Charm offensive: Why India’s snake men (and their serpents) are taking to the streets

A 1,000-year-old tradition is at risk as police start to take the law seriously and animal welfare activists want the music to stop. Andrew Buncombe reports from Delhi

For many people who close their eyes and dream romantic thoughts of India, amid the imagined scenes of desert palaces and colourful chaos is that of the snake charmer – a man playing his flute while a dancing cobra rises and twists from its wicker basket.

In truth, there are fewer charmers than one might imagine. Government legislation dating back almost 35 years gives police the right to apprehend (or more likely, in many cases, take a bribe from) anyone using a wild animal for such entertainment purposes. The charmers that do operate in tourist centres and large cities, live a largely furtive existence, bothering a few coins out of passers-by whom they confront with their anguine companions.

But now the snake-charmers are fighting back. A newly created union for the men and their snakes has been established to demand that the legislation banning them from their “birth right” be overturned and that alternative employment for the snake charmers be provided.

In a sign of strength, around 5,000 snake charmers from the Indian state of West Bengal this week took to the streets of Calcutta demanding action and claiming that their generations-old profession is on the brink of death. Many were carrying their snakes with them as they marched.

“It’s our birth right to charm snakes. No can deprive us of that,” said 35-year-old Langra Bede, one of the charmers. “Our forefathers charmed snakes. We grew up with this. It’s basically all we know.”

Snake charmers have been part of India’s landscape for many hundreds of years. Traditionally the charmers were called on by villagers to help gather and remove poisonous snakes that represented a danger to them. Because snakes are considered sacred in Hinduism, people would not kill snakes but would rather call on these men and their special skills – traditionally handed down from father to son – to remove them.

The charmers would then keep the reptiles and “train them” for performances. (While snakes are deaf, it is believed that their “dancing” movement is a self-defence response to vibrations they perceive as threatening.) In more recent years tourists have been charged a small fee to be photographed with the exotic creatures.

But the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act made it an offence to use wild animals for such commercial purposes or to keep them as pets. Activists pointed out that in order to remove the threat from the snakes, which have the potential to be fatal to humans, the charmers usually rip out the creatures’ fangs rather than regularly draining them of the poison. They then feed the snakes milk. But within a year most charmers release their animals, which, without fangs, are unable to feed themselves. Since the late 1990s, the authorities have markedly increased efforts to enforce the law. Yet campaigners for the estimated 800,000 snake charmers say they are being persecuted.

The majority of India’s snake charmers belong to the nomadic “Bedia” tribe or clan, which speaks Bengali. Many of them live in West Bengal. Raktim Das, a founder of the Bedia Federation of India and an organiser of this week’s march, said the Bedia people, whose tradition dates back more than 1,000 years, had long been persecuted by the authorities and the police. He said that more than 100,000 Bedia families were suffering intense economic hardship as a result of the increased enforcement of the 1972 act.

If the government is unwilling to overturn the legislation, he said, it should establish official snake farms specialising in venom and snake skins which could provide employment to the Bedia people. “This has happened in other countries such as China and Vietnam,” said Mr Das. “This would not harm the snake population and it would provide a sustainable source of income.”

Mr Das claimed that a snake venom “mafia” operated in India and was behind government efforts to clamp down on the Bedia. He said that in a single strike a snake can release about 12g of venom, and that venom could fetch £130. A venomous snake could live up to eight years, which would be highly profitable, and private companies still pay snake charmers for any venom they can collect. The companies sell on venom to drug companies, harvesting significant profit margins.

He added: “In addition, we don’t think that snakes are really wild animals. They only exist where there are rats and rats live in places close to human civilisation. Also, if there are no snakes in an area it will increase the number of rats.”

Yet animal rights activists are adamant that the law is vital to protect all wildlife – not just snakes but bears and other animals – from exploitation. “Even now there are still snake charmers … The problem has been to find alternative livelihoods,” said Shakti Banerjee, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “The dancing bears have largely been gotten rid of but not the charmers.”

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada