Nagara Panchami Special - Gururaj Sanil's Tryst with 13,000 Snakes
Pics: Dayanand Kukkaje
Daijiworld Media Network - Udupi
Udupi, Jul 23: 'People with passion can change the world for the better’ – this quote from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs started ringing in my ears when I met and listened to the amazing life story of Gururaj Sanil, a professional snake catcher and social worker from Udupi.
When I say professional it does not mean to say snake catching is his profession. It is just a passion, a passion close to his heart, which he loves, cherishes the most and the one which gives him paramount gratification. So what if this passion has taken him close to the jaws of death more than once, both his forearms bearing evidence of his tryst with dangerous snakes? So what if people who hold him in high esteem, almost treating him like a god till he catches the dangerous reptile that has taken shelter in their cozy homes or compounds, deriding him as “kere pathunaye” (snake catcher) in colloquial language once the job is done? Such attitude or behavior has not dampened his spirit or altered his devotion to his passion which has become a life-saving service for many people of undivided Dakshina Kannada. His passion has certainly brought about a sea-change in the mindset of the people towards snakes.
On the other hand people like RJ Avinash and many other youngsters are simply in awe of him. Having seen Gururaj’s uncanny ability to catch some of the dangerous snakes, from their younger days, for them he is a hero. They hold him in high esteem both for his service to the society and also for rendering yeoman’s’ service to the fragile ecosystem by nurturing wounded snakes and saving many more from the grips of man – the most dangerous animal of all.
In the last 10 years alone he caught and released 12,921 snakes and another 10,000 can be easily added to this number if a proper account was maintained ever since he began to evince keen interest in this hobby. What started merely as a curiosity in early childhood for Gururaj Sanil slowly developed into a mighty hobby. Apart from catching snakes he has shown keen interest in studying in detail about the various types of snake, poisonous and non-poisonous, their food habits, their reproduction patterns, behavior, on treating wounded snakes, providing artificial incubation to snake eggs etc. He has brought out with a book titled “haavu-naavu” (snakes and us) which gives vital information to public on snakes, with the singular object of dispelling all prevailing misgivings about snakes.
Keeping Low Profile
“I am not an expert on snakes though I have studied a lot about them in the last 30 years of my close association with them” he says trying to project a low profile. At the same time he admits that it was the recognition he got as a snake catcher that spurred him following which he began to work hard with astounding results. His passion is not confined to merely catching snakes and rescuing them. He also gives demonstrations in schools and organizations to educate people and so far he has given 93 demonstrations all over the state.
For a career, Gururaj worked in his own auto for 22 years and recently he has decided to devote more time for his passion. His passion however, does not feed him & his family because his is a free service and only recently he started charging only petrol expenses whenever people contact him for catching snakes. He is happy that his work had produced a marked change in the psyche of people. “Earlier people used to kill a snake the moment they found one. But now they at least think of calling me, which is a welcome development. Now people are knowledgeable and don’t merely go by superstitions when it comes to snakes”, he points out.
Now Gurururaj is into miniature plant business (bonsai) and is into art field ever since he gave up driving auto two years ago. He is associated with the art gallery coming up in Manipal where along with a few other partners. They are planning to exhibit miniature plants, painting and clay items at this gallery. His small garden boasts of a variety of miniature plants which he is taking care painstakingly.
Initially it was just curiosity that drove him to snakes. He was fascinated by a python that was kept in the school aquarium in Kadiyali Hr Primary School Udupi where he was studying. Students were on their toes to feed the python with rats and Gururaj used to watch the snake for hours together with child-like curiosity. He first caught a snake when he was in 4th class and slowly graduated to catch other snakes including cobras within the next 2/3 years. Since then he developed a close empathy with snakes and he is a well-known name in Udupi and other parts of Karnataka.
A Close Brush with Death
Gururaj Sanil has been bitten by poisonous snakes 11 times so far and on two occasions the repercussions were deadly. However, the venomous cobra bite on his left forearm in the year 2000 took him close to the death bed. Guruprasad had caught 16 snakes on that day and he received another call (17th one) that late evening saying a cobra was caught in the net of a well inside a hospital compound. Though dead tired he responded only to find a huge cobra entangled in the net. It was wounded due to attempts by people to cut open the net. The cobra bit him on his left hand in a confused milieu when the boy who was putting the torch to help Gururaj got frightened and ran away when the snake suddenly escaped and began to hiss opening its hood.
As the incident occurred in the hospital compound he was treated within 10 minutes. But in his case the Cobra has succeeded in putting 80% of venom in his victim and the impact was severe. Within no time he could feel all his body parts falling apart one by one and finally he lost consciousness and went to coma. “I could feel the changes one by one happening in my body till I began to face breathing problems. That is when I got slightly worried” he says recalling the incident. He was shifted to another hospital where he regained consciousness only after three days. By then his left hand had swollen and shown signs of gangrene. He spent 4½ months in the hospital where he underwent grafting for the entire forearm till his wrist. That was the darkest period of his life as there was no income and he had to spend a lot on hospital bills.
After this bitter experience there was a lull for 2 years in his snake catching activity as the family took time to come out of the harsh reality. In addition, the family which was flabbergasted by that incident took him to Sharadambe temple at Shringeri shere he was compelled to take a vow with his hand on his young son’s head saying he would not attempt to catch snakes again. But circumstances forced him to break the vow when a man came seeking his help saying a cobra has fallen into the cradle of a sleeping child accidentally while attempting to catch a rat inside their home and had enveloped the child’s stomach.
At this critical juncture Gururaj was in a quandary remembering the oath he had taken and also the sad plight of the father who had come to him seeking help to save his child. Finding himself in a catch 22 situation he telephoned his friend, guide, mentor and Guru K Balaram Bhat who said “that day you felt like taking the oath and today you want to break the oath and help. Go ahead by all means”. That was just the kind of push he needed and Gururaj listened to his heart and went to the rescue of the family. As the snake had engulfed the sleeping child’s stomach he held the child’s torso and tossed it upwards in a matter of split seconds without giving a chance for the cobra to react. The snake was taken aback by the sudden development and began to hiss with its hood open. This incident marks the second stint of Gururaj Sanil into his favorite hobby.
He had another cobra bite in 2006 and this time the bite was on the backside of his right hand palm. Again there was gangrene and grafting was done on the palm. But nothing perturbs him anymore. As we see him catching a cobra which he was nursing K Balaram Bhat his guide and mentor tells us “no snake catcher is bold enough to catch a snake like Gururaj does. He is just a cut above the rest”.
Gururaj Sanil still feels that more awareness has to be created among people about snakes and superstitious associated with them. Gururaj is flooded with many calls from people from different parts of the country asking him to supply “Irthale haaveu” (Sand Boa). These snakes are in high demand and smugglers are ready to offer Rs. 50 lakhs to over 1 crore for one snake. Some people bury these snakes alive and build multi-story buildings on them believing that such buildings are invincible to natural or other calamities. Another factor which he feels highly about is the renovation of Nagabanas as the concrete ones are not conducive for the safety and growth of snakes.
Gururaj is grateful for his wife Geetha and their only son who is studying Civil Engineering for their full support, without which he says he would not have been able to devote much time for his passion. I only want to add that his passion has changed the attitude of people towards snakes for the better.
Gururaj is member of Snake Care Division & Wild Life Sub- committee and also member of Karuna Animal Welfare Association of Karnataka.
Gururaj can be contacted on mobile number: 98450 83869.