Indian snake charmers lose their sway

The ancient art of snake charming is disappearing.

The centuries-old art of snake charming in India has been on the decline for some time. Charmers have a hard time making a living and the Indian government has been strict about protecting snakes.

Snake charmers present an illusion of hypnotizing a snake by playing an instrument called a pungi (a wind instrument made from a gourd and two reed pipes). A typical performance may also include handling the snakes or other seemingly dangerous acts. But, as with Penn & Teller, all is not what it seems.

The charm factor has nothing to do with the music and everything to do with the charmer waving the pungi in the snake’s face. Snakes don’t have external ears and can perceive little more than low-frequency rumbles. What they do respond to is movement.

In the past, snake charmers were a common sight at markets and festivals. Nag Panchami is the traditional worship of snakes or serpents observed by Hindus throughout India, Nepal, and other countries. Worship is offered in Sravana, the fifth month of the solar year (July/August) in the Hindu calendar.

Snake charmers also worship the blue-skinned Indian god Shiva, usually depicted with a king cobra coiled around his neck. In 1991, snake charming became officially illegal, but the government has not really enforced the ban.

Also, people used to visit a snake charmer when they were bitten by a snake. Today, they go to see a doctor – when one is available. Few young men are learning the art of snake charming, which is considered an anachronism in modern India.

However, from an age when snake charmers were still respected comes the following poem by Sarojini Naidu, known as the “Nightingale of India”. A celebrated poet, playwright and Indian independence activist, she was the first woman to become President of the Indian National Congress and the first woman to hold the post of Governor of Uttar Pradesh.

“The Snake-Charmer” was published in The Golden Threshold in 1905:

“Whither dost thou hide from the magic of my flute-call?
In what moonlight-tangled meshes of perfume,
Where the clustering keovas guard the squirrel’s slumber,
Where the deep woods glimmer with the jasmine’s bloom?

I’ll feed thee, O beloved, on milk and wild red honey,
I’ll bear thee in a basket of rushes, green and white,
To a palace-bower where golden-vested maidens
Thread with mellow laughter the petals of delight.

Whither dost thou loiter, by what murmuring hollows,
Where oleanders scatter their ambrosial fire?
Come, thou subtle bride of my mellifluous wooing,
Come, thou silver-breasted moonbeam of desire!


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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