VARANASI, India — I am walking down the ghat, the stone steps leading to the Ganges River, and there he is, a young man in the colourful garb usually reserved for travelling holy men.
With a discreet movement he lifts the lid of a round wicker basket he is holding, partially obscured by a shawl. There is a rustle of movement inside. I have met one of India’s snake charmers.
“You like to see?” he whispers, lifting the lid higher. The snake rises up out of the basket and spreads its hood. I am facing a cobra that’s at least a metre long.
“You would like to touch?” he asks. “Small money.”
Snake charmers were once as emblematic of India as the tiger or the elephant. Originally they were travelling medicine men, ridding homes of cobras and providing the poison used to make anti-venom treatments. They would often team up with jugglers and magicians to put on a better show and raise more money when they went into a town.
And it is a show: the snake charmer traditionally sits cross-legged in front of his serpent, apparently drawing it from its basket with the hypnotic music of a flute. But the snake is deaf and just follows the movement of the instrument or of the snake charmer’s hand. All the same, unless he has defanged the snake or sown its mouth shut (as some do, although all that I met deny it), it’s still a performance with a frisson of danger.
Today, though, a greater danger for the snake charmer comes from the authorities. A 1972 law passed in India made it illegal to keep serpents. It was meant to stop the exportation of snake skins, but in the late 1990s animal-rights activists got it applied to snake charmers, too. Since then, the government’s focus has moved from fining or jailing those who already own snakes more to stopping the capture of new ones, but the profession has become more furtive — and less lucrative.
Now snake charmers tend to pop up either in the more remote parts of India or in secluded parts of larger towns, the way this young man has. For the next few days he and his family will be here. Then they will be gone. A generation or two from now, they may be gone for good.
The first time I ran into a snake charmer was in Delhi, on a busy street. A boy sidled up to me and lifted the lid on a basket. Five minutes later we were seated in a deserted nook and he did a half-hour performance for me, culminating with wrapping a live cobra around my neck. I said, “Yeah, yeah,” when I meant, “Not on your life.”
It was an experience I’m fairly sure I’ll always remember. And so, even though this young man’s show doesn’t include being draped in a cobra, I drop 50 rupees beside his basket. It’s a small price to pay for a glimpse of a vanishing bit of India.
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