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Where have all the snake charmers of Bengal gone? Do you hear their flutes anymore?

7 July, 2020 22:38:02
Where have all the snake charmers of Bengal gone? Do you hear their flutes anymore?

A couple of decades ago snake charmers used to be a fixture at Indian markets and festivals, enchanting crowds with their ability to control some of the world's most venomous reptiles. I can still recollect watching a snake charmer perform his acts and I stood transfixed as a cold shiver ran down my spine. I had heard fantastic stories about the exploits of the slippery, slithery reptile and always associated it with dark forces and dark magic and never felt comfortable with anything to do with snakes. My aversion was further cemented by snake charmers whose looks instilled fear in kids like me.  

My first encounter with a snake charmer was in a Bengali movie I watched as a kid in Doordarshan, the national channel we had way back in the 1980s. This was a screening of a 1959 blockbuster movie, Indranath Srikanto O Annada Didi, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s cult novel, Srikanto. Many old timers and film buffs can still recollect Kanan Devi’s brilliant portrayal of Annada Didi, a conservative middle-class girl, who eloped with a snake charmer Sahooji, (portrayed brilliantly by Bikash Roy). Although her husband was  a scoundrel, Annada remained loyal to him, for which she was idolized by the young Srikanta.  Sarat Chandra immortalized the character which he had based on an actual lady who lived with her snake charmer husband in a village near the author’s native village. As a child, Sarat Chandra would often visit her with his friend, Indranath. I would shed copious tears watching Annada Didi’s ordeal and shuddered to watch Sahooji’s villainous acts. My disapproval for snake charmers was confirmed. 

In those days, snake charmers were sighted quite frequently in various localities, especially during monsoons. Snake charmers are great performers. I still remember how the snake charmer stood out in a crowd because of his appearance—his fluorescent turban attracted any onlooker. He would wear a vibrant-coloured kurta and dhoti. His long, flowing   beard and hair and kohl-applied eyes that appeared like burning coals, peered from his face, scanning the crowd. He wore thick copper and steel bangles and many multi-coloured beaded bangles and several layers of long necklaces made of stones and beads and talisman. He balanced a bamboo pole on his shoulder; at one end hung the wicker baskets, and at the other, a bag of food grains or any other offering. He would hold a ‘Been’ (a flute) between his lips and played strange enchanting music as he strode the street confidently. Soon, curious heads would peer from behind hedges and gates and boundary walls. Once, a large crowd gathered, he would settle down and flip the lid off the basket, and the ‘venomous’ snake would pop up like a jack-in-the-box, scanning around with its hood fully extended.

It would fix its gaze on the tip of the charmer’s gourd flute. The snake’s black scales glistened as it swayed, following the movement of the flute's tip.  Time would stand still as the man and the snake seemed connected in a very ancient, intricate dance. It looked so deliciously mesmerizing and we would stand at the spot transfixed, watching the hair-raising act.  After the show, audience would pay and disperse. Many housewives came with a bowl of milk to offer the Snake God, Manasha. 

In Hindu mythology, snakes are highly revered; Lord Shiva has a cobra around his neck, Lord Vishnu is shown reclining on a coiled serpent, and Lord Ganesha ties a snake around his waist. Because snakes have been depicted so close to gods, Hindus see them as gods too and worship them. That’s why Naag Panchmi is celebrated with much fanfare in rural areas. On the day of the festival, a snake charmer announces his arrival in a neighbourhood by playing his flute. He is then ceremoniously welcomed into homes, where he displays his snakes. In return, he gets a cup of milk for the reptiles and some money for himself.

Traditionally, snake charmers belong to the Bedia community, a tribe famous (and in some ways infamous) for its involvement in India's snake charming culture for thousands of years. Snake charmers also concoct herbal medicines obtained from the forest and hours of incantation. Poor illiterate villagers revere snake charmers’ medicinal knowledge and power to communicate with the Gods and cure complicated ailments. 

Snake charmers claim they belong to a sect founded centuries ago by a monk, Guru Gorakh Nath. The village in eastern India where Gorakh Nath lived gradually developed into a town and later into a city, Gorakhpur. Snake charmers were earlier concentrated in Gorakhpur, but as time passed, they spread and settled in different places.

According to historian Dr M N P Tiwari of Banaras Hindu University, “It was in the 19th century that the British writers and travellers visiting India started mentioning the country as the land of snake charmers…. That was a deliberate move, because the British wanted to rule over India. A snake charmer looks primitive, and they wanted to project India as a backward country.” Dr Tiwari adds, “In Hinduism, snakes symbolize knowledge. In fact, there’s a neighbourhood Sarp Kuan [literally, snake well] in Varanasi.” 

As India becomes a more tech-savvy middle-class country, people are now more attuned to television shows, mobile phones and video games than they are to street performers. Besides, snake charming was banned in India in 1972, as part of a Wildlife Protection Act. While enforcement of the law had for years been relatively lax, officials have begun cracking down on the practice in the last decade. Snake charmers often perpetrate cruelty on the snakes they capture. To prevent the snake from biting, they sometimes break off the reptile’s fangs or sew its mouth shut. As a result, the snake can't eat and slowly starves to death. Snake charming is not enchanting. It's not courageous. It’s certainly not charming. It is simply a cruelty-laced means of earning money off the poaching, misery, and torture of an innocent animal

The state government has now taken initiative to save the dwindling snake population of Bengal that is home to the famous cobra and king cobra (Shankhachur) and various other species like Laudaga and Dhora, snakes indigenous to this state. They have implanted identification chips under the skin of some snakes that were already in captivity. This allows the government to scan the animals and confiscate any that are newly captured and have no chips. The snake charmers too, have been given alternative means of livelihood. Instead of performing at festivals, the snake charmers are called in to remove venomous snakes from city and suburban gardens and return them to the wild. So today instead of catching the snake, exploiting it, killing it, they actually help protect snakes. Still, if it were possible to save something from the art of snake charming, it might be the music of the charmer's


Cover Image: Street scene with snake charmers, Calcutta, West Bengal. 
Coloured etching by Frans Balthazar Solvyns, 1799.

Story Tag:
  • Snake charmers, Bengal

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