Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 20, February 1-15, 2009
The principal, common, dangerously venomous
snakes of India
(Excerpted from Snakebite: A Book for India by B. Vijayaraghavan,
published by the Chennai Snake Park Trust. )

(Continued from last fortnight)

Which is the most dangerous snake of India?

Some features of incidents of snakebite, particularly in Indian conditions, are as follows:

(i) They are mostly in rural areas.
(ii) The majority of the bites happen at night.
(iii) The incidents are more common in the rainy season.
(iv) The majority of the victims are males.
(v) Most victims are in the age group 20 to 50.
(vi) Most of the bites are on the lower limbs, followed by the upper limbs.


No one land snake of India qualifies to be counted as ‘the most dangerous’. The honours have to be shared by four of India’s 62 venomous snakes. Namely:

(i) The Indian cobra, i.e. the spectacled cobra and the monocled cobra (Naja naja and Naja kaouthia)
(ii)The common krait (Bungarus caeruleus)
(iii)The Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii)
(iv)The saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus)

Among sea snakes, the hook-nosed sea snake may be reckoned as the most dangerous sea snake of India. It is the most widespread on the Indian coast, it is the commonest in its range and it has the most potent venom.

The total number of venomous snakes in India whose bite can be either fatal or life-threatening may be about 40, but the ‘Big Four’ account for the bulk of fatalities and life-threatening consequences of snakebite in India.

In 1981, WHO suggested the following categorisation of “snakes of medical significance”:

Class I: Snakes which commonly cause death or serious disability.
Class II: Uncommonly cause bites but are recorded to cause serious effects (death or local necrosis).
Class III: Commonly cause bites but serious effects are very uncommon.

The Russell’s viper, cobra and saw-scaled viper have been included in Class I and the common krait, hump-nosed pit viper, king cobra and mountain pit viper included in Class II. Class III has been left blank. This is not an improvement on the description ‘Big Four’ since all the four stand included in Classes I and II. Of the three new species included in Class II, only the hump-nosed pit viper and king cobra deserve some special recognition, even though they are certainly not on a par with the ‘Big Four’. Little is known about the venom of the mountain pit viper (Ovophis monticola) which has a limited range in Uttaranchal, Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam and the North-east.

The spectacled cobra (Naja naja)

Sanskrit & Hindi: Nag, Bengali: Naga gokurra, Tamil: Nallapambu, Malayalam: Moorkhan, Sarpam.

Spectacled cobra (Naja naja)

There are four species of cobra, conveniently called the Indian cobra, found in India.

The spectacled cobra (Naja naja)
The monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia)
The Central Asian cobra (Naja oxiana)
The Andaman cobra (Naja sagittifera)

Till recently, all these used to be grouped together as the same species, the Indian cobra or common cobra, Naja naja, of which they were believed to be different subspecies. Now each of these is considered as a distinct species.

Of these, the commonest is the spectacled cobra and it is found throughout mainland India excluding the Northeast. Seen in all kinds of terrain, it is also a good swimmer. It is often seen in or near agricultural fields, human habitations and granaries where it comes in search of rats, its favourite food. It is active by day and night and can be seen more commonly during evenings and early mornings. Apart from rats, frogs are also a principal item of its food.

The average length of the adult snake is about 3 ft. but it can reach a maximum length of more than 7 ft. It comes in different colours, shades of brown, yellow, grey or black. Its distinctive mark is the well-known ‘spectacle’ on the rear of the hood, i.e. on the dorsal side, which, though normally of a uniform design, can have variations also. In very rare cases, the ‘spectacle’ itself may be missing. On the underside of the hood are broad faint stripes. Above these stripes are two dark spots surrounded by white borders.

When provoked, the cobra will raise its forebody and spread it as a hood and may hiss. This display has to be taken seriously because, if it feels further threatened, it will strike.

Whitaker and Captain say that this snake, “though responsible for many bites, only a small percentage are fatal”. Next to the Russell’s viper, the cobra accounts for the largest number of snakebites in India. But, often, its bites are ‘dry bites’ with little venom injected.

