Indian Snake Charmers

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

March 23rd, 2010

India has a love-spiritual relationship with snakes, somewhat different to the Chinese who just eat them. Both feared and revered, they are often to be seen at markets, touted by Charmers who will play a melody to get the snake to ‘dance’. In reality, the snake moves in relation to the swaying of the snake charmer, but that doesn’t hide the fact that the Indian Cobra used is one of the most deadly snakes on earth. It is the most dangerous of the Big Four, the four snake species responsible for most fatal snakebites in India for which a single polyvalent antivenom has been created. Like other cobras, Naja.naja is famous for its threat display involving raising the front part of its body and spreading its hood.

This snake is revered in Indian mythology and culture and is often seen with snake charmers. It is now protected in India under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, however is still a common sight in Indian markets and temples. In India, the spectacled cobra is much respected and feared, and even has its own place in Hindu mythology as a powerful deity. The Hindu god Shiva is often depicted with a protective cobra coiled around his neck. Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, is usually portrayed as reclining on the coiled body of Sheshnag, the Preeminent Serpent, a giant snake deity with multiple cobra heads. Cobras are also worshipped during the Hindu festival of Nag Panchami. The Indian cobra’s celebrity comes from its popularity as a snake of choice for snake charmers.The cobra’s dramatic threat posture makes for a unique spectacle as it appears to sway to the tune of a snake charmer’s flute. Snake charmers with their cobras in a wicker basket are a common sight in many parts of India only during the Nag Panchami festival. The Cobra, of course, is deaf to the snake charmer’s pipe, but follows the visual cue of the moving pipe and it can sense the ground vibrations from the snake charmer’s tapping.