The music and instruments of Indian snake charmers: a journey through a dying tradition

Snake-song charm music: A dying tradition

Humans have always been intrigued by the bizarre idea of measuring strength by challenging other species.
Many cultures have families that have raised their children with the single goal of learning how to make money from this challenging task.

I’m talking about the tiny but well-known Indian snake charmers at high risk of extinction. There are many reasons for this, which will be covered in the blog post.

With its unique mix of music and danger, snake charm has fascinated Indian tourists and natives for centuries.

Indian Snake Charmers’ way of life

Snake charmers in India today are street performers who entertain the public with their flutes (pungi) or a few dancing cobras.

Fathers have passed on the snake charmer’s hypnotic songs to their sons for centuries.

Their lives, income, and families are all dependent upon snakes.

They are respected for many activities beyond their musical performances.

The job is catching poisonous snakes at homes and helping those who have been bitten.

The family business of dealing with snakes is their family enterprise, and, despite the low income, the snake charmers believe it is enough for their families.

But how can they catch the snakes?

What role does snake charm music play in this process?

The cobras will be lured out of their hiding places by the sound made by the pungi.

To get the snake charmers excited, specific tunes are played. “Nagina” is one such.

According to their belief, cobras feel more at ease when they hear these melodies. They are also more likely to flee their hiding spots.

The snake charmers I watched in documentaries ensure that they don’t want to harm snakes and release them after a few weeks.

Animal rights activists disagree with their views.

Indian government’s ban on wild animals

Unfortunately, for tribes of snake sellers, the Indian government has declared their profession illegal. It is unlawful because it causes irreversible harm to snakes and uses several procedures that clearly violate the rights of wild animals.

Some snake charmers use venom glands to make the snakes safer.

While the ban dates back as far as the 1970s, it has been enforced by the Indian government since 2003.

Many snake-charming shamans were found using their pungi and making their snakes move. Others were also arrested.

Despite all the terror and repression, snake charm is still alive in certain parts of India. This is because it provides income for the performers.

The snake-smarter communities are unanimous in believing that people wouldn’t listen to their music if they didn’t have one or more cobras dancing out of their baskets.

Snake-song charm music seems so profoundly connected to an animal species that its composers cannot even think of it as a separate entity. It should be performed and enjoyed as a musical composition intrinsically valuable.

Snake charm and musical instruments

What kind of flutes do snake charmers use to entice their victims?

Snake charmers use a tool called pungi (or been) in North India. South Indians seem to prefer made.

One pipe generates a drone sound. It is the fundamental tone, the sonic background upon which the snake charmer plays his main melody.

Circular breathing is a technique a person must master to play the pungi.

This allows an instrumentalist to play a song in a continuous airflow.

Street performance of a snake-seller usually includes something other than accompaniment by percussion instruments.

The musician entertains by relying only on his pungi’s hypnotic sound and rhythm.

Sometimes, additional musicians can join the show and support the melodies created by the pungi. They use simple, repetitive, but powerful rhythmic patterns that are addictive and highly addictive.

A good snake charmer can mix music with other activities like handling or talking to the snake.

Are dancing snakes mythical or real?

This is the point where I feel it’s fair to ask:

Do cobras dance? Is music something they like?

Are they able to hear the music being played by snake charmers?

Researchers have proven that snakes cannot hear the sounds made by a “pungi,” but they can still move rhythmically according to the movements of the musical instruments.

Snakes don’t have ears externally, so they can’t hear sounds like humans.

However, they can feel vibrations and hear some low-frequency sounds.

The snake charmer’s movements may make it seem like “dance,” but in reality, we are just reacting to fear.

The snake is terrified to death. Its sway protects the animal against the snake charmer’s flute.

Always remember that the snakes used in Indian street performers were taken from their natural habitats, trapped, and placed inside small baskets or wooden boxes.

Contrary to what snake-sellers claim, Indian animal rights activists claim cobras participating in street music performances don’t like it, and their famous dance shows tension and discomfort.

Punnagavarali, the south Indian Raga associated with snake charm

The classical music of South India has one scale that is closely related to the world of snakes.

I’m referring to Punnagavarali, a sequence dear to snake snatchers and cobras.

According to our knowledge, many street performers’ melodies are set in this raga.

The name Punnagavarali was chosen to indicate the association between the raga Punnagavarali with the realm of snakes.

The Sanskrit term “naga,” which means “snake,” actually refers to “naga.”

Many Hindus believe you can gather snakes if you sing or perform a song set in snake-charming music, such as the punnagavarali Raga, at a particular time, around dusk, and at night.

Let me offer another example of a popular song based on this particular raga.

While researching, I found a great track by K. V. Mahadevan titled “Nadar mudi Mel irukkum.” This song talks about imploring a snake for its poison to help a child.

Snakes in Hinduism – The music of Naga Panchami snake charmers

According to Hinduism, snakes have been considered sacred and are often associated with Shiva. Shiva is said to wear a cobra ornament.

Hindus celebrate Naga Panchami on the fifth day (July/August) of Shravana. This is an occasion when devotees travel to temples to pay respect to snake deities.

This ceremony commemorates the victory over Kaliya, the dangerous snake Kaliya.

People have begun to celebrate snakes at this time of the year for a different reason:

Heavy rainfalls mark Shravan month, and snakes must be rescued from the flood waters.

Naga Panchami, which is usually marked by ritual offerings (puja, home), temple priests dedicate to snake deities. A statue of an image physically represents these to please them and keep them from biting.

Sometimes, you will also see Hindus worshiping snakes without ritual mediation from temple priests.

These rituals still take place in homes and outdoor courtyards. The local communities of snake charmers manage them.

While the snake charmers give milk, sweets, flowers, and money to the snakes, their owners are rewarded with food and money for their musical performances.

Indian animal rights activists have criticized the Naga Panchami celebrations that involved real snakes as another instance of inflicting unjustified suffering on animals.

Naga Panchami, on the other side, shows how the tribes of snake charmers continue to play a ceremonial role today in rural India.

They aren’t just talented musicians and entertainers but also alternative ritual officiants skilled at dealing with snake affairs.

Although their profession is officially banned in India, they are present at the center for prayers and milk blessings offered by cobras during the Nag Panchami festival. This shows how their musical and ritual services have remained in India’s social tissue.

Final remarks

It is absurd to ban the entertainment of wild animals in a country like India, struggling to build a new cultural identity and brand itself as a more developed one.

However, it is equally important that you answer the following questions:

The ban has made the snake charmers unable to find work. Who will provide them with a source of livelihood?

WildfilmsIndia published a 2017 excerpt on Youtube of a rare music performance in which a large group of musicians from the Jogi-Nath snake-charters community gathered to show their talents and play without snake involvement.

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