| Snake charmers at the mahapanchayat outside the temple in Charkhi. (Reuters)
Charkhi, Oct. 22 (Reuters): It is an image as synonymous with India as the Taj Mahal.
Walk into any famous tourist spot and you will find a turbanned snake charmer playing a wooden flute as a king cobra in a wicker basket sways rhythmically to the music.
But activists say this image may soon be a thing of the past as the country’s fabled snake charmers struggle for survival, thanks to a government ban on the possession of many species of snakes.
“This is our hereditary profession. We have no land, no jobs and now we don’t have any work either,” complained Arjan Nath, a bearded, saffron-clad snake charmer seated by a lakeside temple in the village of Charkhi, 150 km north of Delhi. “So, how do we eat'” he cried.
Nath was surrounded by hundreds of other destitute saperas, or snake charmers, who had gathered from across the country at a white stone temple dedicated to their patron saint, Guru Gulabgarnath, for Dussehra.
But the charmers, who came without their snakes, weren’t there just to pray. This was also a mahapanchayat to draft a strategy for lobbying the government to provide them with alternative employment.
“The government never thought about us before imposing the ban,” shouted an angry Shishanath, a charmer from Delhi sitting on the temple steps, as the smell of incense filled the air. “They may have banned our trade, but even now when there’s a snake in a minister’s house, they call us.”
The hard times are a long way from the traditional Indian awe for snake charmers, who, with their distinctive amber ear-rings and rudraksha necklaces are revered as yogis in mythology.
Despite the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the charmers went upmarket and acquired a touch of glamour in the 1980s when they began performing in hotels and government-sponsored cultural festivals in places such as Dubai and Singapore.
But while some charmers hit the big time, the vast majority roamed the countryside holding sidewalk shows with a collection of cobras and vipers in their baskets and a been (flute), earning barely Rs 50 a day.
“But then the government became strict and began confiscating our snakes,” said Buddhanath, a grey-haired snake charmer who travelled from Delhi to Charkhi for the annual festival.
“Today, there’s no profession as maligned as ours. We have to be really careful not to get caught. Otherwise, we’re beaten and our bags with our meagre earnings are taken from us.”
Some wildlife activists say charmers break the fangs of snakes, slash their poison glands and are often hand in glove with poachers who slaughter reptiles for the price their skin brings in international markets.
But snake charmers deny the accusations. “We respect snakes like our parents and carry them on our shoulders. We would never ill-treat them,” said Baba Tahalnath.
“We use them for 40 days and then release them in the forest. We’re paying a price for the misdeeds of rich poachers,” he added, as he and his colleagues at Charkhi raised their hands to swear they never killed snakes.
Most charmers want jobs in government forestry offices where they say they can help with their knowledge of animals and traditional herbs, especially to treat snake bites.
Some seek job opportunities for their children, who may have an education but are often forced to join the family business because there are no options.
“The saperas have on their own initiative tried to adapt to changing times by making use of the skills they possess,” said Bahar Dutt of the Wildlife Trust of India, who is heading a project to help them find other jobs. “They have organised themselves into musical bands, which play at auspicious occasions like weddings and birth ceremonies.”
But there is still a tiny minority that refuses to give up its hereditary profession.
The snake charmers recount the time they were called in to guard the site of an India-Pakistan cricket match after receiving a threat that poisonous snakes would be unleashed in the stadium.
“Also, a king cobra costs us Rs 10,000 and how do you expect us to part with such a valuable possession'” asked Suresh Nath, seated around a fire smoking marijuana with colleagues as they discussed their problems.
He was not alone. “At least one person in each household should have a license so the tradition does not die,” said another charmer.