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Snake charming is the practice of pretending to hypnotize a snake by playing an instrument called pungi or bansuri. A typical performance may also include handling the snakes or performing other seemingly dangerous acts, as well as other street performance staples, like juggling and sleight of hand. The practice is most common in India, though other Asian nations such as Pakistan,[1]Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia are also home to performers, as are the North African countries of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

Ancient Egypt was home to one form of snake charming, though the practice as it exists today likely arose in India. It eventually spread throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Despite a sort of golden age in the 20th century, snake charming is today in danger of dying out. This is due to a variety of factors, chief among them the recent enforcement of a 1972 law in India banning ownership of snakes. In retaliation, snake charmers have organized in recent years, protesting the loss of their only means of livelihood, and the government has made some overtures to them.

Many snake charmers live a wandering existence, visiting towns and villages on market days and during festivals. With a few rare exceptions they make every effort to keep themselves from harm's way. The charmer typically sits out of biting range and the snake is sluggish and reluctant to attack anyway. More drastic means of protection include removing the creature's fangs or venom glands, or even sewing the snake's mouth shut. The most popular species are those native to the snake charmer's home region, typically various kinds of cobras, though vipers and other types are also used.

Although snakes are able to sense sound, they lack the outer ear that would enable them to hear the music. They follow the pungi that the "snake charmer" holds with their hands. The snake considers the person and pungi a threat and responds to it as if it were a predator.

The earliest snake charmers were likely traditional healers by trade. As part of their training, they learned to treat snake bites. Many also learned how to handle snakes, and people called on them to remove snakes from their homes. Baba Gulabgir (or Gulabgarnath) became their guru since his legend states that he taught people to revere the reptiles and not fear them.[citation needed] The practice eventually spread to nearby regions, ultimately reaching North Africa and Southeast Asia.

"Snakecharmers," a chromolithograph by Alfred Brehm

The early 20th century proved something of a golden age for snake charmers. Governments promoted the practice to draw tourism, and snake charmers were often sent overseas to perform at cultural festivals and for private patrons. In addition, the charmers provided a valuable source of snake venom for creating antivenins.

Performance technique

Snake charmers typically walk the streets holding their serpents in baskets or pots hanging from a bamboo pole slung over the shoulder. Charmers cover these containers with cloths between performances. Dress in India, Pakistan and neighbouring countries is generally the same: long hair, a white turban, earrings, and necklaces of shells or beads. Once the performer finds a satisfactory location to set up, he sets his pots and baskets about him (often with the help of a team of assistants who may be his apprentices) and sits cross-legged on the ground in front of a closed pot or basket. He removes the lid, then begins playing a flute-like instrument made from a gourd, known as a been or pungi. As if drawn by the tune, a snake eventually emerges from the container; if a cobra, it may even extend its hood.

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Traditionally, snake charmers use snakes that they have captured themselves in the wild. This task is not too difficult, as most South Asian and North African snakes tend to be slow movers. The exercise also teaches the hunter how to handle the wild reptiles. Today, however, more and more charmers buy their animals from snake dealers. A typical charmer takes in about seven animals per year.

The exact species of serpents used varies by region. In India, the Indian cobra is preferred, though some charmers may also use Russell's vipersIndian and Burmese pythons, and even mangrove snakes are also encountered, though they are not as popular. In North Africa, the Egyptian cobrapuff addercarpet viper and horned desert viper are commonly featured in performances.

Except for the pythons and mangrove snakes, all of these species are highly venomous.


Safety measures

At home, snake charmers keep their animals in containers such as baskets, boxes, pots, or sacks. They then train the creatures before bringing them out into public. For those charmers who do not de-fang their pets, this may include introducing the snake to a hard object similar to the pungi. The snake supposedl

y learns that striking the object only causes pain.

For safety, some North African snake charmers stitch closed the mouth of their performing snakes, leaving just enough opening for the animal to be able to move its tongue in and out. Members of the audience in that region believe that the snake's ability to deliver venomous bites comes from its tongue, rather than fangs. Snakes subjected to this practice soon die of starvation or mouth infection, and must be replaced by freshly caught specimens.

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Serpent Charmers (p.161, November 1865, XXII)[6]

Snake charming is typically an inherited profession. Most would-be charmers thus begin learning the practice at a young age from their fathers. In 2007 a viral video made headlines about an infant who was playing with a defanged cobra.Members of the Sapera or Sapuakela castes, snake charmers have little other choice of profession. In fact, entire settlements of snake charmers and their families exist in some parts of India and neighbouring countries.In Bangladesh, snake charmers are typically members of the nomadic ethnic group Bede. They tend to live by rivers and use them to boat to different towns on market days and during festivals.