If, by chance, a person comes across a clutch of the cobra’s eggs, he has to be careful because, unlike most other snakes, the female of the cobra does not abandon the eggs but stays with the eggs or guards the eggs, though it does not incubate the eggs. A cobra lurking in the vicinity of its eggs may be provoked to strike.

This cobra can be confused with the Indian rat snake (Ptyas mucosa) and they share common habitats since both have a decided preference for rats. But the hood and the ‘spectacle’ make the identification of the cobra easy.

This account of the behaviour of the spectacled cobra is more or less applicable to the monocled cobra also which can be distinguished from the former by the single eyeshaped mark on the back of its hood instead of the double mark in the former. Unlike the spectacled cobra which is found throughout mainland India (excluding the Northeast), the monocled cobra is found commonly only in North and Eastern India.

The Central Asian cobra is found only in a very limited area in Jammu & Kashmir, Hima­chal Pradesh and, probably, Punjab, and the Andaman cobra is found only in the Andaman islands. Both are rare snakes even within their ranges.

The king cobra (Ophiophagus hnnah), undoubtedly the most magnificent of all snakes, does not belong to the same genus as the four cobras mentioned above.

The common krait (Bungarus caeruleus)

Hindi: Karayat, Marathi: Maniyar, Gujarati: Kala taro, Bengali: Kalaz Chitti, Tamil: Kattuviriyan, Yennai virian, Malayalam: Kattuviriyan.

Common krait (Bungarus caeruleus)

Though there are some seven species of krait in India, only two are common. Of these two, the only one widely occurring is the common krait (Bungarus caeruleus). The other is the banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus). The common krait occurs in fields, scrub jungles and is often found in the vicinity of human habitations. It is known to take up residence inside houses. It has an affinity for water and is often seen in water troughs in courtyards and gardens.

The common krait is generally not more than 3 ft. in length, the maximum length being about 5 ft. It is steel blue or bluish gray or glossy black or brownish black above with narrow white cross bars over its entire length. The fore-body may sometimes be free from the cross bars.

The common krait is nocturnal. Its behaviour is rather curious. Mark O’ Shea rightly calls it “the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the snake world”. During the day, it will be found to be very shy and timid and will rarely bite. But, at night, it is very active and quick to react. It can then be vicious and unpredictable and a person has to be very careful with it. It has a habit of rapidly striking to the side, which can prove to be treacherous. It enters huts and other human habitations, where persons sleeping on the floor are likely to get bitten. Especially in the cold season, the snake, seeking warmth, may snuggle close to a sleeping person or curl up on his mattress and, if he stirs or turns over in his sleep, he is likely to hurt the snake and provoke it into biting him.

Added to this is the fact that, unlike in the case of the cobra and the vipers, the bite of the common krait is generally painless and the sleeping person may not become aware of it or take note of it for what it really is and the consequent delay in treatment can prove to be fatal, ­particularly since its venom is extremely potent. As already noted, it has the most potent venom among all of our land snakes.

This snake is cannibalistic – that is, it feeds on snakes, even its own kind. Rodents, lizards and frogs are also eaten.

The Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii)

Hindi: Kandar, Marathi: Ghonus, Gujarati: Chitar, Bangla: Bora, Tamil: Kannadi viriyan, Malayalam: Mandali

Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii)

Of the vipers found in India, species-wise the more numerous are the pit vipers, twenty of them, as against only three pitless vipers. These are the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii), the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus) and the Levantine viper (Macrovipera lebetina). The last mentioned is uncommon and found only in a few localities in Kashmir.

The Russell’s viper is a common snake and is distributed throughout India. ­Appearance-wise it is over 3 feet in length and stout with three longitudinal series of conspicuous, large, brown or black oval marks on brown or yellowish brown body. The head is flat, and triangular with a ‘V’ shaped mark on it, with its pointed end towards the front. The tail is short and thin.

A young Indian rock python (Python molurus) and the common sand boa (Gongylophis conicus), both non-venomous, may sometimes be mistaken for the Russell’s viper but this snake, like all vipers, has a triangular head broader than the neck.

The Russell’s viper usually moves about in the night and is found in open, grassy areas, scrub jungles, rocky hillocks and thorny hedgerows. Its favourite food is rodents and that is the reason it is often found near human habitations.

