People and Nature. 2020;2:111–122.
1 | INTRODUCTION
Overshadowed by growing concerns over contemporary human‐in‐
duced threats to ecosystems associated with global urbanization,
numerous cultures throughout the world have upheld the preserva‐
tion of natur al sites for generations by valuing their sanctit y (Dudley,
Higgins‐Zogib, & Mansourian, 2009; Verschuuren, Wild, McNeely, &
Oviedo, 2010). By preventing the development or extensive deg‐
radation of sacred natural sites, such beliefs and traditions have
helped maintain local biodiversity despite ongoing nearby urban
growth and land‐use changes (Verschuuren et al., 2010). There has
consequently been a sharpening focus on their value in current
conservation biology (Mcleod & Palmer, 2015; Waylen, Fischer,
Mcgowan, Thirgood, & Milner‐Gulland, 2010), perhaps as an ideal
for the prosperity of both nature and society (Pardo‐de‐Santayana
& Macía, 2015). Although found throughout the world (Verschuuren
et al., 2010), the potential role for sacred natural sites in modern
conservation practices has garnered significant attention in places
such as Ethiopia (Aerts et al., 2016; Teketay et al., 2010), Ghana
(Decher, 1997; Sarfo‐Mensah, Oduro, Antoh Fredua, & Amisah,
2010), Tanzania (Kideghesho, 20 08; Mgumia & Oba, 2003), and
Southwestern China (Salick et al., 2007; Shen, Lu, Li, & Chen, 2012),
where studies have exemplified their efficacy in safeguarding native
flora and fauna.
DOI: 10.100 2/pan3.10 059
Sacred groves and serpent‐gods moderate human–snake
Félix Landry Yuan1 | U. Prashanth Ballullaya2 | Ramesh Roshnath2 |
Timothy C. Bonebrake1 | Palatty Allesh Sinu2
This is an op en access article under t he terms of the Creat ive Commons Attributio n License, which permits use, dist ribution and reproduc tion in any medium,
provide d the orig inal work is proper ly cited .
© 2019 The Auth ors. People and Nature published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecolo gical Society
1School of Biological Scie nces, The
University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR ,
2Depar tment of A nimal Science, School of
Biologi cal Science, Central Uni versit y of
Kerala, Kasaragod, India
Félix La ndry Yuan
Science Engineering Rese arch Board,
New Delhi, Grant/Award Number: SB/FT/
LS‐325/2012; U niversity of Hong Kong;
Kerala St ate Council for Science, Technology
& Environment; Malabar Awareness and
Rescue Center for Wildlife
Handling Editor: Arjen Buijs
1. Serpent‐god worship is an ancient tradition still practiced in many sacred groves
across the Western Ghats of India. Although sacred groves there hold ecological
conservation value, few studies have focused on arguably the most iconic taxon in
the region, snakes.
2. We thus investigated the impact of sacred groves and snake deity worshipping
on attitudes towards snakes by conducting surveys with people who had entered
sacred groves in the past.
3. We found that very few participants who had encountered snakes inside sacred
groves in the past harmed them during these encounters. However, nearly a quar‐
ter of all participants do harm snakes if encountered outside sacred groves.
4. We also found that a larger proportion of participants who do not harm snakes
outside sacred groves worship snake deities, relative to those that do harm them.
5. Our work thus highlights the influence of sacred groves and snake deity worship‐
ping on pacifistic human–snake relations in Southwestern India.
biocultural landscape, environmental perception, human–snake relation, religion, sacred
grove, snakebite, The Western Ghats
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
But perhaps the most prominent case of environmental protec‐
tion resulting as a by‐product of traditional beliefs is to be found
in India, where relatively undisturbed patches of forest, or “sacred
groves”, have been sites of worship towards gods, deities and an‐
cestral spirits (Freeman, 1999; Gadgil & Vartak, 1976). As a conse‐
quence of the values placed on these forests by local communities,
many have been preser ved for extensive periods of time, with some
having persisted for as long as 40 0 years (Bhagwat, Nogué, & Willis,
2014). Sacred groves are especially common in the Western Ghats
(Bhagwat, Kushalappa, Williams, & Brown, 2005), the mount ain
range straddling the South‐Western edge of the Indian subconti‐
nent widely known as one of the world's top “hotspots” for biodi‐
versity (Myers, Mittermeier, Mittermeier, Fonseca, & Kent, 2000).
Located in an ecologically distinct region, the sacred groves of the
Western Ghats have for tuitously served as sanctuaries for local flora
and small to medium‐sized fauna (Bhagwat et al., 2005; Bhagwat
& Rutte, 20 06; Ray, Chandran, & Ramachandra, 2014). They have
also been shown to host a high number of endemic plant species
(Chandrashekara & Sankar, 1998), and to maintain this richness rel‐
ative to nearby areas, including disturbed forest s and, occasionally,
government‐managed protected areas (Dudley et al., 2009; Ormsby
& Bhagwat, 2010).
Although the extent of the Western Ghats spans six states, a
significant region of interest for such forests is Southwestern India,
where Kerala is the Indian state with the most sacred groves (Khan,
Ashalat a, & Tripathi, 20 08; Rajendraprasad, 1995) and borders
Southern Karnataka state, itself displaying the densest distribu‐
tion of sacred groves (Khan et al., 20 08; Kushalappa, Bhagwat, &
Kushalappa, 2001). Known as kavu in Malayalam and devarakadu in
Kannada, these forests are usually visited by local inhabitants for
the worship of one or many gods in particular (Ballullaya et al., 2019).
However, what is especially unique for the sacred groves of this re‐
gion is the frequent presence of idols, shrines or temples devoted
to serpent‐gods, often known as Nāga in Sanskrit, or by a variety of
other local names. While the origins of this tradition in sacred groves
in particular are obscure, serpent depictions in art pre‐date the pres‐
ence of the Indo‐Aryan culture in South Asia, where the “earliest
evidence s of the topic of snakes are to b e found in the pictor ial repre‐
sentations from Harappa, Mohenjo‐Daro and Lothal, that is from the
time of about 2000 BC” (Härtel, 1976:664). Härtel further reports
that “the oldest images of Nāgas after the Harappa times appear
as late as the end of the second centur y BC” (1976:667). Referring
to early disseminations on the antiquity of serpent worship in the
region by architectural historian James Fergusson, Wake writes “he
supposes it not to have been adopted by any nation belonging to
the Semitic or Aryan stock; the serpent worship of India and Greece
originat ing, as he believes, w ith older peopl es” (1873:373). Such ideas
from the 19th century Western thinkers still hold some relevance
today, as the worship of snake deities in sacred groves is thought to
potentially be the resulting blend of deeply rooted indigenous folk
traditions with later rituals and beliefs of devotion towards Nāgas
(Murugan, Ramachandran, Swarupanandan, & Remesh, 2008), in the
same way that representations and traditions surrounding local folk
deities in sacred groves have been assimilated with other pan‐Indian
gods over time (Ormsby, 2011; Tomalin, 200 4).
Inside sacred groves in which serpent‐gods are among the deities
revered, or sarpa kavu in Malayalam (roughly translating to “snake
garden”), locals perform rituals of worship out of devotion for the
Nāgas. These serpent‐gods in question are not necessarily synony‐
mous with actual living snakes, but are divine beings or deities which
are depicted as displaying the same physical features as snakes,
with a specific allusion to cobras. According to early 20 th century
art historian Jean Philippe Vogel, “the Nāga of Indian mythology
and folklore is not really the snake in general, but the cobra raised
to the rank of a divine being” and it is thus “evident that the Nāga
in his animal form is conceived as the hooded snake” (1995:
27). Therefore, any following mention of “snake deit y” or “serpent‐
god” in this study will be in reference to these divine beings, while
the term “snake” alone will be in reference to actual living snakes.
Nonetheless, the two are inexorably connected in the sense that any
affliction posed towards snakes, whether intentional or accidental,
is believed to bring forth the wrath of the Nāgas in various forms; as
Allocco writes, referring to contemporary South India, “A number of
authors note that killing a snake is regarded as a sin and detail the
lengths that individuals may go to in order to avoid injuring a snake,
as nāgas are believed to deliver formidable curses with far‐reaching
But beyond their relationship with actual living snakes, Nāgas
also symbolize human fertility and childbirth, as a reflection of the
forest's produc tivity (Das & Balasubramanian, 2017). The perception
of these life‐giving powers is perhaps rooted in the association of
Nāgas with water, one of the limiting factors of agricultural produc‐
tion. As Vogel suggested, “though easily moved to anger, [the Nāgas]
are worthy of being propitiated, as their activity is, on the whole,
beneficial to the welfare of man, especially in connexion with their
power over the element of water.” (1995: 3). With both fear
and admiration at play, snake deity worshipping is therefore polar‐
ized in its motivations, and is not restricted to sarpa kavu, with such
beliefs stretching across the Western Ghats as well as many other
parts of India (Nair, 2017).
Yet, despite the prevailing devotion towards snake deities in the
sacred groves of Southwestern India in particular, the vast majority
of diversit y assessments in such forests have focused on flora, with
few studies concerning reptiles (Ray et al., 2014). With an estimated
45,900 human deaths annually in India, the country has one of the
highest rates of deadly venomous snake bites globally (Mohapatra
et al., 2011; Warrell, 2010). Thus, recognized as life‐threatening ani‐
mals, this awareness permeates into the daily lives of people, whom
simultaneously respect and revere snake deities (Allocco, 2013). At
the crossroads of danger and devotion, how do such beliefs and per‐
ceptions translate into the way locals co‐exist with mortal, physical
snakes (Narayanan & Bindumadhav, 2018)?
According ly, in this case stud y, our aim was to e xplore the rel ation‐
ship between visitors of sacred groves and snakes in Southwestern
India within the context of a prevalent snake deity worshipping
tradition, and it s potential implications for current conservation
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
strategies. For this inquiry, we visited sacred groves which did or did
not host snake deities and conduc ted surveys using questionnaires
(Moon, Brewer, Januchowski‐Hartley, Adams, & Blackman, 2016).
Our main objectives were (a) to determine if attitudes and reactions
towards snakes depended on the presence of a snake deity in the
sacred grove, and (b) whether snake deity worshipping was asso‐
ciated with more pacifistic reactions to snake encounters inside or
outside sacred groves. We also aimed (c) to investigate if reactions
to snakes were more pacifistic inside sacred groves than outside
of them, regardless of the presence of a snake deity. As one of the
oldest examples of nature worship still in existence today, the be‐
liefs surrounding sarpa kavu have long been understood to preser ve
its native species (Murugan et al., 2008), yet this study is the first
to quantif y just how this reflects the views of visitors towards the
snakes inhabiting them.
2 | MATERIALS AND METHODS
2.1 | Study area
The focal area for our work comprised the Southwestern portion
of the Western Ghats of India. Located in the coastal Malabar re‐
gion of the state of Kerala, the districts of Kasaragod and Kannur
are predominantly inhabited by various castes belonging to Thiyya
communities, which themselves have unique customs and rituals as‐
sociated with its sacred groves (Chandrashekara, Joseph, & Sreejith,
2002). Although the floral communities within these sacred groves
can be quite diverse, they are usually surrounded by urbanized
areas or agriculture such as rubber plantations and rice paddies
(Chandrashekara & Sankar, 1998).On the other hand, in the south
of Karnataka state, the predominant cultural group found through‐
out the district of Kodagu is that of the indigenous Kodava people.
Found at slightly higher elevations, the landscapes there are more
sparsely urbanized and dominated by sacred groves alongside cof‐
fee plantations (Bhagwat et al., 2005; Kushalappa et al., 2001). We
thus identified sites in these regions based on our prior knowledge
of their existence as a result of past research, or through information
obtained from local inhabitants.
