There are elephants at the Kumbh Mela, but no snake charmers, and yet both used to be staples of festivals and fairs in India. So where are the snake charmers?
Sulking in Kapari and Lohagra, two villages about an hour’s drive from Allahabad, is the answer. If they try to come close to the Kumbh Mela, they complain, police drive them back. They get picked up in vans, ordered to pay fines, even thrown in prison for a week. To add insult to injury, the police have been known to shave off their distinctively long hair. So the world’s largest crowd remains a glittering mirage to them. They’re forced to skirt it and ply their trade on the backroads and in the small villages of India.
If you were in any doubt that snake charming was a dying art, you’d just have to visit these villages. Made of mud and thatch, they have no electricity. Lohagra has no source of clean water. The women stay at home while the men take their snakes out on the road, often staying away for a month at a time. Accused of cruelty, because they remove the fangs of the venomous snakes they catch, the snake charmers’ status has declined until, today, they’re regarded by many as little more than beggars.
At some point, animal rights activists realised that the best way to protect the snakes was to provide the charmers with alternative sources of income, and some now work as snake-catchers, or snake caretakers at tourist attractions. The snake charmers themselves realised that they needed to diversify to survive, and the current generation of young adults is the first to have received an education, and taken on paid jobs.
Maybe when the children of those teachers and shopworkers are the village elders, snake charming will die. For now, though, it still defines these two communities, and respect for the sacred serpent remains deeply rooted in their psyche. After all, Lord Shiva, the Hindu god, is often depicted with a cobra coiled round his neck. And when two young people in Lohagra marry, the dowry for the girl is still two cobras.