Snake charming

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Recreation

Snake charming is the practice of apparently hypnotising a snake by simply playing an instrument. A typical performance may also include handling the snakes or performing other seemingly dangerous acts, as well as other street performance staples, like juggling and sleight of hand. The practice is most common in India, though other Asian nations such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia are also home to performers, as are the North African countries of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

Ancient Egypt was home to one form of snake charming, though the practice as it exists today likely arose in India. It eventually spread throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Despite a sort of golden age in the 20th century, snake charming is today in danger of dying out. This is due to a variety of factors, chief among them the recent enforcement of a 1972 law in India banning ownership of serpents. In retaliation, snake charmers have organised in recent years, protesting the loss of their only means of livelihood, and the government has made some overtures to them.

Many snake charmers live a wandering existence, visiting towns and villages on market days and during festivals. With a few rare exceptions, however, they typically make every effort to keep themselves from harm's way. For one, the charmer typically sits out of biting range, and his animal is sluggish and reluctant to attack anyway. More drastic means of protection include removing the creature's fangs or venom glands, or even sewing the snake's mouth shut. The most popular species are those native to the snake charmer's home region, typically various kinds of cobra, though vipers and other types are also used.


Though serpents have featured prominently in man's religions for centuries, the earliest evidence for snake charming comes from Ancient Egyptian sources. Charmers there mainly acted as magicians and healers. As literate and high-status men, part of their studies involved learning the various types of snake, the gods to whom they were sacred, and how to treat those who were bitten by the reptiles. Entertainment was also part of their repertoire, and they knew how to handle the animals and charm them for their patrons.

Snakes have long been popular subjects of Hindu art.
Snakes have long been popular subjects of Hindu art.

Snake charming as it exists today probably originated in India. Hinduism has long held serpents to be sacred; the animals are related to the Nagas, and many gods are pictured under the protection of the cobra. Indians thus considered snake charmers to be holy men who were influenced by the gods.

The earliest snake charmers were likely traditional healers by trade. As part of their training, they learned to treat snakebite. Many also learned proper snake handling techniques, and people called on them to remove serpents from their homes. Baba Gulabgir (or Gulabgarnath) became their Guru, since his legend states that he taught people to revere the reptiles, not fear them. The practice eventually spread to nearby regions, ultimately reaching North Africa and Southeast Asia.

The early 20th century proved something of a golden age for snake charmers. Governments promoted the practice to draw tourism, and snake charmers were often sent overseas to perform at cultural festivals and for private patrons. In addition, the charmers provided a valuable source of snake venom for creating antivenins.

Today, only about one million snake charmers remain in India; theirs is a dying profession. One reason for this is the rise of cable television; nature documentaries have extinguished much of the fear and revulsion once felt toward the animals and thus demystified the snake charmer. In addition, many people have less spare time than they once did, especially children, who in previous decades could watch a charmer all day with no commitments to school. Animal-rights groups have also made an impact by decrying what they deem to be the abuse of a number of endangered species. Another factor is urbanisation and deforestation, which have made the snakes upon which the charmers rely increasingly rare. This has in turn given rise to the single most important reason snake charming is declining, at least in India: It is no longer legal.

India passed the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. The law originally aimed at preventing the export of snakeskins, introducing a seven-year prison term for owning or selling of the creatures. Beginning in the late 1990s, however, animal-rights groups convinced the government to enforce the law with regard to snake charmers as well. As a result, the charmers were forced to move their performances to less-travelled areas such as small villages, or else to pay hefty bribes when caught by police officers. The trade is hardly a profitable one anymore, and many practitioners must supplement their income by begging, scavenging, or working as day labourers. Children of snake charmers increasingly decide to leave the profession to pursue higher-paying work, and many fathers do not try to make them reconsider. Modern Indians often view snake charmers as little more than beggars.

In recent years, however, the snake charmers have struck back. In 2003, for example, hundreds of them gathered at the temple of Charkhi Dadri in Haryana to bring international attention to their plight. In December of the following year, a group of snake charmers actually stormed the legislature of the Indian state of Orissa with their demands, all the while brandishing their animals. The Indian government and various animal-rights groups have now acknowledged the problem. One suggestion is to train the performers to be snake caretakers and educators. In return, they could sell their traditional medicines as souvenirs. Another proposal would try to focus attention on the snake charmer's music; the charmer would be like other street musicians. The Indian government has also begun allowing a limited number of snake charmers to perform at specified tourist sites.

Performance technique

Snake charmers typically walk the streets holding their serpents in baskets or pots hanging from a bamboo pole slung over the shoulder. Charmers cover these containers with cloths between performances. Dress in India and neighbouring countries is generally the same: long hair, a white turban, earrings, and necklaces of shells or beads. Once the performer finds a satisfactory location to set up, he sets his pots and baskets about him (often with the help of a team of assistants who may be his apprentices) and sits cross-legged on the ground in front of a closed pot or basket. He removes the lid, then begins playing a flute-like instrument made from a gourd, known as a been or pungi. As if drawn by the tune, a snake eventually emerges from the container; if a cobra, it may even extend its hood. The reptile then begins swaying to and fro in time with the musician's tune, apparently hypnotised. The snake never strikes, and the charmer may go as far as kissing the creature on the head. Amazed onlookers throw coins and bills to the successful performer. Eventually, as if on cue, the snake returns to its container, the charmer replaces the lid, and he gathers up his earnings. Alternatively, the charmer may handle his animals, daring his audience to touch them. Almost no one does. Once he has earned all he can from his current viewers, he moves on to perform somewhere else.