In October 2018, we visited 10 sacred groves in each of the
three district s varying in how urban or rural the sites generally
were: Kannur for the most urban sacred groves, Kodagu for the
most rural ones and Kasaragod for the more intermediary sites
(Figure 1). While varying in their struc ture, these sacred groves
always contained a central worshipping compound for the perfor‐
mance of rituals by designated priests. To accommodate more vis‐
itors, the more urban sacred groves tended to contain larger areas
covered by man‐made infrastructure such as cement, cobblestone,
halls and temples. On the other hand, the more rural sacred groves
were more comparable to relatively undisturbed forest, with the
only built structures being smaller worshipping compounds and
the occasional shrine or temple. Accordingly, the average tree
cover percentage within 1 km from the centroid for our sites vis‐
ited were 25.96 ± 4.90%, 30.72 ± 6.15% and 41.42 ± 5.35% for
Kannur, Kasaragod and Kodagu, respectively (based on an analysis
using the forest cover dataset described in Hansen et al., 2013).
We also aimed to cover a wide range of sacred grove sizes, with
FIGURE 1 Map of the por tion
of Southwestern India, including
Northwestern Kerala and Southern
Karnataka states, where we conducted
our surveys. The 30 sacred grove sites we
have visited are indicated by the points,
and coded according to the districts of
Kannur (yellow diamonds), Kasaragod (red
squares) and Kodagu (blue circles). The 18
sacred groves devoted to snake deities
are demarcated by a black circle at the
centre of each point. Panels (a), (b) and
(c) each depic t examples of sites visited
which were, respectively, rural, urban, and
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
sites ranging from 0.17 to 104 acres, and the overall mean size of
all 30 sacred groves visited being 11.01 acres.
Serpent‐gods were among the deities worshipped in 18 of the 30
sites (Figure 1). To be certain of whether snake deities were among
the acknowledged deities in each sacred grove or not, we always
consulted associated elders or priests. This is because by visiting
alone, the representation of a snake deity inside a sacred grove is not
always evident. They can sometimes be depicted by statues showing
typical snake‐like features one could expect of serpent‐gods, while
they can also be symbolized by more abstract idols, such as rounded
stones, with little indication of their significance.
2.2 | Questionnaires for participants
For each sacred grove visited, we sur veyed 10 people opportunisti‐
cally, between the day time hours of 9:00 and 17:00, when encoun‐
tered either inside the forest s or within 1 km, and conducted these
in either Malayalam, Kannada or Tulu, in addition to one in Hindi. To
be considered as a participant, each individual must have had visited
the sacred grove in question in the past. Therefore, both devotees
of the sacred grove's deit y and non‐devotees could be considered.
Although the vast majority of the 300 participants identified as dev‐
otees (96%, n = 289), we also surveyed some non‐devotees identify‐
ing themselves as visitors (3%, n = 8), management members (1%,
n = 2), as well as one local resident (<1%, n = 1). Notably, as well
as being devotees, 5% of total participants were also priests or as‐
sistant priests (n = 15), while 26% were either the owner's family,
management, committee or former committee members (n = 77).
Additionally, the participants we surveyed varied in other demo‐
graphic characteristics, such as age, which ranged from 11 to 87, and
gender, where 34% were female (n = 101) and 66% male (n = 199).
Regarding religious or caste association, teasing apart the t wo terms
is not a simple task, since some castes carry their own unique re‐
ligious beliefs. Accordingly, 18% of participants identified only as
Hindu (n = 53), 17% as Hindu Thiyya (n = 52), 6% as Hindu Kodava
(n = 18) and 15% as Hindu in addition to another caste or religious
identity (n = 45). Without mention of being Hindu, 14% of partici‐
pants identified only as Kodava (n = 41), 10% as Thiyya (n = 3 0) and
16% as other less common groups (n = 47). Of the total, 5% chose not
to comment on their religious or caste identity (n = 14).
These surveys consisted of a questionnaire made up of a com‐
bination of closed and open‐ended questions (Appendix S1; Moon
et al., 2016), and lasted 10–25 min. For the purpose of the analyses
presented in this study, we focused on the answers given for the
questions outlined in Table 1.
The purpose of questions (a) and (b) was to deduce the attitudes
of participants towards snakes, while questions (c) and (d) were to
gain a sense of how participants co‐exist with snakes. For question
(e), we asked whether, in general, participants worshipped snake de‐
ities, without contextualizing the question as cultural, religious or
spiritual, thus leaving it open to interpretation by the participant.
Although we surveyed a total of 300 par ticipants, que stion f) was
only posed to 268 (Table 1). This question is distinc t from question
(e), which was to determine whether the participant worships any
snake deity. Rather, question (f) was meant to determine in parallel
whether participants considered any actual living snake species to
be sacred. For question (f) (ii) (Table 1), participants first responded
by describing or giving the local names of snakes they believed to
be sacred. We then showed them photos of 15 commonly found
snake species in the region (Palot, 2015; Sathish, 2008) for them to
visually identify these sacred snakes. All sur veys were conducted
by the same researchers for consistency (UPB), and informed verbal
consent was received before each survey from participants to be
included in this research. Surveys were conducted with approval by
The University of Hong Kong's Human Research Ethics Committee
2.3 | Data analysis
We applied qualitative content analysis to quantify answers and col‐
late them according to connecting themes (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005).
