One of India's strongest cultural icons has always been the snake
charmers with their flutes and basket containing their dancing snake,
usually a cobra. It is a form of street performance that often includes
snake handling, and other activities like juggling and sleight of hand.
The keeping of snakes has been outlawed since 1972, but the law has rarely been
enforced -- until recently. Cobra and Snake Charmer (Photo by Gregor Younger/Creative Commons via Wikimedia)Cobra and Snake Charmer (Photo by Gregor Younger/Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

Historically, the earliest evidence of snake charming was in ancient Egypt and their use by highly educated men who studied them, the gods they represented, and how to treat their bite. Current practices in India descend from the Hindu religion, which has held serpents to be sacred for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For their skills the snake charmer was considered a holy man and in touch with the gods. They were most likely healers. Snake charming is typically a profession handed down from father to son.

On August 30th and 31st the festival of Naag Panchami is scheduled to take place in India. The celebration is to honor the Hindu serpent god.  On Friday PETA, claiming that the animals are abused during the event, encouraged the use of fake snakes for the festival instead. 

They also claim that the snakes of the charmers are caught cruelly then stuffed into airless bags. The snakes often have their fangs broken or ripped out, or their mouths sewn shut so that they cannot bite and cannot eat. Some snakes are forced to drink milk.

The Bedia Federation of India, a non-profit agency which represents the snake charmer community quickly responded that they would never abuse the snakes since they worship them.  They added that the claims made by PETA are a publicity stunt aimed at the community of 800,000 snake charmers who have been struggling with poverty since the introduction of stricter wildlife laws in 2002. They also claimed that such laws have destroyed their livelihood and that there are no alternative employment opportunities. 

Indian Cobra (Photo by Kamalnv/Creative Commons via Wikimedia)Indian Cobra (Photo by Kamalnv/Creative Commons via Wikimedia)However, the rescue group Wildlife SOS has been trying to recruit traditional snake charmers to use their skills to capture snakes in populated areas, such as cities and suburbs, where they become a threat to people and move them back into the wild. 

Wildlife legislation and animal rights aside, the snake charmers are also facing an uphill battle as a new culture emerges in India. More people have access to television, video games, and the internet, thus reducing interest in street performers.

A few snake charmers can still be found in cities like New Delhi and areas that cater to tourists, risking arrest, getting the visitors to take their picture for a small fee.

Sources: Pakistan Daily Times, NPR, Wikipedia