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The Cobra Dance
Snake charmers have always been part of the mysterious cultures of both Sri Lanka and neighbouring India. This is hardly surprising to those who have a knowledge of the mystical practices of some sects of Hinduism, since the cobra has long been revered as something of a god which must be treated with respect and even worshipped, or it will bring down the wrath of the gods and great harm will befall the non-believers.
© Explore Sri Lanka

Snake charmers are a common sight for visitors to Sri Lanka. Be it on a street corner in downtown Colombo, a secluded beach at one of the country"s numerous resorts, or on a trip to the beautiful central hills, you will see these men in turbans, carrying a bamboo flute and a harmless looking basket in which resides a deadly cobra.
A snake charmer begins his performance by removing the lid of the snake basket and playing a few notes on his flute. As if in response to the summoning of the strange and melancholy tune, the cobra will slither out of the basket and gaze around at the growing circle of onlookers.

Within a few moments the deadly serpent becomes attracted to the music and the movements of the snake charmer and concentrates its full attention on him. Raising a third of its nearly two metre long body off the ground, it flattens its neck into a fascinating shape with a strange yellow blotch at the back, and begins to sway to and fro, apparently to the rhythm of the snake charmer"s melody.

From time to time the cobra appears to become agitated and lashes out at the snake charmer in a fast downward stroke, which is such an alarming sight that it evokes a gasp of fright from the spectators. They instinctively take a few paces back to avoid any such actions by the cobra towards themselves.

But this does not prevent many from throwing coins and paper money at the snake charmer, who goes on playing his flute, apparently oblivious to the money that is piling up around him. It is a magnificent sight to see the snake charmer calmly playing on while the cobra conducts its hypnotising dance among all the coins, as if to guard its master"s wealth.

After awhile the cobra apparently tires of this game and lowers its body to the ground, transforming its hood to its normal shape, and the snake charmer deftly returns it to its basket. After carefully gathering up the money, he walks off to seek more people to enthral and entertain.

Snake charmers have always been part of the mysterious cultures of both Sri Lanka and neighbouring India. This is hardly surprising to those who have a knowledge of the mystical practices of some sects of Hinduism, since the cobra has long been revered as something of a god which must be treated with respect and even worshipped, or it will bring down the wrath of the gods and great harm will befall the non-believers. Even the most benevolent gods are portrayed as being guarded by cobras, and the ancients believed that there existed a strange race of beings, the Nagas or serpent people, who were really snakes which could assume form at will.

The name cobra comes from the Portuguese cobra de capello (hooded snake) and there are 12 species of cobra found in Africa and southern Asia. The common cobra (Naga Naja ), which is found in Sri Lanka, is dark brown in colour.

The yellow blotch at the back of a cobra"s neck, shaped like a pair of spectacles, is exactly in the shape of the letter P in Sinhala.

The cobra is a much fabled species, and is one of the main characters in Rudyard Kipling"s Second Jungle Book, in which it battles the famous mongoose Rikki-tikki-tavi. The mongoose is one of the cobra"s enemies, though it also falls prey to various birds, such as the kite and the eagle.

The occupation of a snake charmer is not really as hazardous as it seems. The snakes, which are found throughout Sri Lanka, usually inhabit disused anthills, and are easily captured since they are extremely slow moving. The cobra belongs to the family Elapidae, which consists entirely of poisonous snakes. No snake charmer in his right mind would play around with such a reptile so the first step is to remove the poison glands which are located in the snake"s head.

The great pair of needle-like fangs, which can usually deliver a dose of poison quite capable of killing a man if left untreated, are robbed of their deadly venom and the cobra becomes virtually harmless. This may seem rather cruel to some, especially since it robs the cobra of its most effective means of killing the animals it feeds on.

The snake does not really dance to the tune of the charmer"s flute. All snakes have a very poor sense of hearing since they have no external ear or eardrum. However, the inner ear is well developed and the snake may be able to pick up the flute"s vibrations along the ground, even if it cannot hear them through the air.

The raising of its body and the flattening of the head are warning signs to perceived enemies to stay away and the occasional strike towards the snake charmer occurs only when he gets too close for the snakes"s comfort.

