She was the first king cobra I’d met.
It was August 1993. The female king cobra had arrived for a newly initiated breeding programme at the Madras Crocodile Bank. After Rom released her into the enclosure, the staff and I crowded around to catch a glimpse. She remained hidden in the dark recesses. Was this shy creature the longest venomous species of snake in the world? Intrigued, I returned later in the evening when no one was about.
She lay coiled at the back of the enclosure, but there were lines on the dirt. She had been investigating. She became aware of my presence and lifted her head from her coils. I didn’t want to rudely shine my torchlight directly at her, so I bounced the beam off the ceiling. To my amazement, she tilted her head up and followed the path of the light. None of the other snakes I had seen so far had done that. I wondered if she thought the circle of light was the moon. Maybe not; she had spent many months in another zoo.
She was an adult female king cobra, but she looked vulnerable. As she gazed at the ceiling, the little opening at the tip of her snout seemed to say “Oh.” Perhaps the Danish zoologist Theodore Edward Cantor who described the king cobra scientifically was struck by the snake’s ethereal beauty. He named it Hamadryad, Greek for ‘nymph of the woods’. Finally, I shone the light on my face by way of an introduction. Her eyes followed the light but I couldn’t be sure if she saw me.
Every evening thereafter, I spent quiet meditative moments gazing at her. The fact that she was venomous was no worry because she was safely behind glass. Eventually, she grew used to the new enclosure.
As the weather turned cooler, I’d find her in the adjoining outdoor enclosure enjoying the last rays of the sun. If I were late and arrived after dark, she would be draped on a tree branch, asleep with her eyes open. I tried to get inside her head, and imagine how she saw the world. However, even after months of observation, she remained as unknowable as an extraterrestrial.
My friends asked if it was possible to bond with a snake. I was certainly attached to her, but my feelings were in a different league from my affection for dogs. I was sympathetic, curious, and respectful of her, but I never felt the need to cuddle her, even if I could. It didn’t bother me that she didn’t reciprocate.
Other king cobras arrived, and they were just as gorgeous, large, and dangerous. But the first king cobra remained my favourite. Rom and the staff went to great lengths to simulate the conditions of a rainforest. During the hot summer, sprinklers wet down plants in the enclosures and raised humidity, while air-conditioner-cooled air blew into every king cobra’s enclosure.
Soon after the king cobras settled in at the Croc Bank, Rom and I set out to do fieldwork. I disliked being in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. It was too dark and wet, and numerous leech bites dripped blood and grew itchy. We were travelling through the forests near Kalasa, Karnataka, when we received terrible news: the female king cobra was dead.
Everything I saw around me in the forest reminded me of her. The thick springy leaf litter was alive with frogs and toads, prey of rat snakes, which she would swallow like giant noodles. Cool water dripped down boulders and hillsides, and collected in pools where I imagined she would have loved to drink. The regularly spaced nodes of bamboo culms reminded me of the yellow bands on the king cobra’s black body. By mourning her, I forgot my own discomforts.
Years later, the window that nameless king cobra opened to her world remains ajar.