The snake charmers who survived all the odds against them

The term ‘Kalbelia’ is made up of two words, ‘Kaal’ and ‘Belia’. Kaal means death, denoting poison, and Belia means bowl. Some historians also believe that Kaal is associated with Mahakaal or Lord Shiva and Belia is associated with Nandi, Lord Shiva’s bull, hence the word Kalbelia, a community that worships snakes.

The Kalbelia community is also believed to come from one of the followers of Navnath or Sage Kanifnath who lived in the Thar deserts of Rajasthan in the 12th century. Following mythological stories, Sage Gorakhnath once decided to test Kaifnath, one of his disciples. He handed Kanifnath a bowl of poison which he drank without a moment’s pause.

Pleased by his disciple’s obedience, Sage Gorakhnath blessed Kaifnath with a boon to have complete control over poisonous animals, including snakes. Therefore, the followers of the sage Kanifnath, who drank the bowl of poison, are called Kalbelia. His followers have the right to beg for a living. It is a very old tradition in India to beg and give charity. The Kalbelia community adhered to this custom for a long time.

Whatever the origins of Kalbelias, one thing is clear: his profession is associated with snakes. Catching snakes, protecting people from poisonous reptiles, treating snake bites and trading snake venom are part of the traditional business of the Kalbelia community.

There are two sub-castes of the Kalbelia community, also known as Sapera, Sapela Jogi, Gatiwala, Poogiwara and also Banjara. The language spoken by them is called Sapera.

According to the Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, the 12th and 13th centuries were the golden ages of the Kalbelia community. But after the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan by Muhammad Ghori, the community began to fade away. During the 14th century, due to fear of conversion and forced slavery, the Kalbelia community migrated from Rajasthan to other parts of the country like Malwa in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. However, despite all the adversities, the community continued with its traditional occupation for many years.

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Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Kalbelia were summoned to the Mughal court to entertain the rulers through their snake exploits and the traditional Kalbelia dance. The people of the community are nomadic and therefore keep moving from one village to another. They usually stay on the outskirts of town in their temporary homes called Dera.

In the Kalbelia community, it is compulsory for a family member to work as sapper, a snake charmer. They keep the snakes in bamboo baskets and go from door to door showing off their skills while their women beg for alms by performing their traditional dance.

Despite being Hindus, the Kalbelia do not burn, but instead bury their dead and install an idol of Shiva’s Nandi bull over their graves.

In 1972, the Indian government enacted the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 which imposes a blanket ban on capturing and domesticating wild animals. Due to the ban, Kalbelias had no choice but to stop his traditional occupation involving snakes and their poison. Since then they have adopted dance and music as their main occupation to earn a living in which the women of the community have a great contribution.

Gulaabo Sapera gave a new identity and recognition to Kalbelia dance in India and abroad. The dance form is known as Kalbelia dance throughout the world. In recognition of her contribution to the sapper dance, the Government of India honored Gulabo Sapera with the Padma Shree Award in 2016.

Therefore, the Kalbeilia community protected the society from poisonous animals and gave their dance form a new recognition throughout the world. Today, to see and learn the traditional dance form, Kalbelia people from far and wide visit Rajasthan and boost tourism and employment opportunities in the state. Phrases like Ramta Jogi and Behta Paani perfectly capture the essence of community life.

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