The Art of Snake Charming
Snake charming is an old age tradition especially in India. It is an ancient practice and a form of entertainment that many people around the world would like to see. Snake charming is also practiced in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and some African countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. This traditional art of making snakes come out of their baskets and dance has been going on for several thousands of years. People in ancient times even believed snake charming was an act of magic and would heal the sick. In this instance, the typical cobra was used and still is used today as the most popular breed of snake to entertain people.
Basically, the snake is ‘charmed’ by attempting to hypnotize it by using an instrument called a pungi (aka bansuri, bin or murli). The snake charmer may sometimes handle the snake by holding it and performing stunts with it in front of the audience. These street buskers wander around with snakes in their baskets and they visit towns and villages on festival and market days to amuse people and earn some money.
The snake, as a matter of fact, is not at all being hypnotized, they cannot hear the sound (although they can sense it) from the pungi but they do follow the movement of the instrument in the charmer’s hands. The snake thinks the pungi and the player is a threat and is focusing constantly as if it's the enemy. Whilst the charmer is sitting cross-legged on the floor playing the flute, the snake will rise up and start swaying as if it's dancing to the sound in front of the charmer. It first appears the snake will strike the charmer once it stands straight up, however, it certainly will not take a bite because the cobra is known to stand vertically in its natural way.
Is snake charming a cruel practice? It seems evident that a few snake charmers are indeed abusing and harming the snakes for their selfish gains. Due to increased tourism in countries where snake charming is performed, the performers will try to capture snakes in the wild, then tear out their fangs and stitch their mouth. That way the snake will not attack nor injure the snake charmer. Unfortunately, the poor snakes go hungry and die without food after a few weeks.
This I believe is animal cruelty and it is totally unacceptable. It really does ruin the reputation of the art of snake charming. This may be a reason why there was a complete ban in snake charming and owning snakes in India a few decades ago. This didn’t stop these people from performing however, and that’s because it was their only means of survival and they had to protest to give some of their working rights back. This may be another factor why snake charming is becoming less and less popular and on the decline in India and the other practicing countries.
The good news is many of these snake charming experts do actually take pride in their work, and they do look after the reptiles properly and safely. When they start to perform in front of people, they will keep a safe distance and tell the spectators to stay well back from the wicker basket for their safety too.
The pungi is the official wind instrument used by snake charmers and is originated in India. It's almost similar to the bagpipes that the Scottish people play but only smaller. As it's originally made for Indian folk music, it's also used mainly for religious purposes especially by the Hindus at their temples as well as snake charming for their traditional entertainment purposes.
In Hinduism, the cobras are considered to be sacred and many Hindu statues they worship have a portrayal of the snake. I think that's why snake charmers in ancient times carrying a snake and pungi were seen as holy people who had the healing power to assist victims of snake bites, and maybe even charge them for the treatment.
The pungi flute is made of a small gourd with a blowing hole at the top and two attached pipes at the bottom. Its sharp, ear-piercing sound is created by reeds for each pipe inside the gourd. Simply, the gourd is the air chamber for the reeds and because it's smaller than the bagpipes or trumpets, it is more hardly to produce sound. This means the player has to keep on blowing the pungi continually with high pressure to produce the right sound. The pungi is an impressive solo instrument but a lot of breathing practice is required without pauses to master this instrument fully.
The pungi instrument has different designs which is why they have other names too such as murli as mentioned earlier, however, the principals are the same. It may be built with double-reeds and have a high or low melodic tone, or maybe played with a constant low humming sound. It depends on the sort of instrument and the style the musician plays it. Whichever way the pungi is designed and played, the snake will be charmed by the charmer.