Snake in the Elephant’s Shadow

Janaki Lenin 2

Janaki Lenin learns to appreciate the many splendours of Agumbe, the wettest place in south India

Pre-Monsoon Clouds

Pre-Monsoon Clouds

Life in Agumbe, in the Western Ghats in Karnataka, is defined by rain. Residents count down or up to it. Visitors’ jaws drop when they hear the place soaks up almost eight metres of rain annually (8m is the average; 10m the maximum recorded). But all that precipitation doesn’t fall gently or evenly across the year. Most of it comes in one concentrated downpour over four months. Agumbe sits at the top and the very edge of an escarpment, in the way of monsoon clouds sweeping inland from the Arabian Sea. The topography traps the clouds until they’ve spent their force.

I didn’t know any of this when I first visited the place more than 20 years ago. Within months of becoming an item, Rom and I went camping in Agumbe. I grew up in the city, had not seen a forest and knew nothing about wildlife. I imagined the Agumbe forest would look like the pictures in National Geographic: vividly coloured macaws, cute gambolling chimpanzees and orange orangutans hanging off tree branches. If I had investigated a little, I would have realised we were going to the wettest place in south India.

Agumbe was the centre of Rom’s universe. He had caught a pair of king cobras there single-handedly in the early 1970s. He talked of this event with such fervour; understandably so, for these were 12-foot monsters. It was a rite of passage.

Trees of the Agumbe forest were stately high-rises. Dreadlocks of moss trailed from branches. The thick, wet leaf litter muffled our footfalls. The forest smelt dank and mouldy. To an outsider I must have seemed like a demure bride, following her husband with her head bent down. I was hypnotised by the ground, which was seething with brown worms. Unlike plump white maggots, these brown ones were lean and mean. Rom breezily dismissed them. “Ha, leeches.” More than their dietary preference for warm blood, I was terrified of contact—of their cold, slimy bodies attached to mine.

When I failed to see a shama in time, Rom snapped, “You are wearing leech socks. Why do you worry about leeches?”

Before we left home, he had asked the village tailor to fashion a pair of knee-length stockings. I wore them over my regular socks and pant legs and tied them with a drawstring below my knees. Leeches can wriggle through knitted socks, but the woven fabric of leech socks defeats them. Although the leggings were life-savers, they made me look like an elephantiasis victim.

The monotonous strumming of cicadas reached a deafening crescendo. When the insects couldn’t twang any higher, they fell silent only to try again. The steady drone gave me a headache.

stream-at-low-water

Rom strode through the forest, looking under logs, peering into tree hollows, sticking twigs into burrows. Apparently, you had to work hard to find anything that moved. I dragged my feet behind him, trying hard to lighten up. He hopped like a goat from rock to rock to cross a stream. It seemed easy, but I didn’t have his sense of balance. I slipped and fell, and now I was cold and wet. I began to hate the forest and longed to return home.

That night when I crawled into the sleeping bag, I had a new worry. I asked Rom what we ought to do if an elephant came by. His flippant reply: “Then we’d be no more than chewing gum stuck to the elephant’s sole.”

Despite being physically weary, I lay awake, straining my ears to pick up any sounds above the noise of the rain. Rom was contentedly asleep. Had he told me there were no elephants in Agumbe, I would have slept well that night. I was a gullible foil for his teasing.

Eventually, the sound of rain beating on the tent’s flysheet put me to sleep. It rained hard all night long, like the mythic deluge that dissolved the world. The next day didn’t get better. We lived off instant noodles, soggy biscuits, chewy cashew nuts, limp potato chips. I was done with Agumbe and its rain.

***

Over the years, none of our subsequent trips to other forests fazed me. I learned about elephants, nettles, hornbills and snakes. I adopted Rom’s disdain when anyone else complained of leeches.

Yet, when Rom talked of setting up a research station in Agumbe, the mere thought of returning gave me the heebie-jeebies. We returned in 2004, a decade after my first visit. By then, I wanted to confront my demons. Was it as bad as I remembered?

As soon as we entered the forest, I looked for familiar elements. Long streamers of moss gave the forest a timeless fairy-tale allure. Massive buttresses that helped top-heavy trees stand upright looked like the fins of a rocket. This time I took a deep breath and recognised the earthy fragrance of humus. The path was sprinkled with orange flowers and jade-green fruits. The forest was the same, but I had changed. I couldn’t believe I had been such a wimp. We drove deeper and deeper into the jungle but couldn’t find our old campsite. The jungle had probably reclaimed it.

We followed another track that led to a farmstead in the midst of the forest. Behind an old-fashioned house, coffee and cardamom grew in the shade of areca palms. The house overlooked terraced rice fields that extended down to a stream. We met the family, and Rom enquired if they would consider selling their charming spread. The head of the family replied, indeed they would.

