Sunday, August 10, 2008

In praise of the Cobra

To a Goan the word Cobra or Nag in a conversation instantaneously draws a response which varies amongst people right from fascination and awe for this reptile to veneration and respect granted to it not only by Hindu mythology and religion, but the Goan Society at large. The Cobra, although venomous in nature, is loved, revered and respected by all in our state and beyond.
While 3 subspecies of the Cobra are found in India- that is, the spectacled cobra, the monocled cobra and the black cobra, we in Goa come across the widely distributed Indian spectacled or Binocellete Cobra (Naja naja) and are locally known as Nag, Parro, Pandhro, Sorop, Vodhlo, Motelo, etc. in local vernacular language.
Distinguished unmistakably for its unique ability to raise the anterior quarter of the body together with the spreading of the ribs in the neck region into a well described hood to display those exquisite markings, when exited or disturbed, it is perhaps this quality of the Cobra which has been the source of the fascination and reverence for ages together.
We, Goans, by large do not venture out purposefully to attack or kill a Cobra as the belief of Zagekar (territorial Cobra) is firmly rooted in Goan society and almost every neighborhood has a Cobra and a special place or tree dedicated to the species, which is often worshiped and given respect especially in the villages and hinterlands.
And while Goans firmly believe in the majesty of this snake, there exist traditions in the Talukas of Sattari, Sangeuem, Quepem, Canacona etc. where the Cobra is venerated with great respect as one of the folk deities, the Goddesses Brahmani Maya is depicted holding 2 hooded Cobras which serve as her weapons and flank her on both the sides. Similarly the guardian spirit deity of Vetal has a hooded cobra on his headgear, which is why the cobra is offered a sacred seat in the temple worship system. And many villages like Coppaddem in Sattari are known for their strict laws pertaining to the protection of the Cobra, other villages like Vaddem and Netravali in Sanguem believe of the ability of the cobra to be in the disguise of their ancestors, thus never harming a Cobra in the process.
The festival of Nagpanchami is celebrated in Goa by praying to brightly painted clay idols or drawings depicting the snake and Prasad is offered to the same. This year this festival of paying homage to the Snake God will be celebrated throughout the State on the 6th of August, and rituals often include keeping a fast for the day and abstinence from working in the fields. The day is also marked with favored snake habitats like termite mounds, banyan and peepal trees, etc being offered sweets, made exclusively by the women folk of the house. While it is believed to be the symbol of fertility by Goans in the Talukas of Sattari and Quepem, Goans at large attribute the snake with Lord Shiva and so take care not to harm this reptile.
Today however, this relationship appears cracking as in urban areas, despite religious taboos, cobras are often wantonly killed without realizing the importance in the modern society as a rodent controller in our environment and thus working for the human benefit. That Cobras venom is used as an effective pain killer like Cobroxin etc. against diseases like neural leprosy, epilepsy and arthritis is not know to the average Goan who thinks some time that the poor snake is more often nuisance than a boon to the human race. And while other religious protection is still offered in many a Goan neighborhood, the common cobra is now also protected under the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972, thus giving this reptile the highest form of protection- one that is offered to a reptile known for its cultural as well as its biological importance. There is thus an urgent need to understand the role of this important flagship species of snakes in our ecosystem and give it its rightful respect and protection in the state. Keep the faith.

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