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The name of the snake

Bockadam: A Telugu-Aussie connection Photo: Rom Whitaker   | Photo Credit: mail

I was electrified on reading the newspaper that morning. Australian aborigines were not as isolated as we had believed (‘When Indians Ended Australian Isolation’, The Hindu, January 16, 2013). An interesting finding, but it had a major import on another subject.

Rom has long said the dog-faced water snake is known by the same name, bockadam, in Telugu and an Australian aborigine language. It seemed impossible that the name would date to the first migration of humans into Australia more than 50,000 years ago. It also seemed too coincidental to expect two different races to come up with the same name independently. So how did the name come to be in two corners of the world? Since reading the January news, I imagined a group of Telugu sailors either learning the name or teaching it to the Australian aborigines 4,000 years ago.

The dog-faced water snake is found in lagoons, estuaries, and mangroves from India to Australia. It’s a grayish snake with dark bars along the body. It’s mildly venomous and not a threat to human life. In other words, there is nothing exceptional about the snake to feature in a conversation between two regular blokes of two races meeting after thousands of years.

But there was no mistaking it: Australian reptile enthusiasts refer to the dog-faced water snake as bockadam. In recent years, the Australian population of the snake became a separate species and earned the name, Australian bockadam, while ours is called Asian bockadam or New Guinea bockadam.

Which of the hundreds of aboriginal groups used the name? Rom didn’t know.

I sent out emails to reptile people in Andhra Pradesh, Australia, and the U.S. enquiring about the origin of bockadam.

Farida Tampal, a herpetologist based in Hyderabad, confirmed the Telugu name was ‘bokadan’.

I asked, “What does it mean?”

She didn’t respond.

But Soham Mukherjee, another herpetologist, reported that Telugu snake hunters called the snake ‘neer katta paamu’. It means ‘water snake’. As I suspected, the checkered keelback, the most numerous species of water snake, is also called ‘neer katta paamu’.

Rick Shine, University of Sydney, Australia, replied, “I would doubt that aboriginal people had separate names for the different homalopsines [the family of water snakes to which bockadam belongs].” Come to think of it, why would Telugu people have a specific name for the species?

Harold Voris of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, an expert on water snakes, replied, “I have not found anything that can help trace the origin of bockadam. I can say that I doubt that its origin is from native Australians.”

David Williams, University of Melbourne, Australia, said, “I actually believe the name has its origins in Indonesia, although some do say that it is an aboriginal name. I quickly searched some aboriginal lexicons but found no mention of it there.”

A few expressed ignorance, and others said they’d get back to me. Two months have gone by and no one has any leads.

Bockadam did not feature in a list of commonly used English words derived from aboriginal languages for Australian fauna.

I checked lists of snakes of every bockadam country in Southeast Asia, and they all used the name, ‘dog-faced water snake’.

There was little evidence of bockadam in any aboriginal language. Was it a pedigree Telugu name? I’m not fully certain.

I pored over Rom’s snake books, and discovered that Patrick Russell was the man who inducted the species into scientific literature in the late 18th Century, and mentioned the Telugu name, bokadam.

It seems likely the Australians picked up the name from Russell’s treatise An Account Of Indian Serpents Collected On The Coast Of Coromandel published in 1796.

Although the Telugu-Aussie connection is not centuries old, still the idea that a nondescript snake is called by the same unusual name in two distant locations by two races is appealing and intriguing.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 5:54:02 PM |

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