Snake Charmers in Sri Lanka

Text: Desiree Bilon     Photos: Sean Brody

I just got back to Mexico two days ago, after four and half months of being away (Canada and Sri Lanka). Last night I was walking down the sidewalk along my street thinking about how hot and humid it is here. About three feet in front of me something rapidly crossed the sidewalk, sideways. Illuminated by the pale glow of a street lamp, shaded by leaves, I could make out that it was a slithering snake. Could the skinny two footer have been a sidewinder?

Trudging up the beach with five local surfers, our surfboards and Sean’s camera gear, in search of waves for our photo shoot, we stumbled upon two snake charmers and their monkey. Two ragged wicker baskets, resembling tortilla holders, sat inconspicuously on the sand. One of the gypsies sat cross-legged, forming a triangle with the baskets. Off to the right the monkey jumped up and down, eyes darting in all directions. The other gypsy, with longer hair, stood about five steps back with a python dangling from his neck.

I told Sean, “I want to wear that snake”.  Sean looked at me as if I were crazy. I put my surfboard down, showing him I was serious.

Sean and I had teamed up to visit Sri Lanka’s East Coast in July of 2011. Because of our background in surf—mine was in writing and Sean’s was in photography—Sri Lanka Tourism invited us to check out and document the surf in the area of Arugam Bay.

Even though it was our first time working together, I felt like I had known Sean for a long time. Easy going and never in a hurry, his relaxed manner is as contagious as his laughter. His curiosity for people and places shines through not only his stories about distant lands but also in the way he interacts with people. Sean’s outlook on life is positive and he is fun to be around. The best part about Sean, though, is that he is hilarious.

The tall gypsy, with large dark eyes, sauntered towards us wearing the beige and olive green colored python. Without asking, he draped the heavy snake around my neck like a scarf. Even though I had held many snakes, it had been about seven years since the last time.  A shot of adrenalin surged through me but I calmed myself down. I have a theory about animals (and babies); they can sense your anxiety and will mirror your emotions. The best thing to do is just to remain calm.

I slid my hand along the scales in a downward motion. The snake felt smooth and dry. I remembered the first time I had touched a snake when I was about nine years old. My younger brother Brett took me to the pet store near our house. I remember expecting the three-foot snake to be slimy. I was pleasantly surprised by the texture of its skin.

Regardless of how much I enjoyed being around snakes, after a few minutes the six-foot python started to weigh heavily on my shoulders. Almost a decade ago, my brother had a boa constrictor. I remembered her being quite a bit lighter than this python. I turned to Sean.

“Do you want to give it a try?” I asked encouragingly.

“Sure,” Sean responded. I was surprised. Sean had told me earlier in the trip that he was not fond of snakes.

The tall gypsy gently removed the snake from around my neck and placed it around Sean. This was not Sean’s first time seeing a big snake, but it was the first time one having one draped around his neck.

“Whatever you do, don’t touch his head. Snakes hate that.” I advised.

I tried to imagine what this experience must have been like for Sean, his first time holding a massive and potentially dangerous snake. Sean was smiling but his staccato movements revealed his uneasiness. His whole body seemed to tremble slightly.

Later I asked Sean in an email about the thoughts he had while holding the snake. He responded:

I didn’t want anything to do with the snake, until a girl (you) had to show me up… “I love snakes!” she says. Make me look like a chump in front of the cool surfer dudes. I’ll hold a snake. You don’t think I ‘ll hold a snake?  I’ll hold a snake right now.

I was instantly reminded of the time I was on the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. I had taken the cable car up to the top and intended on repelling down the side of a cliff with a rope – a sketchy tourist attraction that sounded right up my alley.  I took one look over the ledge and thought, “Screw that! I’m not going down that cliff on a rope.”  I was by myself with nothing to prove to anyone, until a 13 year old girl comes back up with her little harness and a grin from ear to ear exclaiming, “That was awesome!”  Fine.  I’ll go off that cliff.  You don’t think I’ll go off that cliff? I’ll go off that cliff right now. So I did, because a girl did it (a really young one at that).  It was amazing and terrifying at the same time.  I got to the bottom to see that my rope was securely (?) tied to a rock.

Then I thought about the time in Panama with the giant snake (over ten feet long) in the rafters above my bed that had recently eaten a dog or child. I was wondering how well fed this Sri Lankan snake was. Maybe he was hungry?

When I asked Sean what he remembered about the snake charmer taking the snake back, he replied:

I questioned you, “Did you get the photo!?”, simply needing proof that I held the snake- even if it was for a brief and unnerving moment.  And then I clamored away from the python to turn my attention to the cobras.

The seated gypsy started to blow on a tan-colored, bubble-shaped, bamboo flute. The low, buzzing tones reminded me of the music in haunted houses. Sean, the local surfers, Michael the monkey and I gathered around in a semi-circle. Michael sidled up to one of the surfers snapping a photo with his cell phone. He managed to swpie the phone right out of the surfer’s hand. Michael darted away, stopped after a few steps and held the phone up to his ear.  Tired of the reprimands, he dropped the phone onto the sand and went back over to the blanket on the sand over by the gypsys’ bags.

With his free hand, the snake charmer lifted the tops off the baskets and unleashed the serpents. Two snakes started to climb straight up into the air, flaring their hoods. The gypsy retracted his hand into a fist, about a foot in front of the king cobras. He rolled his fist slightly to the left, and the snakes followed. Each time he rotated his fist, he lifted it higher. The snakes swayed from side to side, mirroring his movements. After climbing a few feet into the air, the king cobras stopped – they simply hovered there for a few moments, suspended upright, before slowly descending back into their baskets.

I probed Sean about his overall experience with holding the snake. I asked him what he didn’t particularly like about snakes and if his opinion of snakes had changed because of the encounter.

Sean replied, “They are just creepy, sneaky serpents. They are fascinating sure, but nothing I have ever considered as an ideal pet. I still hate snakes. However, I will probably continue to act like a kid – you can dare me. That’s fine. But a double dare I can never turn down.”

King Cobra Facts:

Scientific name: Ophiophagus hannah

Size:  The king cobra can reach up to 5.5 m (18ft) in length, making it the longest venomous snake on the planet.

Habitat:  Mainly located throughout Southeast Asia, king cobras can be found in parts of India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. The king cobra is comfortable in trees, on land, and in the water.

Diet:  King cobras are carnivores and heir diet consists almost entirely of other snakes, both venomous and nonvenomous. When there are no snakes are available, alternative food sources include lizards, eggs, and small mammals.

Something special:  Aside from being the longest venomous snake, king cobras are the only snakes in the world that build nests for their eggs.

For more information about king cobras:

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2 Responses to Snake Charmers in Sri Lanka

  1. Brenda says:

    This article is fantastic! I love the pictures too!

  2. Pingback: Snake Charmers in Sri Lanka — Surf Resource Network

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