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(ARCHIVE) Vol. Vol. XVIII No. 19, January 16-31, 2009
You should get to know
the snake
(Excerpted from Snakebite: A Book for India by B. Vijayaraghavan,
published by the Chennai Snake Park Trust. )

Among all the animal species, the snake is one of the most widely known. Yet, we do not know enough about it. This is true of even those who have a professional interest in the study of snakes, the herpetologists.

Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja).
(Photo: S.R. Ganesh.)

From the earliest times of the human race, the snake has evoked a profound sense of wonder, even reverence, and unspeakable fear in us. Its custom of silently appearing all on a sudden in unexpected places and disappearing equally suddenly, its ability to move at great speed despite being limbless, its unblinking ‘hypnotic’ stare, its forked tongue moving back and forth menacingly, its ability to hear in spite of having no earholes1, its capacity to swallow whole animals very much larger than itself, its habit of shedding its entire skin periodically and emerging, as it were, to a new life every time, its presence in all manner of terrains on earth, under the soil, on high mountains, on trees, in lakes, rivers and the oceans and in all kinds of climates, its ability to go without food for months together, its ‘psychosexual’ body imagery – all these have been to us a source of wonder and bewilderment and admiration. And, more than everything else, fear! No other animal combines within it so much. No other animal can lay claim to such appealing contrariness.

Snakes Chart

What we find truly awesome and spine-chilling about the snake is its capability to deliver death with a single strike. While most animals kill their prey or their enemies with a lot of horrible violence and blood-shedding, the snake does it with speed and neat, effortless efficiency.

Estimates of human deaths from snakebite in India vary vastly and there is no reliable information. Most of these deaths happen in villages, where deaths and their causes are not fully documented. The Statistical Abstract India – 1998, published by the Central Statistical Organi­sation, gives a figure of 18,907 for deaths from ‘poisoning’ in India in 1998 but that includes not only snakebite but also bites from other animals and food poisoning, consumption of spurious liquor, intake of poisonous gases and so on. Deoras gives a figure of 15,000 for 1953. Whitaker says: “informed guesstimates have rarely exceeded 20,000 deaths” and an estimate given by WHO in its 1999/2005 Guidelines (ed. D.A. Warrell) puts snakebite deaths “between 35,000 and 50,000”. The truth is there are “no reliable national statistics,” but an estimate of about 20,000 fatalities from snakebite in India in a year may not be wide off the mark. While 20,000 deaths a year may appear alarming, it should be mentioned that the Statistical Abstract gives the number of deaths in India from traffic accidents in 1998 as 84,775. This is mentioned not in order to belittle the problem of snakebite but only to put the matter in perspective.

Among the Indian states, the highest incidence seems to be in Maharashtra, followed by Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal – not necessarily in that order. And most of those who die from snakebite in these states are agriculturists and manual labourers who, by the very nature of their work, the environment they work in, and their habit of working with bare hands or short implements and of walking bare-footed, are more likely to suffer snakebite. Even if a bitten person escapes death, he may be left with permanent disfigurement or a crippling handicap or long-term or belated complications (sequelae) which will tell on the quality of his life and his usefulness to himself and his family.

A substantial number of these deaths and long-lasting complications or life-long disabilities could be avoided if there was some knowledge of the precautions against snakebite and the proper mode of treatment. Even though snakebite has been viewed with the greatest dread from the time our earliest hominid-ancestor reared up on his hindlegs more than five-and-a-half million years ago, we do not, to this day, have a decidedly safe and totally reliable protocol on treatment of snakebite. Prayers, incantations, rituals, charms, use of ‘snakestones’, countless bizarre concoctions, herbal preparations, many quick-fix techniques, all have been tried from the beginning, only to be discredited sooner or later. Modern medicine has fared only a little better. Whether in the recommended practices in first aid or in the use of antivenin, there have been so many ambiguities and uncertainties and even contradictions. Many of the practices once adopted by medical practitioners in first aid and some recommended even in recent decades are now considered useless or even harmful. In administering antivenin, there are so many precautions to be observed that even experienced medical practitioners have to be wary of what they are doing. And there could be side-effects which have serious implications. There are issues on which the jury is still out.

In these circumstances, the layperson has to possess a fairly good understanding of all aspects of the subject, as currently validated. It is, therefore, necessary to put together, as best as can be, the state-of-the-art knowledge on the subject in a manner the layperson can easily understand.

The first thing we should realise is that its venom, for a snake, is not a ‘weapon of mass destruction’. Nor is it targeted at the human race. It is a glandular secretion evolved by Nature over time to help the snake, bereft of appendages, to catch its prey and also to digest it. And, we are not a prey-item for the snake. It does not like to waste its precious resource on us if it can help it.

