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Sin, sex and snakes

Jeremy Seal is charmed by cobras, gets entwined with religious fanatics and encounters a witchdoctor Sin, sex and snakes
rom snake charmers in Marrakesh's Djemaa el Fna Square to cobra festivals in India, temples a-slither with snakes in Penang and snake-handling church services in the US, the snake continues to serve up concentrated doses of fear and thrill in most of us - along with intimations of sin, guilt, sex and death.

Not your average holiday activity, then. But the sheer variety of compelling - and largely intact - snake cultures worldwide are evidence of our remarkable and enduring fixation with these uniquely suggestive creatures. While many cultural ceremonials have since been hijacked, diluted and absorbed into tourism's mainstream, something of the snake's reputation has meant that snake rituals, for all their colour and atmosphere, have never become a staple of the tour company itineraries.

Which means you won't find snake encounters, shows or rituals in the travel brochures. But get there under your own steam and you're likely to experience something mesmeric, compelling and possibly disturbing.

My own journeys in search of snakes have taken me round the world, but here - on three different continents - are some of the highlights. And the Nag Panchami cobra festival at Shirala in Maharash- tra state, India, was an ideal place to start.

Young men were gathered under a banyan tree near Shirala's bus stop when I arrived. They were smeared in gulal, the purple celebration powder of Indian festivals, and were holding stout branches from which bulging hessian bags hung. In Marathi, the local language, they chanted: "Whose cobra? Our cobra!" Welcome to this small town in the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains as it celebrated Nag Panchami, the annual cobra- worshipping festival, like nowhere else in India.

"We love our cobras," explained Mr Gumbhar, headmaster at Shirala's school. "Shiva is entwined in cobras. Our women worship them as fertility gods, responsible for everything from the monsoon rains to childbirth." Most Hindus make do with cobra totems made from clay or dough at Nag Panchami, but when the people of Shirala party with the snake gods, they prefer the real thing. For weeks, the men had been capturing these deadly snakes in the local maize fields and storing them in clay pots.

On festival day, the snakes are feted at the temple, appear in a competitive rearing display presided over by officials with measuring sticks borrowed from the nearby junior school, and also perform on the tractor trailers which are made up as exuberant floats and hung with coconuts and banana fronds in the festival parade. Afterwards, the men return the snakes, purple with gulal but otherwise unharmed, to the fields. Bites are extremely rare among the townsfolk, renowned for their snake-handling skills.

Nag Panchami does not attract many foreigners; I saw no other Europeans among the 25,000 people who flooded into Shirala for the festival. Dawn crowds merged with the great procession which poured through town, past the food stalls and the fairground as it made for the temple. There were men in white Nehru caps and women in tangerine saris, orange flags, tridents, brass bands and, borne on the shoulders of the snake men, the clay pots wrapped in bright kerchiefs.

Later, as the cobras were taken from house to house, I watched the women perform puja (worship) to them, prostrating themselves in front of the snakes before sprinkling hibiscus petals and turmeric over their raised hoods. Even after this compelling demonstration of belief, I wasn't prepared for my own visit from the cobra deity. At the garlic store where I'd arranged to stay (there are no hotels in Shirala, and the Shirala Guest House turned out to be a bakery), what passed for the door flew open and a man with a clay pot walked in. Shirala is the sort of place where a rearing cobra slithering across your scattered belongings passes for good news.

An entirely different atmosphere - bar the snakes - prevailed at the Holiness Church Service, in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, Kingston, Georgia, in the United States, which I visited last year. "Oh, Lord, yes," a man screamed. "Praise Him," he said, moving through the throng inside the country church to the sound of deafening bluegrass music. He was dressed soberly - pressed cuffs, polished shoes and no tie - except for the four-foot, yellow and black rattlesnake draped around his neck. There were rattlesnakes everywhere; protruding from pockets, arranged on heads, hanging limp from hands, even flying through the air. I was in a Holiness church service at Kingston, Georgia; one of the few travel experiences - disturbing but darkly poetic too - I shall never forget.

People of the Holiness faith have been handling venomous rattle- snakes in their churches in that maverick corner of the US where Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina converge, since early this century. Snake- handling has become the ritual keystone of their fundamentalist faith, which stresses above all else Christ's injunction in Chapter 16 of St Mark's Gospel that the faithful may handle serpents without coming to any harm.

Over the years, some 100 snake- handlers have died from bites received by what they regard as the devil incarnate, but many more have survived. The handlers seem to wear their multiple scabs and scars as marks of faith while taking the line that God works in mysterious ways to explain those deaths. "We believe it's the Lord's instruction that we take up serpents," explained Brother Bryce as we stood outside the church. Members often take breaks during services which, fuelled by passionate faith and unrestricted by liturgical format, can continue for several hours. "Handling them is like a hit, like nothing I've ever known before," he said. Bryce, who claimed to be recently redeemed by snake handling, still spoke the language of his former faith.

Later that evening, as the church meeting drew to a close, the men returned their rattlesnakes to their boxes, put them in the backs of their pick-ups and drove off into the night. I drove south; the road back to Atlanta seemed like a return to mainstream America.

My third favourite brush with the serpent took me to Africa, Kenya to be precise, where since the onset of tourism along the coast in the 1960s snake parks have flourished as amusement arcades have done elsewhere, and are now a venerable if maverick Kenya staple. There's probably a greater density of snake parks - about a dozen - between Mombasa and Malindi than anywhere else worldwide.

Best is Bio-Ken snake park at Watamu, a resort village with a reputation for sport fishing that attracted legends such as Ernest Hemingway: the village's renowned hotel is named after him. Bio-Ken, on the coast road just north of the village, is fast disappearing under the onslaught of uncut tropical foliage.

Rampant shrubs crowd the tracks that lead to the park, adding to the creepy effect. The park's charismatic, kikoi-wearing owner, James Ashe, is a lifelong herpetologist who once ran the snake park in Nairobi. Ashe's snakes, probably the best collection in East Africa, are exhibited in glass-fronted, wooden boxes. Most visitors head straight for the notorious mambas, both green and black, which Ashe's staff milk of their venom to supply to a number of anti-venom producers and research establishments. Ashe, now too old to collect snakes himself, arranged for me to spend the day with the local snake-catcher Francis Ngombo. Francis, who has been catching snakes since he was a child, took me to the littoral villages south of Watamu.

We set out on foot in the early morning. We were walking through plots of maize and sisal, and groves of cashew and mango trees. We passed a mud and makuti thatch hut where a woman sat opposite an attentive man listening to the noises from the seed gourd she was shaking. "A mchowi [witchdoctor]," whispered Francis. "From the noises, she's telling him the secrets of his difficulties."

Soon Francis was catching his first snakes, hauling them from the scrub with his noosed stick. "Link-marked snake," he said, bagging one expertly in a hessian sack. "Not too venomous." Later, he swooped to pull a bright green snake, a boomslang, from the low branches of a cashew tree. "We call it mgangarudi in Swahili," he said ominously. "Means doctor no help."

Further on, we stopped in a forest village where the men were drinking mnazi, or fermented coconut juice from old gin bottles. They invited us to join them. One of the men told the snake man that a black mamba had been through the village only yesterday, "fast as a matatu [minibus]". Francis had shown me snakes; he'd also shown me something of the fascinating life of the Kenyan backcountry.