India blesses its snakes as charmers face the venom of modern life

Sanjay Kanojia

Officially the snake charmers' profession is banned in India, but its devotees were at the centre of prayers and milk blessings offered to cobras and other deadly serpents in an annual tribute Friday. The country's 800,000 charmers and their young apprentices come to the fore each year for the centuries-old Nag Panchami festival, celebrated in honour of a serpent god prominent in Hindu mythology. Children sat cross legged at temples in Allahabad and other cities around the country with elongated cobras and pythons wrapped around their necks. Many play with the snakes as though they are toys -- in traditional snake charmer villages, like Kapari in Uttar Pradesh state, children are taught the art from a young age to avoid fear. Milk -- a traditional tribute -- is poured on the snakes' faces, as the charmers play music. Rice and flowers are also offered to the reptiles. The charmers who pretend to hypnotise their animals for tourists outside monuments and in the streets say they earn as little as 200 rupees ($3) a day -- not enough to keep their family, or feed their snakes. In doing so, they are risking arrest. The practice was banned under wildlife legislation implemented in 2002. Animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has called for an end to the "cruel" practice. PETA says snakes are captured in suffocating bags, kept in tiny boxes and forced to drink milk. The group says snakes' fangs are often violently torn out, and many snakes' mouths are sewn shut to avoid bites. But while authorities have tried to discourage the shows, the charmers say it is impossible to completely stop them. "There is nothing else for us to do," said Vikas Penna, a charmer in his 30s. "What do you want me to do, become a rickshaw driver?" -- This accompanies video by Sanjay Kanojia & Narinder Suri and pictures by Noah Saleem --