Charming the audience

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By Rom Whitaker

common cobra naja naja

The majestic cobra has always been the favourite of snake charmers and audience alike. But long before there were charmers who de-fanged these beautiful snakes and put them on show, cobras have instilled awe and fear in people all over India. Encountering a cobra in the wild which suddenly rears up, hood spread, is an experience a person is not likely to forget.

Being a common snake, its interactions with humans are frequent. It is a timid snake and not interested in attacking; they will bite as a last resort and their bite does cause many fatalities. We provide them with an abundance of food. The cobra’s main prey, rats, love us and our farmlands, garbage dumps and dirty habits.

 It is the cobra’s dramatic stance and its dangerous bite that has made it one of India’s most revered animals. Who hasn’t seen cobras depicted as close pals of Shiva, Ganapathi and others in the pantheon of gods? And carved cobras adorn temples the length and breadth of the country.

It’s not unusual that we have a festival which celebrates the cobra: Nagpanchmi, which comes in August. In the Maharashtrian town of Battis Shirala, Nagpanchmi is celebrated big time! Lakhs of people descend on the town to watch the celebrations. Hundreds of cobras are caught by local farmers and displayed for several days in what has become a quasi-religious tourist draw. This year it all changed with the clamping down of the Wildlife Protection Act.

At Battis Shirala, the cobras are not de-fanged or otherwise greatly harmed. Other snakes like harmless banded racers and rat snakes are caught by local lads and “hired” out for tourists to take their picture with. These snakes get over-stressed   from constant handling; so while there is an educational element here that could help some snakes from being killed; it is not a happy situation for the hapless snakes.

A picture with monitor lizards strung on poles at Battis Shirala in 1970 as a part of the Nagpanchami Festival. Photo Credit: Romulus Whitaker

At Nagpanchmi celebrations elsewhere in India, snake charmers bring de-fanged or even mouth-stitched cobras to towns and cities to make a few bucks from the devout. The worshippers mistakenly think that cobras like to drink milk (they hate it), which should really be donated to needy children.

It’s actually a shame that traditional arts like snake charming must disappear, but the way they usually treat one of the world’s most noble creatures cannot be tolerated. Back in the late 1970’s when we were just getting the Irula Snake Catchers Cooperative started (for the supply of venom to the antivenom serum labs), we thought of a Snake Charmers Cooperative. The idea was that the itinerant charmers would become barefoot environmental educationists (BEES!), teaching people the real facts about snakes (how to avoid the Big Four dangerous snakes, the efficacy of antivenom, and why nothing else can cure a venomous bite and so on) while still continuing their thousands of years old livelihood. But they would have to follow strict rules about care of snakes (no de-fanging or stitching of course) and no perpetuating stupid myths.

Well, the Snake Charmers Cooperative never happened and charmers are rapidly disappearing. Cobras are protected under Schedule II of the Wildlife Act and keeping one without a permit could mean a fine or imprisonment. Animal welfare people have been active in several cities, getting snake charmers arrested and snakes seized. What a paradox in a country where venomous snakebite kills over forty thousand people a year! I guess we’re very lucky to have the kind of spiritualism that protects these great destroyers of rats. Many people would like to continue to see Nagpanchmi celebrated with live cobras and snake charmers still thrilling crowds of people at street corners. But not if it means cruelty to snakes. Maybe the answer is to do what the politicians have started doing--a holographic image of a live cobra for people to drop kumkum on and ‘worship’. Welcome to the 21st century folks!


About the the Author

Romulus Whitaker