A Glimpse Into The Lives Of The Snake People, The Saperas

CULTURE | 5 minute read | | 0 Comments | 986 Likes

With every passing day, someone, somewhere in the world is slowly losing their lifestyle, tradition and practice. Somehow adapting to trends is the unsaid norm to cope in the modern world and when globalisation and law seeps into villages, it forcefully leads to the collapse of many sub cultures.

The cliché of the urban jungle taking over the world is the sad reason behind the disruption and end to many practices. 

Growing up in a suburb was confusing, India as it's depicted is not what I have experienced. On the rare occasion I have seen snake charmers, but I always thought of them as street entertainers and troubadours, performing on the street for money. I didn’t think of them as an isolated entity, a group of people with a distinct lifestyle. It wasn't until I saw Raphel Treza's movie Cobra Gypsies and the depiction of the Kalbeliya tribe that I realised the Kalbeliyas are a part of an even bigger community, the Saperas.

Ancient Snake Charmers in India

Origins of the snake people

The Saperas are a nomadic group of people known as the ‘snake people’ who primarily originated in northern India. Traditionally they were a community of healers who learnt appropriate methods to handle different varieties of snakes and cure snake bites.

In the older days, a Sapera was invited home to cure people from snake bites or remove serpents from their home. Saperas were a highly respected clan as no one had the expertise in dealing with deadly snakes as much as they did.

Engaging with poisonous snakes, healing and providing entertainment was part of their repertoire, hence they were invited to palaces to perform snake charming with deadly snakes like cobras. This practice spread across other countries in Asia, Africa and Middle East.

Snake charming is sill a popular practice in Egypt, Persia and Tunisia.

snake charmers in Egypt

Dance and music

The  Saperas perform a unique dance which resembles that of a snake.

Song and dance are a matter of pride mostly for Kalbeliyas, part of the Sapera clan. The men play ‘been’ (a wind instruement) and other Indian instruments, while the women dance.

The female dancers whirl to the sound of the music and pirouette their bodies circulating the actions of a snake and increase speed with the increase in the tempo of the musical instruments. Hypnotic twirls, glittering costumes heavily embroidered robes flaying out in display are all part of the performance.

Despite being a florishing trade in the earlier centuries, snake charming and their notabale blend of folk music faces the danger of extinction.

Variety of factors like animal rights, enforcement of law and banning ownership of snakes has led to the decline in their customs and the slow dwindle of their community.

snake charmer in tunisia

Snake charming and the myths

Snake charming creates the illusion of a snake being hypnotised to the music played by the Sapera. 

Although it looks like the snake is being mesmerised by the music played on a ‘been’, snakes lack outer ears which makes it impossible for them to respond to music. The snake considers the charmer and the instrument a threat and responds to it as it would to a predator.

Snake charming isn’t as dangerous asit looks. The snake charmer sits at a distance from the snake to safeguard himself and the snake is reluctant to attack as it is used to attacking the ‘been’ and realising that it is painful experience. Some of the other rare yet drastic measures include removing the snake’s venom glands or sewing the snake's mouth shut. Since snakes offer livelihood to the Saperas, cases of cruelty against them is slim to none.

saperas india

Demise of the clan

Metropolitanisation and radical cultural changes have significantly impacted the way Saperas are perceived.

Once saperas were a distinct community who had a vital role in society, not only were they traditional healers, they were respected for being educators in carefully handling the most deadliest snakes. Their knowledge was passed down through generations and now their entire tribe faces extinction and poverty.

Since India passed the Wildlife Protection Act, owning and selling snakes or snakeskins has become a punishable offence. Despite that the Indian government and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) are desperate to conserve the rich and peculiar knowledge of the Saperas, whilst protecting endangered species.

Snake charming for entertainment, promoting their unique music and selling traditional medicinal portions are still viable options for the Saperas. But these tribes are fighting a desperate battle for survival. Research conducted by WTI has revealed that more than three fourth of the Saperas have opted for alternative professions.

With increased costs and a lure to enjoy an urban lifestye, whether the simple life of a healer will still appeal to the 21st century grandchild of a Sapera is still a mystery.

Watch Rapael's documentary about the saperas here:

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