiris I was stunned to see an unusual sight.
I saw a countless number of scattered snake skins cast off by snakes during moulting.The skins were of varying lengths and in various stages from freshly sloughed to decomposing ones. Why had the snakes chosen this place for sloughing? Were there many in this region? Where were they now? Had they died? Questions kept arising.
The extensive grassy slopes were bereft of trees. Faraway, stood an old mango tree infested with huge columns of termite tracks
.I got no answers or clues to my questions, yet this scene remained indelibly etched in my memory. It was only much later that I was to learn that snakes become inactive preceding moulting and turn energetic soon after casting off their skins which can occur even three times a year.
When I was in 3rd standard , my classmate died of snakebite, His lifeless drained face is still vivid in my memory. The child in me took it for granted that a snake bite means sure death.
I was not even aware that my grandfather whom we called “murukkunna atha” had vast knowledge about curing snake bites. Although he was an expert practitioner of traditional medicine as a vaidyar, he had a job with the police and did not take this up as a profession even after retirement. I has only heard about snakes, but had no personal encounters with snakes other than having seen water snakes rapidly gliding through slushy ponds or fields.
Once on a holiday at grandfathers place, I had occasion to witness him treating a child victim of snake bite. I was horrified as I remembered my dead classmate and many questions lumped up my throat-Which snake bit this girl? Why did it bite? Would she die? I followed my grandfather with such queries. He gave me only brief answers saying that a churatta (saw scaled viper) had bitten her and he said it was not bad. But I was not at rest. I had only heard that snakes live in fields or in stony crevices in rocks and walls. “Can you show me a churatta?” I asked grandpa..
One afternoon he beckoned me to the eastern side of the house and pointed out a churatta which was lazily basking in the sun. I almost thought that grandpa had been able to summon this snake just to show me and I craved to learn more. My pleadings to learn more did not have much effect and he was in no hurry to transfer his knowledge to me.. He would repeatedly say –“Complete class 10 studies” I was to learn later that there were many reasons for his saying so. Firstly, people’s disenchantment with ayurveda because of the rise of modern medicine: Secondly, the total disinclication of his own five children towards learning this traditional skill: Thirdly, his determination to impart this only to dedicated individuals who would not use it for commercial benefits. Anyway, lots of people came to him and most victims were either farmers or those who lived on forest produce.
Often the victims never got to see the snakes. Only after they felt the symptoms of poisoning, they came in search of treatments from my grandfather. Slowly I started helping grandpa to pluck the herbs, grind it and watch the reactions of the patients. A snake bite victim would not be allowed to sleep in the night and had to be kept engaged in talk. Medicine had to be administered at intervals and reactions monitored. Grandpa was 80 years old and I would offer to keep a watch over the patient and let grandpa sleep. Even when he woke up early to take charge, I would continue to observe him examining the patient. Slowly, I came to understand how to identify, by examining the bite, the kind of snake which would have bitten the patient and what treatment was needed.
By touching the area of the bite, I began to understand the flow of the poison as it would stimulate a kind of electric current in me. Even when I prepared the medicine, he would cover the little pot with a betel leaf and chant mantras to increase the potency of the medicine and again chant mantras while washing the wound and he could predict how long it might take to counter the poison. Some of these mantras frightened me and I wondered if I too would have to learn these for treating victims.
Murukkunnaatha would say “ Without mantras, treatment is of no use, child. Medicine can only cure the disease, but to ward off ill luck, we need mantras” Grandpa’s ancestors belonged to a Hindu family, but during Tipu’s military attack they adopted Islam for survival. They were hanafis who spoke Tamil and subsequently came to be called “Rowthers”
With the background of Rowther culture, he did not ignore Hindu culture even with having Islam as his adopted religion. He also selectively performed idol worship.and recited Hindu mantras in Tamil. Some prayers were also Islamic I learnt and recited some, but the content puzzled me often, particularly those addressed to evil spirits.
Mantras formed an important part of the treatment, more for the psychological aspect. Basically, human fear of serpents is as strong as the fear of nature’s fury. In many ancient cultures, there have been snake cults.Some have even raised snakes to the level of devatas-all out of pure fear. The belief that the wrath of the snake (sarpakopam) is the reason for snake bite is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. Therefore the belief was that mantras and medicine both are needed to treat the poison. While the medicine would be the actual antidote to neutralize the poison, the mantras recited while administering the treatment helped to alleviate the fear. Although snakes never bite unless physically provoked, still the belief in sarpakopa has left many questions unanswered in my mind. This is due to an experience I had of treating a nineteen year old woman who got bitten five times in one year. Even while she had hardly recovered from one bite, she got bitten a second time. In another case, a girl who got bitten by an “anali” on the right leg and returned after treatment soon came back , having been bitten a second time on her left leg. There seems to be no explanations for such coincidences.