Though vicious-looking, it bites only when provoked and then it may strike with great force often springing from the ground. Its usual reaction when disturbed is to hiss loudly (“like a pressure cooker”) and this is enough warning for anyone. But, the danger is when people walk about carelessly in the dark and with inadequate footwear and, if the snake which moves about in the night is unwittingly stepped on, it will strike – and strike fast and with no warning.

The bites from the Russell’s viper in India are far more in number than from cobras. The bite is not necessarily fatal though envenomation can have serious consequences unless treated promptly with antive nin.

The saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus)

Hindi: Phoorsa, Gujarati: Tarachha, Bengali: Bankoraj, Tamil: Suruttai pamboo, Malayalam: Churutta

Saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus)

Appearances can be deceptive. This viper is a contrast to its relative, the Russell’s viper. Though a comparatively small and thin snake, being only about 1 to 1½ feet in length, it is far more vicious and its venom more toxic. The same dichotomy between size and the virulence of the venom is also seen in the king cobra vis-à-vis Indian cobra and in banded krait vis-à-vis common krait. When provoked, the saw-sclaed viper is also quicker to strike than the Russell’s viper.

As in other vipers, its head is triangular and broader than its neck. The tail is very short and thin. It is brown or brick-red or gray or sand-coloured with zigzag patterns on the back. There are many colour forms. The head, apart from being triangular in shape as in all vipers, has a distinctive arrow-shaped mark on it.

This is a very common snake found throughout mainland India except West Bengal and the Northeast.

This snake mostly moves about in the night and frequents warm roads or paths at night. It can also be seen basking in the morning sun. Mostly found in open, dry, sandy or rocky terrains, it rests under rocks or in thorny bushes during the day.

This snake is a side-winder1. It moves sideways by throwing its body into S-shaped curves.

It feeds on mice, lizards, frogs, scorpions and insects.

A distinctive feature of this snake is its threat display by producing a rasping sound. This it does by inflating its lungs and rubbing its saw-edged scales together. When agitated, it throws itself into a double coil. It is a good climber. According to a WHO report, as against an average of 50% of ‘dry bites’ for all venomous snakebites together, the incidence of ‘dry bites’ by the saw-scaled viper is only 10%, which means that the chances of serious envenomation are much higher in bites by this species than in the case of other venomous snakes.

(To be concluded)


A doctor recalled in two roads
(By Randor Guy)

Two roads with the same name in Chennai is a rarity. That rare honour is bestowed on Dr. T.M. Nair  – in Thyagaraya Nagar as well as in Egmore.

Thousands travel on these two roads every day. But it is a rare traveller who knows who Dr. T. M. Nair is.  

Dr. T.M. Nair

He was one of the leading citizens of the Madras of the 1920s, when he helped found the Justice Party and was in the forefront of the Non-Brahmin Movement.

Daring, dynamic, without a trace of ego or selfishness, he was an ardent social reformer who was responsible for many of the political changes in the Madras Presidency in the early decades of the last century. Though he lived for only 51 years, he packed within that short span several activities involving social reform and elevating the downtrodden.

Tharavathu Madhavan Nair was born in Palghat in February 1868 into an affluent tharavad family.  His father was a district munsiff and was known for his disciplinarianism and straightforwardness. His sister Ammalu Amma was a noted Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam scholar, who wrote acclaimed poetry in her mother tongue.  Not many are aware that she wrote the history of the Aruvathumoovar-Nayanmarkal in Malayalam verse, which brought her renown.

Young Madhavan was a top ranker in scholastics as well as in sport. When he successfully passed the Matriculation, he was hardly 13. Even while at school he was known for his stirring oratory in English and Malayalam.

Like most young men of that era he came to Madras for further studies and took his degree at Presidency College, He next joined the Madras Medical College. Blessed with an excellent physique handsome looks and long hair, he was in class at Medical College when a mischievous student sitting behind him cut off his locks. An enraged Nair lifted him up and threw him on the floor, then kicked him around, much to the astonishment of his classmates and professor.