We asked if they saw any king cobras. The old man shook his head vehemently.

“Leopards?”
“No.”
“Wild dogs?”
“No.”
“Any snakes?”
“No.”
“Do you see any animals here at all?”
“No, never.”

He had mistaken us for lily-livered city people.

***

Malabar Pit Viper

Malabar Pit Viper

Rom’s mother gave him money to buy the land, and the Whitley Fund for Nature gave an award to build a research station.

Agumbe was a wonderful place in fair weather. Giant squirrels kept up a constant chatter, racket-tailed drongos baffled us with their mimicry and shy langurs spied on us. Word percolated out to neighbouring villages that Rom and his assistant caught king cobras. Villagers called frequently in the dry pre-monsoon months for help in moving the world’s largest venomous snakes. This was the king cobra mating season, and lust-driven snakes blundered into homes in their hunt for mates. They took refuge in roofs, bathrooms, barns and kitchens. We hadn’t heard of any other place in India with so many king cobras.

That first year in Agumbe was a lesson in monsoon living. Just before the rains arrived, the village bustled with activity. The terracotta-tiled roofs had to be fixed so they didn’t leak. If they did, nothing could be done until the rains stopped.

Following the villagers’ lead, we nailed clear plastic sheets to windows and draped long strips of blue tarpaulin around the granite posts of the veranda, completely enveloping the house.

Flying Frogs

Flying Frogs

As we went back and forth with supplies, we ran into groups of women returning from the forest with baskets of mushrooms and bushels of leaf litter. Through the monsoon months, villagers lined the floors of their cattle sheds with dry leaves. When the substrate got soiled with urine and dung, the women removed the whole lot to compost and spread a fresh layer of leaves. Without the lining, the floor would need washing, and in the
monsoon, it would never dry.

During these expeditions, women found king cobra nests. Female snakes heavy with eggs gather dry leaves lying on the forest floor into a mound—a feat performed by no other snake in the world. They crawl repeatedly over the fluffy piles to compress them. Then they add another layer and pack it down. When they have a foot-high stack, they burrow into it and lay their eggs. Once done, they pile more leaves on top and tamp the whole lot down. A finished nest stands about a metre tall and the same across, a tempting sight for anyone looking to quickly fill her basket with leaves. Often, the mother king cobra stays with her nest for a few weeks, giving the women the fright of their lives.

Anticipation of the rains runs high in the last week of May as everyone hurries through their chores. Mornings are scorching, while thunderstorms cool the afternoons. In kitchens women busily pickle vegetables in salt and stock up on rotund Madras cucumbers. They hang these gourds from the rafters, where they last for months. These days, however, vegetables are trucked in from the plains and there’s a greater variety of fresh produce.

The monsoon sets in gently, with no fanfare. And people don’t welcome it with festivals. Despite the precautions, it was a battle to keep moisture out of the farmhouse. The terracotta roof tiles absorbed so much water, the inside was always wet. Heat from the wood fire in the kitchen did little to dry the roof. Moisture condensed on the walls and settled on beds, clothes and books. Everything felt not just damp, but wet.

One morning, we came upon Rom’s assistant standing in the kitchen with a towel wrapped around his waist, toasting his underwear over the stove. We knew then we had to build better residences for researchers if they were to stay and work comfortably. The key was double roofing. The roof is the most expensive part of building construction; to have two almost doubled the budget. But the innovation was worth it, and the new residences were drier than the farmhouse.

***

Flying Lizard

Flying Lizard

In Hindu mythology, elephants are grounded, mortal, dark monsoon clouds, and the rain god Indra rides Airavata, the white elephant, across the skies. But no elephants had come through these forests for many years, aside from two bulls from Chikmagalur, who visited for a few months about seven years ago. Although Agumbe abuts Kudremukh National Park, tigers are scarce, as are spotted deer. Perhaps these animals find the forest too dense and wet. Leopards, spotted and black, wander through the research station.

A pack of dholes lived nearby, and we were often woken at night by the desperate shrieks of sambar being killed. In drier forests, we would fear elephants and sloth bears, but Agumbe is the realm of king cobras, frogs and leeches.

On my first visit, I had been terrorised by the nature of the forest—the tall trees that obliterate sunlight and rainfall to end all life on the planet. Contrary to fairy tales and mythology, these were precisely the conditions that fostered life. The lack of large heavy-set mammals was more than compensated by the sheer diversity of other forms of life. For numerous creatures the monsoon is the time of procreation.

Large green female flying frogs carry small males piggyback to ponds. Perched above the water, the female starts spawning. Using his hind legs like an eggbeater, the male whips up the spawn until it resembles a meringue. The egg mass hangs suspended until tadpoles emerge and drop into the water below.