Unfortunately, there are many among us who believe that the only good snake is a dead snake. But, given the choice, the snake will keep the human race at a respectable distance. It only wants to be left alone and be allowed to live its life, according to its likes, undisturbed by us. It is we who, very often, invade its space, convert that space to our use and occasion confrontations.

The snake scarcely bites without a reason even though the bitten person may not always agree. (The mambas of Africa may be exceptions.)

Instead of looking upon snakes as some detestable or scary creepy-crawlies to be pounced upon and destroyed at every opportunity, we have to view them with respect as one of Nature’s most remarkable creations possessing, in fact, many faculties which are alien to us, some of which are beyond our understanding to this day and some of which, perhaps, are even beyond our imagination. By becoming more familiar with them (but not vice versa!), by learning to recognise them, by knowing the environs they frequent and their behaviour, it is possible for us to empathise with them, to allow them to live their lives and, at the same time, save ourselves from avoidable and unintended danger from them. And if, in spite of our best care and caution, an accident does happen and someone gets bitten, we should know precisely what is to be done and what is not to be done to minimise the harm.

There are some 2700 described species of snakes in the world coming under 402 genera and 18 families. (The numbers go on changing marginally from time to time.) Of these, some 500 species are venomous2.

275 species of snakes have been described from India belonging to 71 genera and 11 families and some more are likely to be discovered. Of these 275 species, 62 species can be categorised as ‘venomous’ (including one ‘probably venomous’), 42 as ‘mildly venomous’ and 171 as ‘non-venomous’.

The algorithm will help to roughly identify the major kinds of Indian snakes and to distinguish between the venomous and the non-venomous ones.
Of the 62 venomous species, 42 are seen on land (including freshwater sources and estuaries) and 20 in the sea.

The three important families of venomous snakes are the elapidae (cobras and kraits), the viperidae (vipers) and the hydrophidae (sea snakes).

1. The ancient Indians were quite perplexed by this and thought that the snake ‘hears’ with its eyes and, therefore, named it chakshusravanah (Sanskrit for ‘that which hears with its eyes’), fanciful but not quite absurd considering that it can smell with its tongue and hear through its jawbone (not merely sense the vibrations on the ground but actually hear in conjunction with part of the middle ear and the inner ear).

2. In popular usage, the descriptions ‘venomous’ and ‘poisonous’ are sometimes used interchangeably. The appropriate usage here is ‘venomous’. ‘Venom’ has reference only to substances of animal origin whereas ‘poison’ is a broader term and may have its origin in either chemicals or plants or animals.

(To be continued)


Efforts in cataloguing
Tamil books
(By K.R.A. Narasiah)

Cataloguing books/writing in Tamil started fairly early, but it did not include all the writing of great authors. San­gam writing had been compiled. During the Bakthi Ilakkiyam ­period, this was done more elaborately by the respective maths.

King Sarfoji of Tanjore (1798-1832) did great service to literary work by providing a place, Saraswathi Mahal, to collect and catalogue books. Later, the Madurai Tamil Sangam (Pandithurai Thevar, Raghava Iyengar) did yeoman service in this direction.

Based on the Books Registration Act 1867 No. XXV, an effort was started in free India with the introduction of the Delivery of Books Act (1954) with amendments in 1956. Four major libraries of India undertook the compilation of books under this Act. The National Library of Kolkata has been bringing out from 1957 quarterly editions of this compilation.

The earliest effort in compiling Tamil writing was by the German priest, Barthalomeus Ziegbalg, in the early 18th Century. A more substantial effort was by the missionary John Murdoch, who brought out the Classified Catalogue of Tamil Printed Books With Introductory Notes  in 1865. (This author’s other works included the Catalogue of the Christian Vernacular Literature of India: with hints on the management of Indian Tract Societies (1870).)

A later Government effort brought out Classified Catalogue of the Public Reference Library consisting of books registered from 1867-1869.

In 1909, British Library brought out a compilation A Catalogue of the Tamil Books in the Library of the British Museum – compiled by L.D. Barnett m.a., Litt. d., and the late G.U. Pope  which was supplemented in 1931 by A Supplementary Catalogue of the Tamil Books in British Museum – compiled by L.D. Barnett m.a., Litt. d.”

However, the first effort ­after Independence was in Madras, by the Tamil Nadu Government’s Tamil Development and Research Department in 1961. This compilation, Volume I Part 11, took account of all publications in Tamil from 1867 to 1900. It is in three parts, the first one dealing with all the books, the second listing the authors of the books in alphabetical order followed by the titles in alphabetical order, while the third part has used the Dewey decimal classification. However, there were many books whose authors were not known, and these have been indicated. The compilation took care to indicate the time of the publication in the respective religious years. Since many of them were in poetry form, the numbers of poems have been noted. To calculate the English year, the compilers used L. D. Samikkannu Pillai’s, Indian Ephemeria. Identification for registration numbers was given for easy checking with the Gazette.

