The raucous dark forest went silent immediately, the chatter of cicadas, the cries of the hunted and hunter cut off in mid-breath. The chirping insects and the night birds fell mute and the dark jungle resonated with the silence. The silence slashed like a Khukri through the slumbering group huddled in the tents, jerking them awake.
"Muniyapaa", shouted Shiva, the mining camp in-charge as he emerged sweating from his tent awakened by the silence.
"What is the matter? Has the tiger returned?"
A tiger, drawn by the smell of cooking and of humans was prowling in the neighbourhood since the past few days. The grunts and groans had set the camp on edge. The ominous sounds, and its presence drove the skittish labourers into panic.
Extensive deforestation in the forests had forced the animals from the jungle into the zones around the villages. Decimation of links in the food chain, slash and burn had reduced the forest cover. The area would alternately be in the grip of drought or see very heavy rains.
Climate and the environment had changed for the worse.
This patch of forest that ran across two districts was the last remnants of a very large forest. With nowhere to go, predators often strayed into villages and were killed. They searched for food, kindling conflicts with humans.
Muniyappa, the Coorgi camp boss came running up and he looked scared.
"Saar, come quickly. Death stalks the night. Nag Raja, King Cobra, has come for revenge."
"What? What is this King Cobra?"
"Saar, the anthill you destroyed today, the hatchlings you killed, though I begged you not to. They were hatchlings of the female king cobra. She seeks revenge and will kill us."
The incident in the late afternoon had been the highlight of the day. A huge anthill had stood in the middle of a clearing where a road was planned. The workers were not willing to level it. Angry, Shiva drove a bulldozer and smashed it open.
The labourers stopped work and stood huddled around the anthill, muttering and staring in terror at baby snakes some of which had emerged from their eggs. The twenty hatchlings were coiled tightly and staring at the men, with tiny raised hoods and their tongues flickering, seeking alien scents. Each hatchling packed enough venom to kill.
No one wanted to work anymore. In anger, Shiva ran the dozer over the snakes and berated at the labourers for being superstitious and shirking work.
The crew had started muttering amongst themselves and arguing in hushed tones at this sacrilege. They were doomed.
"Enough of this!" Shiva shouted at them. "You also kill snakes. So what is so special about these?"
"Saar." Muniyappa said. "Yes, we kill snakes, but not Nag Raja. It belongs to Lord Krishna. It is divine and full of vengeance."
Cursing the crew as a superstitious lot, Shiva went to the camp, muttering profanities.
Then the silence of the night woke him.
"Has any one seen the snake?" asked Shiva.
"Saar, no one will see her until she kills, and then it will be too late."
Shiva snorted in disgust and followed Muniyappa to join the crew who had lit a fire and had started banging on empty diesel tins to frighten the snake.
Shiva, the Uncontrite Surveyor
Shiva was the contract surveyor for a mining company and tasked with assaying the forest spread across the foothills of the Sahyadri Mountains in south-western India. He was twenty, a fresh graduate of Geology from the prestigious Karnatak University at Dharwad. and wanted to become successful and rich.
This was the 20th day he had been camping and surveying. He was young, ambitious, and wanted to make a name with this project. If he could prove that a fortune waited below the forest then the commissions would make him rich and famous.
His company wanted to dig the thick verdant growth that hid huge deposits of iron ore. Massive trees, some of them decades old, would be chopped and contractors would fall over themselves for the fine grain teak, rosewood and other trees.
A huge mining complex would come up with a township to cater to the ravenous miners. There would be hotels, houses of ill repute, bars, restaurants, and trucking firms. Property and land prices in the surrounding villages would rise. There was money to be made, everyone, politicians, villagers, business houses, freighters, and all others were happy.
Gone would be the small brooks set alight by silver specks of fish, the myriad birds and squirrels would not have a place to nest. No one cared to ask the forest or the animals. They were non-entities, born to be plundered.
The opal blue lakes would serve as a dump for the mine effluents, poisoning the fish and killing the waterfowl. Activists would futilely scream about the loss of forest, defilement of habitat, extinction of species, and river pollution. In the end, money and greed would prevail.
