India is home to over 270 species of snakes, out of which about 60 are venomous. In many cultures world over, consumption of snakes for their medicinal property is acceptable and considered a delicacy. Knowledge accumulated through centuries of interaction with the natural habitat by the aboriginal and tribal people is dying slowly as communities are being mainstreamed into the formal structures that conform to the law of the land. It is understandable that with development some information is bound to be lost as communities disappear in transition. It is thus pertinent that the scientific community takes proactive steps to document tribal knowledge in India and conclusively evaluate the claims of Bastar’s traditional knowledge systems in the treatment of various ailments using snakes and snake products.
The plateau land, Bastar, is located in the southern part of Chhattisgarh and situated at a height of 609.6 m above sea level. The beauty of Bastar in terms of its deep green forests and vibrant tribal life has often been described in texts both ancient and modern. The inhabitants of Bastar, both tribal and non-tribal, their traditional living ways, medicinal plants and cultural aspects have always aroused the interest of researchers. However, a focus on ethno-ophiology practices has not been reported. The information documented here is based on data collected from both tribal and non-tribal medicine men. The people of Bastar, like many other indigenous people world over, believe that the efficacy of their therapies will be lost if disclosed to strangers. The snake derived remedies and the manner in which the medicines were prepared and administered were recorded. Most of the species are common and easily identified using zoological references.
Various snakes were observed during the course of the study. From the marking of their territory and capturing, to usage and proffered remedies for ailments, all events were documented. Here we present a brief account of remedies that various common snakes have been traditionally put to.
Snake: Ptyas mucosus, Common rat snake
Used for: Fats and oils of these snakes are used to cure joint pain. The meat of the snake is cooked and eaten to help alleviate weakness and regain vigour.
Snake: Naja tripudians, Cobra
Used for: Blood of cobra reportedly increases sexual virility. The blood is drained while the cobra is still alive (when and if possible) mixed with rice liquor, and used as tonic to increase sexual performance. Fats and oils of the cobra are messaged onto the head to cure hair loss. It is also claimed that applied externally on the head and forehead cobra fat can cure migraine and also rapidly heal fractured bones.
Snake: Python moLurus, Python
Used for: Cooked meat of the snake can reportedly alleviate weakness and help regain vigour. It is often roasted and offered to children in tasty morsels to ward off malnutrition among the young ones. Bile of the python is used as an antidote against spider and venomous snake bites. The fat of the snake is applied to relieve body ache, rheumatic and burn wound pain. Although not medicine and more in the realm of faith, the tail bone of the python adorns the throat of many tribal people of Bastar, as a locket to allegedly wards off evil spirits.
Snake: Vipera russelli, Russel’s viper
Used for: A powerful and poisonous reptile, the Russel’s viper finds little favour in the tribal medicine system of Bastar. Remedies associated with it are restricted to its scales being placed beside patients suffering from fever. An interesting religious belief includes the tradition of keeping viper scales in lockers and chests as a lucky charm to gain much in earning.
Snake: Lachesis gramineus, Bamboo snake
Used for: The raw flesh of the snake is marinated in the fermented rice drink Landa and used as tonic to improve appetite, and to strengthen bones, tendons and muscles.
Snake: Eryx johni, Black earth boa
Used for: The fat and oil extracted from the snake are applied on the chest to reportedly cure asthma.
The present study is a brief outline of what could conceivably be a vast repository of untapped knowledge. However, there are several issues that need to be tackled before such information may be documented. First and foremost is to win the trust of the tribal medicine men and respect their remedies instead of scoffing it off as occult mumbo-jumbo. Inroads into tribal their communities is the toughest job of all. Once that is achieved, adequate scientific study is required to not only document the snake products, but to also observe their clinical trials. In this way, traditional snake products from the distant plateau lands of Bastar will find its way into modern medicine and perhaps help save many lives world over .