A lot of superstitions persist about snake bites, for example, snakes bite non- vegetarians more frequently. A newspaper even carried a story of a man getting bitten by a snake every time he consumed chicken. A lot of myths are associated with snakes. Some think that killing snakes confers great courage on them. Therefore some torture snakes to attain the status of a hero. Yet, when stricken with skin diseases or when people are unable to bear children, they attribute it to ‘sarpakopam’ towards the family. So these very tales of valour turn into tales of sins! However, a snake has neither the capacity to curse nor keep in its memory a revenge to be taken. All that it can do is to look for food and rest, but if provoked, it may also bite in self defence. Many also attribute magical powers to snakes that it can appear and disappear at will. Its slithery appearance probably evokes fear. Yet, bites from other creatures like scorpions, Centipede and spiders and rats can also be poisonous, though they are not feared because there are no mysterious tales associated with them. Infact, treatment of spider bite can be more prolonged and challenging than that of snakes.
Some think that biting back the snake helps rid the poison. Some recommend biting a wooden stick. All this may be to reduce stress. Others recommend torching the area of bite to neutralize the venom. All these are wrong as it‘d need 30 minutes of heating at 73 degrees Celsius to neutralize venom. Infact, heating the body part may help faster dissemination of poison.
It is also thought by some Ayurvedic practitioners that drinking urine will slow down the spread of venom. . It is yet to be established by research if it is a good first aid measure.
Inability to pass urine is also considered as a sign of venomous bite But the truth is that kidneys continue to function normally until poison penetrates deep within, by which the sense of touch and vision gets affected One way of diagnosis is also to make the victim eat peppercorns to guess from the aftertaste which kind of snake bit the victim. But yet, many myths persist about instant deaths from snakebites. I believe that stress and fear plays more havoc than the venom!
In olden days, practitioners also believed in ‘Doothalakshanam’- that is the direction and time and manner of the arrival of the messenger as related to treatment. Some would not agree to treat a victim who suffers a bite in a crematorium or at a rocky terrain. Some refuse to treat snakebite suffered during eclipse. Three years ago, I had occasion to treat a victim of snakebite during eclipse. The victim’s wife out of fear was on the verge of fainting which made me feel that perhaps it was she who was bitten !Though the eclipse was not over, it did not deter me from treating the patient immediately and successfully.
Surprisingly,the herbal medicines used in the treatment of venom are also toxic in nature. These include Garudakodi(Aristolochia indica), Thazhudama(Boerhavia Indica), Erukku (Calotropis), Chittamrutu( Tinospora Cordifolia), Vaaga(Albizia Lebbeck), Ummam (Datura), Mentoni (Gloriosa Superba), Kanjiram(Strychnos Nux Vomica) Neelamari (Indigo), Cherucheera (a kind of amaranth)
Again, surprisingly the sarpagandhi (serpentine) is not used for treatment at all. Nature has also granted life to poisonous animals and provided venom as their survival tool. Alongside nature has been compassionate enough to give us antidotes for poisonous bites in the form of medicinal plants.
A female Practitioner?
Traditionally this has been a male bastion and when as a girl I wished to learn and started learning, why didn’t my grandpa express any disapproval amazes me. Was it his affection or was it my determination.? After his death, when I began practice, friends, relatives and even those seeking treatment would often quiz me about how I would get married and whether I was a sanyasini or a mantravadini? Would I stop this after marriage? Would it be inviting a curse for me and my family?
It was often thought that Death is a law of nature. Serpent bite being the cause of death, obviously, God made serpents poisonous to inflict death on man. If any vaidya treated a victim of this snake poison, they were acting against Natural law and therefore deserved to be punished. It was believed that they would suffer through calamities like death of their cattle or death in family by lightning, drowning or fire. This deterred a lot of people from practicing this skill .At times such questions confused me , but I took comfort in the fact that if men could practice this without restriction for marriage, then why could I not?
Questions continue to persist. Some have asked sarcastic questions like who would I teach this skill to continue the tradition I inherited.
But then why should I really worry about it when my grandpa “Murukkunatha” did not?