Mollarbandh Gaon is locally known as Sapera Basti, as sapera means snake-charmer. If you visited this south Delhi colony a decade ago, one would have easily spotted round baskets housing snakes in the narrow bylanes.
In 1972, under the Wildlife Protection Act, keeping or using wild animals for commercial purposes was banned. In the initial years, enforcement of the law was lax but in this century, the community of traditional snake-charmers suffered the consequences. Now saperas face the prospect of being sent to jail or required to pay hefty fines if they break the law by catching snakes from the forest or making them ‘perform’.
Prof. Manish Sharma, a lecturer of botany in Ramanujan College explains, “The charmers primarily work with Indian cobras, a type of poisonous snake that kills around 10,000 people a year in India as per studies. At times, the cobras are able to spit venom when they are ill-treated by the saperas.”
In order to protect themselves, snake charmers often ‘de-fang’ or ‘de-venom’ their snakes. “Historically, the saperas would remove a snake’s venom sac to ensure that a snake bite won’t be fatal,” he elaborates. “That process can be crude and this process has to be repeated multiple times throughout a snake’s life (sacs refill once they’ve been emptied). Sometimes, the process is painful for the snakes as saperas have to use a knife to remove the snake’s venom sac.”
While offering protection to animals, the law has had consequences for humans which no government has bothered to solve. Today the colony has been reduced to a community of once-proud people struggling to earn their livelihood.
Parmeshwar Das, who learnt the trade at the age of 10, is now 60 years old. He is a member of Kalbeliya tribe of Rajasthan, which has been famous (in some ways infamous) for its involvement in India’s snake charming culture. Due to severe drought around 1916 in Rajasthan, the tribe fled to Delhi.
Das shares, “I work as a conductor in a private bus in Badarpur border which picks up the passages from the border to nearby areas. I manage to earn Rs 500 a day.”
He also gets summoned by members of the public when snakes enter their houses, even during late-night hours and especially during the rainy season. “But the police officials threaten us and snatch the snakes from us,” says Das. “It hampers our livelihood. I have seen my father begging at times. During the pandemic, we have faced the worst of times.”
No government official has ever visited the settlement. “During elections, some politicians promise to send money but we don’t have a bank account and perhaps they forget that we don’t use Paytm either!” says 33-year-old Kailash, son of a snake charmer.
“When our profession was flourishing, even forest officials were kind to us because we used to pay them some money too,” he continues. “And now, they want us to beg, that’s all.”
Even the public doesn’t understand their plight. “What do we get for doing a favour to the people and preventing them from being bitten by poisonous reptiles? They sometimes don’t even wish to pay us.”
Others of the tribe dodge the law to ply their trade. Raghunath, 67, is in a hurry as he picks up his snake basket from the floor of that one-room crumbling house. He is all dressed up in a maroon kurta. “I have to reach Khanpur village near Saket to perform my act,” he says. “The kids of the village really like it and sometimes the kind elders pay.”
Raghunath spends the entire day walking from one colony to another in the hope of making enough money so that his kids don’t sleep with a hungry belly. “I am aware that the profession has almost died but that doesn’t mean one should not try to keep the culture alive. There are still so many people who like to see us perform although they have stopped offering much money. But I want to continue,” he explains.
“Things were not so bleak in the 1990s,” declares 75-year-old Bhairav Nath, who sits in front of Hanuman Mandir, Connaught Place, every Tuesday and Saturday. “I used to visit nearly all the temples in Delhi with my bamboo basket carrying two cobras. I would sit outside shrines and devotees would stop to see the snakes swaying to the tunes of my flute. They would give me money. I never in my wildest dreams thought that this practice would almost die one day.”
Foreign tourists, especially, used to be enthusiastic about learning about the craft of snake charming and about its practitioners. “It was a golden period for our community,” he says.
Nowadays, it’s an attraction only for kids. “People rarely stop by these days to see us but once someone stops, more people linger. Little kids want to see the deadly snakes coming out of the basket because they have seen snakes in their textbooks. It fascinates them and so I earn money.”
Bhairav Nath’s wife is paralyzed from the waist downwards and his two sons are drivers. He never learnt any other trade but makes sure that his children didn’t suffer.
At Mollarbandh Gaon, considered one of the largest settlements of snake charmers in India, grocery store owner Raghav Gupta, 60, remembers: “The basti was once a bustling community. Tourists would stop by to catch a glimpse of the snakes. It was truly magical!’
He has been living in the colony for four decades and has been a witness to the drastic changes. “People who once deeply loved the practice are no longer interested to even listen to their woes.”
Gupta shows a notebook in which he has jotted down the debt he is owned by three families of snake charmers “They pay in small installments. Some months, they don’t have enough money and I don’t ask them to pay, considering their plight. It is not easy to run families these days when the prices of nearly all the essential products are high. Many of them don’t have a ration card.”
Amol Nath, 50, works as a rickshaw driver. He is suffering from tuberculosis and says he can’t afford proper treatment. Sitting outside a mohalla clinic, he says, “Honestly, there’s no scope left. Tell me who would like to watch live snakes when everyone has other stuff to watch on their mobile phones? Who will take 5-10 minutes from their busy life to come out of their houses for snake charmers? Rarely one or two. And would that be enough for us to survive? No!”
He gave up on the trade way back when he was in his forties and started working as a rickshaw driver. “I get enough that I don’t sleep hungry. I take shoppers from Lajpat Nagar to nearby places every day and that’s my life.”
Gokul Ram, 47, gives a glimpse into another world where snake charmers once held pride of place. “Every year on Nag Panchmi (a Snake God festival), my father and I are called by the VIPs of the Civil Lines area. It is an auspicious day for Hindus and they pray to snakes and feed them. Some brave souls wear snakes around their necks and pose for photographs,” he says.
While men feed the deadly snakes, women of the household make snake beds and pray to snakes for a happy life.
However, Gokul Ram knows this is not enough. “It is only on festivals like Nag Panchmi that we are given a little respect and money, otherwise who cares about us?”
What of their children? Shankar, a 12-year-old boy riding a borrowed bicycle, is keen to attend the nearby school. He says, “I will become a plane driver because there are so many planes flying above my head in the area. But it must have been a great experience, right?” he asks his 28-year-old father Kamal Nath, who is a sapera.
“The government should have thought about us,” rues Nath. “Aren’t we skilled enough to be given some employment at the zoo? We know our craft well but the forest department only wants to see us die out of hunger. We wish our culture can revive and we can live happily.”
It’s true that watching snakes ‘dance’ holds a fascination that will never die. Yoga practitioner Hatch, who visits Delhi every now and then with his team recalls, “As we stepped out of a restaurant in central Delhi, a snake charmer was sitting with a basket and a jhola (bag). He was playing unusual tunes from his instrument and in a few seconds a big snake popped up from the basket.”
The sapera informed them that the snakes don’t have ears, and so the ‘charming’ sounds of the been don’t actually appeal to the reptile. Instead, snakes respond to the movement of the instrument and the vibrations it causes.
And that’s the secret that India’s famous snake charmers withheld from the world for a long, long time.