Venomous spiders appear to have cast a web of terror in an alleged hub of Maoism in Assam.
Villagers in eastern Assam's Sadiya area bordering Arunachal Pradesh claim to be under attack from swarms of poisonous nocturnal spiders.
Sadiya, according to the police, is the nerve centre of neo-Maoism in the state. Police killed four Maoists in the area in an encounter earlier this month.
The first of the spider attacks, almost like a recreation of Hollywood flick Arachnophobia, was at Chaulkhowa Na-Gaon village on May 8. Middle-aged Purnakanta Buragohain died of spider bite later.
Barbora, Jiyagaon, Dikrong and a few other villages in the area reported spider attacks in the next few days. At least 15 people have subsequently undergone treatment for swelling and pain at Sadiya Civil Hospital.
"There are no records of poisonous spiders in these parts, but then a lot of wildlife remains to be identified and documented," said Tinsukia district magistrate SS Meenakshi Sundaram.
"I have asked the civil sub-divisional officer to investigate the spider attacks and prepare a report."
Villagers fear more attacks by the "alien" arachnids.
"We have never seen such black spiders before, and they descend in large numbers," said Jintu Gogoi, a spider bite survivor.
Zoologists said the description of the spiders fit the black or brown widow species belonging to the Latrodectus genus.
"In India, the wolf spider and the funnel web spider are known to be venomous, besides the tarantula found in certain pockets. But these are closer to the black or brown widows," said PC Bhattacharjee, former head of Gauhati University's zoology department.
He added the spiders terrorising Sadiya could be the Latrodectus elegans variety of brown spiders found in contiguous areas of Myanmar, China and Thailand. This spider has strong neurotoxic venom known to be fatal to children.
According to PC Bhuyan, joint director of the health department, doctors treating the spider bite victims attributed Buragohain's death to shock and allergic reaction to insect bites.
"We are monitoring the health of the others."