India was long characterized as the ‘land of snake charmers’, bringing to mind images of dusky men with dangerous-looking snakes winding round their bodies while they played the flute. The genesis of such images can be traced back to the ‘oriental gaze’ that informed both academic and governmental discourse in the 19th century during British colonial rule. Edward Said’s (1978) intervention overturned the seemingly benign term ‘orientalism’, which originally referred to the study of eastern languages and cultures, to reveal the multitudinous ways in which the characterization of the East/Orient as the exotic ‘other’ to the West/Occident contributed to the intellectual and cultural domination of the East by the West. The gaze locked the oriental within an unchanging, mythic tradition, and continued to reproduce stereotypes of the simultaneously desired and derided. The intellectual support that orientalism garnered as a field of study empowered the colonial machinery and provided one of the many justifications for the project of imperialism.
References to snakes are abundantly found in travel writings, works of art and literary allusions during the colonial period, owing to the perception of the animal as ‘wild’ or ‘dangerous’ on the one hand, and ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘exotic’ on the other. This mixture of perceptions operating within a colonial frame produced the many images of India as the land of the snake. Jean-Leon Gerome’s Snake Charmer is a painting that offers an entry point into how such perceptions were circulated and reproduced endlessly. Completed in the year 1879, the painting depicts a young boy standing with a snake coiled around his naked body while an aged man seated in the background charms a snake. Hinting at a ‘mysterious deviance’, the image holds within it several archetypes of the East—wild, treacherous, lustful, lazy, romantic etc. (Mackenzie 1995:48). Let us move to a moment closer in time and space. In his Independence Day address to the nation in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the country would no longer be associated with ‘snake charmers and black magic’ but symbolize a new digital age (The Hindu 2014). The colonial image of the ‘land of snakes’ enters an uncomfortable relationship with the ambitions of independent India. The branding of global India was to consciously exclude an entire community and all traces of ‘backwardness’ had to belong to the past as the country marched onwards.
Community, practices and socio-cultural identities
The saperas, a community of snake charmers, represent an uneasy survival of the past into the present for post-colonial, increasingly global India. The occupation of the snake charmer, once the icon of India’s exotic culture, experienced severe restrictions with the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The lack of a sustained livelihood and the loss of cultural articulation has pushed the community to socio-political and economic marginalization.
Among the many communities in India which traditionally associate themselves with the snake for professional purposes, the Saperas are the dominant group. Not all communities who practise the art of snake charming belong to this caste: there is also the Vadi tribe in Gujarat, the Kattu Naicker caste in the Tamil region, and the Bede people in eastern parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh among others. The Sapera caste itself represents a blanket term for many sub-castes and clans. All communities that claim to belong to the community trace their lineage back to nomadic ancestors who migrated from present-day Rajasthan. Today, members of the Sapera caste can be found in Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and elsewhere, with many regional variations to the name.
The Jogi Nath saperas found in Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh claim to belong to the Gorakhnath panth, a cult that traces its lineage to Gorakhnath, disciple of Matsyendranath. A figure of immense importance to the monastic Nath tradition in Hinduism, Gorakhnath as a maha yogi has lent his name to many philosophical traditions stretching from Punjab to Nepal. Gorakhnath’s elusive status has resulted in many variations in the way disciples refer to him: he is regarded as a wandering ascetic, a saint, and in some communities even accorded the status of a god (Briggs 1938:230). Legends associating the Nath tradition with Saivism and Tantrism trace it to Adinath, a predecessor of Matsyendranath, which links the Nath gurus to the figure of Siva as the ‘greatest of the yogis’ (Briggs 1938:228–30). Such articulations also conflate Gorakhnath with Siva and consider the former to be an incarnation of the latter (Robertson 1997:80). References to snakes are found in many legends associated with Gorakhnath. In one such telling, Gorakhnath is supposed to have appeared in the Kali Yuga as the Sesha Naga (the great serpent on which Vishnu reclines, Robertson 1997:228). The snake-charming practices of the Nath saperas thus assume a socio-religious tone and are not merely related to occupation.
Nath saperas were semi-itinerant communities with several patterns of movement: nomadic communities were not always on the move but would put up in temporary settlements for periods ranging from a few months to many years. Over time, most settlements have become permanent residences in bastis and slums. In the Sapera Basti in Mayur Vihar in Delhi, the current population stands at around 4,500. Residents claim the basti has been around for over 150 years, since the time their ancestors migrated out of villages near Jaipur in Rajasthan. Whether these dates are reliable or not, the shift from a semi-itinerant mode of living to an increasingly settled lifestyle is clearly visible across sapera settlements in the neighbouring states as well. Itinerant communities have been a source of unease for the colonial as well as the post-colonial state, given that mechanisms of taxation, policing etc., are important aspects of state organisation and control. While there were attempts to forcibly push nomadic communities into enclosures, it was not a uniform pattern of administration and did not affect most itinerant people. Many variations existed within colonial governance and policy initiatives that were reflected in the divergences in intention and inhibition across multiple levels of authority (Singha 1998, Radhakrishnan 2001, Markovits, Pouchepadass and Subrahmanyam 2006). At the basti in Mayur Vihar today, the saperas hold voter identity cards and ration cards: markers of state recognition of citizenship and corresponding rights. Both have been made possible by their permanent residence. Space features in the sapera narratives as a marker of marginalization. It is reflected in the landscape of the basti as well—the saperas inhabit three narrow lanes in the squatter settlement on the fringes of Mayur Vihar Phase III, the Delhi government’s experiment in the 1980s and '90s to provide housing for high, middle and low-income groups. Not surprisingly, the saperas were beyond this neat segregation by the state.