In reality, standing erect and extending the hood is a normal defensive reaction for a cobra and simply indicates the snake's startled reaction to losing its darkened environment. Charmers may even wave their instrument over the opening (in such a way as to not arouse audience attention) in order to prompt the creature to emerge. As for the snake's swaying movement, it is actually a reaction to the movement of the performer's instrument and sometimes the tapping of his foot. The animal cannot actually hear the tune being played, though it can perhaps feel some of the sound vibrations as well as those from any tapping by the charmer. The serpent's evident reluctance to attack is explained by its timid nature; most snakes prefer to scare off possible predators rather than fight them. Most snake charmers reduce the chances of a bite even further by sitting just out of striking range (about one-third of a cobra's body length). Even kissing the creature is not too dangerous, as cobras are incapable of attacking things above them. Though some claim that snake charmers drug the animals, this is rare, if it occurs at all. In addition, many snake charmers learn to read their animals and can tell when they are ready to strike. In a worst-case scenario, most snake charmers know at least rudimentary methods of treating snakebite. The return to its container is caused by the snake charmer stopping his waving motion. Even the reptile's receptacle plays a part, as it keeps the snake's blood temperature down and the animal groggy.{{fact]]

Charmers often supplement their performances with juggling, sleight of hand, and other tricks. One occasional feat is "turning a rod into a serpent", a trick that has been known since Biblical times (see Exodus 7:12). This is reportedly accomplished by putting pressure on a particular nerve behind the snake's head, which causes it to stiffen up. Sometimes, charmers stage mock combats between their snakes and other animals, such as mongooses. North African snake charmers usually set up battery-powered loudspeakers with which they advertise a wide array of charms, medicines, and healthcare pamphlets. They may also demand exorbitant fees from hapless tourists who snap photographs of them.

The snakes

The first task a would-be snake charmer must tackle is to get a snake. Traditionally, this is done by going out into the wilderness and capturing one, not too difficult, as most South Asian and North African snakes tend to be slow movers. The exercise also teaches the hunter how to handle the wild reptiles. Today, however, more and more charmers buy their animals from snake dealers. A typical charmer takes in about seven animals per year.

The exact species of serpents used varies by region. In India, the Indian cobra is preferred, though some charmers may also use Russell's vipers. Indian and Burmese pythons are also encountered, though they are not as popular. In North Africa, the Egyptian cobra, puff adder, carpet viper and horned desert viper are commonly feature in performances. Except for the pythons, all of these species are highly venomous.

At home, snake charmers keep their animals in containers such as baskets, boxes, pots, or sacks. They must then train the creatures before bringing them out into public. For those charmers who do not de-fang their pets, this may include introducing the snake to a hard object similar to the punji. The snake supposedly learns that striking the object only causes pain.

The care given to performing serpents is often described as poor at best. In an effort to remove any danger from their performances, snake charmers routinely de-fang their animals or remove their venom glands. An even more severe technique is to actually sew the creature's mouth shut, leaving only a small opening through which its tongue may flick in and out (the stitches can be removed for periodic feedings). An even more extreme method is total removal of the animal's jawbone and the venom glands with it. These methods often cause infection and lead to the snake's death.

Feeding methods are often no better. Some snake charmers give their animals only milk, which the snakes are incapable of digesting (though some sources claim this practice is a myth). Others feed them leaves and herbs that are thought to cause the snakes to become lethargic and confused. Still others do not feed them at all and simply find new animals once the old ones die. Animal-rights groups report an average lifespan of six months for a performing snake. Steve Irwin had also stated such ideas, that the snakes will slowly die after their fangs are ripped. Additionally, he had said that to the viewers to "Never stop and pay money to these people(snake charmers)".

That said, a few snake charmers treat their animals quite well, feeding them properly and not maiming them in any way. In fact, some performers seem to have an uncanny rapport with their snakes, the reptiles seeming almost tame. These charmers may even learn rudimentary veterinary medicine.


snake charmer in Delhi (1973)
snake charmer in Delhi (1973)

Snake charming is typically an inherited profession. Most would-be charmers thus begin learning the practice at a young age from their fathers. Part of this is due to India's caste system; as members of the Sapera or Sapuakela castes, snake charmers have little other choice of profession. In fact, entire settlements of snake charmers and their families exist in some parts of India and neighbouring countries. In Bangladesh, snake charmers are typically members of the Bedey ethnic group. They tend to live by rivers and use them to boat to different towns on market days and during festivals. North African charmers usually set up in open-air markets and souks for their performances. Their trade is primarily aimed at the tourist market, so they tend to work in resort towns and near large hotels.

In previous eras, snake charming was often the charmer's only source of income. This is less true today, as many charmers also scavenge, scrounge, sell items such as amulets and jewelry, or perform at private parties to make ends meet. Snake charmers are often regarded as traditional healers and magicians, as well, especially in rural areas. These charmers concoct and sell all manner of potions and unguents that purportedly do anything from curing the common cold to raising the dead. They also act as a sort of pest control, as villagers and city-dwellers alike call on them to rid homes of snakes (though some accuse snake charmers of releasing their own animals in order to receive the fee for simply catching them again).

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