Millions would be spent and billions would be earned. However, the mining firm had to first ensure that ore and mineral deposits were present. Hence, the impatient and frustrated Shiva was willing to help in the plunder.
The King Appears
Sleep was out of the question now. A nameless choking fear filled the air. His group of twenty labourers huddled around the flames, peering fearfully into the dark night. Once, Shiva looked up saw and something shadowy moving in the tree. The shadow was formless, sinuous and seemed to stare at him hypnotically, boring deep into his psyche.
He shrugged off the feeling. He growled, "Must be a vine. Just let morning come and I will give the crew something to be frightened about."
However, the infectious spectre of fear diffused into his skin. He could feel something stare at from the darkness, boring into his back, waiting ...
Dawn comes early in the forest. A porter squatting behind a clump of bushes to relieve himself ran out in terror, bringing the inmates of the camp into the open. Beneath a tree lay a dead Cobra about seven feet long. Something had bitten it and tried to swallow it.
The grey-black snake lay in the foliage, its white underbelly had turned to violet. The voracious jungle ants that devoured everything had left the snake alone.
"What could bite a Cobra to death and then try to swallow it?"asked Shiva.
"Nag Raja," wailed the labourers.
Shiva was worried now. He grimaced at the crew and shouted.
"Do not waste time. Get moving else you will not be paid."
He reasoned to himself that was that the dead cobra had obviously come off the worse in a fight with a mongoose and died. The noise of the drums had frightened the mongoose and it had run away.
He switched on his satellite phone and searched the net for 'Nag Raja.' The search results were very ominous.
"Ophiophagus Hannah or the hamadryad is a species of cobra, which eats other snakes. It can reach 20 feet, is extremely poisonous and can kill an elephant. Also called the King Cobra or Nag Raja King of Snakes, unconfirmed legends say that it pursues its enemies and kills them. The term 'King' is generic since even females snakes are called 'King Cobra'."
Shiva cursed his luck. The work schedule was back-breaking, with his employers demanding a quick report while the crew of tribal workers was extremely lazy. Now he had started a feud with a King Cobra!
There was no chance now of getting the crew to work. They squatted on their heels, eyes round with fear. They looked at Shiva with a mixture of horror and pity, considering him already dead for all practical purposes. It was only the fear of the King Cobra which prevented them from deserting. Staying in the camp was better than running in the jungle and getting bitten by the vengeful snake.
The men cursed their karma for their decision to leave their village and join this crew. Nag Raja would show mercy on them they reasoned, hoping against hope.
One of them said, "They had not killed the children, the Sahib had."
Another whispered a superstition. "When Nag Raja or the babies were killed, a photo of the killer and his accomplices remains in the dead snake's eyes. When Nag Raja's partner sees the images it would come hunt them for revenge."
The labourers were not willing to catch the snake since they did not want to invite certain death. Shiva grimaced that while he loved hunting, he had never hunted a snake.
He asked Muniyappa, "Does one use a stick or a stone to kill it?" On hearing this crew set up loud wail.
Muniyappa said. "Sahib, there is a tribe of snake charmers called the Irula on the Southeast coast of India some distance away. Snakes are their way of life and their toddlers play comfortably with deadly vipers and cobras. We can approach them."
Meeting the Irula
After consultation, Shiva and Muniyappa set off to seek out the Irulas in their jeep. The journey took the better part of the day, for the 'road' was a jungle track, missing in many places.
The Irula tribe members gathered under a banyan tree, knowing that the sahibs in the jeep had come to seek their help. Money could be made out of this.
Muniyappa passed around a bottle of country liquor, knowing that this would loosen their tongues. Shiva slouched on a cot that the villagers had arranged, strong disbelief showed in his face, scorn writ large on his brow. He felt that this was a charade by the Irula to extract money. Muniyappa began speaking.
"Hireyaru, elders, I come to you with the respect that you so richly deserve. Our small mining camp and workers are under the threat of a Nag Raja. We beseech you to trap and take it away."
