For much of the 20th century, snake charmers were a fixture at markets and festivals in India and other Asian nations, entertaining crowds with their apparent ability to control some of the world's most dangerous reptiles. A snake charmer would appear to hypnotize a snake by playing a flute-like instrument called a pungi or bansuri. The snake would then sway, as if mesmerized by the music. But herpetologists say that snakes can’t hear sounds in the same frequency range as humans, and that their “dance” was simply a reaction to the movement of the instrument by the snake charmer.
An ancient tradition, fading away:
- In India, the practice of catching snakes and training them to perform was traditionally passed on from father to son. For generations, it provided reliable income for many families.
- India's snake charmers have pointed out that wildlife protection laws have contributed to the practice's marked decline.
- Another reason: “After seeing so many wildlife shows on television, city folk are losing the fear and awe they used to have of snakes," says snake charmer Pitam Nath.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the traditional music used for snake charming?
Traditional snake charming music is primarily associated with the Pungi, also known as the Been, which is a wind instrument used by snake charmers in South Asia. This instrument produces a hypnotic melody that seems to mesmerize the snake, although it's actually the movement of the charmer that the snake follows. The Pungi's sound is distinctive and has a continuous drone with a melodic overlay, which is characteristic of snake charming performances.
Do snakes really respond to the music played by snake charmers?
Contrary to popular belief, snakes do not respond to the music itself as they are deaf to ambient sounds. Instead, they are reacting to the physical movements of the snake charmer. Snakes have a keen sense of vibration, and while they may appear to be swaying to the music, they are actually following the visual cues of the charmer and the Pungi's movement, as explained by National Geographic.
Can any type of music be used for snake charming?
While theoretically, any rhythmic music could be used to simulate the traditional effect, the success of snake charming relies more on the visual interaction between the snake and the charmer. The traditional Pungi music has a specific tone and rhythm that is synonymous with snake charming, creating an expected ambiance for the performance. However, the snake's response is not to the music itself but to the charmer's movements.
Is snake charming still practiced today, and is it legal?
Snake charming is still practiced today, particularly in countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but it has declined due to animal rights concerns and legal restrictions. Many regions have outlawed the practice due to the cruelty involved in the capture and treatment of the snakes. For instance, India has enacted the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which makes it illegal to own or capture snakes for entertainment purposes.
What are the ethical concerns surrounding snake charming?
There are significant ethical concerns surrounding snake charming, including the welfare of the snakes, which are often captured from the wild and may undergo cruel treatment, such as having their venom glands removed or mouths sewn shut. Animal rights organizations argue that this practice is inhumane and stressful for the snakes. Additionally, the decline of wild snake populations due to capture for this trade poses ecological concerns.