The accessories of a snake
Hakim Jogi sits
cross-legged on the ground in front of a closed basket. He removes the lid,
then begins playing a flute-like instrument made from a gourd and known as a
been or pungi. His long hair, orange turban, earrings, shell necklaces and
his hypnotic been playing grabs the attention of everyone who happens to pass
by Chaakar hotel near new Sabzi Mandi.
People of all ages swarm
around him and ask for remedies for various ailments they suffer from. Hakim
doesn’t seem to mind. The most frequent requests he gets include cures for
respiratory problems, backaches, bone weakness and skin infections. Like a
medical practioner, he sometimes checks the pulse of the patient and tells
them what he believes is wrong with them.
When asked how he manages
to guess which disease his ‘patients’ suffer from and what he recommends
to them, he says he is spiritually blessed. “It’s not just a guess. When
someone approaches me with a problem that is unidentifiable, I recite few
holy verses and check the pulse. And according to the nature of the problem,
I give them herbal remedies or suggest a plant that could help them. When I
fail to detect a problem I don’t make guesses and suggest they see a
Most of their herbs and
extracted from the Shah Noorani area of Balochistan which his family visits
during the monsoons to collect. The most common herbs they use to cure
diseases include Kanaar booti, Naand naseli booti, Burkia booti and several
others. However, Hakim Jogi still thinks he has a lot to learn from his
master who seems to know the cure for everything one can mention.
“Our master is Misri Jogi
and he is president of the All Pakistan Jogi Welfare Association. He lives in
Umer Kot. He makes medicines from these herbs and a lot of patients have been
miraculously cured by his knowledge. Even famous politicians and other
important people pay regular visits to his town to meet him and help solve
Many people have the
impression that snakes, before being used by a snake-charmer for a
performance, are drugged, or rendered harmless by some other means. It has
also been heard that many charmers extract the fangs from the cobras, and
some even sew their mouths shut. What is more, many snake charmers do not
feed their snakes, but catch new ones as soon as the old ones die. This,
according to Jogi, is not true.
“People spread such
rumours when we startle them with our amazing performances. They start
guessing stupid things and doubt our capabilities. We can never hurt a snake.
This is not what we were taught. I don’t know about snake charmers who
practice abroad but I certainly know that such techniques aren’t practised
The feeding of snakes is a
leisurely process, as there is an interval of four weeks between each meal.
In a natural state, the interval can be much lengthier. Their menu normally
consists of milk, mice, rats, fowl, rabbits and other small creatures.
The taming process is
commenced by the gloved grasp of the head and tail. The snake seems to
realise at this stage that it is in the hands of a master, and when later it
understands that no harm is intended and that certain kindness may be looked
for, it speedily becomes tractable.
“We assure our snake
before the show that we won’t cause it harm by any means whatsoever.
There’s a verse that we recite to hypnotise it, “Qasam daitay hain tujhe
murshid ki kay tujhe maarengay nahin aur chhor daingay (We swear on our
Murshid that we won’t harm you and will set you free),” says Hakim.
There is also the danger of
losing snakes through climatic disadvantages and diseases, such as canker in
the mouth, to which they are peculiarly liable. To expose them to the cold,
either by forgetting to renew the hot water, or by not providing them with
sufficient blankets, might very easily prove fatal to the entire collection.
But snakes, no matter how tame they may become, are always treacherous, and
have to be very carefully watched at every performance. The performer,
however, soon learns the temperament of each one, and can tell its mood by
its hiss, which varies according to its mood. “Most of the snakes are tamed
and obedient but few can be really hard to train. The most unreliable snake
is the Lundi, which can bite even his own master,” says Hakim.
While recalling some of his
most memorable moments, Hakim said there were two incidents that he would
never forget. The first was the day his grandfather died because of a Lundi.
“My grandfather had taken good care of him and used to sleep with all of
his snakes including the one which took his life. But the Lundi bit him and
fled. The poison was so bad that we could not save his life. He had said
before dying that if you eat his meat you’ll become a master and
invincible. But we couldn’t do it.”
“The second was when I
was travelling in the company of my friend,” he continues. “After the
performance, on our way back, I had about 50 snakes with me but they all
died. My friend asked what I was going to do, but I told him not to worry.
When we got to a big dry tree, I told him there is a snake here. I set fire
to some wood to smoke the snake out but to our greatest surprise, the snake
was so big that only half of it went into the box. I was confused, but I had
to try again with more smoke and at the end of the day, the snake finally
came out and went into the box itself and we left. It was the longest snake I
had seen in my entire life,” he added.
