In India, Snake Charmers Are Losing Their Sway

Aug 8, 2011
Originally published on August 8, 2011 9:31 pm

Snake charmers used to be a fixture at Indian markets and festivals, beguiling crowds with their ability to control some of the world's most venomous reptiles.

But one of India's iconic folk arts is fading away — and animal-rights activists say it can't happen soon enough. They say it's an art based on cruelty.

These days, it's not easy to find a snake charmer, even on Nag Panchami, the yearly religious festival in honor of the king cobra, which fell on Aug. 4 this year.

It took a full day of searching in New Delhi to find Buddhanath, a thin man with a long, white beard who was sitting cross-legged on the pavement behind a round, flat container that looked a bit like a tortilla basket.

Buddhanath wore a loosely wrapped orange turban and a sweet, joyous expression as he tapped the basket.

"I have a king cobra," Buddhanath said. "He is Lord Shiva's cobra, and we worship him."

The blue-skinned Hindu god is usually portrayed wearing a king cobra around his neck.

The charmer flipped the lid off the basket, and the cobra popped up like a jack-in-the-box, scanning around with its hood fully extended.

It fixed its gaze on the tip of Buddhanath's gourd flute. The cobra's black scales glistened as it swayed, following the movement of the flute's tip.

The snake looked to be about 4 feet long, coiled in the basket, with a small, almost jewel-like head and glittering black eyes above the outstretched hood.

For a couple of minutes, the man and the snake seemed connected in a very ancient, intricate dance — but the snake can't hear a thing.

"Snakes don't have ears; most people don't know that," said Kartick Satyanarayan, a co-founder of the animal rescue group Wildlife SOS.

"But snake charmers use the pipe, so what the snake sees is simply something which is menacing, above him, which is swaying, so the snake's attention is focused just on the swaying object and moves along with that," he said. "So it appears to people that the snake is actually dancing to the tune of his pipe."

Satyanarayan said the illusion of the poisonous snake tamed and charmed by music is often based on very cruel practices.

To prevent the snake from biting, snake charmers sometimes break off the animal's fangs or sew its mouth shut. As a result, the snake can't eat and slowly starves to death.

Buddhanath said he has done nothing of the kind. He said the snake has merely been tamed, and won't bite.

He also said that he was about to release this snake back into the wild.

A 1972 Indian law forbids anyone to keep a snake, but it hasn't been enforced much in the case of snake charmers until recently.

The Indian government has tried to accommodate snake charmers and their existing snake, while trying to keep them from capturing more snakes.

The government has 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.

Satyanarayan also said his group is trying to rehabilitate snake charmers by turning them into snake rescuers. Instead of performing at festivals, the snake charmers can be 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 us protect snakes," Satyanarayan added.

And, he said, it's not just the law that's working against the snake charmers as performers; it's India's evolving culture as well.

As India becomes a more middle-class country, people are now more attuned to television shows and video games than they are to street performers.

Still, if it were possible to save something from the art of snake charming, it might be the music of the charmer's flute, a seductive little song that snakes can never hear.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: We end this hour in India, where an iconic folk art is disappearing. Snake charmers used to be a common sight at Indian markets and festivals, beguiling people with their ability to control some of the world's most venomous reptiles. But critics say it's a tradition based on cruelty and that it can't stop fast enough.

NPR's Corey Flintoff hit the streets of New Delhi in search of a snake charmer.

COREY FLINTOFF: It's not easy to find a snake charmer these days, even on Nag Panchami, the yearly religious festival in honor of the king cobra. It took a full day of searching to find Buddhanath, a thin brown man sitting cross-legged on the pavement behind a round, flat container, a bit like a tortilla basket. Buddhanath has a long, white beard, a loosely wrapped orange turban and a sweet, joyous expression as he taps the basket.

BUDDHANATH: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He's Lord Shiva's cobra and we worship him, Buddhanath says. The blue-skinned Hindu god is usually portrayed wearing a king cobra around his neck. The charmer flips the lid off the basket and the cobra pops up like a jack-in-the-box. Scanning around with its hood fully extended, it fixes its gaze on the tip of Buddhanath's gourd flute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: The cobra's black scales glisten as it sways, following the movement of the tip of the flute. It looks to be about four feet long, coiled in the basket with a small almost jewel-like head and glittering black eyes above the outstretched hood. For a couple of minutes, the man and the snake seem connected in a very ancient, intricate dance, but the snake can't hear a thing.

KARTICK SATYANARAYAN: Snakes don't have ears. Most people don't know that.

FLINTOFF: This is Kartick Satyanarayan, a co-founder of the animal rescue group Wildlife SOS.

SATYANARAYAN: But snake charmers use the pipe, so what the snake sees is simply something which is menacing above him, which is swaying. So the snake's attention is focused on the swaying object and moves along with that. So it appears to people that the snake is actually dancing to the tune of his pipe.

FLINTOFF: Satyanarayan says the illusion of the poisonous snake tamed and charmed by music is often based on very cruel practices. In order to prevent the snake from biting, snake charmers sometimes break off the animal's fangs or sew its mouth shut and the result is that the snake can't eat and slowly starves to death.

Buddhanath insists that he has done nothing of the kind. He says the snake has merely been tamed and won't bite. He also says that he's about to release the snake back into the wild because he can only keep it for six months. A 1972 law forbids anyone from keeping a snake, but it hasn't been enforced much in the case of snake charmers until recently.

The Indian government has tried to accommodate traditional snake charmers while trying to keep them from capturing more snakes. The government implanted identification chips under the skin of some snakes that were already in captivity so that it can scan the animals and confiscate any that are newly captured and have no chips.

Satyanarayan says his group is trying to rehabilitate snake charmers by turning them into snake rescuers, the people who are called to remove venomous snakes from city and suburban gardens and restore them to the wild.

SATYANARAYAN: Instead of catching the snake and using it, exploiting it, killing it, they actually help us protect snakes.

FLINTOFF: And he says it's not just the law that's working against the snake charmers as performers. People in India are now more attuned to television shows and video games than they are to street performers of any kind.

Still, if it were possible to save something from the art of snake charming, it might be this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: That seductive little song that snakes can never hear.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, host: I'm Melissa Block.

NORRIS: And I'm Michele Norris. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.