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The groups who practise snake-charmingare known as Sapera or Gardi and in the Martha Districts as Madri. Another name for them is Ng-Nathi, or one who seizes a cobra. They keep cobras, pythons, scorpions, and the iguana or large lizard, which they consider to be poisonous. Some of them when engaged with their snakes wear two pieces of tiger-skin on their back and chest, and a cap of tiger-skin in which they fix the eyes of various birds. They have a hollow gourd on which they produce a kind of music and this is supposed to charm the snakes. When catching a cobra they pin its head to the ground with a stick and then seize it in a cleft bamboo and prick out the poison-fangs with a large needle. They think that the teeth of the iguana are also poisonous and they knock them out with a stick, and if fresh teeth afterwards grow they believe them not to contain poison. The python is called Ajgar, which is said to mean eater of goats. In captivity the pythons will not eat of themselves, and the snake-charmers chop up pieces of meat and fowls and placing the food in the reptile’s mouth massage it down the body. They feed the pythons only once in four or five days. They have antidotes for snake-bite, the root of a creeper called kalip?r and the bark of the karheya tree. When a patient is brought to them they give him a little pepper, and if he tastes the pungent flavour they think that he has not been affected by snake-poison, but if it seems tasteless that he has been bitten. Then they give him small pieces of the two antidotes already mentioned with tobacco and 2½ leaves of the n?m tree which is sacred to Devi. On the festival of Ng-Panchmi (Cobra’s Fifth) they worship their cobras and give them milk to drink and then take them round the town or village and the people also worship and feed the snakes and give a present of a few annas to the Sapera. In towns much frequented by cobras, a special adoration is paid to them. Thus in Hatta in the Damoh District a stone image of a snake, known as Ng-Bba or Father Cobra is worshipped for a month before the festival of Ng-Panchmi. During this period one man from every house in the village must go to Ng-Bba’s shrine outside and take food there and come back. And on Ng-Panchmi the whole town goes out in a body to pay him reverence, and it is thought that if any one is absent the cobras will harass him for the whole year. But others say that cobras will only bite men of low caste. The Saperas will not kill a snake as a rule, but occasionally it is said that they kill one and cut off the head and eat the body, this being possibly an instance of eating the divine animal at a sacrificial meal. The following is an old account of the performances of snake-charmers in Bengal.
“Hence, on many occasions throughout the year, the dread Manasa Devi, the queen of snakes, is propitiated by presents, vows and religious rites. In the month of Shrbana the worship of the snake goddess is celebrated with great éclat. An image of the goddess, seated on a water-lily, encircled with serpents, or a branch of the snake-tree (a species of Euphorbia), or a pot of water, with images of serpents made of clay, forms the object of worship. Men, women and children, all offer presents to avert from themselves the wrath of the terrific deity. The Mls or snake-catchers signalise themselves on this occasion. Temporary scaffolds of bamboo work are set up in the presence of the goddess. Vessels filled with all sorts of snakes are brought in. The Mls, often reeling with intoxication, mount the scaffolds, take out serpents from the vessels, and allow them to bite their arms. Bite after bite succeeds; the arms run with blood; and the Mls go on with their pranks, amid the deafening plaudits of the spectators. Now and then they fall off from the scaffold and pretend to feel the effects of poison, and cure themselves by their incantations. But all is mere pretence. The serpents displayed on the occasion and challenged to do their worst, have passed through a preparatory state. Their fangs have been carefully extracted from their jaws. But most of the vulgar spectators easily persuade themselves to believe that the M?ls are the chosen servants of Siva and the favourites of Manasa. Although their supernatural pretensions are ridiculous, yet it must be confessed that the M?ls have made snakes the subject of their peculiar study. They are thoroughly acquainted with their qualities, their dispositions, and their habits. They will run down a snake into its hole, and bring it out thence by main force. Even the terrible cobra is cowed down by the controlling influence of a M?l. When in the act of bringing out snakes from their subterranean holes, the M?ls are in the habit of muttering charms, in which the names of Manasa and Mah?deva frequently occur; superstition alone can clothe these unmeaning words with supernatural potency. But it is not inconsistent with the soundest philosophy to suppose that there may be some plants whose roots are disagreeable to serpents, and from which they instinctively turn away. All snake-catchers of Bengal are provided with a bundle of the roots of some plant which they carefully carry along with them, when they set out on their serpent-hunting expeditions. When a serpent, disturbed in its hole, comes out furiously hissing with rage, with its body coiled, and its head lifted up, the Ml has only to present before it the bundle of roots above alluded to, at the sight of which it becomes spiritless as an eel. This we have ourselves witnessed more than once.” These Mls appear to have been members of the aboriginal Mle or Mle Pahria tribe of Bengal.