Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Sulani Snake Festival

The Times of India is carrying the following story, written by Arnab Ganguly and Suman Mandal describing the snake festival in the village of Sulani.

KOLAGHAT: It's a curious mix of rituals and conservation. At Sulani village in East Midnapore near Kolaghat, around 90 km from Kolkata, this annual fair is unlike any other in rural Bengal. What makes Sulani unique is that hundreds of snakes  caught through the year are released after the fair. Kharish, krait and cobra some of the most dangerous of serpents get a new lease of life at Sulani.

Every year on the day of Ashwin Sankranti this year it was on Monday the four-day fair starts, drawing thousands of villagers. It all began 130 years ago with three friends Jhatunath Patra, Abinash Patra and Ishwar Manna deciding to start a fair along with a puja of the snake goddess, Manasa.

"Legend goes that gunins and ojhas used to worship the snake goddess on this day. Snakebites were very common in these parts. The ojhas and gunins were the ones who used to treat the victims. During the fair, the goddess was worshipped and snakes were made to perform. That tradition has stayed on," said Subodh Patra, a descendant of Jhatunath Patra.

A postal department employee, Subodh is now one of leading figures in the fair and a rescuer of snakes. "We rescue the snakes, look after them throughout the year and then release them. Snakes are a very important part of our environment. Through the fair, we try to educate and inform the people about the different kinds of snakes. Not all snakes are poisonous but people have misconceptions," he explained.

During the year, Subodh and other villagers are on the lookout for poisonous snakes and cases of snakebites in the adjoining villages. The snakes are caught and their fangs taken out (in most of the snakes), they are kept for the rest of year and then released in forests or rivers.

"The defence mechanism of a snake gets largely reduced if the fangs are taken out but it can survive. We will have to find out about the fair," said V K Yadav, conservator of forests (western circle).

"I have heard about the fair. NGOs working in that area have told me about it. But I haven't been there," said Dipak Mitra, renowned herpetologist.

Said Biswajit Bagli of Bandhanberia: "Over the years, a number of snakes have been killed. Gradually, the number is coming down. Once a snake is sighted, the villagers send the information to the haat, and from there it reaches the rescuers. Then the snake is rescued."

Like in the past, the snakes are taken to a local temple believed to have been built in the early 19th century. After a puja, vermillion is applied to the hood of the snakes and they are taken to the nearby high school ground. On two makeshift platforms, Patra and his followers hold the snakes for the public to see.

"We have been visiting the fair since our childhood. The number of snakes that are displayed has increased over the years. Also, the number of snakes being killed has come down," said Swadesh Patra of Pratimchak.

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