The saperas' snake-charming practices do not exist in isolation. Alongside this well-known tradition, their livelihood includes activities such as hunting and capturing snakes that have roamed into houses, conducting shows, playing the dhol and been etc. Most saperas are expert hunters—the initial act of snake charming involves hunting and capturing a snake, most often the Indian cobra. Their continual proximity to poisonous snakes—the saperas work predominantly with the Indian cobra, the Russell’s viper, the common rat snake and John’s earth boa—render them practitioners of traditional medicines (The Hindu 2004). Cures for ailments, especially snake bites are handed down from one generation to another and are intrinsic to the cultural identity of being a sapera. Claims that this medicinal knowledge is unique to the community and unfathomable by practitioners of allopathy and homeopathy is at once a plea for recognition of the sapera’s unique talents and betrays an insecurity that their practices will be rejected as quackery. The medicinal knowledge of the saperas is often under-represented in the image of the community as snake charmers. The slippage into an image of the exotic and dangerous sapera projects an incomplete notion of the community and reduced the practice of snake charming to an occupational category (Basile and Mukhopadhyay 2009). Many other roles played by the sapera complement the practice of snake charming as livelihood—the means of securing sustenance and a matrix for social identity. Saperas use the common phrase rojee roti (which translates to livelihood, an equivalent being jeevika) to speak of their past as snake charmers, indicating a holistic sense of the practice and its socio-cultural implications.
Narratives of marginalization: Convergences with the Nats and the Irulas
The marginalization of the saperas is not a unique story but one that resonates with many communities across the subcontinent. The Nats and the Irulas offer an entry point into understanding the larger socio-political forces that have affected such communities from the colonial period to the present day. The comparison is not made to draw arbitrary parallels or contrasts between the communities but to understand the process of marginalization itself—patterns of displacement, agendas behind multiple state initiatives, the role of non-state actors, notions of citizenship and rights, perceptions of criminality etc.
Nats are a semi-nomadic community tracing their lineage to the Marwar region of Rajasthan. Spread out across northern and western India, in the states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, the Nats had for long been the ‘pride and prejudice of colonial anthropologists' (Datta 2009). Simultaneously exoticized and criminalized in these writings, the Nats were nevertheless the subject of studies that feverishly attempted to draw connections with the gypsies of Europe. Recorded in history as jugglers, acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, magicians, tattooists etc., the Nats continue to hold on to these many practices. As performers, the community traditionally moved from one place to another, setting up camps, and exhibiting their arts and trades. Both the colonial and post-colonial state’s anxiety over nomadic/semi-nomadic communities, even if it did not result in forcible settlement policies, severely impacted perceptions of itinerant people and their worthiness as citizens who could exercise fundamental rights. Nomadism has thus, acquired a stigma that the Nats now rail against, even claiming to have never been khanabadosh (nomadic) and ascribing a lower societal status to those who move around (Datta 2012). Curbing the movement of the Nats has pushed them to poverty—many Nat colonies in Delhi for instance, are in shanty towns on the city outskirts. In Mayur Vihar today, the saperas and the Nats live in adjacent bastis, in close contact with another and are victims of regular police raids that repetitively enforce the notion of being second-class citizens.
Irulas have a different story to tell. A tribal community in the dry regions of Chengalpet in Tamil Nadu, the Irulas are primarily snake hunters. Similar to the saperas in their association with wild snakes, the Irulas however, do not engage in snake charming and instead practise hunting and export of snake skins (Konar and Modak 2010). With the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the subsequent ban on employing wild animals or engaging in the trade of their parts, the Irulas have been snatched away from their only means of livelihood. The unsustainability of other means of livelihood and negative perceptions associated with the community’s ‘dangerous’ profession had pushed Irulas to the margins. Forcibly cutting the community off from its traditional practices has not only brought the Irulas to near extinction but also disrupted traditional methods of ensuring eco-sustainability. Snake hunting and snake charming communities also importantly engaged in the practice of assisting in the reproduction of wild snakes, vital in the light of habitat erosion leading to the death of snakes (Konar and Modak 2010:166). In the case of the Irulas, positive socialization in the form of the Irula Co-operative Society helped avoid the complete loss of the community’s livelihood. Founded in 1978 by Romulus Whitaker, the ICS employs Irula members to conserve snakes by replicating natural niches. Collecting and trading in snake venom then allows for the Irulas to make profits (Konar and Modak 2010:167–68).
Saperas constitute a vulnerable community, pushed to the margins by many factors. Some processes of marginalization have had long histories—the perceptions of nomads and snake charmers in colonial ethnographies simultaneously as romantic and as criminally suspect. Saperas have also faced the brunt of the ambitions of the post-colonial state that has deepened these historical inequalities. In a hurry to emerge as a modern nation-state that has successfully purged itself of its embarrassing pasts, communities that do not fit easily into notions of the ideal citizen have been subjected to scrutiny. Pushed to the margins, the saperas negotiate from an unequal position, but are nevertheless armed with the mechanisms the modern state has provided. In the saperas' struggle for recognition and positive rehabilitation, there also lies a strong demand for equal citizenship rights.
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