The most remarkable aspect
is how the snake charmer manages to take control of a venomous snake so that
it does not inflict a deadly bite. Anwar Jogi, 22, assists Hakim Jogi in
catching the snakes, especially cobras. He explains this by stating that
cobras are essentially defensive, and not aggressive. “Cobras are generally
reluctant to strike, and many specimens will rear up for a considerable
period of time when cornered, but will not attempt to attack,” says Anwar
“Second, the flute or been is a hard object, and once the cobra has bitten
it a few times, it will probably learn that this it is both painful and
futile, and desist from doing so in future.”
Contrary to how scary it
looks, avoiding a cobra’s bite is not too hard for an experienced snake
charmer. According to Anwar, the cobra’s striking range cannot reach
further than one third of its body length that is the height of the snake
when it is standing. So the charmer will know how far from the cobra he
should sit. In comparison, the attack of a rattlesnake may be much more
dangerous because its range is half its body length.
Furthermore, the biting
technique of the cobra makes its attack more easily predictable than the
attack of a rattlesnake. And once predicted, the attack can be avoided.
“Vipers (such as rattlesnakes) strike outward in a punching movement,”
explains Anwar. “Cobras tend to bite downward from standing–the same
movement as if you set your bent elbow on a table and swung your hand
downward. It’s slower and easier to predict.”
He says that even if a
snake charmer were bitten, the bite would not necessarily cause much damage.
While some cobras have venom that is 20 times as powerful as that of a
rattlesnake, it is difficult to assess the potency of such venom exactly,
since the deadliness of a bite depends on a variety of factors relating both
to the victim and to the snake. Fortunately, cobras do not have an appetite
for people since they are too large for them to swallow. That is why cobras
generally avoid any contact with people and prefer mice, frogs, lizards,
small fish, birds and eggs of birds, etc.
Although the snake is one
of the most feared creatures, snake charmers say its venom is very beneficial
in healing patients. The venom is never produced in the fangs of the snake.
Generally the venom is produced into the glands, which are located in the
head of the snakes. The most helping use of the snake venom is the creation
of anti-venom which is created from snake venom itself, thus resulting in
saving thousands of life a month.
According to snake
charmers, snake venom is used in the treatment of breast cancer as well as
for stroke victims and it can help in heart attack treatment too. Venom is
also used in medicines for blood pressure.
According to Hakim Jogi,
the most precious gift a snake charmer can give to his daughter on her
wedding is Manka (Snake-stone). This Manka is black stone of magical
qualities and snake charmers and other magicians come from all over the
subcontinent to get one of those. One attributed quality of the Manka is that
it can nullify the effect of even the most
bites. An injury inflicted by a venomous creature should be immersed in warm
water or sour milk. The snake-stone is then dropped into the liquid to
supposedly draw out the poison.
“If the snake bites any
part of your body just put the Manka on the stung place. It would suck all
the venom and the life of the stung one could be saved,” said Hakim.
The bags that snake
charmers carry are unique in many ways. The design on the border of the bag
is made with the help of several pieces of colourful cloth that are sewn
together. This is usually called applique work or art. The snake charmers'
bag is usually a square-shaped piece of cloth whose borders are made firm by
sewing several layers of cotton or linen together.
When asked how they make
the incredibly gaudy bags that hang on their shoulders, Hakim answered that
the women of his community take care of that department.“The rallis,
turbans and bags are made by our women. They sew leftover scraps of cloth
together and embellish them further with beads and buttons. The bag usually
contains the money we earn from performances.”
He says that they usually
earn Rs 50-60 for one show which lasts no longer than seven to eight minutes.
His audience mostly comprises children.
It is quite normal to see snake charmers wandering in the streets with
their colourful bulging bags hanging from their shoulders. These charmers
usually wear very colourful costumes, comprising a turban and long shirt (kurta)
and have mostly long hair tied in a bun.
While admiring a snake
charmer in action, one cannot keep one's eyes off the orange coloured turban,
brown and white necklaces made of beads and shells, which are their
speciality. The snake charmer's turban is one of the distinctive elements of
his attire. It is a tall, wrapped headdress that completely covers the back
of the head. One can observe large rings on his ears and steel bangles on the
The snakes are kept in
boxes, colourful bags and earthen pots and snake charmers carry these from
one place to another or get stationed in one town for months and then move to
a new area.
The pungi or been is a wind
instrument played by snake charmers. It has only two reed pipes, known as the
jivala. The shehnai, a musical instrument that adds colours to the wedding
ceremonies, is an improved version of pungi.
The pungi is played by snake charmers mainly during street
performances. Pungis come in two varieties, one made of gourd (Kaddu), and
the other made of coconut shells.
Snake charmers generally
use pungis made of gourd. However, this material is very delicate and there
is always a risk of it breaking at the joints with the flute-like pipe.
Pungis made of gourd often produce better quality sound than the ones made
with coconut shells. Pungis made with coconut shells are stronger and last
longer. However, the sound they produce is of low quality and it’s used
mainly by hobbyists not professionals.