“You can come closer, son. It’s harmless and it won’t attack … It’s god’s own crocodile!” Chandrashekaran, an employee of the Sri Anandapadmanabha Swamy temple, tries to entice devotees.
This lake temple in a small village called Ananthapura, in Kasaragod district, shot to fame when they claimed that they house a vegetarian crocodile, Babiya.The temple is known as the moolasthanam, the original source, of the Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.
They believe Babiya is a messenger of Lord Padmanabhan himself.
It was my fourth (or was it fifth?) visit to the temple and I hoped I’d finally catch a glimpse of Babiya. Most temple priests now recognised me thanks to my frequent trips here.
Chandrasekaran, who has worked at the temple for decades now, is busy herding devotees to pay their respects to the divine crocodile, who finally decided to show up that evening.
As he begs an amused crowd to keep their voices down, I catch his eye. “You are lucky today,” he grins. “Babiya is right there, next to the shrine. Can you see her?”
People from across the country gather here in the evenings, hoping to spot Babiya, the vegetarian crocodile.
Babiya has been a resident of the temple lake for more than 70 years now. She allegedly lives on the temple’s prasadam which is served to her two times a day. She is also the friend of temple priests, who do not hesitate to take a holy dip in the lake, despite the fact an adult crocodile swims its waters.
The legend claims …
Chandrashekaran settles down after the evening pooja to brief the devotees of the history of the temple.
Around 3,000 years ago a sage named Divakara Muni Vilwamangalam Swamy did penance and performed poojas here. Legend has it that one day Lord Vishnu himself appeared before him. The lord, impressed by Vilwamangalam’s devotion, gave him permission to make an idol of him.
One day, Vilwamangalam was doing his routine poojas, when Lord Vishnu took the form of a little boy and appeared before him. The boy soon became a good friend of Vilwamangalam and started helping him with his daily chores. As time went by, Vilwamangalam, being the man who idiolised the lord, became very proud of himself. The lord decided to teach him a lesson.
One day, the boy decided to relieve himself in the holy water Vilwamangalam kept aside for his rituals. An angry Vilwamangalam scolded the boy and pushed him back with his hand. Humiliated, the boy disappeared immediately after proclaiming that if Vilwamangalam wanted to see him, he would have to go to Ananthankat, the forest of the serpent god, Anantha. Vilwamangalam found a cave at the spot the boy disappeared. He decided to go in to see if the child could be found there.
Chandrashekaran points to the cave, “There … that is the cave. Can you all see it?”
Babiya, the ‘divine crocodile’
This cave is where Babiya resides now. According to the temple priests, Babiya spends most of her time inside the cave and comes out in the afternoons. They claim that she guards the cave into which the lord disappeared.
Which, according to them, explains her vegetarianism. It is believed she lives only on the temple offerings served to her twice a day.
Chandra Prakash, a temple staff, feeds Babiya at 8 in the morning first and then later in the afternoon. He has been feeding the crocodile for about 10 years now and puts the ball of rice right into her mouth.
“I feed Babiya 1 kg of rice every day. She is not fed meat; she doesn’t even attack the fishes in the lake,” says Chandra Prakash.
What do the crocodile experts have to say?
Anirban Chaudhuri, a crocodile expert, says crocs are very intelligent animals and they are true survivors. After looking at the pictures of Babiya, Anirban describes some of the scenarios possibly playing out here.
“This is a Muggar crocodile and their natural wild diet primarily are fishes. They also feed on small and large mammals, like deer, wild boar, etc.,” says Anirban.
“Given a choice, a crocodile would always go for its natural diet, but it is also important to understand that they are great survivors and are known to be hardy animals. Therefore, it is likely that the crocodile in the temple pond is primarily feeding on the fishes there and is consuming rice as part of a conditioned behaviour. The rice balls fed to it twice a day just supplement its meal,” he adds.
When I tell him that no human has been attacked by the crocodile inside the temple, Anirban says, “Crocodiles have great learning capabilities. In fact, taming a croc is far easier than taming a dog. It is perfectly normal for it to form a bond with the person that feeds it. It attacks only when it feels threatened.”
“We don’t know what deficiency this crocodile could suffer from because of its diet. Only an expert can make that out,” he adds.
Jigar Upadhyay, another crocodile expert, told TNM that to rule out an unexpected sudden attack from the crocodile would be worrisome.
“Muggar crocodiles are very shy creatures. They feed late in the nights and in the early hours of the day. She is most likely having her fill from the variety of fishes in the temple pond,” says Jigar.
“Crocodiles mostly attack on three instances – one, when its nesting or resting place is invaded; second, when it feels threatened and third, when it thinks something is its prey. And this depends a lot on the size of the prey,” said Jigar.
“The behaviour of this particular crocodile is most likely accustomed and conditioned behaviour. But any human being who is not trained to deal with crocodiles is vulnerable for the animal could unexpectedly charge at them. Feeding the crocodile and being in close proximity with the animal should be practiced only by trained personnel,” added Jigar.
Both crocodile experts agreed on one thing though –the animals are under threat. They are killed all over the world for their skin. And in the name of religion, belief and faith if a crocodile has a safe environment to live in, it must be appreciated.
“Though a crocodile that lives on carbohydrates can be an exaggerated thought, if the animal is left unharmed by humans, it is something to appreciate,” says Jigar.
“I haven’t seen or heard of such a practice elsewhere. Considering the fact that the animal is left unharmed, it can be seen as a safe haven for the fast-depleting species. Though a medical examining of the animal to check its well-being would do no harm,” said Anirban.
While believers attribute it to a godly miracle, the facts remain the same. Babiya has never attacked a human and people have not seen the crocodile attack any animal or bird. So while the question of whether she survives solely on rice or not is debatable, the fact that she has a safe space to live in is to be prized.