In shaded corners of sultry groves across Kerala, you can find stone deities coated in turmeric nestled at the foot of a tree. These shrines mark a sacred space known as the sarpa kavu or snake forests.
Kerala, known for its preponderance of coconut trees, is also home to an impressive array of snakes. In fact, there are currently four apps available for identifying the over 100 varieties of snakes found in the region. Kerala was also the first Indian state to mandate a certification process for safe techniques to remove snakes. Interestingly, women have a higher pass rate (69% compared to 58% of men) in the exam process even though they represent a minority of the course participants. Perhaps, the success of women in handling snakes is not surprising given that snakes have long been associated with divine female energies such as the Nagayakshi.
Today, the Nagayakshi Temple in Pulikkal, part of Palakad in Kerala near the border of Tamil Nadu, is dedicated to Nagayakshi Amma and includes several groves designated as sarpa kavu. While there are also male deities represented like her consort Nagaraja Swamy as well as other goddesses including Sarpayakshi Amma, the temple is named after Nagayakshi as the primary goddess. It is also believed that the founder of Kerala, Lord Parashurama, initiated serpent worship because he viewed snakes as protectors of nature.
History of Snake Worship
One of the rituals dedicated to snake deities practiced in Kerala is the sarpam thulal where young girls go into trance and rhythmically destroy a kalam, a portrait of a deity made from colored powders across the floor. Such rites were associated with fertility and a similar snake goddess Manaasa is also worshipped by women in West Bengal. The sarpum thulal and other types of snake worship in Kerala were led by the Pulluvan caste who performed the music associated with this practice using simple instruments such as a one string veena and an overturned clay pot which is used as a makeshift drum.
In addition to the association of snakes to fertility, sarpa kavus were often attached to temples and theravads, joint-family houses of the Nair community were known for their matrilineal traditions. My paternal aunt often told me of the strong women in our Nair heritage who managed their family’s agricultural property and could divorce their husbands simply by leaving a rolled-up bed mat outside the house.
Modern Implications for Conservation
While sitting in a long car ride with my aunt when I was teenager, she continued to tell me how a family she knew had been cursed with misfortune when they cleared a sarpa kavu to build their house. I listened wide-eyed to this cautionary tale and as I grew older, I wondered if stories like this were meant to protect these sacred spaces. Perhaps there were reasons to keep the bits of wilderness reserved as the dominion of the snakes.
It turns out that Kerala’s forests and the Western Ghats are known as biodiversity hotspots. As far back as the 17th century, the Dutch governor commissioned a catalog of all medicinal plants on the Malabar coast. With the help of local rulers including the King of Cochin, they assembled a group of Malaylee physicians and botanists who eventually compiled the 12 volumes cataloguing 732 different plants.
Through the recent advent of genomic sequencing technology, scientists can now understand the molecular complexity of these plants even better. For example, bioinformatians at the University of Kerala recently decoded the genome of arogyapacha – an herb shown to be effective against cancer as well as diabetes and other inflammatory diseases. We have yet to fully explore the properties of these flora and fauna which could have implications in medicine development.
Furthermore, in an increasingly crowded world, it becomes even more important to keep room for nature not just as vast parks or nature reserves but also small spaces around us. In fact, deforestation has been shown to increase risks of infectious viruses spreading from animals to humans. Preserving these natural spaces for the sake of snakes actually benefits us all. Sarpa kavus, bits of untamed forest once stewarded by matrilineal families, are still relevant to conservation in the modern world.
About the Author
Lakshmi Santhosh Maithel is passionate about the dissemination of scientific research to wider audiences. Her interests include space exploration as well as biotechnology and genomics. She was born in India, raised in California and now lives in Boston. You can follow her writing on Medium.