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.
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.
Courtesy Wildlife SOS
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.
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.