According to the book2, the Indian National Bibliography – Tamil Fascicule, was its forerunner. However, the 1951 Madras State Bibliography was the first Government effort on the same lines.

The genesis of this work in Tamil Nadu started with the Madras Book Publishers’ Association who appointed a few experts to make compilation from the information available on the Archives. The Association later sold the compilation to Annamalai University. It ran into problems with the Government of Tamil Nadu when it tried to get the information back from the Annamalai University. Thereafter the Tamil Development Department undertook fresh efforts, which resulted in the Tamil Fascicule.

When we talk about library efforts in Tamil Nadu, particularly cataloguing and itemising Tamil books, one name comes up to mind immediately, V. Thillainayagam. He was born in Chinnamanur and became interested in books from a very early age. Keenly interested in languages, he was fluent in English, Hindi, French and German. He got a postgraduate degree from Madras University. He then mastered Library Science and joined the Connemara Public Library in 1972. He became the Director of Libraries, Tamil Nadu, the same year and held that post for 10 years. During his time he made several catalogues on books published and he has authored about 1000 essays, over 100 in English. He has been awarded an honorary doctorate for his extensive work in cataloguing and itemising books.

Now, a Sri Lankan is single-handedly trying to place on the web, through his www.viruba. com, a comprehensive list of Tamil books published. It has all details of each book, including all the reviews the book received.

The details can be obtained from whichever point the search begins – author, book title or publisher. He is doing it for free and has been requesting authors and publishers to send him details. Elegantly designed and easily navigable, the site has a professional touch. The architect of the site, T. Kumaresan, can be contacted through his website.

1. Tamil Nul Vivara AttavaNai – Tamilnadu Governmnent  1961. Editor V. Kannaiyan.
2. Tamil Nul vivara AttavaNai page xxii.


Bibliography at RMRL
(By a Special Correspondent)

The South Asia Union Catalogue is a capstone programme gathering existing bibliographic records and combining them with new cataloguing created under current projects to create a definitive statement on publishing in South Asia. The South Asia Union Catalogue intends to become an historical bibliography comprehensively describing books and periodicals published in South Asia from 1556 through the present. The four phases of the South Asia Union Catalogue programme are defined by the regions of book production. Phase 1 encompasses South India and Sri Lanka. Publications in the Dravidian languages plus Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language, predominate. Phase 2 covers eastern South Asia and colonial Burma. Phase 3 covers north-central South Asia, including Nepal. The majority of publications are central Indo-Aryan and the most frequently occurring languages of imprints are Nepali, Marathi, Gujarati, and Hindi with its dialects. Phase 4 ranges over western South Asia and includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of northwestern India. Languages of the region include several from the western and eastern Indo-Iranian and western Indo-Aryan families. Most of those languages use the Perso-Arabic script.

The Roja Muthiah Researh Library is engaged in creating metadata for books and periodicals published as far back as the 18th Century under the South Asia Union Catalogue project. To carry out this task, RMRL has been identifying material in various collections in Tamil Nadu and England. Apart from the books and periodicals, the library has taken up conversion of printed bibliographies like the Madras State Tamil Bibliography1 and the catalogue of books printed in the Madras Presidency that appeared as Fort St. George Gazette2 supplements. All the records are created in electronic form so that the information can be shared on the World Wide Web. So far 95,000 Tamil books (excluding periodical titles) have been catalogued. To complete this task, it will take several years more. Even if this is completed, it would not be possible to know the total volume of published material in Tamil, because many imprints have been lost.

Electronic bibliography for all Tamil holdings has been created from the collection of the Indian Institute Library, New Bodleian Library, Oxford, and University of Cambridge Library’s Tamil Bible collection. The Francke Foundation in Germany also holds a number of early imprints of the 18th Century. This has also been catalogued by the RMRL. Recently, the RMRL completed documenting the U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer Library collection.

The catalogue records will be available through the South Asia Union Catalogue website shortly. However, these records could be accessed at the RMRL OPAC system.

1. Madras State Tamil Bibliography was published in seven volumes by the Department of Tamil Development, Government of Tamil Nadu. It was published during 1961 to 1987. It covers books published from 1867 to 1935 and it has entries for 41,604 books.

2. This Catalogue of books printed in the Madras Presidency was issued with the Fort St. George Gazette as a supplement. It began in 1867 and continued until 1963. The books published in the Madras Presidency were registered under the Press and Registration of Books Act. The Catalogue was compiled for all the registered books and published in the Official Gazette after the end of each quarter.


