Snake Charmers Or Puppet Shows?

   In India, my first journey through this country was linked to a dream to meet a real snake charmer, just like the one that had lived in my imagination since childhood, based on legends, stories, photographs and dreams. I could hardly wait to set eyes upon a real Indian who’d trained a living snake. One fine day when travelling, I really did meet one and very special he was too.

   Strolling through Fatehpur Sikri, a tourist attraction near Agra and the former capital of the Mughal Empire, I sat down near the Royal Palace in the shadow of a wall to catch my breath. Amidst the everyday Indian sounds, I could hear what sounded like a flute and upon searching for the source I discovered an old man on the other side of the street. He was sitting cross-legged on a spread out carpet and had a mystical aura as if he’d risen from the Vedas. Over the years, his body and clothing had merged into one, giving him an authentic look. His orange turban stood out in bright contrast to the beige backdrop of the street scene; just like his whitish-grey full beard against the deep brown skin of his face and accentuated, crayoned eyes. Under a brown waistcoat, he wore a yellow robe that covered his crossed legs like a tablecloth. A chain made from wooden balls about the size of marbles hung around his neck, reaching down to his stomach. He held an elongated instrument with a mouthpiece, resembling a flute and had covered some of its holes with his fingers, playing the Pungi with thick, puffed-out cheeks, coaxing the typically nasal, sharp sound from this traditional single-reed instrument.

   His actions were attracting a group of what looked like western tourists. In the meantime, the snake charmer had lifted the lid on a rattan basket placed just in front of his legs and set it aside. In hopeful excitement, I was sure that my Indian dream cherished since childhood was about to come true and in just a few moments a cobra would spiral upwards from inside the basket. It would dance gracefully to the flute, its neck spread, just as in the picture I had of a genuine Indian snake charmer in my mind’s eye. However, the mysticism in my imagination was clouded by the reality I’d learned during my travels through India, that snakes are deaf by nature. This means they don’t react to music and yet they can curiously “dance” because the snake dozing inside the dark basket is dazzled and stimulated by daylight when the lid is lifted. In a state of anger, it homes in on the first moving object – the dancing tip of the flute - which the drowsy snake views as a potential opponent. It assumes a defensive stance, poised to bite, or so the theory goes. Now back to events in Fatehpur Sikri.

  •    Meanwhile, the tourist group had noticed the attention-seeking snake charmer and had stopped a few steps away. They had their cameras at the ready, poised in curious anticipation of what the Indian had to show them. To my amazement and that of the tourists, no snake emerged from the basket. Instead, the old man reached deep inside with his bare hand! He was clearly not worried in the slightest about being bitten by the snake that was probably inside. I tensely held my breath. Those crucial moments were like being at the circus when a drum roll propels the thrill of the moment towards a climax. The moment of uncertainty passed and the old man finally pulled his arm out of the basket again, miraculously unscathed. Awareness slowly dawned. In true snake-charmer style, he still held the Pungi with his other hand, playing it with puffed out cheeks – but what was he holding? Between the fingers of the hand he’d just pulled from the basket was a snake, grasped by the neck – and this is true, I saw it with my own eyes! – gracefully dancing to the sound of the flute. Its head was swaying to and fro to the music. It was stunning, magically surprising and absurd at the same time.

       A brilliant performance, just like an Augsburger-Puppenkiste10 puppet show. The only difference being that the snake’s head and body, unlike the half-dragon Nepomuk, weren’t suspended from strings. The puppet wasn’t being controlled by an actor using a wooden cross driven by gravity and the laws of the pendulum. No, here in India’s Fatehpur Sikri, the snake was being controlled directly by the improvised talent and dexterity of an old Indian man. I was both inspired and grateful! This extraordinary snake charmer had not only fulfilled my childhood dreams and fantasies but had far exceeded them.

    Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh, India, November 2002
    Stephan Thiemonds©
    "359° - Worker, Writer, World-Traveller"