North African charmers usually set up in open-air markets and souks for their performances. In coastal resort towns and near major tourist destinations one can see snake charmers catering to the tourist market, but in most of the region they perform for the local audiences; an important part of their income comes from selling pamphlets containing various magic spells (in particular, of course, against snake bites).

In previous eras, snake charming was often the charmer's only source of income. This is less true today, as many charmers also scavenge, scrounge, sell items such as amulets and jewelry, or perform at private parties to make ends meet. Snake charmers are often regarded as traditional healers and magicians, as well, especially in rural areas. These charmers concoct and sell all manner of potions and unguents that purportedly do anything from curing the common cold to raising the dead. They also act as a sort of pest control, as villagers and city-dwellers alike call on them to rid homes of snakes (though some accuse snake charmers of releasing their own animals in order to receive the fee for simply catching them again).

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Snake charming is a dying art in India. Here, a man named Buddhanath is shown at a New Delhi market during Nag Panchami, the yearly religious festival in honor of the king cobra. The charmer plays a gourd flute and his snake responds.

Corey Flintoff/NPR

Snake charmers used to be a fixture at Indian markets and festivals, beguiling crowds with their ability to control some of the world's most venomous reptiles.

But one of India's iconic folk arts is fading away — and animal-rights activists say it can't happen soon enough. They say it's an art based on cruelty.

These days, it's not easy to find a snake charmer, even on Nag Panchami, the yearly religious festival in honor of the king cobra, which fell on Aug. 4 this year.

It took a full day of searching in New Delhi to find Buddhanath, a thin man with a long, white beard who was sitting cross-legged on the pavement behind a round, flat container that looked a bit like a tortilla basket.

Buddhanath wore a loosely wrapped orange turban and a sweet, joyous expression as he tapped the basket.

"I have a king cobra," Buddhanath said. "He is Lord Shiva's cobra, and we worship him."

The blue-skinned Hindu god is usually portrayed wearing a king cobra around his neck.

The charmer flipped the lid off the basket, and the cobra popped up like a jack-in-the-box, scanning around with its hood fully extended.

It fixed its gaze on the tip of Buddhanath's gourd flute. The cobra's black scales glistened as it swayed, following the movement of the flute's tip.

It fixed its gaze on the tip of Buddhanath's gourd flute. The cobra's black scales glistened as it swayed, following the movement of the flute's tip.

Kartick Satyanarayan, of the animal rescue group Wildlife SOS, holds a rat snake. The group says it is trying to retrain traditional snake charmers and use their skills to remove dangerous snakes from populated areas where they threaten people.

Courtesy Wildlife SOS

The snake looked to be about 4 feet long, coiled in the basket, with a small, almost jewel-like head and glittering black eyes above the outstretched hood.

For a couple of minutes, the man and the snake seemed connected in a very ancient, intricate dance — but the snake can't hear a thing.

"Snakes don't have ears; most people don't know that," said Kartick Satyanarayan, a co-founder of the animal rescue group Wildlife SOS.

"But snake charmers use the pipe, so what the snake sees is simply something which is menacing, above him, which is swaying, so the snake's attention is focused just on the swaying object and moves along with that," he said. "So it appears to people that the snake is actually dancing to the tune of his pipe."

Satyanarayan said the illusion of the poisonous snake tamed and charmed by music is often based on very cruel practices.

To prevent the snake from biting, snake charmers sometimes break off the animal's fangs or sew its mouth shut. As a result, the snake can't eat and slowly starves to death.

Buddhanath said he has done nothing of the kind. He said the snake has merely been tamed, and won't bite.

He also said that he was about to release this snake back into the wild.

A 1972 Indian law forbids anyone to keep a snake, but it hasn't been enforced much in the case of snake charmers until recently.

The Indian government has tried to accommodate snake charmers and their existing snake, while trying to keep them from capturing more snakes.

The government has implanted identification chips under the skin of some snakes that were already in captivity. This allows the government to scan the animals and confiscate any that are newly captured and have no chips.

Satyanarayan also said his group is trying to rehabilitate snake charmers by turning them into snake rescuers. Instead of performing at festivals, the snake charmers can be called in to remove venomous snakes from city and suburban gardens and return them to the wild.

"So today instead of catching the snake, exploiting it, killing it, they actually help us protect snakes," Satyanarayan added.

And, he said, it's not just the law that's working against the snake charmers as performers; it's India's evolving culture as well.

As India becomes a more middle-class country, people are now more attuned to television shows and video games than they are to street performers.

Still, if it were possible to save something from the art of snake charming, it might be the music of the charmer's flute, a seductive little song that snakes can never hear.


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