We categorized answers based on a code designed according to the
nature of the statements with regard to attitudes towards snakes
(Erlingsson & Brysiewicz, 2017). For answers given according to
questions (a) and (b) (Table 1), we collated any extra clarifications
according to the nature of the attitude implied towards snakes as
either “positive”, “negative”, “neutral”, or as a “warning sign”, with
the latter implying a conditional statement, that the response could
change depending on the circumstance, or that there was the possi‐
bility for human‐snake conflict (Appendix S2; McMillan, Wong, Hau,
& Bonebrake, 2019). We similarly collated answers to question (e)
(ii) according to their interpreted attitude towards snakes (Appendix
S2). We also collated answers to each questions (c) and (d), based on
whether reactions to snake encounters implied harm to snakes. For
both questions, these consisted of three categories; “Yes”, “No” or
“Maybe” (Appendix S3).
In order to test for differences in answer proportions, we ap‐
plied either the parametric chi‐square test or non‐parametric Z‐test
TABLE 1 Sample of closed and open‐ended questions asked
during the surveys and for which answers were included within the
analyses of this study
Questions for which answers were ana lyzed in this study
a) Do you like snakes?
b) In the future, would you like to see:
c) How do you react upon encountering a snake inside the s acred
d) How do you reach when encountering a snake outside the sacred
e) i) Do you ever pray/show worship towards a snake deity? ii) Why?
iii) If yes to ei): Could you describe any rituals or prayers you typi‐
cally perform towards this/these snake deity/deities?
f) i) Do you consider snakes as sacred? ii) Which ones?
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
depending on the nature of the comparison. To examine whether
there were social determinants of participants harming snakes
outside sacred groves, we built a generalized linear model with
type of visitor (devotee and non‐devotee), Hindu class (upper and
lower class), as well as gender (male and female) as the predictors,
and snake deity presence, sacred grove size, district, and number of
years of association with the sacred grove added as covariates. We
used a binomial error distribution as the response variable consisted
of a binary outcome (“ Yes” or “No”).
We conducted all statistical analyses in R version 3.4.1 (R Core
Tea m 20 17 ).
3 | RESULTS
3.1 | Attitudes towards snakes
We found the general sentiment of par ticipants towards snakes
to be of tolerance and, to a lesser degree, endearment rather than
antipathy. Most said they liked actual living snakes (51%, p < .01,
= 133.95, n = 154), a trend which did not differ between sacred
groves with or without snake deities present ( p = .46, Z = − 0.09),
while a quarter said they did not like snakes (25%, n = 75) and 18%
did not like or dislike snakes (n = 54, Figure 2a). The remaining 6%
specified the kinds of snakes they did or did not like (n = 17), with
most of these explicitly expressing a dislike for venomous snakes,
only liking non‐venomous snakes, or both statements (65%, n = 11).
Although the vast majority of those that said they liked snakes
did not add any clarifications regarding their attitudes towards
snakes (85%, n = 131, Appendix S2), we found that a moderate pro‐
portion of participants still expressed a fear of snakes (9%, n = 14).
Intuitively, fear was slightly more prevalent for those that did not
like snakes (17%, n = 13, Appendix S2). In both cases, added expres‐
sions of fear made up most of the “warning sign” clarifications for
both “yes” or “no” responses. The one exception for a “warning sign”
not explicitly mentioning fear was a participant who said, in a tone
evoking a newly found vigilance, that although she liked snakes, her
son was bitten by one in the past.
On the other hand, some participants were particularly enthusi‐
astic about how much they liked snakes (5%, n = 7), adding positive
clarifications explaining that “they are innocent”, or that they “will
not harm them (snakes)”. In a similar sense, within the minority of
participants that did not like snakes, three added to their responses
to the question that despite this, they “will not harm them”.
Moreover, there were a few cases of responses avoiding a po‐
larized “yes” or “no” answer, for which the perceived sanctity of liv‐
ing snakes was the apparent cause. Among clarifications which we
classified as “positive”, one participant said that they did not like or
dislike snakes but had "devotion towards them”, while another sim‐
ply said “I do not dislike them because I worship them”. There were
also two other response clarifications which evoked a clear distinc‐
tion between actual living snakes that are sacred, and others that
are not, such as “I like sacred snakes but dislike venomous snakes”,
which we classified as a “warning sign” given there was a specific
dislike for one type of snake, or “I only like sacred snakes”, which we
classified as “neutral” since it did not explicitly express a dislike for
This sense of a tolerant attitude towards snakes was further rep‐
resented by a larger number of participant s wanting more snakes
in sacred groves than those who wanted there to be fewer (p < .01,
= 6.72, n = 47 and n = 25 respectively, Figure 2b), implying a sense
of will to co‐exist with them. This trend also stood regardless of the
presence of snake deities within sacred groves, as we found no dif‐
ference in the proportion of those wanting to see more snakes inside
the sacred groves in the future across those with or without snake
deities (p = .09, Z=−1.36).Despitethis,westillfoundthemajor‐
ity of par ticipants to not want to see any changes in the number of
snakes in the respective sacred groves in the future (51%, p < .01,
= 124.91, n = 153).
In some instances, these responses were motivated by the aware‐
ness of a certain ecological importance of snakes. Among those that
FIGURE 2 Responses of participants
on whether they liked snakes (a) and
what change in the number of snakes
inside sacred groves they would want to
happen (b), with bars representing the
numbers of individuals per response type.
Where extra clarifications were added
to responses, these were categorized
according to the nature of the statement
regarding attitudes towards snakes
Ye sNo Does not
like or dislike
Do you like snakes?
Number of individuals
Nature of statement
More FewerNo change Other
Wanted change in number of snakes
inside sacred grove
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
wanted more snakes in the sacred groves, clarifications to such re‐
sponses expressed a suppor t for the livelihood of snakes, which we
thus classified as “positive” (n = 6). Examples include one participant
who explicitly stated that snakes “play an important ecological role”,
while others vouched for their protection and the prevention of their
extinction. There were also “neutral” clarifications to responses which
hinted towards an ecological knowledge of snakes, such as one partic‐
ipant saying that, despite wanting more snakes in sacred groves, the
“space and conditions are not good for snakes to thrive” there. Other
“neutral” clarifications amongst both those that wanted to see no
change in sacred grove snake numbers and those that did not specifi‐
cally answer the question spoke about the natural fluctuation in snake
numbers; a recognition that these populations are variable over time
regardless of human intervention.
