The road to Nettikai is rough and strewn with chalky rocks that the steam rollers haven’t yet managed to smooth into a tar road, but we bump determinedly up it, the bike straining under the added pressure. Villages in Uttara Kannada are really just small clusters of houses, ranging anywhere from a single house to a cluster of 7 to 10 homes. In Nettikai, there are 10 houses, but each cluster of 3 to 4 homes goes under a different ‘village’ name. You see, in most cases, family members own adjacent homes, so one extended family becomes a ‘village.’
We stopped at a large house where a small group of people were chatting around the front veranda. They immediately beckoned us over, their faces alight with curiosity to see two strangers at their doorstep. Indeed, we looked very out of place in our camo clothing and wearing binoculars, cameras, and backpacks. I’m sure they thought the local circus had arrived!
Rohan introduced us to the small crowd – all of whom belonged to a single family, we learnt – and they introduced themselves in return. Given our interest in learning about their perceptions of the local swamps around Nettikai, we started asking them casual questions to lead into our semi-structured survey. We began with the regular “Can you tell us what you know about your local swamp?” and proceeded to record the response. The family was highly animated and intrigued by our evident interest in their swamp. Two younger men began telling us about the swamps nearby – one of which we had visited – and mentioned that their family also worshipped a god in the second swamp that we knew to be sacred. Interestingly, while another family in the same village worshipped Chowdi, the water goddess, in that swamp, this family worshipped Bhoota, an evil or mischevious spirit who haunted the swamp. While they acknowledged Chowdi’s presence, their worship was clearly directed towards Bhoota, perhaps due to caste and class divides within the village and consequent partitioning of religious traditions.
We then moved on to asking them about the biodiversity of swamps, and it was here that we came across a fascinating array of native and endemic fauna. Most villages in India maintain something known as the Peoples’ Biodiversity Register, an undertaking by the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA). Biodiversity is well-respected as part of our country’s heritage, yet we lose a lot of ecological knowledge and knowledge of biodiversity with each passing generation. While scientific knowledge of biodiversity has improved, traditional and local knowledge has been sidelined and relatively undocumented and untapped. However, local communities have a wealth of understanding of the natural world, and the Peoples’ Biodiversity Register is an attempt to document local biodiversity and traditional knowledge. A similar wealth of knowledge about the natural world was immediately evident as we spoke with the citizens of Nettikai. From tigers to leopards to barking deer to mouse deer to giant squirrels to resplendent birds to pangolins, the list of local wildlife that the family attributed to the Myristica swamp was incredible! People were practical as well – they mentioned that while tigers occasionally used the landscape to travel between Bhadra and Kudremukh to the south and Dandeli to the north, they did not live year-round in the forests of Sirsi and Siddapura. The people also mentioned that elephants had only been sighted once in the area, increasing the authenticity of their observations as we knew of only one instance in the past decade of elephant movement in the area.
Naturally, given our interest in reptiles, we moved on to the topic of snakes. “Ah, yes, we have many many snakes!” the old man said cheerfully. “Malabar pit vipers, hump-nosed pit vipers, spectacled cobras, king cobras, green vine snakes, keelbacks,…and the krishnasarpa.”
We traded confused looks. “Sorry, which snake is that?” Rohan inquired.
“The krishnasarpa,” the man repeated. “Tiny (he showed us the length of one of his fingers), pure white, and more venomous than the king cobra. If you are bitten by a krishnasarpa, you will not live past a few minutes. There is no cure to the bite of this snake.”
We were dumbfounded. A snake more venomous than the king cobra? Did such a creature even exist?! We began pulling up pictures of all possible snakes. The venomous snakes found in the area are pit vipers and cobras and the occasional krait. We showed the man photographs of these various specimens, and he shook his head firmly at each one. The man seemed positively indignant that we were doubting his ability to identify a snake that lived virtually in his backyard. We thanked him for his time and left, scratching our heads and utterly at a loss for words.
As true ecologists do, we abandoned all pretenses of eating and sleeping in favour of trying to solve the mystery of the krishnasarpa. Was it simply an albino morph of one of the snakes we had earlier shown the man? Logically, the only snake more venomous than the king cobra was the spectacled cobra (both are equally venomous with quick-acting neurotoxins). But the man had seemed confident that it was not a cobra. The size was another confusing factor – the only snake that small was a kukri snake, and those were certainly not venomous. I called up a senior mentor who had lived in the landscape his entire life and posed the question to him, half-expecting him to rattle off a name instantly. But instead – to my surprise – he had heard of the krishnasarpa and was equally clueless as to its identity. The snake was rapidly taking on the traits of an urban (rural?) legend!
I then called up a herpetologist colleague to inquire about this pesky snake. He listened thoughtfully to my description of it and then suggested that it was simply a juvenile spectacled cobra in a white morph. When I searched krishnasarpa on YouTube, I saw a video of a small white cobra in a bathroom. The cobra looked tiny and was clearly white, shining in the torchlight, which matched the description of the locals. However, the man in Nettikai had firmly stated that it had no hood. Had he not seen the snake properly? And if it were a juvenile spectacled cobra, why did my mentor, who was well-versed with ecology and local biodiversity, not dispel my doubts immediately? What was the real identity of this snake?
I’m still trying to understand the lore behind the krishnasarpa and discover its true identity. Hopefully, interviews with more local residents and a deep dive into folklore will help me unearth this mystery, but until I do, I will keep my eyes peeled for a tiny white snake with a bite more potent than that of the king cobra!