New Delhi: I used to do a lot of snake charming, but not any more,” Bandunath insists, nervously fingering the sleeve of his green sweater as he talks. “It’s a vanished profession after the government banned catching of snakes.”
But a glance around Shanti Camp, a small colony of crudely constructed huts on the outskirts of Chattarpur, belies his words. Strutting down the dusty street, a slim teenager (as it turns out, Bandunath’s son) wears the fat coils of a golden-coloured snake draped around his neck like a scarf. A few hundred metres away, a young boy sits in the dust behind a house constructed from sticks and layered bits of dirty cloth, absently twirling a small black python around his arm. Another snake can be seen poking its head out of a small red cloth bag next to two women kneading dough outside their home in the adjoining hut, its flicking forked tongue tasting the cold winter air.
A vanishing skill: A file photo of a snake charmer during a roadside performance in Amritsar. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP
“Actually, everyone here has snakes,” says B. Shibumon, co-founder of Bharat Seva Samiti, a charitable trust that provides food and clothes, and runs a small school for the children of the village in an effort to help them avoid the profession. “But they are too afraid to admit it. No one wants problems with the police. No one will say they are still doing snake charming—but nearly everyone is.”
After the government passed the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the nomadic communities that make up India’s snake charmers have been struggling for survival. The law banned the ownership of snakes, punishing violators with hefty fines and up to seven years in prison. For snake charmers, the Act has meant the loss of their livelihood. “Before the ban, we could make a decent living,” says Bandunath. “We could get our daughters married. Now it is very difficult.”
It used to be that snake charmers were ubiquitous—an emblem of the “exotic East.” They performed on street corners and at Indian festivals, clad in the traditional turban and sitting cross-legged on mats before a cane basket holding coiled serpents. Armed with a been, a long flute-like instrument bloated at the bottom, the charmer would coax the snake from the basket by swaying their instrument from side-to-side. The snake, appearing hypnotized, would follow the movement of the instrument with its head, appearing to dance.
One couple is trying to give the children of some snake charmers a shot at a better future.
India’s snake charmers are known by many names—in north India, they are the sapera, kher in Orissa and mahar in Maharashtra, according to Sandip Mukherjee, the spokesperson for the Bedia Federation of India, a non-profit organization based out of Kolkata that organizes and advocates for the snake charmers’ community.
Unified by a common dialect (called mangta) and their love of snakes, their true origins have been lost, though Mukherjee says they are most likely the descendants either of nomadic Bedia tribes from Arabia, or perhaps from Myanmar. “It’s passed down generation to generation,” says Mukherjee. “They have no other skills, no education—there is only one skill, which is snake charming. Without this, what can they do?”
Bandunath says he learnt the art as a child from his father. “We are born with the skill,” he says. “They have always been with us—the snakes are our friends.” When he was a child, Bandunath was taught by his father how to track and catch the animals. He learnt the art of handling the venomous creatures without getting bitten, to make certain herbal remedies to treat snake bites, and how to make them dance. “Our guru teaches us to honour the snake,” he says. “We would not hurt it.”
Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, a non-governmental organization founded to protect and conserve wildlife in India, says most modern-day snake charmers have adopted the habit of removing the fangs with pliers and cutting out the venom glands, dooming the serpents to a slow and painful death. “Older generations of snake charmers prided themselves at being able to handle these snakes just through behaviour and not handicapping the snake,” Satyanarayan says. “That doesn’t exist anymore. The younger generations have neither the patience, skills or the time.”
In an effort to revive the traditional profession, the Bedia Federation of India has been pressuring the government to amend the wildlife Act to allow snake charmers to keep snakes—providing they do not harm them. In August, it staged a protest, unifying thousands of members of various snake charming groups from across India to amend the Act. “Our goal is that snakes should be viewed the same way as domestic cats, dogs or cows. We are in favour of snake farming, through which this community will be saved from being extinct,” says Mukherjee. “If snake charmers can be allowed to harvest the venom, the cost of anti-venom will go down—this will benefit not only the snake charmer, but also society.”
Today, the descendants of snake charmers exist on the margins of society. Bandunath lives in a rough hut constructed from dirty bits of cloth draped on rough stick frames. Some members of his community have adopted other professions. Bandunath said that, for a time, he worked in a quarry. Another man in his village says he paints faces at festivals and parties. Because most of the community is illiterate, finding gainful employment has been hard, he says. While there is a government school only 1km away, few of the children go there. “They are not accepted there,” explains Shibumon. “Other families will not permit their children to sit next to the children of this community.” By providing vocational training, Shibumon hopes to equip the children with skills that will allow them to make a living legally. “My wife is taking classes in sewing. When she finishes the course, we will buy machines to teach the children different skills.”
Satyanarayan says Wildlife SOS has been hiring and training former snake charmers to work as animal rescue workers. Currently, they work with 80 former snake charmers. “Our objective is to harness the skills in understanding animal behaviour, and channel in the right direction, to offer employment as an alternative means of livelihood.” he says. “The best thing for the snake charming community is to let the charming actually die so they can move on with their lives and get into mainstream society. Because that is the way the world is going—that is survival.”