Monday, January 10, 2011

500 Cobras (Paul Bowles)


Connemara Hotel, Madras (now Chennai), 1944

     During breakfast one morning at the Connemara Hotel in Madras, the Moslem head waiter told me a story.  He was traveling in the Province of Orissa where, in a certain town, there was a Hindu temple which was famous for having five hundred cobras on its premises.  He decided he would like to see these legendary reptiles.  When he got to the town he hired a carriage and went to the temple.  At the door he was met by a priest who offered to show him around.  And since the Moslem looked prosperous, the priest suggested a donation of five rupees, to be paid in advance.

     "Why so much?" asked the visitor.

     "To buy eggs for the cobras.  You know, we have five hundred of them."

     The Moslem gave him the money on condition that the priest let him see the snakes. For an hour his guide dallied in the many courtyards and galleries, pointing out bas-reliefs, idols, pillars and bells.  Finally the Moslem reminded him of their understanding.

     "Cobras?  Ah, yes.  But they are dangerous. Perhaps you would rather see them another day?"

     This behavior on the priest's part had delighted him, he recalled, for it had reinforced his suspicions.

     "Not at all," he said.  "I want to see them now."

     Reluctantly the priest led him into a small alcove behind a large stone Krishna, and pointed to a very dark corner.

     "Is this the place?", the visitor asked.

     "This is the place."

     "But where are the snakes?"

     In a tiny enclosure there were two sad old cobras, "almost dead from hunger," he assured me. But when his eyes had grown used to the dimness he saw that there were five hundred eggshells scattered around the floor of the pen.

     "You eat a lot of eggs," he told the priest.

     The priest merely said, "Here.  Take back your five rupees.  But if you are asked about our cobras, please be so kind as to say that you saw five hundred of them here in our temple.  Is that all right?"

     The episode was meant to illustrate the head waiter's thesis, which was that Hindus are abject in the practice of their religion; this is the opinion held by Moslems.  On the other hand, it must be remembered that the Hindu considers Islam an incomplete doctrine, far from satisfying.  He finds its austerity singularly comfortless and deplores its lack of mystico-philosophical content, in which  his own creed is so rich.

Casino Theater, Madras (now Chennai), 1944 

Excerpted from Notes Mailed At Nagercoil: Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue -- Scenes From The Non-Christian World (New York, Random House, 1957) 

This post is dedicated to Elizabeth Jeffords of Bangalore, India

See also:  Here for Cows 
               Here for Parrots 


  1. Excellent is reflective of the intense confusion...that inspires so much of the highest order of artistic creativity in India.....Kuchipudi...Kathak spell check here,+++++++ Elzabethi J

  2. I am VERY happy you discovered and enjoyed this. I've posted a number of Bowles pieces, all great. Curtis