Indian cobra

The Indian cobra (Naja naja) also known as the Spectacled cobra, Asian cobra or Binocellate cobra is a species of the genus Naja found in the Indian subcontinent and a member of the “big four” species that inflict the most snakebites on humans in India. This snake is revered in Indian mythology and culture, and is often seen with snake charmers.

The Indian cobra is classified under the genus Naja of the family Elapidae. The genus was first described by Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti in 1768. The species Naja naja was first described by the Swedish physician, zoologist, and botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. The genus Naja was split into several subgenera based on various factors, including morphology, diet, and habitat. Naja naja is part of the subgenus Naja, along with all the other species Asiatic cobras, including Naja kaouthia, Naja siamensis, Naja sputatrix, and the rest. Naja naja is considered to be the prototypical cobra species within the Naja subgenus, and within the entire Naja genus.

The Indian cobra varies tremendously in colour and pattern throughout its range. The ventral scales or the underside colouration of this species can be grey, yellow, tan, brown, reddish or black. Dorsal scales of the Indian cobra may have a hood mark or colour patterns. The most common visible pattern is a posteriorly convex light band at the level of the 20th to 25th ventrals. Salt-and-pepper speckles, especially in adult specimens, are seen on the dorsal scales. Specimens, particularly those found in Sri Lanka may exhibit poorly defined banding on the dorsum. Ontogenetic colour change is frequently observed in specimens in the north-western parts of their geographic range (southern Pakistan and north-western India). In southern Pakistan, juvenile specimens may be grey in colour and may or may not have a hood mark. Adults on the other hand are typically uniformly black in colour on top (melanistic), while the underside, outside the throat region, is usually light. Patterns on the throat and ventral scales are also variable in this species. The majority of specimens exhibit a light throat area followed by dark banding, which can be 4-7 ventral scales wide. Adult specimens also often exhibit a significant amount of mottling on the throat and on the venter, which makes patterns on this species less clear relative to patterns seen in other species of cobra. With the exception of specimens from the north-west, there is often a pair of lateral spots on the throat where the ventral and dorsal scales meet. The positioning of these spots varies, with north-western specimens having the spots positioned more anterior, while specimens from elsewhere in their range are more posterior. Many specimens exhibit a hood mark. This hood mark is located at the rear of the Indian cobra’s hood. When the hood mark is present, are two circular ocelli patterns connected by a curved line, evoking the image of spectacles.

Indian cobras are oviparous and lay their eggs between the months of April and July. The female snake usually lays between 10 to 30 eggs in rat holes or termite mounds and the eggs hatch 48 to 69 days later. The hatchlings measure between 20 and 30 centimetres (7.9 and 11.8 in) in length. The hatchlings are independent from birth and have fully functional venom glands.

The Indian cobra’s venom mainly contains a powerful post-synaptic neurotoxin and cardiotoxin. The venom acts on the synaptic gaps of the nerves, thereby paralyzing muscles, and in severe bites leading to respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. The venom components include enzymes such as hyaluronidase that cause lysis and increase the spread of the venom. Envenomation symptoms may manifest between 15 minutes and 2 hours following the bite.

The venom of young cobras has been used as a substance of abuse in India, with cases of snake charmers being paid for providing bites from their snakes. Though this practice is now seen as outdated, symptoms of such abuse include loss of consciousness, euphoria, and sedation.

The spectacled cobra is greatly respected and feared, and even has its own place in Hindu mythology as a powerful deity. The Hindu god Shiva is often depicted with a cobra coiled around his neck, symbolizing his mastery over “maya” or the world-illusion. Vishnu is usually portrayed as reclining on the coiled body of Adishesha, the Preeminent Serpent, a giant snake deity with multiple cobra heads. Cobras are also worshipped during the Hindu festival of Nag Panchami.

The Indian cobra’s celebrity comes from its popularity as a Nipaie of choice for snake charmers. The cobra’s dramatic threat posture makes for a unique spectacle as it appears to sway to the tune of a snake charmer’s flute. Snake charmers with their cobras in a wicker basket are a common sight in many parts of India only during the Nag Panchami or Naagula Chavithi festival. The cobra is deaf to the snake charmer’s pipe, but follows the visual cue of the moving pipe and it can sense the ground vibrations from the snake charmer’s tapping. Sometimes, for the sake of safety, all the venom in the cobra’s teeth is removed. The snake-charmers sell the venom at a very high price. In the past Indian snake charmers also conducted cobra and mongoose fights. These gory fight shows, in which the snake was usually killed, are now illegal.

Indian cobras were often a heraldic element in the official symbols of certain ancient princely states of India such as Gwalior, Kolhapur, Pal Lahara, Gondal, Khairagarh and Kalahandi, among others.