Snake festival charms villages in East India

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Hundreds of people queued in a remote village in eastern India over the weekend to receive blessings from metres-long and potentially deadly snakes, thought to bring them good luck.

Snake charmers clapped and beat colourful drums to lure their "prized catches" out of wicker baskets and clay pots, as part of an annual festival in the village of Purba Bishnupur in West Bengal state.

"It is an art to make the snakes come out of their boxes and baskets," Hyder Mal, a 46-year-old snake charmer taking part in the festival told AFP on Saturday.

The snakes, considered by the locals as incarnations of the Hindu snake goddess Manasa, swayed to the rhythm and motion of their handlers as the villagers drew closer.

Every year, people from the area gather in the green village some 85 kilometres (52 miles) from the state capital Kolkata, to honour and pray to Manasa.

The goddess is believed to bring good luck ahead of the harvest season and also ward off troubles in this mainly agricultural belt.

Mal, a father of six, appears at ease as he handles a long golden-brown cobra while urging the crowd gathered around to donate freely.

"Business has gone down for us. People want to take blessings from the snakes but are stingy when it comes to paying up," he complained.

Mal, who owns six large serpents, reminisces of the time when business was roaring, mainly because of the demand for venom used to treat snake bites.

"Now we are living a life of penury. Synthetic venom is what is used now. The government does not care about us," said Mal.

"I wouldn't want any of my children to carry on with our family tradition," he added.

Charmers have long been a favourite with tourists in India. But their numbers dwindled after the government strengthened laws in 2002 proscribing the commercial use of wild animals, including performances with live snakes.

The legislation emptied most cities of charmers, although they can still be found in rural areas, and also around major tourist sites, risking arrest as they try to cajole visitors into taking a photo for a small fee.

Animal rights activists accuse snake charmers of cruelly capturing the serpents in suffocating bags and yanking their teeth out or sewing their mouths shut so that they don't bite.

Mal and other snake charmers were quick to refute the charges.

"For us snakes are gods. We worship snakes, we would never want them to suffer," said a 60-year-old charmer, who did not want to be identified.

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