What do you know about snakes?

There was once a time when much of the knowledge of India was recorded by members of the Indian Civil Service, some of their best-known contributions being the district gazetteers, works on flora and fauna, and treatises on communities. Their successors, the members of the Indian Administrative Service, have contributed far less, particularly during their days in service. But, in retirement, there have been significant contributions by some. One former civilian who has made such a contribution, particularly to provide greater information on a particular subject to laymen, has been B. Vijayaraghavan, who, as Chairman of the Chennai Snake Park Trust, has written extensively on snakes, particularly the snakes of India, and people connected with ophiology.

His latest book, 400 Questions Answered About Snakes (Chennai Snake Park Trust; email:cspt1972@gmail.com), is the most fascinating of his contributions. As captivating as his answers on subjects ranging from snake names and behaviour to trivia, are his answers to questions that go beyond the routine. Quizmasters would love questions such as

* When did the first snake appear and where?

* Which is the longest snake recorded?

* What is the maximum speed of a snake on land?

* What is ophiophagy?

* In which well-known short story is a snake used to commit a murder?

Let me just summarise one answer I found of particular interest. To the question, “What is the origin of the word ‘anaconda'?” Vijayaraghavan says it could be from the Tamil anai and konran (elephant killer). But, there are no anacondas in India, leave alone Tamil Nadu. The name, however, Vijayaraghavan states, is traced to Sri Lankan origins, both Sinhala and Tamil. He adds that a 17{+t}{+h} Century British scientist, John Ray, in his List of Indian Serpents, uses the word ‘anaconda' to describe a snake (python?) “which crushed the limbs of buffaloes and yoked beasts.” Vijayaraghavan, concludes, “How the word travelled to South America is not clear. The person responsible was the 19{+t}{+h} Century French zoologist Francois Marie Daudin.” Given the Ceylon-Brazil Portuguese connection in the 16{+t}{+h} Century, I would, however, think it quite possible that the Tamil-Sinhala versions travelled from the island to South America, and resulted in the naming of what would have been seen as the ‘South American python'.

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Lakeside musings

I was happy to hear that Barbara King (Miscellany, April 5) had caught up with Dr. K.M. Rai's daughter Nalini Shetty at the recent Platinum Jubilee celebrations of the Barnard Institute of Radiology at the Government General Hospital, Chennai. Writing to me about their meeting, Nalini Shetty adds that the Dr. Rai Memorial Medical Centre on Mount Road in Teynampet is a part of a large building complexthat was developed on the site of a garden house called Lakeside, in which the Shettys lived for many years. The name of the house reminded me that, well into the 20{+t}{+h} Century, the area west of Mount Road from Guindy to Nungambakkam was a large boomerang-shaped lake called the Long Tank, where, for many years, the Madras Boat Club held its practices and regattas.

Coincidentally, a few days earlier, I received a large flat case which contained a cornucopia of material that formed part of an imaginative invitation to a function in connection with the soon-to-be released film Madharasapattinam, with which I had a peripheral connection, including a couple of items in this column some months ago. The invitation case included old photographs of Madras, stills from the film and, relevant to today's item, a copy of a map of Madras published in 1921 by V.A. Hasted, Director, Survey Office, Madras. The map did not locate Lakeside but across from where the Rai Centre now is, I did find Abbotsbury — which by the 1940s became Teynampet Villa, before becoming Abbotsbury again — Rostrevor Gardens, and the Surgeon General's Office.

Surgeon Generals lived on the same side as Lakeside, but in the Nandanam area (in fact, quite possibly in Lushington Gardens, that still stands). Living by the Long Tank, Surgeon Generals, including W.R. Cornish (Miscellany, April 5), allowed a boat house to function in their back garden by the lakeside and shamianas to be put up for spectators and entertainment during regattas.

Looking at old maps of the city is something that has always fascinated me. And, this map of 1921 reveals how scant the population was in Perambur, Nungambakkam and the area south of Peter's Road to the Adyar River, the then city limits. Large areas in this emptiness, however, are marked out as garden houses. This spaciousness lingered even in the 1940s, a map of which I compared with this welcome gift.

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When the postman knocked …

G.Sundaram, a director of Oriental Hotels Ltd, tells me that Chipstead was indeed the garden house on which the Taj Coromandel, which the Company promoted, was raised. He recalls Sudhakara Reddy, a member of the promoter's family, telling him about this house in which he had played as a child.

Messaging me from New South Wales has been Dr. A. Raman who tells me that during his research, he came across a mention of a Moodeen Sheriff in an 1862 copy of the Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science. Moodeen Sheriff reports in the journal's column titled ‘Medical Miscellany' on two coronial inquests he had attended. One was titled ‘Extensive disease of the heart — sudden death' and the other, ‘Injury to chest (fracture of ribs, perforation of right lung, emphysema of the trunk) and death'. Raman wonders whether Mohideen Sheriff (Miscellany April 5) and Moodeen Sheriff were one and the same person, particularly given the time gap between the present 1862 reference and my 1882 date of publication of the materia medica. Different spellings of a particular Indian name — and even of some English names — in those times was commonplace, so I would judge the two references to be to the same person. As for the dates, I would think Sheriff was a student or intern in 1862 and a medical practitioner in one of the locally prevalent medical systems 20 years later.

* My item on Kulapathi S. Balakrishna Joshi (Miscellany, March 29) has brought me a heap of responses. I quote from two which particularly struck me:

K. Vedamurthy writes: “One morning, I found the Kanchi Paramacharya intently listening to a disciple reading an article written in English by Kulapathi Joshi in the Annual Number of the Sri Sankara Bhakta Jana Sabha. All of a sudden, His Holiness looked up and saw me standing with folded hands in deep reverence. He smiled and asked me whether by any chance I was acquainted with the Kulapathi. I said I knew him very well (I lived in Gopalapuram when he was Principal of the DAV School there). Then the Paramacharya said, “He is one of the very few in our country who is given to express himself candidly, saying the good things that needed to be said aloud, whether anybody cared or not to listen to him.” He then inserted a tulsi leaf in between the pages of the Kulapathi's article in the souvenir, by way of conveying his blessings to him, and asked that it be handed over to the Kulapathi in person.”

V.S. Ramana writes, I was in the first batch of DAV students (a boys-only school in 1975). My father was aware of the Kulapathi's contributions to education and was keen that I should study there, despite living in Pallavaram and having to travel all the way to Gopalapuram. His focus on the weekly Friday Zhavan, chanting of shloka-s, in moral science class is still green in my memory. I recite even now all the chanting, almost in the manner and the sequence that he taught us… The school had morning prayers and also evening prayers (must have been unique in this). ‘Gaya Savera aayi Shaam, sesh huey din ko subh kaam' was the note — a reminder that the day was closing and heralding the evening; wishing all the best for the remainder of the day and praying for divine help/intervention for work pending and for success. I still hear the words.”