The exotic sight of enticing snakes to dance to the soulful music of gourd flutes has long captured the imagination of visitors to India. The dexterity with which the charmers handle highly poisonous snakes such as cobras and vipers during street-side performances have always been fascinating.
But what once was a symbol of Indian culture, is slowly fading away. Snake charmers today have largely dwindled in number due to very strict wildlife protection laws prohibiting the ownership of snakes as pets.
Many of the snake charmer caste or saperas have since gone underground with their craft so it is important for the visitor to ask around to find out where the occasional street performances still take place.
Visitors may want to check out a site near the Jhandewalan crematorium in central Delhi where snake charmers have traditionally gathered.
Snake charmers are in the low rung of the Hindu caste system that defines India’s social structure but they are highly respected for their ability to tame snakes, which are worshipped by many Hindus.
During the annual Snake Festival Hindus often visit the charmers’ homes to offer prayers for the snakes.
It is estimated that there are some 200,000 people of the sapera caste in villages all over India.
Snake charmers are known to be experts in catching snakes, other than through street performances this is where they get their main source of living; catching snakes from farmer’s fields.
The captured cobras or vipers are then placed in cloth covered baskets, which are in turn hung from bamboo poles slung across the snake charmers shoulders as he walks the city streets looking for places to do a show.
Armed with handcrafted flutes, drums and colorful headdresses, a snake charmer usually rouses a snake by playing a long flute-like instrument in front of it. During times when the snake charmers travel in groups, instruments like the pungi (an instrument with two reeds) and the dholak (a percussion instrument with animal skins covering both ends), are also used to coax the cobra out of its basket.
The snake appears to dance in response to the music. But according to herpetologists (scientists who study reptiles and amphibians), snakes are unable to hear sounds in the same frequency band as humans. So, they say that what is perceived as a choreographed dance to the music is actually the snake reacting to the movement of the instrument.
Traditional Hindus however still maintain that snake charming is an act of wonder and mysticism. Whether or not the scientific or mystic explanations hold true, the chance to see this snake charmers in action should not be missed by anyone visiting India.