Music, land, flora and
medical knowledge
LITERATURE ON MADRAS (an annotated bibliography from the Web)
compiled by Dr. A. Raman

Socio-cultural history

Subramanian S (2006) From the Tanjore court to the Madras Music Academy: a social history of music in South India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

In moving from the quiet courtyards of Tanjore to the concert halls of Madras, the social context of music and performance underwent a striking transformation. Traditional music was also used in the freedom movement as a symbol of India’s uniqueness and identity. The author presents a distinctive account of the making of a modern classical tradition. She traces the changes in traditional music in South India as it adapted to the necessities of colonial and postcolonial social realities. Her engaging narrative of the production of knowledge about music and the related institution-building process raises larger questions of identity and imagination. She also discusses the influence of nationalism in the creation of an auditory habit. The author shows how performance and patronage influenced the self-development of the consuming elite. Anticipating the dilemmas of the emerging modern Indian middle class, she also explores the ambivalence and ambiguities that informed musical practices in the XIX and XX Centuries.

Administration history

Mustafa M (2007) The shaping of land revenue policy in Madras Presidency revenue experiments — the case of Chittoor District. Indian Economic & Social History Review 44, 213–236.

There were a number of systems of settlements in Madras Presidency when the East India Company assumed administrative charges at the end of XVIII Century. The Company government did not know which system was suitable and should be adopted for the whole of the Presidency. It initiated permanent settlement in 1802 in some areas, and found it unsuitable to be applied to other regions. Thus, it began a series of experiments in different districts to find a suitable system of settlement. These revenue experiments finally led the Company government to adopt the ryotwari system in many regions. It is these revenue experiments that the present article examines in relation to Chittoor district, and brings out the factors responsible for changing government policies during the period of experiments. The study shows how the settlements made with different types of landlords led to the formation of separate groups in rural areas and, in turn, planted the seeds of factional politics in the later period in the present Rayal­seema region, which roughly coincides with the erstwhile Ceded Districts. It also throws light on the policy of discrimination against the cultivators, which led to deterioration in the conditions of these people.

Science history

Noltie H. (2006) Robert Wight and the illustration of Indian botany. The Linnean Special issue # 6, The Linnean Society of London, Blackwell, Oxford, UK.
Robert Wight, a medical doctor, was appointed as Madras Naturalist by Governor Sir Thomas Munro in 1826. He will be remembered for establishing the botanic garden in Madras (later Agri-Horticultural Society). The Noltie paper refers to the enchanting water colours and other sorts of illustrations of plants of Madras and neigh­bour­hood; a majority of the ­illustrations were created by his personal artists Rungiah and Govindoo.

Medical history

Dutta A.K. (2008) Pursuit of medical knowledge: Charles Donovan (1863-1951) on kala-azar in India. Journal of Medical Biography 16: 72–76.

Kala-azar was a lethal disease in colonial India. Charles Donovan of the Indian Medical Service (IMS) in Madras discovered the parasite independently in 1903, working at both the Madras General Hospital and Royapettah Hospital, Madras, while William Boog Leishman was carrying out his research in Great Britain. Donovan’s discovery ended the confusion prevalent over the anomalous and puzzling cases of malarial fevers in India and proved they were not related to malaria. This added to the promotion of medical knowledge, initiated further research and created enthusiasm among medical scientists throughout the world. Donovan was the first person to see the kala-azar parasite in the peripheral blood and thus provided a clue to the carriage and transmission of the kala-azar parasite by the insect through peripheral blood. Donovan’s research on kala-azar also convinced the government of its utility and the need for further investigation; he fell a victim to professional rivalry.

Jensen N.T. (2005) The medical skills of the Malabar doctors in Tranquebar, India, as recorded by Surgeon T.L.F Folly, 1798. Medical History 49: 489–515.

From 1620 to 1848, several Danish colonies or trading-stations existed in India. The most important of these and the only one that was maintained for the entire period was Tranquebar (Tarangambadi), located south of Madras on the Coromandel Coast. In 1777, the Danish Crown took over all Danish possessions in India from the Danish Asiatic Company, which had previously controlled the colonies and their trade. In the 1790s, when T.L.F. Folly wrote his essays, the Danish colony consisted of the fortified city of Tranquebar with a population of nearly 3000 (including about 200 Europeans) and the surrounding lands of roughly 50 km2, inhabited by about 20,000 native farmers. The paper includes the following sections: medicine in Tranquebar, European perceptions of Indian medicine, life of Folly, a detailed map of South India by Mathew Carey (1811), a map of Tranquebar (1788-1807, and an English translation of Folly’s notes on the surgical skills of Malabar doctors. A fascinating paper. 


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