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.

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