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Snake Charmers Virtually Forgotten in Modern India - 2003-12-05

For centuries, snake charmers were enduring symbols of India. But the community has been virtually forgotten in a modernizing country now known more for its computer engineers and software industry.

On a sunny, winter day the hypnotic melody of the snake charmer's flute echoes across a crafts bazaar in the Indian capital. But no snakes are swaying to the rhythm - only a small group of Indian and foreign tourists listen to the entrancing music played by former snake charmers.

Snake charming was banned three decades ago as part of efforts to protect India's steadily depleting wildlife. Despite the laws, the nomadic community continued its trade for many years, but stricter implementation of the ban has now forced them to abandon their occupation.

That has left tens of thousands of snake charmers struggling for existence and a culture at risk of extinction.

So the Wildlife Trust of India began to explore livelihood options for the community that preserve some of their traditions.

Bahar Dutt is leading the project. She says the snake charmers' music is the most vibrant part of the community's culture and many of them have formed small musical groups.

"They basically form a musical band of seven people, and they all use these different instruments, which they make themselves, and they perform at weddings, festivals," she said. "It was their response to changing times, so we have been trying to carry it forward, make it more savvy to the market, where they can perform even at tourist places."

The strategy has paid dividends. Their haunting melodies have won some of these charmer musical groups a handful of invitations from places as far away as Israel and Taiwan.

Sheesh Nath Sapera is a former snake charmer living on the outskirts of Delhi in what was once a snake charmers' village. At one time, tourist buses stopped here frequently to watch cobras swaying to music. But with the ban, the tourists and incomes are gone and the town is now a squalid settlement.

Sheesh Nath says the musical performances only provide sporadic work and he misses his old life.

"Our children played with snakes the way other children play with toys," said Sheesh Nath Sapera. "We told people stories about snakes, caught snakes from their homes, and told them how to save themselves from snakebite."

But many younger members of the community are desperate to move on to another life. Bale Nath Chauhan 30, says his uncle insisted he go to school and he is glad.

"He told me I must change with the times," he said. "I trained as an electrician and want a loan to start my own business. I do not want to do what my parents did."

But for the older generation, a completely new life is not so easy and the Wildlife Trust recognizes it is important to build on skills already there.

Snake charmers' traditions extend beyond music. Bahar Dutt says the community has extensive knowledge about medicinal herbs and plants, gathered over generations during their trips to the forest to trap snakes. She says the community basically used the snake as an object to gain people's attention, then sold their medicines to them.

"And these are herbal medicines, which they would make themselves," she said. "At the end of a performance villagers would come forward and the snake charmer would dispense the medicines."

A British botanist will be traveling with Ms. Dutt to several snake charmer communities in North India to document and study their age-old knowledge of medicinal herbs.

Ms. Dutt says they are also exploring the possibility of starting a snake-rescue service, especially in towns and farms where snakes frequently enter houses.

Such work would help older members of the community, like Sheesh Nath Sapera, who are searching for ways to retain their identity by looking for work related to their trade.