"Why is the snake after you people? Did you cause it any harm?'
Muniyappa knew that he had to tell the truth, else the Irula would realize that he lied and would turn him away.
"Well. Our sahib, who sits here, unwittingly ran a bulldozer over an ant hill. The mound had some eggs and hatchlings, and they were killed. Now this snake is terrorizing us. Will you help? Our company has announced a prize of twenty thousand rupees. We will pay half now, and the balance after the snake is caught." He pulled out a sheaf of notes and made pretence of counting them.
A murmur ran through the crowd.
"Sahib killed Nag Raja's babies?"
"It won't leave him!"
"Worse, it will kill anyone who is with him."
"Curse is upon him. He is marked. He will be killed within hours."
One of the elders raised his hand for silence and said. "We Irula thank the Sahibs for coming to ask us to help. We are sorry, we cannot help or get involved. The Nag Raj is revered as a deity and catching it is taboo. We cannot assist. Peace be upon you."
Finally, an old fellow, gnarled with rheumy eyes agreed to help. He spoke, "I will come. Many rains back, when I was young, I killed a couple of mating king cobras. I wish to catch the snake, beg forgiveness for my sin, and release it in the deep forest."
He must have been good at his work, thought Shiva to remain alive until now. With a shiver he saw that old man's arms were covered with scars from countless bites. They ran across his arms, chest and face, a mute attestation to the number of times he had been bitten. Some said that he was immune to snake poison.
Hunting the King
When it was time to leave, the old man clambered into the jeep with a cloth-covered basket, a pungi or been, a flute made from bottle gourd used to catch snakes. He remained firm in his decision to go in spite of the vociferous objections of his tribe. When the jeep lumbered into the camp, and as the snake catcher stepped out there was a rustle in the bushes.
The old man prostrated on the ground and whispered. 'Nag Raja, I have come to atone for my sins."
He reached out with one gnarled hand, picked up some mud and applied it to his forehead as tilak.
The dead cobra remained at the same spot. The snake charmer looked at it and whispered as if confirming something. "Nag Raja," he said, slowly nodding his head. The labourers immediately set up muted chatter.
He opened his cloth-covered basket and inside was a pit viper, coiled tight, with only the hood poking out. Its forked tongue flickered.
"Nag Raja is hungry." the Irula growled in a Tamil dialect. "He will come to feed on this."
He placed the snake in a strong bamboo mesh trap.
The mesh did not even bend as Shiva kicked it with his mining boots. How was it supposed to trap the King Cobra? No one could guess or even wanted to. The trap was placed under a tree and the group huddled at a distance, waiting with obvious anxiety for something to happen. A sense of doom hung over the camp.
As night came, the forest was lit up with numerous fireflies which danced merrily, flitting from bush to bush, creating hypnotic patterns that wove web. These were Nature's wonders and Shiva had caught a few in his childhood. The pulsating light died away when the insects were caught and the fireflies often died or crawled, looking like ordinary flies.
He caught them until his science teacher rebuked him for his wayward ways. He was not to interfere with nature and had to let insects and plants remain where Mother Nature had created them.
The lesson had sunk deep within him and he never again caught insects and butterflies. Now, for money, he was ready to uproot an entire forest.
A noise came from yonder, near the trap, like something being broken and dragged! The crew rushed over and someone shone a torch. The sight had Shiva's hair standing on end. The trap had been smashed open.
In the dancing light of the flickering torch that a quaking porter held, the pit viper or what was left of it, was receding into the mouth of the King Cobra. The Cobra's beady eyes were fixed on the group, daring them to intervene.
No one moved under its hypnotic gaze. Time stood still as the viper's tail disappeared down the cobra's throat. Then it slid away out of sight. They moved back to the camp in silence. Shiva was aghast at the horror he had unleashed.
They find the King
At early dawn, the Irula hunted for spoor and set off. Shiva, Muniyappa, and a couple of porters trailed behind him.
The event of the previous night had brought great self realization for Shiva. Now as the group walked through the forest, sights he had never noticed before opened up in front of him. He had been trekking the forest since the past twenty days but had never bothered to look beyond his nose and the mining samples. Today the ethereal beauty and the heady aroma of his surroundings were sinking in.
There was life everywhere. Butterflies of wondrous hues flitted among the flowers, drinking nectar and pollinating them in return. Monkeys chattered and birds chirped among the trees, eating fruits and spreading the seeds, spreading life as nature intended.
A couple of jungle fowls feeding under a huge banyan trees saw the team passing by, momentarily raised their heads, cackled their protest at the intrusion and resumed feeding. Lush, with heavy foliage, trees bent gently under the breeze with sweet fragrance wafting from the flowers. Nature was at work, taking and giving while creating a web of life.
A stag snorted nearby. It was beautiful with widespread antlers and flared nostrils, seeking various scents, intent on protecting its family. A couple of frisky does grazed nearby, their tails wagging and ready to scoot off at the slightest hint of danger. As Shiva raised his gun to shoot, the snake charmer shushed him.
The Sahayadri with its twenty peaks towered above covered in mists that would momentarily part when wind shuffled through them, offering brief glimpses of mountain tips shrouded with grey flecked clouds. He could see skeins of rivulets and streams that formed silver threads as they entered the lake at the foothills.
Time had toiled for long and with patience to cut a path through the rocks. One drop, one atom of rock chiselled at a time. Tiny silvery sparkles of fish swam in the waters of the lake. As Shiva sat on a rock and washed his face and feet in the sweet cold water, the tiny splashes and ripples merged with the mild current. Fish came up seeking tidbits. The trees rippled along with his reflection as he tossed some breadcrumbs to the fish. His team and Muniyappa rested under a nearby tree nearby.
Suddenly the fish scattered and he looked up to see death was streaking across the water towards him!
The old snake charmer was screaming at Shiva to get up and run. But Shiva was hypnotised, standing rooted to the spot and watched as the snake flew across the water in a blur, its head firmly fixed on him, the body twisted and propelling it forward like a whip. The King Cobra had followed them, waiting for a chance to isolate Shiva.
The snake slithered up the rock at the water's edge and reared up looking at him from about twenty feet. Its eyes stared unblinking into Shiva's, its girth as thick as his biceps. They glared at each other for a couple of seconds and for him it felt like an eternity. The snake was hissing in sharp staccato bursts, a low-pitched growling moan of a dog. The body coiled and ready, the tail lay sinuous towards where the team sat.
What were the thoughts passing through its brain? Perhaps it was thinking "here stands this feeble man, the slayer of my children, at my mercy."
The snake charmer suddenly jumped, ran across, seized the tail, and shouted at Shiva to run. He must have been a good twenty feet away from the hood. He was an Irula and knew no fear.
The hood changed direction, and crossing its length in a blink, and fell on the Irula. It embedded its fangs deep into the snake charmer's forearm, slithered and pulled itself up and bit again. Shiva shouted for his gun, caught it as it was thrown cocked and fired, striking the snake on the side. The snake fell to the ground. The yells and screams of the porters drove it off.
The snake charmer was dying. Froth bubbled from his mouth and the bitten hand started swelling as the poison took control of his body. The hand had turned a greyish purple, with fluids oozing from the puncture wounds.
The old man murmured, "This had to happen. It was ordained I would die this way. I killed a Nag Raja in my youth despite a strict taboo. A curse was on me."
He folded his hands to whatever Gods he prayed to and breathed his last. Shiva felt deep remorse choking his throat. He was now responsible for the death of a very brave man.
Muniyappa whispered, his eyes rolling in fear. "The injured King Cobra will now kill anyone it sees. There are some hamlets nearby, Saar."
All men die. However, they should not be the cause of the death of others. Shiva realized it was his duty to seek the snake and kill it.
Once the chips were down and Shiva's intentions clear, Muniyappa showed his true spirit. He was a Coorgi, a warrior, and he would rather fight to the death than be called a coward. Only a very brave person or a fool would track an injured King Cobra in a dense forest.
They sent the porters back to the camp with the Irula's body and set out to track the snake. The trail was not difficult to follow as the injured cobra was oozing body fluids. While the injury was not fatal, the snake would now be mad with anger and hate.
Spots of its body fluids and bits of skin led through the dense underbrush. Every vine, every dark shadow seemed like a cobra. The trail led over rocks and under thick vegetation. Shiva was an avid shikari and took great pleasure in hunting deer and other animals. With the cards reversed, he realized he was now the hunted.
The King finds them
The vegetation started thinning and Shiva looked up to towering rocks with narrow paths and niches. They were being led up the mountain. Behind the mountain was a large stretch of uninhabited wilderness.
Too late, he realized it was a cul-de-sac. The snake had led them into a trap!
The path ended and they faced a rock fall. To double back would be foolish. The snake would be waiting and would get them as they climbed down the steep rocks. A growling hiss sounded from behind and the snake slithered down from a niche above where it had hidden.
Venom dripped from its fangs as it spread its hood and rose to almost six feet above the ground. The hood was bigger than both of Shiva's spread palms and it stared hypnotically at him.
The forked tongue flicked rapidly, testing the air, beady eyes fixed on him. The raised hood tracked every movement as it gave its characteristic growling moan. It watched guarding the small path down. It seemed that the snake wanted to give back to the victims the fear they had spread in the forest. Then it slowly advanced with raised hood, slithering sinuously, the hood almost at level with Shiva's head.
Combined with its length and flexibility Shiva realized its striking power was a twenty-foot radius, and the gap was closing.
To shoot would be certain suicide. The gun was loaded with prime buckshot. In the close rocky confines, the ricocheting bullets could well shred the men to bits. Besides, with his trembling and sweaty palms, Shiva doubted if he could even hit the snake. There was a deep pit at the back with a ledge above about three feet wide. Dried branches and leaves formed a litter around the pit and on the floor. The snake had eyes only on Shiva and ignored Muniyappa.
Muniyappa had some experience with snakes. He picked up a long branch and pushed at the snake. Quickly it shifted the head towards this new threat and slithered towards him. As it reared back the hood to strike, he pushed the neck forcing it back. It struck at the stick, distracted by the waving object.
They were close to the pit near the ledge. The snake kept slithering forward. Another couple of steps and Shiva would fall in the pit. It turned towards him, the beady eyes fixed, tongue flickering rapidly testing the air for danger.
Shiva waved his hands and took one step forward and the snake struck missing his leg.
It was now or never. He jumped over the pit and caught the ledge legs dangling over the pit. The incensed snak,e rushed in, a coil of destruction, rose and struck at the legs missing them and fell into the pit. The pit was too deep for it to sink its fangs into Shiva.
From the ledge, Shiva could see the snake rearing in frustration, its deep growling hiss reverberating in the canyon. He carefully moved over to the side, kicked the wall and jumped over the pit to land at Muniyappa's side.
He cocked the gun and held the magnificent hood in the gun sights. The dreaded reptile was totally at his mercy. He steadied the grip to give it both the barrels and hesitated.
No. He could not do it!
What he saw was not a snake, but a valiant animal, fighting for its right to live as Mother Nature wanted. Humans were the trespassers, seeking what was not theirs, to plunder for wood and iron ore. He lowered the gun slowly.
"Nag Raja," he said, and folded his hands, bowing low. "I am sorry about your babies. You will mate again and breed. I go never to return. Let us part in peace."
There were sufficient openings in the pit floor that led to the wilderness area beyond. The snake would find its way out and drop on the trees safely into the wild.
Muniyappa the valiant Coorgi who would rather die than be called a coward wiped silent tears of gratitude. The snake perhaps understood what Shiva said and slowly lowered its hood, coiling itself tightly, its eyes almost closed.
The survey report would show nothing but mud and rocks. His bosses would believe him. The forest would remain as it was, the spring and the lake would quench the thirst of the stag and his family for generations to come, the fish would continue to play and live as they lived before, and Nag Raja would continue to hunt and live free.
Climate change would not happen here. Nature would remain pristine, for now.