Abandoning his medical studies, he went to Edinburgh where he got his M.B. Ch. B. He was then 26. He specialised in Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) and moved to London to continue his studies. He did research in Paris and Vienna. In 1896 he took his MD degree.  In those days, Edinburgh University graduates had to study an ancient language, like Latin, Greek or Hebrew, to qualify. Much to the surprise and shock of many, Nair chose Sanskrit!  His knowledge of this ancient Indian language was limited, but he improved his scholarship by taking a correspondence course with his sister in India and stood first in the University examination!

Even as a student in London he involved himself in social activities concerning India, Indians and their future.  He joined the ‘London Indian Society’ and was elected its secretary. Its Chairman was the legendary Dadabhoy Nowroji!

Back in Madras in 1897, he set up practice as an ENT surgeon and, soon, was the top specialist in the city.  He worked from 8 in the morning till 1 in the afternoon treating patients who crowded his clinic day in and day out. After working hours he spent time reading books which he bought liberally. It used to be said in those days that he had the best private library in Madras.

Another doctor equally famous in the city was U. Rama Rau. The two of them launched an innovative magazine in English, Antiseptic, with Nair as the editor. It was the first of its kind in the country. True to its name it highlighted medical features but it also took up issues of public interest.  Dr. Nair, besides wielding a facile pen, also had an excellent sense of humour, which contributed to the success of the magazine. He injected in the magazine subtle doses of what could be called ‘dignified vulgarity’ which he couched in rhyming verse. In later years, his barbs against Annie Besant and his satirical sallies made the rounds of the town, but they cannot be put in print today.

In 1904, Nair was elected to the Corporation Council from theTriplicane constituency. He was to sit in the Council for 16 years. Two powerful members of the Corporation Council clashed on almost every issue during the meetings. One was Dr. Nair, the other was Sir Pitti Theagaroya Chetti.  Another leading light of Madras, Dr. C. Natesa Mudaliar, brought them together to create history – and the Justice Party.

In those days there were intellectual groups among the elite in the city. One was known as the ‘Mylapore group’ and it consisted of such leading lights of Madras as V. Krishnaswami Aiyar, the Rt. Hon. V.S. Srini­vasa Sastri, P.R. Sundaram Iyer, G.A. Natesan, Sir S, Subra­mania Iyer and Sir V.C. Desi­kachariar.  They were all well off, most of them were successful lawyers, they all lived in Mylapore, and all of them were Brahmins! The other group, known as the ‘Egmore Group’, included Dr. T. M. Nair, Sir C. Sankara Nair, S. Kasturiranga Iyengar (later of The Hindu) and Dewan Bahadur T. Ranga­chariar. The Mylapore Group usually had the better of the other.

A little known fact of political history is that when Dr. Nair returned from England he became a member of the Indian National Congress and went to Lucknow in 1898 as a delegate from Madras to the Annual Sessions. He also presided over the annual meeting of the Madras Provincial Congress Commit­tee’s Annual Session in  Chit­toor. Finding the Congress Party dominated by Brahmins, mostly successful lawyers, he abandoned ship and joined the Non-Brahmin Movement and helped found the Justice Party.

Dr. Nair was deeply interested in the welfare of the ‘Untouchables’ and fought for their uplift. To highlight their problems, Dr. Nair organised a mammoth conference in Egmore on the Spur Tank grounds.  Some Brahmins as well as a few from other communities in Egmore opposed the conference and even threatened the participants.  Coming to know of it, Dr. Nair stood at the entrance with a thick wooden club, ready to take on the protesters.  Known as the Spur Tank Panchama Meet of 1917, it created history. But, surprisingly, some of the members of the Justice Party took Dr. Nair to task for arranging such a meeting!

In 1919 he went to London to present the case for the Non-Brahmins. Arrangements were made for him to address members of the British Parliament, but before he could address them many hurdles were placed in his way.  While waiting for them to be cleared, he suddenly took ill and passed away on July 17, 1919.

He was cremated in London and his ashes were brought to Madras, where thousands of admirers and even those who opposed him politically mourned his sudden death.


Goodbye, 'Indian Mermaid'
(By S. Kalyanaraman)

On April 11, 2008 the Union Cabinet gave the go-ahead to conservation authorities to sign an MOU with international counterparts to protect the dugong (the ‘Indian Mermaid’) and its habitat. ­Indian efforts to conserve this virtually unknown sea creature will get international recognition as a result. But the ­initiative has probably come too late.

