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The heat started to get to me that day on the trail to the waterfall on the hills around Manali (northern India). I could feel the noon sun bite the back of my neck and the uncomfortable sting of sweat in my eyes. The views in the Summer heat though were enchanting with pine forest, rich green hills and rocky outcrops to admire. There was also the occasional small challenge on my path from “holy cows” laughably determined to block my way forward. Suddenly though, somewhere ahead, a sound unexpected, caught me off guard. The eerie repetitive notes of a Pungi drifted and curled in the air and beckoned my curiosity from somewhere not far off on my trail. I knew the sound was no ordinary one as the Pungi, in India, is a snake charmer’s tool.

Cow, no doubt a holy one in the hills around Manali.
Cow, no doubt a holy one in the hills around Manali.

A few twists and turns ahead on my path and I broke through to an opening where indeed, I found a fakir practicing his charming art. There were two baskets in front of him and only one open from which a small brown hooded cobra swayed and danced to the snake charmer’s tune. I stared at the spectacle with awe, almost in a trance myself. Such bravado was rarely displayed in my part of the world. Actually, the times I ever encountered a snake in the wild were very few back home.

The charmer noticed my mesmerised gaze and motioned me to come closer. Like the cobra under his spell I obeyed and shuffled by his side.

In my school days, as a lad, I read of far away lands and would sometimes reflect upon the marvels of nature I was thought about. I boyishly wondered of things such as sharks in the barrier reefs, the pay load capacity of a condor and the likely winner of a fight between lion and tiger. There were also pressing questions about snakes and their bites.

Suddenly one of those schoolboy queries, specifically from the snakes and venom department, came thundering back to my mind. Finally there was a chance for a long awaited answer!

“Sir, what do you do if you get bitten by one of your cobras?” I asked with a beam.

The charmer stopped playing his pipe and looked at me with a smile.

“I have my own remedy here in my bag” he replied.

“Have you ever been bitten? I enquired.

“Yes, several times”.

“Can I see the remedy, Sir?” I asked with excitement expecting some kind of magic like potion, a concoction of herbs and maybe animal parts, too.

The charmer opened his black sack, rummaged for a while and handed me a worn looking book. Quickly he resumed his snake charming antics on the brown cobra in front of him. The animal danced a metre or so from me and for a second or two I looked the snake in the eyes. Somehow I knew I was in no real danger and with a hint of disdain I opened the book that I had been handed.

It was a photo album. Pictures of family including parents, siblings, cousins and friends. The charmer had pictures of himself in Hindu shrines, meditating inside temples and embracing holy men. Nice, but clearly this was no remedy for a snake bite let alone the venom of a cobra.
“Interesting pictures Sir, but the rem…..”

I had hardly finished the sentence that the charmer grabbed a basket from behind his back and forced it into my hands. Like a flash the cover came off and the Pungi started to whine. I watched as the inevitable unfolded. The hooded head of a cobra emerged and extended out of the box. The flustered snake glanced and darted its tongue at me briefly and then adjusted its sights on the charmer.

The only thing I could think of though was that all this was a ploy to avoid the answer to my burning question. The boy inside me was raging. I would not pass on the chance of a lifetime for a real answer on what a snake charmer does when bitten by his own snake, not even a dancing cobra within striking distance was gonna stop me.

Poisonous snakes?
Poisonous snakes?

“Yes, really nice..ehh….what do we do if the snake bites?” I asked still with basket in hand.

For my insolence the charmer opened another box from behind his back, fumbled inside with his hand and pulled out one more reptile that he placed gently around my neck. I hoped there and then it might be a harmless python but at the time I couldn’t be sure. Steve, my hiking buddy that day, took a picture of my sorry state with cobra and adorning living necklace.
At this point I figured it was best to stop asking questions.
Slowly the snake charmer ran out of breath and put down his flute like instrument. The cobra relaxed and fell back into its basket which was then taken from my hands. The snake on my neck was next to go back in its box.
With the threat of venom gone I turned my gaze back to the snake charmer’s eyes. He smiled and knew that my question was coming again.

“Sir, the remedy for snake bites?” I insisted with a smile.

“Ah, yes”.  The poor man rummaged in his black sack once again and produced a piece of pink polished clay-stone about the size of a grown man’s thumb. He handed it to me and said:

“When I get bitten by cobra I rub this stone on the wound and after two or three hours everything is well”.

I looked at the small rock in disbelief. There, the mystery was solved. Finally, my boyish desire to know was satisfied. Now, I had the truth!

So, what to make of it?

So my friends, it certainly doesn’t take a background in geology to figure out the reality behind the appearance.

Many snakes used by snake charmers have been mutilated. Their poison glands ripped from inside them and their venomous fangs filled with wax. Occasionally the mouths of these poor creatures are sowed shut with thin fishing line and in extreme cases the snakes are not even fed while in the custody of their charmers.
I am by no means implying that there are no real snake charmers out there doing the real snake charming thing. Nor am I saying that all snake charmers are charlatans. What I am suggesting though, is that those who resort to a lump of clay to cure unlikely poisonous cobra bites, most probably are.

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