The Art of the Snake Charmer:
India was always considered an exotic land. Even after Vasco de Gama discovered the sea route to India in 1498, the enigma of India remained. Travelers for the last five centuries from the 16th century have written colorful accounts about the life and people of India. Two of the common reference about India concern two events that fascinated them. The first was the snake charmer and the second was the proverbial Indian rope trick, wherein a man blowing his flute would make a rope rise into the sky. In this article, I will discuss the snake charmer and leave information about the rope trick for a later post.
In the western mind, India was indeed known as the nation of the proverbial rope trick and the snake charmers. Both these so-called magical tricks are peculiar to India, though there is a record of snake charmers in ancient Egypt and Africa as well. The art of snake charmers flourished in India mainly because of the proliferation of snakes in the sub-continent. The lethal cobra is the most prevalent snake in Indian jungles also has a sacred connotation and the snake in the form of the Nag Deva (God of snakes) is worshiped in the Hindu religion.
The Bhil Mahabharata has a special reference to the Nag Deva or snake god called Visaka. The Bhils are a tribal sect of Hindus and reside in Central India. As per their version of the Mahabharata, the snake god Visaka seduces Draupadi the wife of the Pandavas, and makes ferocious love to her. Subsequently, he is killed but not before he has any number of times mated with the beautiful Draupadi. One reason for such tales proliferating in the country is that India along with the elephant is also the land of the snake. There are a plethora of snakes in India and till as late as the thirties of the 20th century, death by snake bites was common.
In the countryside and the remote villages one man perforce became very important. He was the snake charmer who appeared on the scene. It was his job to trap the cobra. India has the largest population of Cobra's in the world and the snake charmer was the man who would trap the cobra.
The snake charmer
The snake charmer traveled from village to village and helped the villagers. The aim was however never to kill the snake but keep it as a pet or a part of a ritual in a temple. One reason for it is that the snake is considered a sacred animal in Hinduism and secondly the snakes, in particular, the cobras are supposed to be the guardians of the God Shiva's temples.
The snake charmers have been part of Indian folklore for close to 4000 years and there is a mention of them in ancient Hindu literature. The snake charmer was a specialist in enticing snakes to come out from their holes and then he would capture them. The captured snakes would either kept by him and carried in a basket or given to a temple for ritual prayers. Before doing any of these things the snake charmer always defanged the snakes.
These snake charmers followed a hereditary profession and from childhood learned to trap snakes by blowing conch shells. These conch shells had special acoustic vibrations that enticed snakes out of their dens and the snake charmers could then catch them.
Snake charmers have existed in India for centuries and paintings are available from the Mughal period to show that snake charmers were a class that had a special role. The conch shells are handmade and some scientists have tried to duplicate these conch shells in a laboratory, but success is limited. The snake gets enticed by the sound or tune emanating from the Conch shell and gets trapped. Scientists have not been able to duplicate the vibration band of the sound emanating from the conch shell which sometimes looks like a single bagpiper.
There was a time when in the villages of India, snake charmers were in abundance. With the rapid spread of medical facilities and anti-snake poison serum, the snake charmers have almost died away. Snake bites are still common but the health centers have the antisnake venom serum and there is no role for the snake charmer.
The snake charmers were also healers and if a man or a woman was bitten by a snake they could suck out the poison from the snake bite. How they did this has never been learned.
For centuries the snake charmer was an integral part of rural society. Now it is a rarety.Another reason for the decline of the snake charmer is the new wildlife act. The cobra is a protected species and it is banned to capture it and anybody violating this law can be sentenced to 5 years in jail.
Snake charmers still fascinate people who want to learn about India. Western tourists are fascinated by the snake charmers who are a breed apart and look for them but they are not seen. Since olden times they were also healers and had the ability to draw out the poison from a man's body if bitten by a snake. Thus most villagers if bitten by a snake rushed to a snake charmer. This has now gone down with anti-venom vaccine made available by the government of India in most health centers in villages.
There is a demand by many people that the art of the snake charmer should not be allowed to die away. In particular, the instrument used to entice the snake and the art connected with its manufacture needs to be preserved. However, nobody has time for the poor Snake charmer now.