Some snake charmers also display non-poisonous pythons, which are also common in Sri Lanka. These reptiles are not as popular as the cobra since they do not stand erect or dance and are not as glamorous, but can be quite dangerous if they coil themselves around a person"s body. However, they are usually safe since they are sluggish when well fed, and since pythons go for weeks or even months between meals, feeding them is not a problem.

@ Copyright : The Tribune Trust, 2005

Snake charmers of India
By Derek Bose

Published on Sunday, December 7, 2003, The Tribune

Snake charmers are often accused of torturing and defanging reptiles

More than 30 years after they were banned in India, snake charmers are rearing their heads. Tired of operating in secret, they have not only come out in the open, but are determined to perpetuate the tradition inherited over generations through their children.

It was in this air of defiance that first-ever Snake Charmersí Panchayat was held recently at the 700-year-old Charkhi Dadri temple in Haryana, barely an hourís drive from Delhi. Amidst the sounding of temple bells, about 10,000 snake charmers, in flowing kurtas and coloured turbans, participated in the conference.

But belligerence was writ large. "This is what my forefathers practised and this is what my sons will practise," declared Sheesh Nath, a 55-year-old delegate from Bhiwandi. "Let us see who can stop us. Ours is a profession that has been passed down through 15 generations over a thousand years".

"This hostility towards us is unexplainable," Baba Thade Shri pointed out. "Doesnít Lord Shiva have snakes coiled around his neck? Didnít Vasuki (the King of Serpents) protect Lord Krishna at his birth? The entire universe rests on the hood of Vasuki Raja!"

These references to Hindu mythology are for effect as all snake charmers swear by Baba Gulabgir, their patron saint. Countless legends about his "miraculous powers" have been woven around him and it was at the temple dedicated to his name at Charkhi Dadri that the snake charmersí conference was held.

"Babaji was a reincarnation of Nag Devata," informed Mohinder Pal, a snake charmer from Bhiwandi. "He took the human form to stop people from killing snakes out of fear. He taught them to love snakes and keep them as their protectors. It is that legacy we have inherited and are carrying forward."

Significantly, before the Indian Wildlife Act came into force in 1972, snake charmers had a field day and were even promoted by the government during fairs and festivals and at historical sites, mainly as tourist attractions. Many were sent on overseas tours under cultural exchange programmes. Besides, some leading hospitals in the country sourced their supplies of snake venom from these humble been players.

During the late sixties, they suddenly found themselves falling from favour when snakes were declared an endangered species and their count began dropping due to rapid urbanisation. The blame, however, fell on snake charmers, who were accused of torturing the reptiles, defanging them, force-feeding them on milk and skinning them for profit.

"The end of snake charming is much more than a loss of work or means of livelihood," said Thade Shri. "It is a loss of tradition. It is a loss of knowledge of the ways of the forest, of medicinal plants and herbs, of cures which modern medicine cannot provide."

Oddly enough, this is another aspect that has alienated the snake charmers. To this day, in villages, they are treated, not as entertainers, but at par with witch doctors, exorcists and practitioners of black magic. Many believe them to be in possession of magical potions that can bring back the dead to life!

"People believe we have supernatural powers, but that is all rubbish," said Sheesh Nath. "Such rumours are spread out of fear and ignorance. The very fact that we handle these reptiles, which they are frightened of, makes us subjects of fear. Actually there is nothing to be afraid of snakes. Most of them are harmless."

Mohinder Pal, however, feels that there is some truth in the public perception about them. "I have heard stories of our forefathers who could hypnotise snakes and cast spells on people," he explained. "They had supernatural powers, but they did not harm people. On the contrary, they used to roam the jungles and pick up medicinal plants and herbs. They were more like medicine men."

For all the belligerence and display of unity at the Charkhi Dadri meet, the government is not altogether hostile towards snake charmers. A recent study by the Wildlife Trust of India revealed that more than 40 per cent of them have turned to alternative professions. Others make ends meet by playing their musical instruments at weddings and religious ceremonies.

Steps are now being taken to rehabilitate snake charmers in special villages in and around tourist centres. Promoting their music is another option being explored by the government. The idea is clearly to protect the interests of snake charmers, without harming the snakes. It is a tough call, as both are now endangered! ó MF


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka