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Snake wrestlers

March 02, 2012 06:39 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 10:17 am IST

Fight Club: A pair of duelling king cobras Photo: Janaki Lenin

Fight Club: A pair of duelling king cobras Photo: Janaki Lenin

Snakes do not dance. Humans do, birds do. But snakes don’t. What most people call “mating dance” is actually a wrestling match between two male snakes of the same species.

In towns and villages across southern India, carved stone sculptures of snakes intertwined in combat are installed under trees near temples. These fertility offerings are made by couples who want to conceive a son. While male snakes fight over a female, humans celebrate this ultimate show of serpentine virility for a male heir.

Through most of the year, snakes live solitary lives focusing on hunting, basking, and resting. When breeding season comes, some active species travel far and wide looking for mates and territorial boundaries blur. Combat then becomes necessary to establish the boss.

Not all male snakes show off their fighting prowess; only those species whose males grow larger than the females flex their muscles. But there are exceptions. Male cobras, for instance, are larger than females, but don’t wrestle. In species with larger females, she chooses her mate from the bevy of suitors writhing all over her.

Among the fighting species, male snakes have no illusions about their machismo. Instead of stupidly challenging large dudes, small guys slink away into the bushes and wait to fight another day. When two virile snakes are evenly matched and both think they are better endowed, a duel ensues.

How does a tubular animal with no arms or legs wrestle? They could bite each other, but that would leave them both with severe injuries. It would be worse if they had venom. These supremely civilised creatures have evolved a code of honour; they keep their mouths firmly shut through the entire bout. Survival plays umpire.

Duelling snakes twine their lower bodies around each other, rise high off the ground and try to slam the opponent to the ground. Their heads weave higher and higher, midair, as each tries to gain the height necessary to throw the rival down. Their fluid and graceful movements seems more like dance than battle. It can go on for an hour and saps the snakes of energy. Stamina is a prime criterion for winning. The one that tires and gives up first is the loser.

After recuperating, a defeated snake could challenge the victor again. There is probably much at stake if he’s willing to invest so much energy in dislodging one dominant male. As with many male-male competitions, women are probably the cause.

There’s often a female snake in the vicinity of such coiled combat.

When two snakes are engrossed in each other, they become oblivious to their surroundings. A pair of large king cobras fought a long, hard battle across a bridge in Karnataka while people parked their vehicles and gathered around to watch. Unmindful of spectators, snakes have fought in rice fields, plantations, and the courtyards of farmhouses.

Once, while watching a pair of king cobras jousting, one of them suddenly slithered off at great speed. Rom, right in its way and caught on the wrong foot, couldn’t move fast enough. He did the next best thing, stood stock still. The eleven-foot-long snake shot between his legs, and a split second later, reached up and bit Rom on the bum.

Rom knew something terrible was happening just from seeing my horrified expression. In the tense silence of the moment, the sound of the king cobra’s numerous teeth ripping through denim rent every cord of my heart. A second later, the snake was gone.

We crowded around Rom, examining his rear end for drops of blood. Fortunately, the fangs hadn’t made contact with skin.

While we were still shaken, Rom joked that had he been bitten, he would have found out who his friends were. Seeing my blank expression, he said with a wink, “Only a true friend would suck the venom out.”

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