The dugong is on the brink of extinction off Indian shores and it is quite likely that by the time the Government actually gets around to do something, the animal’s population would have declined to levels where recovery would be virtually impossible. You would think a Schedule 1 species, one listed in the Red List of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, would be accorded some protection. But Indian wildlife experts lobbying in Brussels to try and protect the tiger have little time for an animal that lives in the sea and is virtually unknown to most people in the country.

There is not even a baseline study on dugongs. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands its status as State animal has created some awareness about it, but there is little willpower for even basic wildlife protection in this Union Territory. Let me cite an incident. In December 2007, a fisherman caught a dugong and sold its meat in the Neil Island market for Rs. 50 a kg. The creature was a female and its killing brought down the population of dugongs off Neil Island to six. Killing a female dugong is almost tantamount to finishing a generation. This is because the dugong is a slow reproducing mammal, with a gestation period of three to seven years. At the current rate, if one dugong is killed every two years, there will be virtually no dugongs left after five years.

In the Gulf of Mannar, the situation has become even more desperate. In the past two years, eight dugong deaths have been officially reported. The Gulf, with its abundant seagrass, is ideal to support thousands of dugongs, yet indiscriminate hunting has put this animal on the brink of extinction.

During the week-long survey, we came across intestines strewn on the beach at Appa Island. The intestines were the only parts of the animal we found, making the dugong deaths suspicious: someone had obviously cleaned out the animals and discarded their innards. In January 2008, 12 people were arrested by Police and Wildlife Rangers in a night-time sting operation. They were caught trying to transport a dugong by truck. The police were informed of some suspicious activity at night and they pounced on the gang, thinking them to be arms smugglers. This led to the first case pertaining to dugongs being brought before an Indian court. The case is pending.

The Sethusamudram project will also disrupt the biosphere area of seagrass, as constant trenching of the canal system will deposit sediments onto the seagrass. No one has studied the migratory routes of the dugong. So it is anybody’s guess what dredging for sea-routes will do to the animal’s habitat.

We have countless forest rangers and virtually no marine rangers. We need not spend money on measures such as training rangers to do scuba diving. Training them to do snorkelling is more than enough and requires less finance. But marine protection budgets are limited: protection paraphernalia has to be somehow directed towards boats, fuel, rangers’ salaries, a Global Positioning System and snorkel kit.

Training marine rangers on how to discuss issues with fishermen without bullying them will lead to positive community relationships.

Having teams patrol areas where dugongs frequent will send a clear message to poachers. Marine rangers must search fishing boats and have a ­checklist of illegal catch. Cases must be registered even though the chances of prosecution are low. The continuous registration of cases will help identify potential threats.

Fishermen should be educated on how to release dugongs caught in nets. There should be monetary incentives for fishermen and families to engage in active conservation programmes  – (Courtesy: Eco News, the journal of C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre)


On the Bookshelves
(By Savitha Gautam)

With refugees in Africa

(Un)settled: Notes from a Shifting Life.
Kamini Karlekar (Tranquebar, Rs. 295)

A moving personal memoir, with civil war-torn Sudan and Liberia providing the background for Kamini’s debut into the world of letters.

Her work as part of the refugee protection team took this young anthropologist in 2004 to Showak in South Sudan, a village where she got to meet members of various nomadic tribes, and learnt first hand what it meant to be caught in a war situation. People dying of famine and gunshots and rampant yellow fever are issues most people there seem immune to. For Kamini, the place held many memories … of friendships, of frustration and pain, days of anger and joy.

The second part of the book talks about her 12-month stay in Harper, Liberia. The country was still in the throes of a war, but there seemed to be some light at the end of the tunnel, as peace was slowly being restored. Liberian President Charles Taylor was in exile and awaiting trial in The Hague. Her encounters with simple folk for whom buying a new T-shirt was more important than going to school, leaves you emotionally drained at times. These are people who suffer in silence as they are plundered, looted and humiliated by rebels and still pray that the “Good Lord will deliver them from this suffering”, one day.

