Snake charmers – dark side of the mystery craft

Once an icon of Indian culture, snake charmers today are struggling for survival.

The exotic sight of the mystical men who have enticed cobras and vipers to dance to the soulful music of flutes for centuries has now become the victim of wildlife protection laws.

Snakes may evoke fear in most people, but dealing with these creatures is just another day’s work for 12-year old Kumar Raju. He knows live shows are banned in India, but says he has no other option.

“I don’t have any agricultural land or a salaried job,” Kumar told RT. “I want to study and get an education, but that’s not possible. I show snakes to the public, entertain them and with the few rupees I earn here I feed myself.”

In the capital New Delhi, animal rights campaigners like Kartick Satyanarayan are angered the law is not being enforced. He believes charmers exploit the snakes.

“What they do is they catch snakes like cobras, for instance, they break the fangs, they pull out the fangs with cutting pliers and then burn or remove the venom gland,” he explained. “The venom gland and the venom itself is sold off as illegal narcotic… And the snake basically after that point suffers a slow death.”

But this means little in rural India, where the draw of watching these fearsome creatures attracts a ready audience. The practice of snake charming has traditionally been passed from father to son. For generations, it has provided a critical means of support for many families.

“Our ancestors have all been snake charmers,” said Sanju Nath. “For the last 10 generations we have been catching snakes, showing them to people, and begging for food. Whatever we can get we use to feed our children and educate them. But even if we are educated, no one gives us a job. The government doesn’t listen to us. What other work can we do?”

But critics insist they're an unwelcome relic of the past.

“Probably 85 percent of snake charmers have moved on from this,” claimed Satyanarayan. “There’s only a small minority who make a lot of money and find it very lucrative and have a lazy lifestyle.”

In the popular Western imagination, India is often labeled a land of snake charmers. But clearly snake charmers themselves are struggling for survival today. In rural India, wildlife protection laws made over 1,000 kilometers away make little sense to people trying to continue a way of life.