The snake charmer’s deadly secret

By Frederic Friedel

Snake charmer is a ubiquitous profession in India. You see them in every city, men with two or three small round wicker baskets which contain snakes, and a lot of paraphernalia to show or sell on the side.

This is in Bombay in the 1970s: a snake charmer performing his show on a main street
And that is me, in the green batique shirt, around the same time, interfering in a snake charmer’s act

I have a background with snakes. My father was, among other things, a herpetologist — a German who during the War had been interned in a snake-infested prisoner-of-war camp in India and, working with an eminent expert, had used the time to study snakes (and actually helped develop anti-venom). But all that is another story for another time.

Anyway some of my childhood was spent in a remote research station, roaming the Indian jungles in search of food — lizards, small rodents — for my father’s snakes. Occasionally I would catch one myself, a snake, and was well able to handle them. Also equipped with knowledge of the various species (especially the poisonous ones).

I have been living in Germany since my late teens, studied philosophy here in Hamburg, and became a science journalist working for German TV. In this capacity, and because I still had connections to India, I visited the country quite often. And there were many encounters with snake charmers.

This is a typical snake charmer doing a private performance for us. The small round wicker basket contains a snake, on it is the trademark coconut violin, in front of him a flute he uses to “charm” the snake and equipment for the magic show he performs on the side. Yes, the latter includes cup-and-ball.
At some stage, after showing a trick or two, he gets to the basket, which he blows mysteriously into.
The wicker basket contains a full-grown cobra, a particularly beautiful specimen of the Naja naja species.
He has no problem handling the snake, which in its natural state is quite dangerous.
I want to find out if the snake has its fangs and its venom sacs. Naja naja has very potent neuro and cardiotoxins.
On a different occasion I was able to witness the defanging and de-sacing of a cobra.
Once the cobra has been rendered harmless it will cease to eat (which it will do in any case) and die after a month or two. Not a problem — these people are very adept at catching snakes and there is still a good supply available.
Once the show is over the snake charmer wants to sell his wares. I can never resist buying a single-string coconut violin.

Well, one of the things that was of great interest to me was how this snake charmer avoided getting bitten, and what he did if he had an accident. I offered him a lot of money if he revealed his secret, which he gladly did: “This root, you chew it and it will make you vomit, and that removes all the poison from your body. Just ten rupees for it.” I told him that was nonsense and assured him that I was not stupid. “Okay, the secret is this snake stone. You place it on the bite and it will suck out the poison. Stick out your tongue and I will show you.” I dutifully did and he placed the snake stone on it. It stuck to my tongue and I had to pry it off.

I bought a couple of “snake stones”. On closer examination they turned out to be polished buffalo horn, which is porous and will hydrostatically stick to a wet surface like your tongue.
My snake charmer friend, Said Huisein, had a certificate to show that his snake bite cure was effective.
The investigator from Callison College playing a flute to “charm” the perfectly deaf cobar, with Said Huisuin and his brother, also a professional snake charmer, watch.

I used all my powers of persuasion, and a fair amount of cash, to try to find out the snake charmer’s secret. It went over multiple encounters. But all I got was tall tales and magic potions. In the end I had to come to the conclusion that his secret simply lay in not getting bitten! He was not a young man, and in fact worked with a brother who was considerably older. I believe these snake charmers have absolutely no defense against snake venom. They are simply very good at handling reptiles.

The older brother handling a cobra — defanged or not I do not know. You couldn’t believe anything they told you.
I visited the brothers at their home and made a sensational discovery: they actually had a King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah). This species is the world’s largest venomous snake and can reach a length of 18 feet (5½ meters).

The tragedy of superstition

Now comes the harrowing part of this narrative. On a different trip to India I was in the city of Bangalore — today the technological center of the country. I was told about a police officer who was a “snake catcher”: if anyone saw a snake in the garden he would be called to remove it.

I visited the police station where he worked and spent a while chatting with him. He was full of stories about the snakes he had caught and removed in the thirty years he had been doing this. I was not impressed with his zoological expertise. For instance he told me there were dozens of species of poisonous snakes — actually there are only four, five if you count the very rare King Cobra. But I asked him to call me and take me along if there was a case of snake removal in the next few weeks. I had a motorcycle and would come at any time to watch him work. He was very honored by my interest and promised to do so.

A week later we opened the Deccan Herald newspaper and found a report of the demise of the police officer. He had been bitten by a snake he was trying to remove from the garden of a villa in Bangalore. I immediately went to the scene of the accident and spoke with the owners who had called him. They described what had transpired.

Apparently they had seen a snake in the garden in the early hours and called the police officer. He had come over immediately and found it hiding in an outhouse. It was a full-grown cobra, and he caught it and put it in a sack — but he had been bitten in the process. The house owner wanted to drive him to the hospital for treatment, but he had declined. “I have my own remedy,” he said, and pulled out a snake stone. He placed it on the two fang marks on his arm, sat down cross-legged on the lawn, smiling and sipping at a coffee they had brought him — and then calmly died.

I made some further inquiries and spoke with his colleagues at the police station. They told me the call had come at 6:30 a.m. and he had considered calling me, but had decided it was “too early to disturb the European gentleman.” That was his death sentence: if I had been present I would have cut open the wound and sucked out as much of the poison as possible (as I had learned from my father and subsequent snake experts). And I would have forced him into the car and rushed him to hospital. No way I would have let him sit there with the silly “snake stone” on the wound.

I have come to the following conclusion: like my snake charmer friends this police officer had had only one defense against snake venom: don’t get bitten. Nothing else. In thirty years of handling snakes he had never had an accident — until that fateful morning when he did not call me.