(Un)settled is not just a look at life in Sudan and Liberia. It also traces the growth of the author, whose perspectives of life change as she meets different people and encounters difficult situations. Truly, a book that touches your heart, one way or the other.

Exploring the exotic

Looking Beyond
Hugh And Colleen Gantzer (Harper Collins, Rs. 295)

Two of the most popular Indian travel writers, Hugh and Colleen Gantzer put down their thoughts in paper as they explored India and the world, before translating these thoughts into images when they made 24 half-hour documentaries called ‘Looking Beyond’ for Television. This book is a compilation of these exciting journeys to exotic destinations.

If one moment the couple meet a man who speaks ‘Indian’ in Plymouth, only to discover the language he speaks is actually Hindi, the next they are aboard the Heritage On Wheels, enjoying the luxuries that the train offers and then taking tonga rides in Bikaner and discovering the varieties of camels at the Camel Research Farm.

They learn that ‘Mankind’s first Neolithic revolution’ began in Cappadocia, Turkey. For it was here that the hunter became a farmer. The spectacular rock formations of Cappadocia leave the couple awestruck, even as they learn that these are actually volcanic deposits that the people of the villages at the heart of the region carved out to form houses, churches, monasteries.

The Gantzers visit the breath-taking Jungfraujoch complex, which sits pretty in the middle of the snow-capped Alps in Switzerland. They walk through the Ice Palace (a tunnel cut into the glacier) and suddenly feel some movement. It dawns on them that they are inside a glacier and it is moving! They go in search of werewolves in Moravia, in Central Asia and ‘cruise through a painting’ in Guilin, China.

Each chapter is a delight to read. From history to geography, from Nature to human jungles, from myth to mystique, there’s something for everybody in this book. Explore the world around sitting in the cosy confines of your home.

Also on the shelves

Where Are You Going, You Monkeys?
Ki. Raja­narayanan, translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy  (Blaft Publications, Rs. 350)

Tamil writer Ki. Raja­na­rayanan spent three-quarters of a century collecting short stories from the karisal kaadu, or the drought-struck regions of Tamil Nadu. The delightfully wicked and sometimes dirty folk tales have a charming appeal even today, and bring a smile to your lips. Wisely, the publishers have literally tied the naughty tales with a red ribbon. So you are bound to read them first! The glossary with Tamil words and the Hindu pantheon is a thoughtful addition.

Indian Takeaway
Hardeep Singh Kohli (Harper Collins, Rs. 295)

This book marks the debut of Glasgow-born Kohli into the world of letters. A bafta award-winning broadcaster and BBC presenter, Kohli combines the thrills of travel with the Indian gastronomic delights in this “witty, fascinating and utterly charming” book. Want to rediscover the flavours of a Kerala sadhya, baingan bartha, Goan fish curry and Kashmiri dum aloo with Kohli? Then this book is a sure read.


Centre for Contemporary Art
at Cholamandal

The Cholamandal Artists’ Village on the East Coast Road was conceived by the late K.C.S. Paniker, former Principal, Government College of Arts and Crafts, as a colony for artists, to be ­ma­naged by artists, to enable them to pursue their art in a peaceful and tranquil environment. One of its kind in India and perhaps in the world, it is a unique creative space, established in 1966. Paniker envisioned an art that was “Indian in spirit and worldwide contemporary”. Cholamandal has produced a body of work that is distinctive and categorised as the ‘Madras Movement’, much of it of national repute and some even recognised internationally.

The Cholamandal Centre for Contemporary Art, which was inaugurated on February 1, 2009, will be a standing exhibition of personal contributions from artists of the ‘Madras Movement’.

These will be displayed in the K.C.S. Paniker Museum in its two wings – the D.P. Agarwal wing and the Rasika Kothari wing. An international sculpture garden surrounds the main Centre.

Additionally, two commercial galleries, Labernum - the H.K. Kejriwal wing and ­Indigo - the Tulsyan wing, an art bookshop, a craft shop and an exotic cafeteria will be part of the Centre.


In this issue

We continue talking...
Chennai's Art Sangamam
Celebrating Mylapore
Historic residences...
Other stories in this issue...

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


Back to current issue...