A pair from a recently discovered frog species mate while doing a handstand. Still upside down, the female lays her eggs on a twig over the water. After she’s done, the male picks up globs of mud and pats them around the eggs. Does the mud pack protect the spawn from predators? Experts don’t know yet. But as far as they know, no other frog in the world behaves in this charming manner.

King cobra nests may be little more than piles of leaves, but they weather the monsoon battering better than you’d expect. Water runs off the surface of the tightly packed mounds. Humidity in the interior of the nest is not high enough for fungus to grow and not low enough for the soft, leathery eggs to dry out. That’s far better than we managed with our double-roofed houses.

We kept cameras inside three layers of Ziploc bags and laptops snuggled in waterproof Pelican cases. Yet fungus etched pretty designs inside camera lenses. Computers displayed unintelligible error messages or crashed. Dehumidifiers needed electricity, and we had meagre solar power. Our attempts to tap one of the seasonal streams with a micro hydroelectric generator failed. Those king cobra nests may look primitive, but they serve their purpose well.

***

Implanting a Radio in a King Cobra

Implanting a Radio in a King Cobra

Through the monsoon, while the king cobra embryos grew, we anticipated the adults would hunker down and wait out the rains. Instead, one male king cobra implanted with a radio transmitter went snacking. In 16 weeks, he ate 26 pit vipers. These 50-gram snakes were like peanuts for the 5-kg giant. He hunted them down by scent, climbing up trees, bushes, vines and across the forest floor in heavy rain. The amount of effort he put into getting each little snake seemed disproportionate.

With snakes on the move, trackers couldn’t take time off. Dhiraj, one of the young trackers, was following a king cobra when it turned around and approached him. He froze and waited for it to move along. The snake unhurriedly flicked its tongue on the ground, perhaps picking up some interesting odour. A leech inched its way up Dhiraj’s neck and on his face. He didn’t want to disturb the snake, so he didn’t move. When the leech came to his mouth, he chewed it to death and spat it out. That’s the only non-veg to pass Dhiraj’s lips.

***

Monsoon is also a season of activity for villagers. Farmers plough their slushy fields and tend areca palms. While raincoats and umbrellas are common, farm workers still use the kurumbu, a broad, stiff cape made of dry dhup (white dammar) leaves. The hood hooks over the head, covering the shoulders and back, perfect for working hunched over in rice fields. Many residents’ feet are stained purple with tincture of iodine to prevent foot rot. Kasturiakka, the lady of the largest house in the village, serves kashayam, a hot, fragrant brew of 19 spices that wards off cold, to visitors.

After days of not seeing the sun, I asked her, “Do you ever feel you’ve had enough rain? Do you pray to Indra to turn it off?”

“Yes we do,” she replied.

The rain temple, 35km away in Kigga, is not dedicated to Indra as I had expected, but to the antler-headed Rishya Shringeshwara, a young celibate sage. The story goes that he summoned the rain god when the country of Angada was hit by famine. Although I couldn’t find a story of Shringeshwara sending rain clouds away, devotees also pray to him to limit rainfall. But how much is too much? For villagers used to a deluge every year, what would warrant a trip to Kigga? I haven’t found an answer.

I asked Kasturiakka the meaning of Agumbe. I assumed the exotic, almost African-sounding name meant something like “the place where rain clouds dump their goods”.

She replied, “Agumbe is short for Madagumbapura. It means ‘the place with lots of elephants’.” It is an ironic name for a forest with hardly any pachyderms. But Kasturiakka said Agumbe wasn’t named for wild elephants, but the many captive ones that aided logging operations a long time ago.

Consider this, though. According to mythologist and scholar Devdutt Pattanaik, the fluid that leaks from the temples of male elephants in musth is called “mada”. Perhaps a more appropriate, or even poetic, translation of Madagumbapura would be “the playing fields of celestial elephants in musth”.

I may not have wrangled dangerous giant snakes, but Agumbe marked my own rite of passage. Indra’s celestial elephants sent me running once. But now I’m drawn to the annual monsoonal spectacle they unleash on the land.


Janaki Lenin, author of My Husband and Other Animals, delights in discovering history, culture, cuisine and adventure, and then bringing the exotic and unfamiliar to the page. When she’s not writing, she entertains travellers at her homestay, watches animals from her back porch and pretends to be a bipedal mutt with her confused four-legged humans.

2 Comments

  1. Elita August 26, 2015 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    Such an enjoyable and informative read.

  2. maryan klomp October 9, 2015 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    this sounds familiar to me .the life of the rainforest as seen in the gurukula sanctuary.makes me longing to go back again.

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