What the snake-charmer is by race or origin ethnologists may determine when they have done with the gipsy. He is not a Hindu. No particular part of the country acknowledges him as its native. He is to the great races, castes, and creeds of India what the waif is to the billows of the sea. His language, in public at least, is Hindustanee, but this is a sort of lingua franca, the common property of all the inhabitants of the country. His religion is probably one of the many forms of demon worship which grow rank on the fringes of Hinduism. He must be classed, no doubt, with the other wandering tribes which roam the country, camping under umbrellas, or something little better, each consecrated to some particular form of common crime, and each professing some not in itself dishonest occupation, like the tinkering of gipsies.
But the snake-charmer is the best known and most widely spread of them all. By occupation he is a professor of three occult sciences. First, he is a juggler, and in this art he has some skill. His masterpiece is the famous mango trick, which consists in making a miniature mango tree grow up in a few minutes, and even blossom and bear fruit, out of some bare spot which he has covered with his mysterious basket. It has been written about by travellers in extravagant terms of astonishment and admiration, but, as generally performed, is an extremely clumsy-looking trick, though it is undoubtedly difficult to guess how it is done. A more blood-curdling feat is to put the unclothed and precocious imp aforementioned under a large basket, and then run a sword savagely through and through every corner of it, and draw it out covered with gore. When the sickened spectators are about to lynch the murderer, the imp runs in smiling from the garden gate.
The connection between these performances and the man's second trade, namely, snake-charming, is not obvious to a Western mind; but it must be remembered that the snake-charmer is not a mere, vulgar juggler, amusing people with sleight-of-hand. His feats are miracles, performed with the assistance of superior powers. In short, he is a theosophist, only his converse is not with excorporated Mahatmas from Thibet, but with spirits of another grade, whose Superior has been known from very remote antiquity as an Old Serpent. In deference to this respectable connection the cobra holds a distinguished place even in orthodox Hinduism. So it is altogether fit that a performer of wonders should be on intimate terms with the serpent tribe. The snake-charmer keeps all sorts of them, but chiefly cobras. These he professes to charm from their holes by playing upon an instrument which may have some hereditary connection with the bagpipe, for it has an air-reservoir consisting of a large gourd, and it makes a most abominable noise. As soon as the cobra shows itself the charmer catches it by the tail with one hand, and, running the other swiftly along its body, grips it firmly just behind the jaws, so that it cannot turn and bite. Practice and coolness make this an easy feat. Then the poison fangs are pulled out with a pair of forceps and the cobra is quite harmless. It is kept in a round, flat basket, out of which, when the charmer removes the lid and begins to play, it raises its graceful head, and, expanding its hood, sways gently in response to the music.
Scientific men aver that a snake has no ears and cannot possibly hear the strains of the pipe, but that sort of science simply spoils a picturesque subject like the snake-charmer. So much is certain, that all snakes cannot be played upon in this way: there are some species which are utterly callous to the influences to which the cobra yields itself so readily. No missionary will find any difficulty in getting a snake-charmer to appreciate that Scripture text about the deaf adder which will not listen to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.
To these two occupations the snake-charmer adds that of a medicine man, for who should know the occult potencies of herbs and trees so well as he? So, as he wanders from village to village, he is welcomed as well as feared. But one wealthy tourist is worth more to him than a whole village of ryots, so he keeps his eye on every town in which he is likely to fall in with the travelling white man. And the travelling white man would be sorry to miss him, for he is one of the few relics of an ancient state of things which railways and telegraphs and the Educational Department have left unchanged.
The itinerant jeweller and the Sind-work-box-walla are unmistakably being left behind as the East hurries after the West, and we shall soon know them no more. Showy shops, where the inexperienced traveller may see all the products of Sind and Benares, and Cutch and Cashmere, spread before him at fixed prices, are multiplying rapidly and taking the bread from the mouth of the poor hawker. But the snake-charmer seems safe from that kind of competition. It is difficult to forecast a time when a broad signboard in Rampart Row will invite the passer-by to visit Mr. Nagshett's world-renowned Serpent Tamasha, Mungoose and Cobra Fight, Mango-tree Illusion, etc. Entrance, one rupee.