The Untouchables: A Visit with the Snake Charmer

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I had almost forgotten that snake charming was a real thing until I came to India. The visit to the snake charmer’s colony has been one of the most intriguing events thus far. The snake charmers live in a small community together consisting mostly of tents as homes. They are a nomadic group, originally from Rajasthan. They moved to Gujarat for livelihood, and in hopes of making a better profit from their profession, snake charming.

Snake charming is a profession? I had no idea that snake charming was actually a profitable job at one point. I assumed that it was just a hobby, or some sort of cultural, spiritual activity.

The snake charmers would go from town to town and find a place to set up and entertain the crowds. Children would spend all day watching the snake charmers, and then would run to their parents and ask for 5 rupees or bring some food to the charmers as reward.

Despite the once mystifying events of the snake charmer, India has put a stop to this profession. In 1972, India passed the Wildlife Protection Act, which made it illegal to buy, sell, and capture wild snakes. The snake charmers still pursue the entertainment industry with magic tricks, but most are now labour workers.

We were lucky enough to still get a taste of what snake charming is like on our visit. We all gathered around the snake charmer in a circle. They opened the performance with some magic tricks. He put a rock in my hand and turned it into rupees when I opened it. I was pretty impressed by his performance. He was talking in Gujarati the whole time, and although it may have been relevant to the tricks, I didn’t need to understand the language to enjoy the performance. We were all laughing.

Then, another man began playing a strange instrument in front of a basket. The snake charmer! He played the instrument with circular breathing, no breaks for air. They call the instrument “bin.” It is made out of dried gourd, and two reed pipes are joined to it with wax. It produces a sound I can’t even describe. The snake was sleeping, so the charmer opened the basket and woke it up. A big cobra rose and began to follow the sway of the instrument. The cobra looked angry, like it wanted to attack the charmer. It was in predator mode. The charmer and fellow community members were not afraid of the snake at all. We were a little freaked out because in America we’re normally not so close to snakes. I was less afraid when I learned that they remove the venom from the snake. They stick a big needle under the teeth and pull out the poisonous vein.

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The snake charmer playing the bin

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The cobra erect

They took us on a tour of their colony and showed us their temple. They worship Meldi Maa—the Goddess of Menstruation. This is a pretty odd concept in itself, because menstruation is typically a negative thing in Indian culture, at least during temple visits. It is wrong to enter a temple if you are menstruating. They offer Meldi Maa gifts of alcohol, which is equally strange because Gujarat is a dry state (there’s been a prohibition since 1960). They also sacrifice animals such as goats and chickens, which is pretty different from typical Hindu traditions. Hindus are vegetarians and don’t believe in killing animals. The goats are skinned, and the carcasses are hung in the trees. There is a man who drinks the goat’s blood, and “knows all.” I wanted to get more information on this man, but we had to leave.

The people are pretty unordinary compared to other Hindus. That’s why they are said to be an “Untouchable Caste” living on the edge of Hindu Society.

There is a strange energy in their village, but also great wonder. The women dress differently than the traditional Indian garb. They wear fluorescent clothes with simple geometric patterns that almost look jester-like. The breasts are sewn coned shapes, and I believe they don’t wear bras either. They offered to dress one of us in their fashion, and since you can’t say no to an Indian, I reluctantly volunteered myself. The outfit was so uncomfortable. There were draw strings in the neck and hips that they tied like a noose. You couldn’t get a finger under there if you tried. The breast pockets were extremely bizarre, I was thankful they included a scarf I could hide myself with. Here is a picture of me dressed up with some of the locals.
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We also all had the opportunity to wear a snake around our neck. And because its rude to say no, even the fearful group members cringed with the snake around their neck.

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The snake charmer wraps a snake around Abi’s neck

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