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India's Snake Charmers Fade, Blaming Eco-Laws, TV

Pallava Bagla
April 23, 2002
 
Once an icon of Indian culture, snake charmers today are struggling for
survival—a victim, they say, of stringent wildlife protection laws
and the advent of cable television.

The exotic sight of these
mystical men enticing snakes to dance to the soulful music of gourd
flutes has long captured the imagination of people in the West. The
dexterity with which the charmers handle deadly snakes such as cobras
and vipers has added to the allure of the street-side performances.




Large numbers of snake charmers once could be seen walking the streets of cities and towns, their cloth-covered baskets hanging from bamboo poles slung across the shoulders.

But such sights are increasingly rare, as snake charmers become an endangered species.

Romulus Whitaker, a well known herpetologist and director of Draco Films in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, believes snake charmers in India are declining because of the enforcement of strict wildlife laws and strident initiatives taken by animal-rights activists.

At a site near the Jhandewalan crematorium in central Delhi where snake charmers have long gathered, those who still practice the traditional art have declined by an order of ten in the last decade or so, according to observers.

Om Pal Nath, an illiterate snake charmer by profession, still inhabits the site. He said his life has become very difficult since the Indian government banned the keeping of pet snakes under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which was not fully implemented until the past decade.

He has handled snakes since he was a child, and snake charming performances have been the only source of income for his family. Today, he said, "I am on the verge of starvation since I can only make street performances on the sly for fear of getting arrested by the police."

Lost Awe and Respect

The country's snake charmers say that besides wildlife protection laws, another factor is also helping to drive their occupation to oblivion: the growing market of nature-oriented television programs in India.

"After seeing so many wildlife shows on television, city folk are losing their fear and awe they used to have of snakes," said Pitam Nath, a traditional snake charmer from the village of Morband on the outskirts of Delhi. "At this rate," he said, sitting in the forecourt of a temple, "I will not let my own children take to snake charming."

The practice of snake charming—catching snakes, keeping them in captivity for extended periods, and training them to perform—has traditionally been passed from father to son. For generations, it has provided a critical means of support for many Indian families.

Now, however, "the younger generation no more considers it lucrative enough to make it a source of living," said Suresh Sharma, a herpetologist from Punjab. "I have seen a colony of snake charmers opting for rag-picking, collection of iron waste, polythene, and so on because it gives them a better remuneration."

Part of the problem, he explained, is that in an age of reality television, people are more skeptical of a practice that was once regarded as mystical and in some cases even divinely influenced.

"Before the advent of Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel, people could be hoodwinked by all sorts of concocted stories. Now it is hard to do," said Sharma. "People have started learning so much about snakes that it is not possible to fool people. They have started learning that there is no need to panic when you see a snake, that snakes are not as bad as they have been depicted by snake charmers."

As a result, snake charmers have lost respect, he said. "People knew that if there was a snake at home, then it was the snake charmer who was God sent to save our life. Now people treat them on par with beggars."

Headed Toward Extinction?

A snake charmer usually rouses a snake by playing a long flute-like instrument in front of it. The snake appears to dance in response to the music. But according to herpetologists, snakes are unable to hear sounds in the same frequency band as humans. So, scientists say, what is perceived as a choreographed dance to the music is actually the snake reacting to the movement of the instrument.

S. K. Saraswat, a zoologist and director of the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi, believes another factor that's contributing to the decline of snake charmers is that children today are too preoccupied by other interests to view snake charming with wonder.

Recalling his own childhood, Saraswat said he used to have so much leisure time that watching a snake charmer's performance was irresistible anytime the sound of a flute was heard. But children now are so burdened with schoolwork that finding time to watch a performance is rare, he said.

Ram Nath, an aging snake charmer with a flowing white beard, said that a decade ago in his ancestral village of Rajpura, 50 kilometers west of Delhi, the heads of all the 200 or so families who lived there practiced a single occupation: snake charming. In recent years, however, only about ten percent continue the business, and earning a living has become almost impossible.

A similar lament is expressed by Durga Nath, the father of three children. He supplements his income from snake charming by selling traditional medicines, but still makes only about a dollar a day.

Saraswat predicts that given the rapid attrition in the number of snake charmers, the specialized community of Rajpura could eventually disappear. "Snake charmers are becoming a rare sight even in villages," he said.

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