In parallel to this, however, there were clear concerns for the
safety of people within the hypothetical case of larger snake numbers
in sacred groves. For example, while wanting there to be more snakes
in sacred groves, 9% of these participant s clarified that this was under
the condition that they “should not harm people” or “should not come
out of the sacred grove”, which we interpreted as a “warning sign”
(n = 4, Appendix S2). Such caution in light of the potential dangers
of higher snake numbers was also represented among the remaining
quarter of participants that either gave specific answers to the ques‐
tion, or no comment whatsoever. Notably, 3% of total par ticipants
specifically said that they either wanted there to be fewer venomous
snakes (n = 3), more non‐venomous snakes (n = 1), or both more non‐
venomous and fewer venomous snakes (n = 6).
3.2 | Co‐existence with snakes inside and outside
Moreover, concerns about venomous snakes were especially fea‐
tured in re sponses to ques tion (d) (Table 1), which dea lt with reactio ns
to snake encounters out side of sacred groves. While we found the
proportion of participants implying harm to snakes outside sacred
groves to be 23% (n = 68), nearly half of these responses consisted of
killing them under the condition that the snake was venomous (43%,
n = 29). Similarly, amongst reactions maybe implying harm to snakes
outside sacred groves (18% of total participants, n = 53), 17% (n = 9)
of these involved a conditional statement pertaining to whether the
snake was venomous, with a common response explaining that they
would “inform others if venomous”. However, we also found that
a minorit y of responses implying harm to snakes did not bother to
make such discrimination, and outright killed them unconditionally
during encounters, regardless of whether they were or venomous
or not (13%, n = 9).
In stark contrast, out of the participants that had encountered
snakes inside sacred groves at least once in the past (46%, n = 139),
the distinction between venomous and non‐venomous snakes was
nearly absent in their responses to question (c) (Table 1). Only one
of the two participants that did imply harm to snakes upon encoun‐
tering them inside sacred groves, a propor tion significantly lower
than for reactions outside sacred groves implying harm (1%, p < .05,
Z = −5.63, n = 2, Figure 3), said they would “kill it if it is venom‐
ous”. There was no such condition for those maybe implying harm
to snakes inside sacred groves (2%, n = 3), which was also in a pro‐
portion significantly lower than for those maybe implying harm to
snakes when encountering them outside of sacred groves (p < .05,
Z=−4.51,Figu re3).Infact,mostresp onsestoqu es tio n(c)consisted
of responses which were pacifistic towards snakes and did not imply
harm to them (96%, n = 133), in a proportion significantly higher than
for participants with the same type of reaction to snake encounters
outside sacred groves (60%, p < .05, Z = −7.88, n = 179, Figure 3).
This was apparently true regardless of the type of deity or god wor‐
shipped in the sacred grove, as we found no difference between the
propor tions of participants which did not imply harm to snakes in‐
side sacred groves with (95%, n = 82) or without (98%, n = 51) a snake
deity present (p = .20, Z=−0.83).
3.3 | Snake deity worshipping, the perceived
sanctity of actual living snakes, and their influence
on non‐harmful human–snake relations
In addition to its prevalence inside versus outside sacred groves, we
also found pacifism towards snakes to be associated with devotional
beliefs. While the vast majority of par ticipants said they worshipped
snake deiti es (84%, p < .01,
= 138.72, n = 252), a signif icantly larger
propor tion of those which did not imply harm to snakes outside sa‐
cred groves said they worshipped snake deities (87%, n = 155) than
those that did imply harm (75%, p = .01, Z=−2.19,n = 51, Figure 4a).
In parallel to this, while most participants said they considered ac tual
living snakes to be sacred (69%, p < .01,
= 89.24, n = 186), this
belief was shared in larger proportion by those that did not imply
harm to snakes outside sacred groves (73%, n = 124) than by those
that did (64%, n = 38), although this difference was not significant
statistically (p = .09, Z=−1.37,Figure4b).
We should note, however, that we are not necessarily outlining a
direct cause and effect relationship here, as there are multiple layers
FIGURE 3 Proportion of participants which would either harm,
not harm, or maybe harm snakes when encountering them either
inside (orange with solid lines; n = 139) or out side (blue with dotted
lines; n = 30 0) sacred groves
Maybe No Ye s
Implied harm to snakes
rcent of individuals (%
Inside sacred grove
Outside sacred grove
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
of social strata at play, especially for reactions to snake encounters
outside sacred groves. For instance, in this case, gender had a sig‐
nificant effect on whether participants implied harm to snakes out‐
side of sacred groves (p < .01, Table 2). More specifically, we found
harmful human–snake interactions to be mostly driven by the male
demographic, where there was a much higher tendency for males to
imply harm to snakes out side of sacred groves (31%, n = 61, p < .05,
Z=−4.64)thanfemales(7%,n = 7). This was despite there being no
difference in the proportion of females (75%, n = 65) versus males
(6 7.9 7 % , n = 121) considering actual living snakes as sacred (p = .26,
Z = 1.13), and only a slightly higher propor tion of females worship‐
ping snake deities (90%, n = 91) than males (81%, n = 161).
