I didn’t know that the cobra could be so awe-inspiring.

A few years ago, when I travelled through the dry, thorny scrublands of South India, someone had pointed at the raised hood of this snake by the roadside. At the time, though, I was inside an air-conditioned car on a perfectly paved highway that stretched like a gash on the countryside. The speed of the car and my urban eyesight had shielded me from its power.

Now, I was standing less than 3m away from a cobra, with only a short brick wall separating us. I couldn’t take my eyes off the hissing, striking, fully grown king of snakes.

“We are trimming trees outside,” said Rajendran, calmly handling the cobra, one of India’s most venomous snakes, wearing only a loose cotton shirt and a faded lungi (sarong). He guided the cobra towards a clay pot using a long metal rod with a smooth hook at the end. “The vibrations of that work are making the snake nervous.”

I was in Vadanemmeli, a small coastal village on the outskirts of Chennai, to meet Rajendran. On that blindingly hot day, the sun was turning the waters of the Bay of Bengal into sparkling bands of silver as he spoke about his work with snakes. He belongs to the Irula tribe, one of India’s oldest indigenous communities, who live along the north-eastern coast of the state of Tamil Nadu. They are known for their ancient and intimate knowledge of snakes, and their skills form an important but nearly invisible part of the healthcare system in India.

“Many people are scared of snakes,” he said standing next to a large sign of the non-venomous snakes of the region. “But we must remember that the snake is only interested in survival. If we move in agitation, the snake perceives a threat and can strike. If we stand still, however, it will often slither away.”

We were at the offices of the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Co-Operative Society, which was formed in 1978 in Vadanemmeli to capture snakes and extract their venom. Nearly 50,000 people die of snake bites each year in the country, and the only reliable treatment is the prompt administration of antivenom. Six companies across India produce around 1.5 million vials of antivenom annually, and most of it is derived from the venom extracted by the Irulas.

Rajendran jumped into a sunken sandpit enclosed by a low brick wall, telling me to remain outside. A high thatched roof protected the space from the sun, and a small raised platform in the centre of the pit had a simple blackboard with details of the snakes being held in the facility. This was the venom extraction site.

Rajendran retrieved a Russell’s viper from a pot in a corner of the sandpit and placed it on the platform. The beautiful circular patterns on its skin often inspire fear because it is one of the most aggressive venomous snakes in the region.

“We aren’t holding too many snakes right now,” he said, pointing to the numerous rows of empty clay pots, neatly arranged outside the thatched structure. Each pot will be half-filled with sand before housing two snakes each, and the mouth of the pot will be carefully sealed with porous cotton cloth so that the snakes can’t leave the pot but there is still enough air. It is a necessary precaution, especially when the number of venomous snakes is so large, both for the safety of the snakes and for human beings in the area.

The co-operative has official licenses to hold about 800 snakes at a time. “We keep every snake for 21 days, and extract venom four times during that period,” Rajendran said. The snakes are then released into the wild. A small mark on their belly scales prevents the same snake from being caught repeatedly. “The mark goes away after a few moulting’s”.

Rajendran’s confidence in handling snakes and his deep understanding of these creatures are derived from a childhood spent in the forests and scrublands of the region. Before he turned 10, he had seen hundreds of snakes being captured. The Irulas usually work in silence, even when they go into the forest with others. They instinctively know the significance of faint signs on the ground to either follow clues or dismiss them. However, they often find it hard to articulate the details of their understanding, even to people who study reptiles.

I left Vadanemmeli with a slightly keener eye for these reptiles. I wondered, though, whether I would be able to follow Rajendran’s advice if I encountered a cobra in the wild. I somehow doubted I would be able to stand still long enough for it to calm down and slither away. It is much more likely that I would send a prayer and try to outrun the snake.

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