"He who has been bitten by a snake, fears a piece of string."
What we see is never what it is. Our perspective is limited by our experience, and our reasoning tells us that magical or mystical creatures don’t exist. However, as we open our mind, we can expand our consciousness to accept things we initially rejected. This is especially true of things which can’t be fully explained with reasoning alone. At first glance snake charming appears to be a simple act of a snake charmer playing a pungi, the gourd shaped instrument that looks like a flute, with the snake being hypnotized by the melody. But the reality of the exchange goes deeper than that. Snake charming has a long history in India, as well as other Asian and African countries of the world. In the past, it has been thought to feature mystical or even magical practices, with snake charmers also seen as healers. In reality, the snake reacts to the snake charmer’s movements while they play the pungi. The reaction is not innate, as they would usually strike prey within that distance. Instead, they enter a state of defense and alertness where they do not attack. Since cobras or vipers are mostly used in snake charming this act can be deadly to the snake charmer, who sits just out of the reach of danger. Snake charming has an interesting and somewhat controversial history in India due to its religious or magical undertones and those who view it as an act of animal cruelty. Through the ever-changing history of snake charming in India, there is a reason why it has brought tourism to India, which was once known as the land of snake charmers.
The Evolution of Snake Charming
The tradition of snaking charming in India dates back thousands of years and originates from the importance that Indian culture places on snakes. One reason for this reverence is the Naga, serpent in Sanskrit. The Naga are a divine race of half human, half serpent beings that are respected and even worshipped as deities in Hinduism. They reside in the Hindu underworld called Patala, an important part of Indian mythology. Snake charming was also a significant and sacred practice because many snake charmers were thought of as healers, who could mix remedies, especially from snake venom, that would help to heal the sick. The religious importance of snakes can be denoted by the Hindu gods Shiva, Ganesha and Vishnu, who are often pictured in the presence of a snake. This can also be seen in the story of Krishhna riding and taming the great serpent Kaliya as told in the Bhagavata Purana. These Hindu gods hold snakes in such high regard and so followers of Hinduism do as well, since snakes are thought to carry wisdom and the knowledge of the Vedas; ancient Hindu texts. This image and understanding of snakes, gives them an almost divine like presence in Indian folk lore. Since snake charming first stems from these spiritual beginnings snake charmers became an important part of tourism and identity in India during the first half of the 20th century. This image began to shift when under the Wildlife Preservation Act of 1972 it became illegal to own a snake in India, with up to a 7 year jail sentence the cost of getting caught owning or selling snakes. Then in 1991, shows featuring snake charming were banned in India, though the practice still occurs regularly, as snake charmers wander from town to town. As time has passed the sanctions placed on snake charmers have begun to ease slightly, due in part to the 2003 demonstration that brought worldwide awareness to snake charmers. Currently snake charmers are allowed to perform at popular tourist attractions in cities such as Jaipur, where they remain popular attractions.
Do Snake Charmers Hypnotize the Snake?
When people think of snake charming, their first thought is usually of a man sitting cross legged and playing a pungi, while a snake rises out from a pot or basket in front of them. Many will then wonder if the snake is actually being hypnotized by the tune the snake charmer plays. The short answer to this is no. The technique involves the snake charmer sitting across from the snake, as the snake reacts to their movements, creating a dance between the two that audiences have been entertained by for centuries. Snake charmers in India are known as Sapera, named for a form of dance that resembles a snake dance and a Hindu caste of Northern India. This dance occurs as the snake responds to the vibration of sound from the musical instrument, not the melody. As these cold-blooded reptiles don’t see well, the vibrations of the pungi along with the blurry image of the snake charmer become threats to their safety and they put them into a tense defensive stance. This also creates danger for the snake charmer when handling the snakes, as the snake’s senses are heightened, and they shift into survival mode. The anxiety created within the snake is one reason why snake charming has seen a decline, as wildlife preservation and animal rights groups point to it as an act of unnecessary cruelty. Although these conservation efforts have seen a shift in how snake charming is practiced, the mystique of seeing a cobra dance to a charmers tune is still appreciated.
What is the Purpose of Snake Charming?
Snake charming has a long tradition in India as a form of entertainment to viewers who marvel in the calm of the snake charmer during their deadly demonstration. Snake charmers would drink chai before their performance and sit cross legged in a state of total control and concentration. This calm demeanor would carry through to their show where audiences see them sitting almost within striking distance of the snake. Snake charming is an important part of Indian history, but it has not been without its obstacles, with questions of its purpose brought up by the public over the last half century. The number of snake charmers working and their ability to ply their trade has been impacted because of this. Government mandates and animal rights groups have taken on these concerns, lobbying worldwide. Venomous snakes would often have their fangs and venom glands removed or their mouth partly sewn shut, which these groups point to as cruel, outdated practices. Through these stumbling blocks the exhibitionist nature of snake charming has evolved, with snake charmers themselves taking on the role of the snake’s protector. Many snake charmers now help to rescue snakes as they are often called to people’s homes during monsoon season in India. During this season, floods can force snakes out of their holes, becoming a danger to village residents. It was in the past, through the teaching of Baba Gulabgir, a highly revered member of the snake charming community, that snake charmers were taught to rescue and care for snakes. He also trained them to be able to heal snake bites and that snakes were sacred and to be revered instead of feared. For these teachings he has a temple dedicated to him in Charkhi Dedri in India, where every year snake charmers gather for their annual conference. It is through this type of learning and growth that snake charmers have continued to evolve their profession. Although snake charmers have rapidly decreased, the deadly is still being continued.
“Charm is a product of the unexpected.”
The lure and mystical nature of snake charming makes us fall in love with the hypnotic ritual of charming a snake. As we begin to further unravel this incredible process, we understand why this deadly tradition has changed. Traditions that can evolve while still maintaining the essence of what made them unique are usually the ones that survive and often thrive. Snake charming originated from a place of sacred reverence for snakes and wonderment within the audience of the danger to the snake charmer during their performance. Snake charmers were also seen as healers, with a mystical ability to get closer to the Hindu gods, through their relationships with snakes. Since then, snake charming in India has gone through changes, where today, snake charmers have less in common with their mystical image as a healer and are more in line with modern conservationists. Through the Wildlife Preservation Act banning snake ownership and sale, to the Indian government making snake charming illegal, snake charmers have pushed on to keep this part of Indian folk art alive. Snake charmers want to carry on entertaining the public with their deadly demonstrations, so they have evolved their art to fit more in with modern times, while still maintaining the essence of how it began. With safety and ethics advancing and hopefully continuing to do so, snake charming can remain part of Indian spectacle and tourism, with less harm coming to the snake. Let’s hope this allows this deadly tradition to stay intact.