Charming snakes, though totally alien and perhaps horrific to Westerners, is an ancient and venerated tradition in India, dating from the third century B.C. , and in Egypt, where mention of it appears in the early Book of the Dead.
The “snakers” (as they like to be called) in India regard themselves as a distinct caste, with spiritual beliefs integrally bound up with the snakes.
They begin their training at the age of five or six, learning to handle snakes and to develop snake charming as an art, a way of life, and, most important of all, the means of carrying on the sacred traditions of their forefathers.
Adult snakers, all of them male, have no other source of livelihood. They therefore plan their performances to have as much impact as possible on audiences, whose donations tend to be larger when the danger seems considerable.
The favorite snake to use is the cobra, famous for its dramatic arched position. The image passed down to us is of a turbaned man “charming” a snake with his flute and causing it to rise out of its basket. But snakes don’t have ears, and the cobra actually does not hear the flute at all.
The snaker lures the snake, or rather threatens it sufficiently to make it rise up in a wary position, not with music but with physical gestures. He may splatter cold water on the snake to alarm it and then blow his flute near enough that the air rushes annoyingly over the snake’s back. The flute is not like the conventional Western one but is rather a reed instrument with a gourd, two bamboo pipes, and occasionally a brass pipe.
The trick is to keep the snake interested enough to remain arched, yet not anger it so much that it strikes or runs away. The snaker may pass his hand before the snake’s head to keep its attention, or shift the instrument back and forth.
Other snakes, usually nonpoisonous ones, may be loose around the snaker, just to add to the show.