Print edition : November 05, 2004

IN Musharu, a quaint little pastoral village about 40 km from Bardhman town, snake charmers are not allowed. Man and snake have lived together in perfect harmony in this village, where the venomous monocled cobra is worshipped as an incarnation of goddess Jhankeswari.

A monocled cobra, sharing space with humankind at Musharu village.-PARTH SANYAL

The village is infested with cobras. They can be found lying next to a person on his bed or curled up on the kitchen stool. The people are not scared of them. Even when bitten, the victim does not go to a doctor. Instead he or she takes a dip in the local pond, rubs the mud taken from the pond into the wound and fasts for a day. The next morning the victim is fit to work in the fields.

"This is the only place in India where such a unique relationship exists," said Herpetologist Dipak Mitra. Mitra has visited this village and confirms that the snakes are indeed cobras, which can kill with their venom. But they do not always release poison when they bite.

The local people call the cobras Jhankesis. Legend has it that in 911 A.D. Goddess Jhankeswari appeared in the dream of the village priest, Murali Manohar Chakraborti, and asked him to set up seven villages, where she would be worshipped in the form of a monocled cobra. The villages he is supposed to have set up are Musharu, Palsona, Chhoto Posla, Boro Posla, Nigon, Shikottor and Moidan. The current priest, Nayan Chakraborti, who claims to be a descendant of Murali Manohar, said: "Nobody is allowed to kill snakes in this village. If a snake dies by accident or natural causes, it is put in an earthen vessel and taken to the Ganga to be set adrift."

According to the residents, nobody in the village has died of snake-bite. Said a resident, Purna Chandra Sai: "They have never harmed us. Moreover, the Jhankesi never strikes like other snakes; it just nips us. We don't grudge it that. In fact, we consider ourselves blessed when that happens." Even as he spoke, a cobra slithered over his feet, paused as if to inspect them, and went on its way again.

Even small children refer to these deadly creatures in familiar tones. "That old Jhankesi lives in the loft where my mother keeps her utensils, and drops them every time I'm trying to sleep or concentrate on my studies," said an eight-year-old girl.

According to the villagers, these snakes never go beyond the boundaries of the village, and neither do they allow other snakes to come in. "They keep us safe from other snakes," said 74-year-old Dhirendranath Samanta, who got bitten recently while cleaning his cowshed. Apart from the swelling on the little finger of his right hand, where the snake had struck, there is no other sign of illness. "When the Jhankesi bites me, I consider myself the prasad (offering for the Goddess). Why should I be afraid? This is not the first time I have been bitten," he said.

Though humans, dogs and goats survive the Jhankesi's occasional bouts of irritation, ducks and hens are not so lucky. But, fortunately for the people, this is not a regular occurrence.

Of the seven villages set up by Murali Manohar, only Musharu and Palsona have the cobras, more of them in Musharu than in Palsona. Every June-July, a festival is held in the village in honour of the Jhankesis and goddess Jhankeswari. The whole village comes alive as humankind and snakes celebrate a baffling and beautiful relationship.

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