POST TIME: 9 September, 2019 11:22:10 AM
Snakes and snake charmers
Another way to tackle snake bites is to order the NGOs working in rural Bangladesh to allocate a portion of their budget to buy and distribute easy to use anti-venom kits
Syed Mehdi Momin

Snakes and snake charmers

The snake charmers’ flute

The fact that as many as six thousand people die of snake bites in Bangladesh surprised many especially the urban dwellers. As people in the cities and towns rarely see snakes outside the zoo or only on the idiot box urbanites find it extremely difficult to relate to the reptile. However, things were quite different even a couple of decades ago. Glimpsing a snake on your courtyard was not quite unheard of.
As a matter of fact in the 1970s and even the early 1980s snake charmers used to be a common sight in Dhaka city streets. They had a distinctive flute and carried snakes in a basket inside a big jhola (cotton bag) slung over their shoulders. People used to call them and they played with their snakes while householders, especially the children, looked on with a mixture of fear and expectations. They literally made the snakes dance to the tunes of their flute which they called ‘been’.
However they are no longer so conspicuous even in mufassil towns nowadays. Snake charmers today are struggling for their very survival. The main reasons are strict wildlife laws and strident initiatives taken by animal-rights activists. Also the majority of the youth of the community are no longer willing to pursue their hereditary professions. The practice of snake charming—catching snakes, keeping them in captivity for extended periods, and training them to perform—has traditionally been passed from father to son and the fathers agree with their sons that there is no future in the profession.  

Older generations of snake charmers prided themselves at being able to handle these snakes just through behaviour and not handicapping the snake. That doesn’t exist anymore. The younger generations have neither the patience and skills nor the time.”

There is one other reason. The loss of awe and respect resulting from the growing popularity of nature-oriented television programmes in Bangladesh. After seeing so many wildlife shows on television, city folks are losing the fear and awe they used to have for snakes. Science says that a snake has no ears and cannot possibly hear the strains of the ‘been’, but that sort of science simply spoils a picturesque subject like the snake-charmer. So much is certain, that all snakes cannot be played upon in this way: there are some species which are utterly callous to the influences to which, say, the cobra yields itself so readily.

Incidentally the cobras are the overwhelming favourite of charmers. Cobras are large enough to be impressive, unquestionably dangerous and unmistakable because of their spectacular rearing stance with spread hood. The ‘been’ consists of two wooden flutes fitted with bamboo reeds and cemented with beeswax into the bottle section of a gourd. The flute is the charmers’ trademark, often personalized with bits of mirror or stone or coins, and despite the fact that snakes can't hear the melodies it plays, its use is important. The knocking on the basket prior to opening the lid puts the cobra on the alert and the appearance of the flute, seen by the snake as a potential enemy, causes the serpent to rear into its defensive stance. Once standing, the cobra sways in imitation of the motion of the been. Should the charmer sense a waning of his audience's interest, he needs only to move the been quickly and the cobra will strike at it, hissing loudly as it does.

Rarely will a snake charmer use a "hot" cobra, one whose fangs and poison glands are intact. The snake is simply too dangerous. To cool the snake, its fangs are most frequently broken off near the root, leaving the cobra fully venomous but limiting its ability to strike. Some charmers cut out the entire venom system.

According to historical documents snake charmers have been living in this part of the world for centuries, and belong to both Muslim and Hindu communities. Currently Bangladesh has an estimated 500,000 snake charmers. Most snake charmers, known as bedeys are nomads, travelling by boat around the country to attend large celebrations such as the Bengali New Year. That is why the surviving snake charmers tend to live near rivers.

The bedeys have had to diversify to stay in business. Many in the capital use their skills to attract attention from passers-by, who are then lured into buying bracelets, trinkets and other handicrafts. Some offer themselves as unofficial pest control officers, removing snakes from people's homes. These days snake charmers in the city are most commonly seen outside tourist hotels or clubs attended by Western expatriates. In rural areas snake charmers can still attract large crowds, but that is mostly during festivals which are not held on a regular basis. Female snake charmers often sell talismans and "medical" advice to illiterate villagers. Male charmers are often called upon to cure people who have been bitten by poisonous snakes and are seen as "ojhas" or paramedics.

Snake charming as it exists today probably originated in India. Hinduism has long held serpents to be sacred; the animals are related to the Nagas, and many gods are pictured under the protection of the cobra. Indians thus considered snake charmers to be holy men who were influenced by the gods. The earliest snake charmers were likely traditional healers by trade. As part of their training, they learned to treat snake bites. Many also learned proper snake handling techniques, and people called on them to remove serpents from their homes. Baba Gulabgir (or Gulabgarnath) became their Guru, since his legend states that he taught people to revere the reptiles, not fear them. The practice eventually spread to nearby regions, ultimately reaching North Africa and Southeast Asia.

The early 20th century proved something of a golden age for snake charmers. Governments promoted the practice to draw tourism, and snake charmers were often sent overseas to perform at cultural festivals and for private patrons. In addition, the charmers provided a valuable source of snake venom for creating antivenins.

I started this article with how snake bite is a serious problem facing the country. In this day and age as many as seven hundred thousand people suffer snake bites. Actually the number could be much higher as the latest data is on 2010. Since Bangladesh faces a long monsoon, snake bites become a scourge every year.

Shockingly, in the rural areas, when people with snake bites go to upazila doctors, they are referred to the city on the grounds of non-availability of anti-venom injections. Sadly, a lot of the victims die on the way, which is an unnecessary loss of lives. While 80 per cent of snake bites are not life threatening, a victim cannot simply rely on chance. Also, during monsoon, most bites take place in inundated areas so the victim cannot see the type of snake that bit him/her. The reason for such a high number of deaths is because of a prevalent belief in villages that traditional healers can pull out the venom, employing their tactics.

Nothing is more inaccurate. In fact, the condition of victims exacerbate when they are not given the anti-venom on time. Even in the case of bites which are not lethal, if a proper doctor does not take a look, the bitten area may develop into an abscess, causing much pain and suffering. The anti-venom is free and so, the priority of the government should be to send such injections to all upazila offices even before the start of the rainy season. If the authority waits to take action after death numbers rise, we will be experiencing another health menace similar to that of dengue. Rural areas, which experience flooding and heavy rain, anti-venom should also be stored at local flood and cyclone shelters with young volunteers given proper training on how to administer them.

Another way to tackle snake bites is to order the NGOs working in rural Bangladesh to allocate a portion of their budget to buy and distribute easy to use anti-venom kits. Since the practice of going to traditional healers is ingrained within the social structure of the country, village quacks may be given training to give anti-venom supplied by the government.

he government can easily declare a drive to take anti-venom serums to upazila level schools, training the local teachers or youth volunteers in giving the jab. Development agencies can also think of an innovative idea through which one time anti-venom packages can be available from temporarily placed snake-bite relief centres.

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent