By Brinda Upadhyaya
It was the 30th day of November 2010 when our group of eight women set out at dawn to explore the dense beauty of Kaziranga National Park in India’s state of Assam. The sky was still enveloped in a blanket of darkness as we crawled out, and while not yet fully awake, our hearts pulsated with excitement, throbbing at the hint of adventure. Managed efficiently by expert conservationists, Kaziranga is home not just to the one horned rhino but also to many species of birds, reptiles and other animals.
In the early mist of the day we moved through tall grasses on the backs of elephants. A baby elephant swayed along, staying close to its mom, stopping to suckle briefly and then sauntering off playfully. Other than rhinos and deer, we came upon few animals, and it was with a catch in the back that I got off the jumbo, rather relieved to touch ground again.
After breakfast we huddled into an open safari jeep and, hoping to have an exciting ‘find,’ set off on the mud track that led deeper into the forest. Accompanied by Sunil, a Kaziranga National Park conservationist, we hobbled up and down the forest track feasting our eyes on birds and butterflies of various shapes and colors. At some distance we saw a male elephant bringing down branches for his midday meal. A herd of wild buffaloes paused briefly to stare at us and then, shaking their large horned heads, continued to graze.
It was nearly nine by now and we had only a couple of hours left at the Park. I had come all the way from Mumbai because this place held promises of exotic wildlife sightings. My heart began to sink with a frightful sense of ‘returning empty handed’ from a place that offered innumerable treasures… yet for some unexplained reason, I ached with a curious mixture of hope, expectation and anxiety.
It was then that it happened – the jeep came to an abrupt and creaky halt. Sunil pointed his finger to a motionless blob of black on the muddy track. As flashlights blind the eyes of an onlooker, sighting an apparition unexpectedly can leave one numb and senseless. He lay quite unconcerned less than two metres away, basking in the warm glory of a gentle winter. “That’s the King,” whispered Sunil. “The King Cobra.” I took a deep breath and forgot to exhale. The driver switched off the engine. I pulled myself up on the seat, leaning forward on the railing, gaping mesmerized, drinking in his majestic grace, poise and beauty with my eyes. The rhythm of the forest heightened the magical moment as we stared in stunned silence.
His Majesty’s siesta was indeed disturbed. He lifted his hood very slightly, and from his position looked straight up at our vehicle. For a moment his eyes met mine. I stood transfixed by his gaze, so powerful and yet so full of peace and gentleness. We stayed looking at each other, and a wave of emotion bordering on awe and amazement swept my entire being. He continued to size me up with a casual indifference. There was no malevolence in his eyes, and it seemed as though we were two long lost souls who had found each other after centuries. While the rest of the gang reached for their cameras, I kept up a silent dialogue with the Master, and he responded with a quiet sensitive look that said he understood.
When the flashes and camera clicks became too intrusive, the King decided to move on. He raised his hood gently and slightly, heading towards the bushes with the unhurried grace of a river turning a kerb. As he did so, the orange scales of his sliding belly gleamed in the sunlight, creating a golden hue too brilliant to be captured by any lens except that of an awe struck human eye. A sense of reverence and devotion stirred deep within me as I bowed to the receding Lord, hugely indebted for the unique and sublime vision!
Long after his disappearance, our group continued to stare at the track where he had rested. The women ganged up around Sunil excitedly, listening in jaw dropping wonder to his details of this rare, ‘dangerous’ and ‘highly’ venomous species. Many comments and opinions poured forth. It hurt to hear snakes being spoken of in disrespectful and derogatory terms. Ignoring the chatter, I receded deep into the silences of my heart, reflecting on the wisdom of those eyes.
A far cry from the poisons that assail us urban dwellers, this uncrowned King personified an urge for love and life, blending harmoniously with the creatures around it. Epitomizing nature in its full glory, he carried the air of a Monarch who reigns with a supreme sense of fairness and respect for democracy. Of the cobra’s much maligned venom there was no trace. There was only peace and calm in his estate. I thought of my own hurried, rushed life, and envied him his empire.
Days may dissolve into months and years, but the magic of the moment when an ordinary woman interacted profoundly with such an extraordinary creature, will stay with me forever. His benign and sagacious gaze will be a constant reminder to shun the venom of greed and violence, and to live and let live in dignity, enveloping Mother Earth in an embrace of universal peace and contentment.