Although the worship of snake deities and the perception of
the sanc tity of actual living snakes may be easy to confuse from an
outsider's point of view, these were self‐evidently understood to be
distinc t by the par ticipants. Given, they are not entirely mutually
exclusive, as both were relatively more common in sacred groves
containing snake deities, where the proportion of snake deity wor‐
shipping participants was slightly larger for sacred groves with snake
deities present (88%, n = 159) than absent (78%, p < .01, Z=−2.51,
n = 93). The proportion of participants that considered snakes to
be sacred was also significantly larger for sacred groves with snake
deities (75%, n = 121 of 162) than for those without (61%, p = .01, Z
=−2.32,n = 65 of 106). However, in this case, the worshipped snake
deities are assumed to be ethereal beings transcending the physical
world, with rituals performed at temples, shrines or idols devoted to
them. Frequently mentioned snake deities said to be worshipped in‐
cluded nāgakanni and nāgakandan for the participants in the Kannur
district, nāgakanyaka for the Kasaragod district, the serpent‐gods as‐
sociated with subramanya for the Kodagu district, as well as nāga and
nāgaraja throughout all districts. Based on responses to question (e)
(iii) (Table 1), most participants explained how they would visit sites
of supplication to offer items such as milk, hen eggs, tender coco‐
nuts, eggs and snake statues made of silver or gold, as well as money.
Many participant s mentioned the rituals of nāga puja, a ceremony of
worship towards a serpent‐god, as well as abhishekam, the cleansing
of the deity at the beginning of a puja by pouring a mixture of liquids
on the idol (Malley & Barrett, 2003), and sarpa bali, a ritual involving
chants and mantras performed by priests in order to ward of f ser‐
pent‐god curses (Das & Balasubramanian, 2017).
Contrastingly, the snakes that are believed to be sacred are cor‐
poreal and thus visually tangible while inhabiting the same world as
humans. Within this context, when asked to specify which snakes
were sacred, 33% of those that perceived snakes as sacred implied
this to mean all living snakes (n = 61), whereas 14% said only snakes
FIGURE 4 Responses of participants
on whether they implied harm to snakes
when encountering them outside sacred
groves where bars represent numbers of
individuals per response type. Categories
within response types represent the
propor tion of individuals that worship
snake deities (a, where orange and blue
indicate no and yes, respectively; n = 300)
or believe actual living snakes to be sacred
(b where yellow, green and dark blue
represent no, yes, and other responses,
respectively; n = 268)
Number of individuals
Maybe NoMaybe Yes
Implied harm to snakes outside sacred grove
TABLE 2 Results of generalized linear model analyzing the
potential determinants of par ticipants implying harm to snakes
outside of sacred groves, which was compared against the
reference level of each factor, where a negative "Slope" indicates
the level has a lower estimate (regardless of their significance)
relative to their reference
Reference level Slope p value
Intercept n.a. −3. 59 <.0 01
Devotees 0.58 .591
Upper class Hindu Lower class Hindu −0.57 .195
Male Female 1.46 .001
Snake deit y
Snake deit y
Size of sacred
n.a. 0.01 .572
Kasaragod district Kannur district 1.68 <.00 1
Kodagu district Kannur district 0.94 .059
Number of years
n.a. 0.01 .145
Note: p values below the threshold of .05 are bolded to indic ate statisti‐
cal significance. "n.a." under the “Reference Level” column indicates the
variable is continuous rather than nominal.
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
in or around sacred groves, temples, or other places of worship were
sacred (n = 26). 28% and 14% made mention of the Indian cobra, Naja
naja (n = 57), and king cobra, Ophiophagus Hannah (n = 26), respec‐
tively, as sacred, via identification from either the photos shown or
by local names. 17% included in their answers a type of sacred snake,
often named as sarpa, which could not be identified from photos,
but could be described as small, shining, golden or yellow coloured,
and hooded (n = 32), with occasional similarities explicitly drawn to
the Indian cobra but with the insistence that it was not the same.
Therefore, pooled together, we found nearly half (42%, n = 79) of
the participant s that believed snakes to be sacred to have described
what could be interpreted as cobras, arguably the most recognizably
venomous snakes in South Asia. In spite of the descriptive similar‐
ities though, a few of the participants gave us the impression that
sacred snakes are not dangerous to people. In effect, one par ticipant
emphasized that these “will not harm us”, whereas t wo others speci‐
fied that the sacred snake “does not bite people”. On the other hand,
two participants alluded to these snakes, despite their sanctity, not
being wanted in the vicinity, as these “listen” and “go away when
Accordingly, herein lies another connection between actual liv‐
ing snakes and the worshipping of snake deities, to the effect that
the latter belief was often said to be motivated by the hopeful aver‐
sion of snake encounters. In this respect, a combined 22% of partici‐
pants gave reasons for worshipping snake deities which we classified
either as a “warning sign” (n = 43) or “negative” (n = 12) regarding
attitudes towards snakes (n = 55). All answers classified as “negative”
explicitly mentioned worshipping for the sake of gaining “protec‐
tion from snakes”, whereas “warning sign” reasons mostly involved
the wish to “avoid snakes”, or the prevention of serpent‐god curses
known as nāga dosha (Appendix S2). Yet the significant majorit y of
reasons given for the worship of snake deities in general, were “neu‐
tral” with respect to attitudes towards snakes, with simple answers
including “belief”, “tradition”, “for prosperity”, “for blessings” and
“out of devotion” (74%, p < .01,
= 56.29, n = 183, Appendix S2).
On the other hand, a minority of participants said they worshipped
snake deities for reasons suggesting “positive” attitudes towards
snakes (2%, n = 5), with the occasional reference towards the sanc‐
tity of actual living snakes, such as “snakes are sacred” or “snakes
are gods”. In one response exuding profoundness, one participant
said they worshipped snake deities to attain the “mindfulness not
to harm snakes”; a reflection of the role this belief is playing on the
pacifism towards snakes overall.
4 | DISCUSSION
As important predators of early anthropoids, snakes have influenced
contemporary human psychology across evolutionary time (Isbell,
2006). Although it is not certain to what ex tent stigmas and fears
about snakes are innate, learned, or a combinatory result of both,
we know that humans are predisposed to the recognition of snakes
relative to other stimuli (LoBue & DeLoache, 2008; Rakison, 2018;
Thrasher & LoBue, 2016). In South India, natural and societal envi‐
ronmental factors have been conducive to an exceptionally high rate
of human mor tality by snake envenomation (Mohapatra et al., 2011;
Warrell, 2010), consequently inspiring the reverence of serpent‐
gods in ancient folk beliefs still in existence today (Allocco, 2013).
Nearly one century ago, Vogel supposed that “Indian ophiolatry had
its first cause in the dread inspired by the poisonous reptiles”, and
that for those communities, serpent‐gods “possessed no doubt as
much reality, as the creeping things of the ear th which constantly
endangered their lives” (1995: 7). This suggestion may not be
entirely outdated, since the fear of encountering or being harmed
by actual living snakes as the principal motive behind the worship‐
ping of snake deities is something we have found to be prevalent
amongst a portion of the par ticipants. Yet there is of course a rich
mix of motives for this devotion beyond fear or dread. For example,
and for the most part, participants tended not to include allusions to
snakes in their reasons for worshipping snake deities. Rather, their
primar y motives where a combination of the continuation of an age‐
old custom which they have been raised with, and a genuine sense
of reverence for serpent‐gods, which agrees with Fergusson's opti‐
mistic view on the matter of snake deity worship not only in India,
but across the ancient world, as far as he perceived it in the mid‐19th
century. He thought that “if fear were the…principal characteristic
of Serpent Worship, it might be sufficient, in order to account for
its prevalence, to say, that like causes produce like effects all the
world over” and that rather, “love and admiration, more than fear
or dread, seem to be the main features of this faith” (200 4:
3). Indeed, the tolerance and fondness expressed towards actual
living snakes by the sur veyed par ticipants reflect this idea. But of
course, in this case, the relationship between humans and snakes is
a complicated one. For example, venomous snakes featured heavily
in responses to our sur veys despite there being no questions making
such a distinction. While there inevit ably are day‐to‐day concerns
about the dangers of snakebite, there is still an eagerness to co‐exist
with snakes. A relevant example of this is the specific reverence for
cobras which frequently came up in our sur veys. Although they are
usually recognized as being dangerous, the beliefs about cobras are
most likely inspired by the common depictions of serpent‐gods in the
forms of hooded snakes in Hindu ar t, such as the snake coiled around
Lord Shiva's neck, or Ananta, a multiple‐headed serpent serving as
the bed of Vishnu. Yet, these representations typically include ele‐
ments unique to deities, such as a multiple yet uneven number of
heads (Vogel, 1995). Whether in the forms of statues, carv‐
ings or paintings, portrayals of snake deities were ubiquitous in most
temples, villages and even cities of the regions we visited. Even in
Bangalore, known as the “Silicon Valley of India” for its emergence
in software technologies on the global front (Parthasarathy, 2004),
it is easy to notice the presence of idols dedicated to snake deities
throughout the cit y despite its ongoing “modernization”.
While there is evidence for the existence of serpent worship
throughout the ancient world ( Wake, 1873), very few instances of
it lasting through to contemporary society remain as it has in the
Western Ghats region, where this belief translates into the pacifist
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
views towards snakes por trayed in this study. Yet we should note
that societal roles are at play as well, especially that of gender, where
males were more predisposed to harm snakes than females. This
corroborates Allocco's obser vations in the state of Tamil Nadu that
“men are less capable of recognizing a snake as the goddess and thus
more likely to harm or kill it” (2013:245). Nonetheless, the tendency
to allow snakes to live is seemingly the underlying factor conducive
to a society in which humans and snakes can co‐exist with minimal
detriment to the latter.
This overall societal taboo against the harming o r killing of snakes
of course benefit s conservation ef forts on loc al snake species (Ba ker,
Tanimola, & Olubode, 2018; Saraswat, Sinha, & Radhakrishna, 2015).
Yet the importance of sacred groves in promoting pacifistic interac‐
tions with snakes is integral to this concept, since our results show
that harm to snakes by people is exceptionally rare in these forests.
While the idea of sacred groves as havens for the conservation of na‐
tive species is often noted (Chandrashekara & Sankar, 1998; Ormsby
& Bhagwat, 2010; Verschuuren et al., 2010), some would say that the
traditions surrounding them are completely misaligned in respects
to their natural preservation which would have occurred as an unin‐
tentional side effect. Freeman argues that “there is little correlation
between the concerns and depictions of the modern environmental‐
ist's models, and the actual local reasons for instituting and maintain‐
ing sacred groves” (1999:262). Tomalin further adds that the “belief
that religious prac tices have preserved sacred groves intact” blinds
people from realising “the ex tent of their decline” (2004:279). With
modern conservation strategies hailing from the Western dichoto‐
mous view pitting pristine wilderness versus urban society, careful
attention should be paid as to not instrumentalize indigenous taboos
in a near colonial, top‐down manner.
Sacred groves in Southwestern India are not always pristine pri‐
mary forest and many are rapidly degrading and shrinking, often to
the point where they are reduced to just the central sacred com‐
pound cont aining the deities (Murugan, 2008). To this point, in a
conversation we had with a Brahmin priest not as part of the sur‐
vey, he explained how the occasional land owner would hire tantric
priest s to conduct a ceremony to lift up and displace the local snake
deity of their sacred grove to another location so as to justify the
implementation of plantations or other development in the area.
Despite this, the influence of the reverence shown towards snake
deities permeates across all sacred groves, since we found the par‐
ticipant s’ general attitudes and pacifistic behavior towards snakes
to be largely independent of the presence of a snake deity inside a
given sacred grove. Perhaps more importantly is that although local
beliefs may not preserve nature under the modern conservation
model, sacred groves in the Western Ghats permit the persistence
of the snakes inhabiting them.
