Quest

In Search of the Snake Demon

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In the heart of Thar Desert, a mysterious snake is believed to be sucking the life out of its victims in their sleep without ever having to bite. Horror stories about the peeuna (one that drinks) have travelled across the sands for centuries. We chase the myth to find the snake behind the scare

A mysterious snake is believed to be sucking the life out of its victims in their sleep. We chase the myth

The furrows between their narrowed eyes cut deep. The chunky gold earrings glistened with sweat in the morning sun. The spades came down in short bursts and threw up coarse desert sand in the air. Their shrill excitement betrayed discomfort. Never before had they even thought of catching snakes alive.

The Kolis are the traditional snake people in this part of Rajasthan. But they do not pet snakes for a living. In the desert where snakes are no less fabled than demons, Kolis only have to display dead snakes—venomous or not—to earn a fast buck. But this morning, their brief was different.

Suddenly, a scream erupted from the huddle around the rodent burrow that was being carefully dug up. As the bodies straightened all around me, I bent over and saw the forked pink tongue flickering out of the rat hole at our feet. The shovels came down a few more times and the shiny red head was exposed.

Immediately, I identified the snake. My heart sank. But the Kolis were hysterical. “Catch it! Catch the peeuna before it strikes!” As the majestic 4-feet-long snake wriggled between my fingers, I feared that my quest had hit a dead end.

I had first heard of the peeuna in 2002 at a highway dhaba in Pokhran, the site of India’s two nuclear tests. Some locals were discussing snakes and what I gathered in fifteen minutes or so sounded bizarre, more so coming from the seat of the new, nuclear India. In the deserts of Rajasthan, a snake called peeuna killed victims in their sleep by sucking their breath out. It struck in the night and envenomed victims through their breath.

I heard the same story again last year, this time from a young field biologist. Dr Dharmendra Khandal was passing through the Thar in 2007 when he learnt about the myth. Many deaths, he said, were still blamed on the peeuna.

This got me thinking. Science certainly could not explain a “breath-taking” snake, but obviously, something was killing dozens of people in the dead of night in the Thar. Was it a snake? Or was it something else?

Extensive search on the web yielded little. The peeuna myth was apparently prevalent beyond the boundaries of India, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, where the snake was also known as phookni (one that blows).

A couple of websites identified peeuna or phookni as the Sindh Krait (Bungarus sindanus)—a rarely reported variety of Krait believed to be ‘10-15 times more venomous than India’s big four’ —Cobra, Russell’s Viper, Saw-scaled Viper and Common Krait. Apparently, the Sindh Krait’s habitat—in and around the Thar—was where this peeuna or phookni myth was prevalent.

There was no preserved specimen of the Sindh Krait anywhere in India. One authoritative source that offered clues to the Sindh Krait’s identification was A Contribution to the Herpetology of West Pakistan (1966) by Sherman A Minton Jr, where he talked about a Krait variety with a mid-body scale count of 17 (instead of the usual 15). Minton also mentioned that pee-un was a local name for the Sindh Krait. But nothing known about the Sindh Krait suggested that it could envenom victims by breathing or blowing.

My rather disappointing research ended in September, the beginning of the three-month high snake season in the Thar Desert. Arranging for Dr Dharmendra Khandal and his precious kit of anti-venom serum to join me on the way, I headed for ground zero.

Our first stop was Jaipur, where we had sought an appointment with Vishnu Dutt Sharma, who had retired as Principal Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan. Nearly an hour had passed on Sharma’s terrace garden in Jaipur since I drove down from Delhi but there was little headway.

Like us, Sharma had heard about the peeuna and he confirmed that the geographical reach of the myth coincided with the region of the shifting sand dunes.

On Sharma’s recommendation, we hit the road again for a 300-km drive, to the desert headquarters of Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) at Jodhpur.

As chance would have it, we stopped for dinner at the Tiranga Dhaba, a few kilometres from the town of Barr. Raju, the diminutive proprietor, left the cash counter to join us the moment we mentioned snakes. “We have had a naag (cobra) at this dhaba for years but it never struck anybody. His ways are mysterious,” he looked upward with folded hands.

But what if someone was bitten? “Why? The Kesriya Kawarji temple is not far from here. You just need to tie blessed threads from the temple on the snakebite victim.”

What about the peeuna? “We don’t get peeuna cases here. But if we got one, Kesriya Kawarji would have cured it.”

The food was hot and spicy, and with Kesriya Kawarji watching over the Tiranga Dhaba, the resident cobra was nowhere in sight.

