In India, no time for snake charmers

For fast-paced, high-tech Indians, there's no time to watch the cobras dance. It also spells the end of an era for the saperas caste snake charmers.

For most of his 80-something years, Baba Sri Ramnath has been a snake charmer.

At the height of his power, Mr. Ramnath could earn a decent living in the streets of Lucknow, just 20 miles away, making his cobras spread their hoods and sway to the lulling sound of the bean, an oboe-like instrument. His ancestors had practiced this art for nearly 200 years, and also earned extra money capturing snakes in people's homes and curing snakebites with herbal potions.

Now, Ramnath and his village are facing a cruel irony of modern India: In his own village there is no electricity, but in the cities of Lucknow, Calcutta, and New Delhi – where his trade is practiced – life has become so fast-paced that no one has time to stop and watch a cobra dance.

In the age of Game Boy and the Power Puff Girls, snake charming is losing its charm among those who might make up the next generation of cobra tamers.

"Kids are engaged in watching TV, and they don't take interest in snakes. It's a dying art," says Ramnath, twirling his long gray hair around his finger and tying it up in his bright orange turban.

When the history of India's climb from developing nation to economic power is written, the disappearance of snake charming will probably merit little more than a footnote. But for villages such as Salenagar, where snake charming is not just a job but also a social caste and a way of life, the arrival of the technological age provides promises of a better life and the threat of social annihilation.

The difficulty for the villagers of Salenagar is wrapped up in India's complex and discriminatory caste system, which defines a person and a community's place in society by occupation. Snake charmers trace the beginning of their caste, the saperas, back to the mid-1830s, when a man named Kanifa Nath demonstrated his skill at capturing and "taming" the cobras of his district in the western state of Punjab.

But while snake charmers have a rich oral history of their caste, the government of India has not granted them official recognition. This has devastating consequences in a nation where the private sector is small and government jobs are the only way to move up in society. So while there are job reservations and college educations slotted for other castes, from high-caste Brahmins to lowcaste leather-workers to out-caste dalits, or untouchables, the saperas must either continue working in a vanishing art, apply for government jobs without any hope, or hope that India's small private sector will have some use for a staff snake charmer.

Job hazards: a cobra's kiss

It may come as no surprise that snake charming is dangerous work.

Catching a wild snake under the bed of a farmer or out on a country road can earn a snake charmer a nasty nick on the wrist. Fortunately, the saperas have learned to make their own herbal antidotes, which they occasionally sell to local farmers.

"If a person comes here within three hours of being bit, they will definitely recover with our herbal medicine," assures Ramnath. "It's 100 percent sure that a snakebitten person will recover." He pauses. "Otherwise, it depends on God."

The central mystery of snake charming, of course, is why the snakes sway to the sound of the snake charmer's music, rather than simply biting the charmer and making their escape.

The answer, Ramnath says, are another set of herbal medicines that keep cobras from getting ornery. Ramnath doesn't reveal other secrets of his craft: Many snake charmers remove the fangs of the snakes they keep, so that when the snakes do strike, they don't break the skin.

But while farmers often grow close to their animals, snake charmers don't develop any special relations with their cobras.

"King cobras are the worst," says a middle-aged younger snake charmer named Sadhunath. "They never learn."

To demonstrate their craft, the saperas gather in a large circle with about a dozen shallow plate-sized wicker baskets around the edges. Men take out their beans and drums, and play, as two young boys begin a lively foot-pounding, hip-swinging dance.

Each sapera then lifts off the top of his basket for the main attraction, the cobras. With one hand, the sapera plays his bean, while the other hand makes a fist to taunt the snake into striking.

The next generation opts out

Outside this ring, the next generation is watching what they hope will be the last throes of this dying art.

Gautamnath, a 20-something with a degree in sociology, has never touched a snake in his life, and he's not about to start now.

"I'm very much afraid of them," he says in good English. Rather than follow in his father's sandals, Gautamnath wants a government job. But if the government doesn't recognize his caste and allow him a clear shot at a good job, he says, "I will become a laborer. In any case, I have to work."

Ishwarnath, who was forced to drop out of high school in the 10th grade because he couldn't afford the books, looks like any modern Indian teen with a modern Bollywood style haircut and second-hand designer jeans.

He says he'd take any job other than snake charming. But with no job prospects, he occasionally has to make money as a sapera.

"Sometimes I do it, not regularly," he says with some embarrassment. "I go to Lucknow, sometimes to Kanpur (more than two hours away by train). I don't like it, but I have to make a living."

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