Sunday, June 8, 2008

Snake Gods

The narrator of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss complains about English writers writing about India, for “delirium and fever somehow went with temples and snakes and perverse romance, spilled blood, and miscarriage; it didn’t correspond to the truth.” Although temples did form an integral part of my Indian experience, I felt confident that none of the other “exotic” themes would feature in my travels. My husband, Adeet, and I had posed with a snake charmer and his cobra outside Jaipur’s City Palace. However, we knew this was a tourist attraction, more stereotype than archetype. I certainly didn’t intend for snakes to slither their way into my narrative. Then we went to Kerala.

Kerala is a small sliver of the subcontinent, a chili-shaped piece of land along the southwestern coast. The state is known as “God’s Own Country,” and although the appellation is derived from Hindu mythology, there are enough churches, mosques, and synagogues for worshipers to interpret “God” from a variety of theological angles. Kerala might also earn its heavenly reputation from its rich biodiversity. Mountains are carpeted with tea plantations, and tigers and elephants roam nature preserves. Tourists lounge aboard kettuvallams, Chinese-style houseboats, on a series of lagoons and canals known as the Backwaters. There are rain forests, too, where the infamous king cobra builds its nests.

Adeet and I traveled from Mumbai, Maharashtra to Thrissur, Kerala by the Konkan Railway. Our train tickets proclaimed “150 Years of Glorious Service,” but any glory was lost on me as I battled a cockroach infestation in our compartment. I ended up spending much of the 20-hour journey sitting in the open door of the train car. This is where the railway redeemed itself. Although I quickly grew sooty from the swirling dust and diesel fumes, I had a view unavailable from the tinted windows of our air-conditioned berth. The winter-parched countryside of Maharashtra eventually gave way to Kerala’s green rice paddies and coconut groves. Women with saris draped above their knees worked in the fields, and children waved as we chugged past their homes.

We disembarked in Thrissur and our host, Mr. Nair, drove us to the nearby village of Urakam. When we reached his home, he suggested in Indian vernacular that we “get fresh.” After a shower and nap we felt less train-lagged and were ready to go exploring. We walked with Mr. Nair down palm-lined streets and visited Krishna and Kali temples. I had seen people grow openly emotional in a Krishna temple in Mumbai, but Mr. Nair acted quietly respectful, as much tour guide as disciple. That evening we stood on his rooftop terrace and listened as he explained Kerala’s history of matrilineal descent. The state is unique in India for having a high female-to-male ratio, a reflection of the valued position women enjoy in Keralan society.

If we had left Urakam then, my lasting impression would have been of the village’s numerous coconut palms and of our host’s pride in his state’s history. However, before Adeet and I left for Athirappilly Falls, the next stop on our south Indian journey, Mr. Nair wanted to show us his childhood home. We walked to the large, multi-level house where he and an extended family of cousins grew up, and where his mother still lives. He took us to the backyard, a shady area of palm trees, and showed us a small temple set up in a clearing. Six snake gods sat coiled on the altar. I knew these were stone cobras but still felt wary of their flared hoods. The calmness Mr. Nair had shown at the temples the previous day was replaced with an intensity bordering on urgency. “Do namaste,” he requested. Adeet and I both folded our hands and bowed toward the altar. “Now circle the temple,” our host said. “If you don’t show the proper respect,” he explained, “you will have bad dreams about snakes.”

After my turn around the temple, I asked Mr. Nair if his devotion provides him protection. He told me that although snakes have bitten several of his family members, none of them died from the attacks. His temple allows him to exert a degree of control in an environment that might otherwise threaten him. The snake gods are confined to a walled-off altar, perhaps indicating the boundaries that both snakes and people must observe to coexist.

As Adeet and I continued our travels, we learned that snakes play a significant role in Keralan mythology. The tongue-twisting name of Kerala’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, refers to an important snake god. Snakes even insinuate themselves into boat racing. Every year the Backwaters teem with long snake boats, characterized by serpentine prows, that glide down the canals and lakes. I often thought of Mr. Nair’s snake gods and began to see how they fit into this cultural context. I realized, too, that my walk around the temple had taught me a lesson that’s as valuable in New York City as it is in Kerala: Respect what might hurt you, but don’t let its lethal potential overwhelm you. After all, the snake gods might raise their regal heads not to menace, but to bless.

photos by Adeet Deshmukh


Anonymous said...

Well done! Colorful, informative, and thought provoking, too.

Văn Sát said...

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