Snake Charmers

When we were children, snake charmers were a popular mode of entertainment. Together with bandarwalas and bhaloowalas, they entertained us hugely in those days when TVs did not exist and movies were a rare treat. Even in cities like Kolkata where we grew up, once in a while a snake charmer or a bandarwala would turn up and perform to huge popular acclaim. We were not aware, or did not care to see the cruelty involved in trapping and training these animals, nor did we ever think of the consequences of trapping snakes from the wild. We fully believed that the snakes we saw were poisonous and likely to bite at the least provocation. We were also convinced that the Sapura charmed the snakes by the music of the flute that he played.
As we grew up we learnt that the animals were ill treated, the snakes were defanged and there was in fact no danger from these reptiles who only swayed to the movement of the flutes and could not in fact hear the music. I was reminded of all this when I read a publication of the Wildlife Trust of India about the Jogi Nath community of snake charmers. They are only one of the many communities of India who were dependent on forest resources to make a living and are now unable to ply their ancestral trade as it is illegal. There are many other such communities including the Irulas, Bawarias and Bbadhias.
The Wildlife Act of 1972, one of the good legacies of the rule of Indira Gandhi , saved many species of wildlife from extinction. One such group of animals were the snakes. India was a major centre for the snake skin trade. In 1969, 10 million snake skins were exported. Just one tannery in south India used to process 9000 skins every day. Following the promulgation of this Act, the snake charmers trade became illegal. However, as the study discovered the occupation still exists, though now its practitioners stay away from cities and ply their trade in small villages and hamlets all over Northern India.
The Jogi Nath saperas are supposed to be the descendants of Guru Gorakhnath, who in turn is an incarnation of Shiva. Guru Gorakhnath is a very interesting personage in his own right and I hope to write about him someday. They number about one lakh scattered around several states of North India including Haryana, Rajastan, Madhya Pradesh and rural Delhi..After their ancestral trade became illegal they have diversified to many other fields but these are all related to their original profession. For example they assist farmers and the rural population in ridding their fields and homesteads of snakes. They have organized Been parties who play music during rural festivals and household functions. They also use their old skills of herbal medicine to good effect to provide a service to the rural populace for a small fee. They also treat snake bites. The younger generation is now slowly becoming educated and using the positive affirmation strategies of the government to improve their economic condition Not surprisingly the younger generation are better educated and are leaving this occupation for more modern pursuits. Many however still stick to their ancestral profession and surprisingly make a fairly good living from it.
The study has gone into the question of whether snake charmers are endangering the reptile population of India. The study has calculated that not more than 7-8 snakes are used every year by each of these snake charmers. This in itself cannot deplete snake numbers as more than ten times this number used to be killed for their skin earlier. How ever the study has concluded that specific species such as pythons and the chequered keelback have become locally extinct because of over hunting by them.
The study has suggested using their skills people in wildlife conservation, to rescue snakes trapped in human habitat and to use their herbal medicine skills to greater effect. It is perhaps inevitable that these colourful people will not survive for much longer in the rapidly changing socioeconomic situation. However so long as their way of life survives it will add to the colour of the mosaic that is India.


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