Snake Charmers

Snake Charmers
- 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 lundi.

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 out."

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.