While the detrimental exploitation of indigenous values for the
advancement of conservation should be avoided, so should the
overly cynical generalizations about the ecological awareness of
these societies. Although there is a rich histor y of natural preser‐
vation with religion and spirituality globally (Lowman & Sinu, 2018),
wildlife awareness by local inhabitant s is often underestimated by
researchers (Ulicsni et al., 2018). Their perceptions on conservation
as it pertains to their daily lives, and especially their relationships
with local fauna, form a key component for the improvement of im‐
plemented strategies (Bennett, 2016). In our surveys, although few
in number, some participants did mention the ecological importance
of snakes for sacred groves. We also encountered a case of societal
ecological awarness at one of the sacred groves we visited in the
Kasaragod district, where the inhabitants of the areas surrounding
it had convinced the local council to construct a fence demarcat‐
ing the forest to raise it up a certain height from the ground so as
to allow the passage of animals. We should thus reconcile the goal
of preser ving biodiversit y together with the respect towards and
welfare of local communities. This is especially relevant during the
laying out of urban infrastruc ture, where the continued, bottom‐up
valuation of a co‐existence between humans and other non‐human
animals relies on a shif t in the mentality of authorities (Narayanan &
Given the nature of the information we collected with the sur‐
veys, we should note that there are limitations to our interpretations
regarding attitudes towards snakes. Chiefly is the assumption that
participants which did not imply harm to snakes when encountering
them actually respond in this way in reality. Together with the per‐
ceptions we measured, we recognize that these do not necessarily
equate to actual attitudes in a 1:1 manner. But all in all, it is appar‐
ent that there is a social taboo against harming snakes inside sacred
groves and that this could be pushed forward as leverage for the in‐
tegrative conservation of both snakes and sacred groves in the face
of encroachment by development and plantations (Bhagwat & Rutte,
2006; Khan et al., 2008; Ormsby & Bhag wat, 2010). Documented
cases where traditional taboos in sacred sites have successfully led
to the protection of species otherwise considered as dangerous or
pests include the Sclater's monkey (Cercopithecus sclateri) in Nigeria
(Baker et al., 2018), rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) in India
(Saraswat et al., 2015), as well as the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) in
China (Li et al., 2014). This is especially important for snake species
which are currently at risk either in the Western Ghats or in other
parts of their distribution due to the direct harvest of individuals for
international trade. Notably, the King cobra is listed as vulnerable
with a decreasing population trend by the IUCN Red list (Stuart et al.,
2012). It is also included in the CITES Appendix II list together with
the Indian cobra, Indian rat snake (Ptyas mucosus), Russell's viper
(Daboia russelii) and the checkered keelback (Xenochrophis piscator),
while the Indian rock python (Python molurus) is listed under CITES
However, despite generating potential conservation benefits for
native snake species, their co‐existence with people cannot be thor‐
oughly discussed without also prioritizing the protection of human
lives. As in many other tropical regions of the world, the danger of
venomous snakes in Southwestern India is a preeminent day‐to‐day
concern over other threats to safety. Yet, despite this and the fact
that deaths by snake envenomation make up a significant propor‐
tion of all injury deaths across India (Mohapatra et al., 2011), snake‐
bite remains a globally neglected tropical disease (Warrell, 2010).
People and Nature
LAND RY YUAN et AL .
Therefore, moving forward, we wish to highlight the role of sacred
groves in promoting non‐harmful human–snake relations for the
conservation of both snakes and sacred groves, all while stressing
the importance of the beliefs, perspectives and safety of local com‐
munities in their co‐existence with snakes.
5 | CONCLUSIONS
The co‐existence of humans and snakes in the Western Ghats in
this case appears to be largely supported by the devotional beliefs
of local communities in regards to snake deities as well as sacred
groves. This has proved to be mostly independent of the presence
or absence of snake deities in the specific sacred groves we visited,
and is thus not restricted as a localized perspective. Rather, by tran‐
scending the scale of individual sacred groves, the tolerance and
pacifistic behaviour towards snakes across our sites demonstrate
how deeply traditions related to serpent‐gods permeate across com‐
munities in Southwestern India.
Although this taboo against harming snakes has been discussed in
the past literature (Allocco, 2013; Narayanan & Bindumadhav, 2018),
this is the first study to exhibit the intensification of it within the con‐
fines of sacred groves. Accordingly, this taboo against harming snakes
inside sacred groves would be a key component to be integrated as
a biocultural strategy (Gavin et al., 2015) for the future preser vation
of not only snakes which could be at risk locally or in other par ts of
their range, but also of other faunal and floral species relying on the
persistence of sacred groves (Bhagwat & Rut te, 2006; Chandrashekara
& Sankar, 1998; Ray et al., 2014). Importantly, this approach also in‐
cludes the human dimension, where the cultures and traditions from
which these beliefs originate are simultaneously protected (Pardo‐de‐
Santayana & Macía, 2015). While the risks to safety imposed by snakes
to people are real and should be critically dealt with, the acknowledge‐
ment of the valuation of snakes as their own social entity by local com‐
munities during future development could prove to be instrumental in
bolstering the advocacy of biodiverse environments in Southwestern
Surveys were conducted with approval by The University of Hong
Kong's Human Research Ethics Committee (E A1806029). Funding
was provided by the Faith and Science Collaborative Research
Forum at The Universit y of Hong Kong and the Kerala State Council
for Science, Technology & Environment (KSCSTE). The study
was also supported by the Young Scientist grant awarded to PAS
by the Science Engineering Research Board, New Delhi (SB/FT/
LS‐325/2012), and the Malabar Awareness and Rescue Center for
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
We wish to thank the reviewers and editors for their helpful com‐
ments during the revising of this manuscript. All authors contributed
in conceiving the ideas and designing the methodology; F.L.Y., U.P.B.
and R.R. collected the data; F.L.Y. and P.A. S. analysed the data; F.L.Y.
led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to
the drafts and gave final approval for publication.
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Additional suppor ting information may be found online in the
Supporting Information section.
How to cite this article: Landr y Yuan F, Ballullaya UP,
Roshnath R , Bonebrake TC, Sinu PA. Sacred groves and
serpent‐gods moderate human–snake relations. People Nat.
2020;2:111–122. https ://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10059