Print edition : November 05, 2004

The snake charmers of Nimo Malpara in West Bengal have formed a cooperative in the hope of getting financial assistance to start snake farms. But their plan is threatened by a road project, which may force them to return to their old wandering ways.

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY in Bardhaman Photographs: Parth Sanyal

NIMO MALPARA, 40 km from Bardhaman town, is a village of snake charmers (locally called shapures), and it has been so for several hundred years. Both young and old belonging to the 250 families inhabiting the village are adept at handling snakes, which they catch for a living. But, of late, the snake population in the region has declined rapidly, falling prey to the extensive use of insecticides in the rural areas. As a result, the shapures are forced to go all over the State, sometimes venturing even into Assam, to catch snakes.

A snake charmer extracts the venom gland of a viper. One of the extracted glands (white in colour) is near the knife blade on the wooden box.-

The shapures, who control the snakes with music and movement, go from town to town performing tricks with the venomous reptiles, while their families remain in the village. But they earn paltry amounts. Said Manoj Maal, the leader of the community: "Ours is a hand-to-mouth existence. On a good day, we earn up to Rs.50. It is also a very dangerous profession and many of us die of snake-bite. But it is the only trade we know."

Chandra Maal, 60, has been a snake charmer all his life. As a child he travelled with his father Kenaram, from whom he learnt the tricks of the trade. "Most of us never had the chance to get even the most basic education. It is only recently that we got to know that the poison of the snake is used for medicinal purposes,'' he told Frontline.

In Nino Malpara, around 600 gm of poison extracted from snakes is wasted every month. Despite knowing that the venom is used for medicinal purposes, the shapures can do little because they do not have the technology to preserve it. The venom, after extraction, retains its potency only for around 10 minutes. Said herpetologist Dipak Mitra: "The way to preserve the potency is to put the poison in a sealed vacuum dessicator attached to a calcium chloride jar, a phosphorous pentoxide jar and a vacuum pump. The resulting crystallised form of the poison will last for five years or more. But if exposed to sunlight and air, it will be of no use.''

At Nimo Malpara handling the snakes.-

The shapures extract the venom by removing the venom gland from the snake's mouth. They first grab the snake by its tail and shake it lightly (not hard, lest its back should break) to disorient it and then place it in a basket. The removal of the venom gland is done in a very primitive way, using a blade and a sharp bamboo stick wielded with a firm hand. An unsteady hand can kill the snake. After the gland is removed, medicine is applied to stop the bleeding and prevent infection. According to the shapures, the snake takes around three days to recover and it is fed live mice, frogs, fish and small birds. The Keute (monocled cobra), the Gokro (spectacled cobra), the Chandragora (Russell's viper), the Laudonga (vine snake), and the Kalnagini (ornamental or flying snake) are some of the varieties of snakes that are caught.

Asked about the cruelty involved in this trade, Manoj said: "We don't kill them. We depend on them for our existence. Slowly, they lose their fear of us and become a part of our lives." Although the poison is removed from the snakes, the fangs are not touched.

The treatment of snakebite is as primitive as the manner in which the venom is removed. The shapures, despite their expertise, get bitten, often in the hands or legs. The part of the body where the snake has struck is tied tightly in three places to prevent blood circulation. Then with a blade or a knife, cuts are made to let out the poisoned blood. This process goes on for a few hours. Salt and lemon are applied in the wound frequently to check for recoil sensations. It takes a shapure two weeks to recover fully.

A cobra bleeds after the extraction of its venom gland.-

The shapures want a different life for their children, who now go to the village school. Said Manoj: "This profession is too dangerous. I want my son to get an education and do something else with his life." But love of snakes seems to come naturally to the children. Sraban, 4, goes to school, but what he loves best is playing with the snakes his father and uncles catch. "I like to put one around my neck and take it out in the fields," he said.

The shapures believe that a better life is possible for them, with snakes. "Nobody knows more about snakes than we do. In fact that is all we know. With proper guidance and investment, we can even start a snake farm," said Chandra Maal. As a first step, the shapures have formed a cooperative with the promise of financial assistance from the Central Cooperative Bank in Bardhaman. Now they are waiting for clearance from the Forest Department.

Meanwhile, another crisis threatens to drive these people out of their homes. Nimo Malpara is one of the villages that may be consumed by the road development project that is under way. If the village is not relocated, the shapures may be forced to go back to their itinerant lifestyle. Only for the last 50 years this community had settled down in one place. "I do not remember the days of my grandfather," said Sajjan Maala, a young shapure, "but if they break down our houses, that means it is back to the wandering days of old."

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