When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Snake charming is no longer legal
Snake charming is no longer legal
Bismillah Geelani

NEW DELHI — Wearing orange dresses with matching turbans, a group of folk musicians play tunes on their pungi, also known as been, a traditional flute made from gourd fruit.

The audience at Surajkund Craft Fair on the outskirts of the Indian capital is enthralled. Many break into dance. But the musicians themselves don't look very enthusiastic. "This is not what we want to do; it's been thrust upon us," says Badri Nath, 75, who heads the troupe. "But since our original work has been banned, this is all we can do. Whether we are happy or not doesn't matter."

Badri and his companions are snake charmers. For generations, they made their living performing with snakes on streets and in villages across India.

But snake charming is no longer legal, and Badri says they're no longer able to make ends meet.

We have not only lost our livelihood, we have been cut off from our roots.

"Snakes and snake charmers have been together from time immemorial. It's the only thing we and our ancestors have known, and we lived on it for centuries," Badri explained. "Now it has been taken away from us. We have not only lost our livelihood, we have been cut off from our roots. These performances here can sustain a few us for a few days. But what happens after that? And what about the rest of the community?"

Snake charming was banned under the Wildlife Protection Act amendment in 1991. The law prohibits catching, owning and performing with snakes.

Initially, the government did not enforce the ban, and snake charmers continued. But as animal rights activists pressured the authorities to clamp down on snake charmers, their numbers declined. Kartik Satyanarayan, from the conservation group Wildlife SOS, says the tradition is abusive.

"They basically dehydrate them; they stick them in a box and forget about them, use them whenever they want to perform or beg for some money from people, and once the job is done they just throw the snake away because they don't care," says Satyanarayan.

"And the snake then sometimes dies; it takes some weeks of starvation to die because the fangs have been removed, the venom glands have been removed, they can't really hunt and fend for themselves anymore," he said.

Some snake charmers refuse to give up the tradition — Photo: Jon Hurd

But snake charmers strongly deny charges of animal cruelty.

The ban affected an estimated 800,000 snake charmers in India. Many moved into other occupations like rickshaw pulling, street vending, construction, or agricultural labor. But according to the snake charmers' union, the overwhelming majority remains jobless.

Some refuse to give up the tradition. Snake charmers in yellow dhoti kurta and turbans performed recently on a Delhi street. They arranged a couple of wicker baskets in front of them and started playing the been. As soon as people gathered, one of them opened his baskets and three snakes rose waving their heads, looking like they were dancing to the music of his been. He then moved closer to the audience, showing them the reptiles and explaining the differences between the species. But when a policeman arrived, the snake charmer quickly escaped.

The charmer's brother, Birju Nath, says they're used to playing this game of hide and seek with police and forest officials.

"They arrest us and take away our snakes. But if we stop doing this, what else is there for us? We have no business or land to fall back on. Without this we will simply starve to death," Birju said.

The younger generation shows no interest in continuing the legacy, a development welcomed by Satyanarayan from Wildlife SOS. "Life moves on," he says. "Our lives have changed culturally. Why should the poor snake charmer continue to live a life of poverty, and disadvantage himself and his family, just because some other people like to see that and like to call it tradition?"

Back at the craft fair, the snake charmers are playing a Sufi song — or Qawwali, as the audience sways to the music.

With the snakes being sent back to their natural habitat, the snake charmers are pinning their hopes on their instruments.

"There are so many musical instruments out there but the been stands out," says Vikrambir Nath, a member of the troupe.

"It belongs exclusively to us and it is completely homemade. We make it from gourd and bamboo. It represents us as a community and our unique way of life, and it is part of India's cultural heritage. It needs to be protected and that would require state patronage and promotion." He says that unless the government invests in preserving the history and music of the snake charmers, within a few decades the centuries-old practice will disappear without a trace.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Economy

Europe's Winter Energy Crisis Has Already Begun

in the face of Russia's stranglehold over supplies, the European Commission has proposed support packages and price caps. But across Europe, fears about the cost of living are spreading – and with it, doubts about support for Ukraine.

Protesters on Thursday in the German state of Thuringia carried Russian flags and signs: 'First our country! Life must be affordable.'

Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
Stefanie Bolzen, Philipp Fritz, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister, Mandoline Rutkowski, Stefan Schocher, Claus, Christian Malzahn and Nikolaus Doll

-Analysis-

In her State of the Union address on September 14, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, issued an urgent appeal for solidarity between EU member states in tackling the energy crisis, and towards Ukraine. Von der Leyen need only look out her window to see that tensions are growing in capital cities across Europe due to the sharp rise in energy prices.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

In the Czech Republic, people are already taking to the streets, while opposition politicians elsewhere are looking to score points — and some countries' support for Ukraine may start to buckle.

With winter approaching, Europe is facing a true test of both its mettle, and imagination.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
Writing contest - My pandemic story
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