Dr Padma Bohra, director of ZSI’s Desert Regional Centre, dismissed the peeuna as “a local name given to vipers by the villagers” before admitting that she did not know enough about “local snakes”. Then, she handed us over to ex-director Dr Narendra Singh Rathore.

Now retired, Dr Rathore had developed the present ZSI campus and sounded a confident man. “Oh, yes, it is the Sindh Krait. You know, Sharma-ji described the Sindh Krait as peeuna…”

Sharma-ji, the late RC Sharma, was a ZSI scientist of repute and had written a book on snakes in 2003. Sharma’s assertion, coming after Minton’s observation, strengthened the case for the Sindh Krait. But could Dr Rathore possibly explain the peeuna’s killing method?

“Like mosquitoes, this Sindh Krait comes close to sleeping people by following carbon-dioxide density which is highest near one’s nose. So this snake reaches your face. Of course, how exactly it kills is a matter of research.”

Was there any scientific proof of this theory? “I am not sure. But since Sharma-ji had said this…” Dr Rathore trailed off.

I wondered out loud if Dr Rathore had, in fact, ever seen a Sindh Krait.

“Me? Umm… Sindh Krait… well, of course, we have a preserved specimen at the ZSI museum. Come, I will show you.”

Fingers crossed, we accompanied him to the museum, only to find a very old, discoloured specimen labeled “common krait”. Dr Rathore looked sheepish for a moment. But he gathered himself double quick.

“Ah, wrong labeling! Of course, I will tell them to change the label…”

When Dr Khandal offered to count body scales to determine if it was indeed a Sindh Krait, Dr Rathore quickly put the jar back and guided us out of the museum.

Pokhran was still very much an Army hub with too many no-entry zones in and around. At any time of the day, outsiders can sense a number of prying eyes trailing them. That Dr Khandal was carrying a snake stick prominently labeled ‘Made in Pakistan’ did not help our case.

Dodging suspicious sleuths, we sought out Subhash Ujjwal, a school teacher known to Dr Khandal through a social networking site. “When we were kids, peeuna was a big scare even here at Pokhran. Children were made to drink milk with garlic and onion in the night to keep the peeuna away. If you travel west, you will find peeuna…villagers still sit up all night in fear…You know, I always wanted to make a film on peeuna. Isn’t it a great horror subject?”

We didn’t quite share his enthusiasm for making a monster out of a snake (a la Anaconda). So Ujjwal turned to religious mythology.

About 1,200 years ago, a childless herdsman Mamraw lived in Chalkana village near Chautan. After seven yearly pilgrimages to the Hinglajmata temple in Baluchistan, the goddess told him that she was pleased and would come to his home as his daughter.

Mamraw went on to have seven daughters — Awra, Achhi, Chhechhi, Gehli. Duli, Rupa and Langdey — and a son named Mehrok. Nobody, however, came to know that the girls were no ordinary mortals.

Every grazing season, Mamraw took his cattle to Sindh along with the other herdsmen of Barmer, but as the years passed, Mehrok decided to take over his duties. To convince old Mamraw, all the daughters offered to accompany and look after their younger brother.

Free from the watch of their father, the siblings made merry on their way to Sindh and soon enough, strayed away into the forbidden kingdom of Nanangunj, ruled by the cruel King Sumrah. Predictably, the day Sumrah spotted Mehrok’s beautiful sisters, he desired all of them and put his soldiers to keep watch.

But the sisters used their divine powers for the first time and morphed into snakes. Every time they would step out for a bath in the river or to collect firewood, they would become snakes. But Mehrok was more afraid of snakes than he was of the king himself. He would always nag the sisters to stay indoors and be their human selves.

One day, as the sisters laughed at their brother’s silly fears and proceeded to leave the house, Mehrok was enraged. “Go! I know all of you want to elope with the king’s men! You think I don’t understand? You all go out hoping to be picked up for that king!”

Awra, who was until now trying to pacify him, was furious. “You wimp of a brother, you are so scared of snakes,” she hissed, cursing Mehrok to be attacked by a peeuna. The next moment, Awra and her sisters were repentant, but goddesses as they were, the curse could not be undone.

Soon enough, a peeuna envenomed Mehrok late in the night. He would die as soon as the first ray of the sun touched him. But the sisters covered him with a kaali lowri (black blanket) so that no sunlight would reach him. Once they succeeded in buying time, the goddesses summoned all their powers and eventually cured their brother.

The seven sisters were soon promoted in the hierarchy of divinity. While Awra, the eldest, got her own temple at Tanoth near Jaisalmer, all the sisters became staple deities all over the region as the saatmaata pat (seven mother goddesses).

Impressed that curing a peeuna attack was a miracle worth canonisation, we decided to seek lesser glories ourselves. The landscape started changing as we headed westwards from Jodhpur. Seemingly endless stretches of thorny scrub would give way to dry fields. Where the blackened ears of maize, deprived of seasonal rain, thinned out, there would be rare patches of saline clay. Or suddenly, ancient rock mounds held up their blunted heads against strong winds that razed the stones like sandpaper.

Every now and then, against this landscape of dull yellow, bleached green and clear blue, came defiant bursts of colour in red, orange and indigo turbans, veils, drapes and thread ornaments melting in the hot air.

After a rather heavy lunch, I was feeling a little drowsy in the backseat when a sharp turn made me sit up. I looked out the car window and my jaw fell. We were two hours from Barmer and in a magic land.

The sunset sky was visible only through flying carpets crisscrossing in all directions. The spreads changed shape in the air, their intricate, animated patterns transforming every moment. We stood watching the carpets fly, float and twirl before gently dropping on the thorny, airy canopies of kair and khejri.

To complete the magic, each flying carpet was full of song. Together they created such a deafeningly happy orchestra that I had to shout to Dr Khandal, who was standing next to me, to rush for his Canon 20mm. He captured hundreds of house sparrows, patronias and rosy pastors in each frame, but not the magic.

When we reached the District Magistrate’s office at Barmer for a permit to visit the sensitive border areas, the papers moved slowly. But opinions on the peeuna were coming thick and fast.

The District Magistrate’s personal secretary mentioned that somewhere near a place called Chautan lived a spiritually gifted old woman, renowned for curing peeuna victims. The orderly had a warning—there was absolutely no cure for peeuna venom unless the poison itself was scooped out from inside the victim’s throat.

The legal officer, rather annoyed at being held up beyond office hours, decreed that we had little chance of survival if we slept out in the open in peeuna land and that we would have to sleep in the open if we dared to venture beyond Chautan.

Permit in my pocket, I went to try laal maas at Barmer’s Kalinga hotel. The thumb rule for preparing the desert’s most exotic meat dish is to use 60 potent red chillies for every kilogram of meat. I can vouch that the Kalinga chef got his flavours right that night.

At 6 feet 6 inches, Shaubat Ali stood out in the crowd at Alamsar and welcomed us with the generosity of a rural aristocrat. For over four centuries, his family had been breeding Sindhi horses at a traditional, rudimentary farm near Alamsar. Ali assured us of mutton biryani for dinner and a charpoy each to spend the night in the open at his stud farm, and sent us off towards Serwa.

The old snakewoman we had heard so much about was too frail now to take visitors. But her mantle had fallen on Kayem Khan who practiced unani with his elder brother Sultan. “I am the only one who treats peeuna victims here. Why, even yesterday I treated four cases,” Kayem greeted us at his clinic-cum-residence in Serwa.

There were two types of peeuna, we are told, red and black. While Kayem thought the black peeuna was more aggressive, Sultan insisted that the red peeuna killed faster. Symptoms included headache, breathlessness, swelling of the face, heavy tongue, stinking mouth and, most importantly, a small blister in the throat.

The treatment, the Khans explained, was simple. The ‘doctor’ inserted two fingers into the victim’s mouth and pulled out the blister with the puss in it. The victim spat the puss – Sultan claimed it was peeuna venom – and recovered in about half an hour.

Kayem explained that frequent cases of saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus) bites were also recorded in the area, but those victims were treated at the government health centre with anti-venom serum. “But serums don’t work against peeuna venom. So peeuna patients never go to hospitals. They come to me.”

Do they get cured? “Victims die when they get late. Otherwise, very few died in my hands,” Kayem refused to be specific.

It was the Khans who suggested we try the Koli community in the region to find us a peeuna. Of course, the brothers would identify the snake for us if we could catch one.

Just an hour to sunset, we reached a Koli settlement at Salaria, 7 km from Serwa, and the younger members of the community jumped at my Rs 200-a-snake offer.

“We have to start early. Wind blows away sand grains and snake marks disappear within hours of sunrise. But will you pay us for every snake we find or every snake you manage to catch?” asked Bhavaram, the village headman.

Details of the deal sealed, we headed back to Shaubat Ali’s farmhouse (and biryani) for the night. Just where the blacktop road ended and the fields began, a mosque was gearing up for Eid. “No moon tonight,” Dr Khandal prepared me for our first dark night in the open in peeuna land.

The moment we settled into sleeping bags and reluctantly switched off our torches to save battery, the night sky came alive. I am not sure how long I stared at the stars before Dr Khandal’s ominous voice spoke again. “Do remember to check inside your shoes for scorpions before you put them on in the morning. That is if the snakes don’t take you in the night.”

The morning sky was still dark when we joined the Kolis. They split into five teams and fanned out to look for snakelines in the sand. I followed my team with fingers crossed. Half an hour later, a little Koli boy came running. The team with Dr Khandal had caught a red peeuna. I immediately wanted to rush but they were still a kilometre away. An hour later, another messenger rushed in with the news of another red peeuna.

Soon, the Kolis spotted a few clear lines on the sand and started digging up. The winding burrow went deep inside the ground. The Kolis were uncomfortable, tense. Suddenly, a flickering tongue protruding from the hole made the Kolis scream. “Catch it, catch the peeuna before it strikes.” I bent over the exposed burrow and, goaded on by the Kolis, caught the snake. The Kolis screamed again, swearing it was the red peeuna, the same as the other two caught by Dr Khandal.

I knew better and my heart sank. If this rather harmless red-spotted royal snake (Spalerosophis arenarius) was the deadly peeuna that killed people without even having to bite, I had indeed been chasing a stupid country fable for four days and over a thousand kilometres.

The Kolis, when shown how benign their red peeuna was, looked stumped. With three royal snakes tucked in plastic boxes, and our spirits low, we called again on the Khan brothers at Serwa. Sultan made an expansive gesture the moment he saw the snakes. “Red peeuna! How did you manage to catch them?”

A big crowd had gathered in the courtyard. We took out a royal snake—peeuna to others—from the box and asked the brave ones to step forward. Soon, as the Khans watched on glumly, the “deadly” red peeuna passed hand to hand.

But Kayem had not given up yet. “Maybe the red one is harmless. But don’t dismiss the black peeuna. Don’t you see I get so many victims…” Someone in the crowd then named Jano, who lived nearby and had come to the Khans about two weeks ago with symptoms of a peeuna attack.

But before we could find Jano, someone very important had sent for us.

Narayan Pal Bishnoi, the portly station in-charge at Serwa Police station, seemed to be a friendly neighbourhood policeman. “This Serwa is a very peaceful posting… mostly petty cases, you see,” he said. Some 17 rape cases stood out on the crime chart on the wall listing “petty” cases. I asked him about the peeuna instead.

Bishnoi promptly summoned Chunilal, a local stringer with a Hindi daily, who had news for us already. “Only this morning I have seen a peeuna, crushed on the road, some 8-9 km towards the Indo-Pak border.”

Was it a black snake? Yes, it was.

Dr Khandal rushed to the spot near Wadha village and was back in half an hour. The dead snake was in remarkably good shape for road kill. One look at it and we knew it was a krait. But was it indeed the rare Sindh variety?

The black beauty measured 3 ft 10 inches in length. Its solid white band split in two channels running on both sides before vanishing into the shiny off-white belly. We did a thorough scale count. It was a regular Common Krait.

I remembered corresponding with herpetologist Romulus Whitaker when he had doubted if there was any scientific basis at all to the conclusion drawn by Minton and Sharma that the Sindh Krait was the peeuna. Maybe, it was just the Common Krait, after all.

We thanked Bishnoi and walked across the road to meet Dr Dinesh Dutt Sharma at the government health centre. A young medical graduate, he had handled dozens of snakebite cases successfully. Victims, said Dr Sharma, usually came with the snake that had bit them. The bandi (saw-scaled viper), he said, bringing us one left by his patients the previous day, was the common killer.

“I haven’t seen any peeuna patients but people here talk about it. This peeuna snake does not bite but causes a boil inside the throat. Maybe, it’s something science cannot explain…”

So we went back to the Khans. Their faces lit up when we showed them the dead krait. “Yes, this is the one. Now don’t tell me this is also harmless.”

We assured him that the krait was by far the country’s most venomous snake. Kayem smiled victoriously and told us he had sent for another dead black peeuna. Apparently, some villagers had killed and burnt the snake the day before.

The burnt remains reached us in a few minutes. Dr Khandal wiped and washed it till a portion of its mid-body showed clear scale patterns. He looked excited after the count. “Mid-body scale count is 17. This must be our Sindh Krait. But I can’t count the ventrals. Why did they have to burn it…”

A triumphant Kayem now offered us tea but Chunilal arrived just then, saying he had managed to track Jano, the peeuna survivor.

Within a kilometre from Serwa, Alisaron Ka Dera was a settlement of Bheel tribals where some Muslim families had also settled. Jano turned out to be the sickly odd man out in an extended family of robust men and women.

