- by Nisar Khokhar
"When a jackal turns 100 years old, it emits a particular substance called
"scent of a jackal" said the jogi. "Our elders can identify that jackal through
his changed voice and smell. Not very many jogis have access to the smell but I
can give it to you," he continued. "It will empower you to command your beloved
according to your wishes," he added. The jogi then sold the man a few red hairs
from the jackal for 200 rupees. Through such enigmatic tales and emphatic
statements, Jogis charm their ways into people's lives.
The growing shortage of forests and snakes has forced jogis to change their way
of life. Jogis have been wandering through the deserts in search of snakes for
centuries, a task and tradition they continue today. A jogi leads a risky life
as he carries at least two to three snakes with him all the time. "A genuine
jogi is never afraid of snakes, because a snake would not bite a true jogi,"
said Missri Jogi of Umar Kot.
The customs and traditions of jogis are based on several myths. All the jogis
are devotees of Lord Gogo Chohan, a mythical spiritual leader. "He was our
murshid," Kalu jogi says with reverence. "He handed us the power to enslave all
snakes. He used to sleep over a bed of snakes every night and cut the heads of
all the snakes in the morning." According to another myth, Gogo had the power to
suck the poison out of snakes using his eyes. Gogo Chohan was attacked by a
violent lundi, a poisonous snake common in Sindh, so Jogis are still afraid of
the lundi, as they believe it to be an infidel and as responsible for
the death of their Lord. Therefore, they do not risk their lives to charm a
Another myth related to Gogo Chohan surrounds an old river, a tale jogis narrate
quite often: Gogo Chohan went to capture a great python with his murlee but the
python escaped into the sea and created a river belt wherever he moved. The old
river belt 'Hakro' is said to be the work of that python. It is spread over five
districts of Sindh but is not used for irrigation purposes. "Hakro River comes
from Rajasthan and Punjab and goes from Sindh to Gujarat," said Abdul Qadir
Junejo, a noted writer. "Jogis still follow that path in search of snakes." When
a boy is born to a family of jogis, a few drops of snake poison are given to
him, as they believe it to be an "anti-snake bite vaccine". They also believe
that it improves his ability to catch the scent of snakes.
Jogis are not considered gypsies since they settled in Umarkot, Jhimpeer and
Rohri. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was Prime Minister, he allotted them plots to
establish the Jogi colony at Umarkot. Their lives have changed ever since. Their
children are now enrolled in the colony's primary school; a few jogi boys have
opted for government services and one can find teachers and clerks within the
jogi community. However, majorities of the jogis still lead a traditional way of
life. A jogi boy will not be able to marry if he cannot capture snakes, as it is
seen as a test of maturity and manhood. When a woman marries, she receives a
snake, a dog and Mann (anti-snake bite substance) in her dowry. Jogis sell
Mann to snake bite victims and guide them on its proper usage. The victim is
supposed to put the Mann in cotton, serve it with milk twice a month and is
forbidden from touching it when one is napaak (impure).
Jogis are comprised of both Hindus and Muslims; the Hindu jogis are still true
to their old ways whereas Muslim jogis have changed a lot. "Back in the old
days, jogis used to travel from Kolkata to Peshawar," said Junejo. The
boundaries forced them to stay in one place, otherwise they used to be like
birds, moving from one location to another without any passports. "We used to
slip through sand dunes looking for snakes but now they have built barbed wire
walls," said Jawahar Jogi."Snakes can slip through wires but we can't."
Jogis now extensively travel through Pakistan's arid zones. They go looking for
snakes in the desert areas of Cholistan, Thar and Kohistan in the summer.
"Snakes would never come out of their holes during the cold weather," said a
senior jogi in Umarkot. "We wait until April when hot temperatures force them
When the jogi senses the presence of a snake, he uses a murlee to attract it. As
the snake comes out of the bushes the jogi pushes the stick, which has an iron
belt at the tip, to get hold of the snake's neck. As the snake opens its mouth,
the jogi dexterously pulls out the poison that is hidden in a small bag behind
the top teeth, with a pair of chamtas (iron tongs). "When a snake is drawn in
the circle, in the name of Pir Dastgeer, we offer him an oath of lord Gogo using
our murlee. If the snake is a believer, he will come into that
circle obediently," said Jawahar Lal Jogi.
The cobra, although poisonous, is the easiest of preys, as it will never attack
unless provoked. Jogis hold a cobra in high respect and feed it goat milk every
night. They have attached several myths to the cobra, which are now part of
their folk stories. "Kareehar (cobra) is a Sufi snake. According to one myth, if
you kill his partner, he will seek revenge. Apparently it visualizes the image
of its partner's killer and will travel hundreds and thousands of miles in
search of the killer. The cobra will spit poison in the milk or hide in the
shoes when the killer is asleep because the snake cannot reach the sleeping cot
or bed," said one jogi.
Jogi women do not catch and charm snakes. But they are great craftswomen and
embroider bags for the men to carry their snakes and take care of all the chores
when jogis are out working. Some women will beg in villages and cities and use
snakes for begging. "The fact that they are now confined to living in one place
has taken its toll. Jogis have not yet digested the lifestyle brought about by
settling in one place," said Khursheed Qaimkhani, a gypsy writer.
The virtues and qualities of jogis, once praised by poets, are vanishing fast.
According to Qaimkhani, social and economic stress has forced jogis to change
their ways. Whatever changes time may inflict upon them, the murlee and snake
will always be symbols of a jogi. As the poetry of Bhagat Kabeer attracts a
jogi, the murlee attracts a snake. Some of the jogis have played murlee at
international concerts and Foto Jogi, Iqbal Jogi and Missri Jogi have come up
with new ways of playing. It seems difficult for jogis to let go of a 8000-year-
old tradition along with its customs but time has put jogis under pressure
and it is rewriting their destinies-- creating new myths and omens for them.