The Life of Snake Charmers in India
The Irula community, the traditional snake catchers and snake charmers of South India, find themselves hit by the fangs of joblessness.
- The Life of Snake Charmers: The Changing Face
- The Dwindling Numbers of Snake Charmers
- Can the Snakes Hear?
- How Dangerous Are The Snakes, Actually?
- Utilizing The Traditional Knowledge of Tribal Men and Snake Charmers
The Life of Snake Charmers: The Changing Face
India was once known as a land of snake charmers. They wore colorful turbans and led a nomadic vagrant life, carrying deadly snakes in their circular bamboo boxes. At fairs, at railway stations and practically at any place a ready audience was assured, they’d play a flute-like instrument that supposedly mesmerized the snakes. The snakes would creep out of their confinement and raise and sway their hoods to the latest Bollywood hit songs. The assembled crowd would throw a coin or two, something that hitherto supported the snake charmer's families.
But, not any more. You don't see them these days. As a species, they have simply vanished.
The Dwindling Numbers of Snake Charmers
The lives of snake charmers is anything but charming. Many of the snake charmers are forest dwelling tribes; their livelihoods these days have been threatened by the expanding urban spaces that have eaten into the forest land.
The snake charmers have now moved into cities and have taken up whatever unskilled job they can lay their hands on.
The world they had known for generations has changed. Their lack of education and the rapidly progressing IT-fueled world around them has left them as mere anachronisms.
The educated people, be they adults or even small children, are no more in awe of the snakes. Television channels like Animal Planet/ National Geographic channels have removed the mystique factor out of snakes and children have become too smart to view snake charming with wonder. They would probably look at you with disdain, if you were to suggest that snakes were enraptured by the music coming out of the snake charmer's flute.
Worsening their condition is the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972 that became necessary to stop the reckless killing of snakes for their skins that were in high-demand in the leather industry for making wallets, bags, purse, belts and other fashion accessories. Thousands of rat snakes, pythons, cobras, Russell’s Vipers were being killed just for their skin, which were exported to other countries for huge profits.
The Indian Government has made its laws more stringent. In 1991, the government made it illegal to trade in snake skins or use snakes in live shows. Police routinely round up the defaulters and snatch away the snakes they have.
Can the Snakes Hear?
A few decades back, the scientists said the snakes can’t hear, and the snake is merely matching its movements with those of the snake charmer. They believed that snakes are simply responding to the sight, rather than to the sound, of the flute.
But now the current consensus is that the snakes do hear sounds in a different way. They are very sensitive to vibrations and, perhaps, are able to feel the music. So let’s hope they enjoyed being let out of their confinement and treated to a live music band.
Whether or not the music mesmerizes the snakes, it certainly serves an entertainment for the milling crowd.
How Dangerous Are The Snakes, Actually?
Herpetophobia is word that describes the irrational fear of all reptiles. Universally, people seem to dislike and fear slithering legless lizards. But it is useful to remember that only about one fourth of all snakes are venomous. In fact, the snakes perform their valuable ecological function and play an important role in the food web.
One need not worry too much about even the poisonous snakes, as they do not like to target humans. They much rather avoid any contact with people and prefer mice, frogs, lizards, small fish, birds and eggs of birds, etc.
Utilizing The Traditional Knowledge of Tribal Men and Snake Charmers
The traditional snake charmers are uneducated. Yet, they possess the knowledge of several generations about the habitats of snakes. Several tribes in India, for example, the Irula tribe inhabiting various forests in South India or the Kalbelia tribes of Rajasthan, catch venomous snakes. By looking at the bite marks of a snake, they can identify which type of snake has bitten and what herbal medicines to administer as antidote if it is a venomous one. They know how to 'milk a snake' to remove its venom.
Watch the following video to see how the Irulas live today as compared to the picture shown above.
Recently, the snake charmers staged a demonstration in various parts of the country, and they had several suggestions to make. Instead of a total ban, they wanted just one person from each family to be allowed to practice their profession. They suggested setting up of snake farms where they could work as keepers. They also suggested that Government sets up cooperative farms where they could sell highly priced snake venoms ( Cobra venom costs Rs.10,000 per gram, which is roughly US$200) that have many medical applications.
Please watch the following interesting video: Silent Been. Been is the instrument the snake charmer uses. This comprehensive and interesting video has English sub titles.
Romulus Earl Whitaker, a world renowned herpetologist and the founder of the Madras Snake Park, formed the Irulas Snake-Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society in 1978. The society aims to harness this special skill of the Irulas by maintaining a venom extraction unit. The venom is extracted and sold to various institutes in the country to develop antivenin to save the lives of people.