“A peeuna sucked my breath in the night about two weeks back. It felt terrible in the morning when I woke up. As the day progressed, I started feeling worse. They took me to Kayem Khan in the evening.”

Jano’s brothers described how Kayem had removed the venom from Jano’s throat. Within an hour, they said, Jano was fine. If what they claimed was true, Jano had been cured 18-20 hours after the venom had entered the bloodstream. If the peeuna was indeed the krait, that was impossible. Besides, we were yet to figure out the “poison-breathing” apparatus.

As we drove back to Alamsar, the clutter started to clear up. While the desert people mentioned the saw-scaled viper as a killer snake, they did not seem to know about the krait. But if we could find two kraits in two days—we spotted one alive later—it was obvious there were enough kraits around to cause a considerable number of deaths. The fact that nobody even mentioned krait bites meant that the cases were being explained as something else—as peeuna attacks.

Romulus was right. So were Minton and Sharma. Both Common and Sindh Kraits were behind the myth. Anyway, there was not much to distinguish the two by merely looking at them.

Professor David A Warrell, founding director of Oxford’s Centre for Tropical Medicine, had cautioned me that there was no evidence that polyvalent serum was effective against the Sindh Krait’s venom. But why would victims of Common Krait not respond to serums? Surely, not all peeunas were Sindh Kraits.

I recalled how an attendant at the Serwa health centre described a snake bite—unstoppable bleeding, excruciating pain at the bite spot and an ugly swelling—all typical of a saw-scaled viper bite. The krait struck in the night and victims in their sleep would not know they were bitten. Moreover, the krait’s sharp fangs left no mark and there was no local irritation. Among a people used to painful viper bites, the discreet krait became the mythical peeuna —the “breath-sucking” snake that did not bite!

By the time krait victims woke up, the neurotoxins would have already done substantial damage. Since polyvalent serum does not reverse damage caused by venom—it only stops further damage once it is administered—the chances of a late stage victim’s survival are always bleak.

No wonder Dr Sharma or his predecessors at the government clinic could not help so-called peeuna victims with anti-venom shots.

Dr Khandal agreed with my conclusions, but he reminded me of the last bit of the puzzle. “How do you explain the blister inside the throat?”

I had no answer. To my knowledge, a krait bite caused headache, drowsiness, dilated pupils, heavy eyelids, blurred vision, limb paralysis, coma and total respiratory failure. I had also read about increased oral secretion. But not a blister.

I returned to research and stumbled upon an interesting phrase—pooling of saliva—in a paper in The Lancet by Dr HS Bawaskar, a field doctor based at Mahad in Maharashtra. Dr Bawaskar was, in fact, explaining dysphagia or bulbar palsy, a symptom of neurotoxin. Put simply, krait venom triggered muscle paralysis at the pharynx which caused pooling of saliva in the throat.

I checked with Professor Warrell and got a confirmation. So could this blob of saliva be the “puss” or the “venom” the Khans claimed to be pulling out with their fingers by puncturing some imaginary blister? I rang up Dr Bawaskar from Jodhpur and he agreed.

But taking out saliva would not save a krait victim. So how could the Khans claim a high success rate? “Those who get cured by such quacks were never bitten by the krait in the first place because snakebite is not the only trigger for bulbar palsy. Such patients would not get cured of whatever disease they have if their saliva is taken out but they won’t die quickly like snakebite victims either,” explained Dr Bawaskar.

I remembered Jano. If his was really a case of peeuna attack, would he be alive 18 hours after a krait bite? That too without medication?

On our way back, we stopped over at Jodhpur to visit Dr Phoolchand Kanojia, a top scientist with the Desert Medical Research Centre. He was planning research projects on the venomous snakes of the desert and had collected a few dead saw-scaled vipers from different government clinics during a recent trip to Chautan.

Dr Khandal took out the dead Common Krait slumped in a bottle. The scientist’s eyes widened. “Such a big krait! Are there kraits in the desert?”

We quickly briefed Dr Kanojia and Dr Khandal agreed to lend his find for Dr Kanojia’s collection.

Back on the road to Jaipur, we headed for a relaxed lunch.

“So, could we explain the dreaded peeuna, after all?” Dr Khandal weighed my question with his eyes shut. “The more you know, the more curious you feel.”

I could tell he was waiting to have another look at the burnt krait he was carrying home.

“At least, the so-called red peeunas should be safe now. I hope the Kolis stop killing those innocent beauties.”

The author is an independent journalist and filmmaker