Bishnupur. 140 odd kilometres from Calcutta. Known to have the highest number of historic temples in West Bengal, mostly made of terracotta. And yet another seemingly nondescript town in a country that is marked by one every hundred kilometres or so.
But with August and the post monsoon lushness and hopes of a good harvest, comes one of the most intriguing festivals celebrated in India, the Jhapan Mela.
On the last day of the Sharavana month of the Bengali calendar, scores of snake charmers gather to worship Manasa Devi, the serpent deity. Members of the Rajbongshi tribe appear with their small bamboo baskets with snakes to honour the fierce Goddess. Many gather to seek her blessings for a good harvest, fertility, prosperity and protection against diseases. Though throughout the festival one may not actually see idols of the deity, instead followers worship trees, rocks and other aspects of nature. In fact most of the Manasa devi worshipping revolves around being one with nature.
While as per one school of thought, the word Jhapan seemed to have originated from the Bengali word Jhapi, meaning the bamboo basket in which the snake charmers (called the Jhapanias) keep their snakes. From another school of thought, Jhapan literally means a large stage erected to exhibit tricks with snakes.
The festival is celebrated with much fanfare, and for the Jhapanias it is a day to earn the extra income in an otherwise penury ridden life. Snake charming, like most traditional occupations in India, has been carried on for generations. Earlier in history, snake charming was a profitable business owed to the demand for venom used to treat snake bites. This has now been replaced by synthetic venom to treat snake bites.
Apart from this, the Wildlife Protection Act makes it a crime to own wild animals to use for personal or commercial profit, which has pushed snake charmers into further destitution, without the ability to generate extra income from their practice. As a result, for a greater part of the year, one can mostly see these charmers proving a hit with tourists and cajoling them into taking pictures for a few extra rupees, and living true to the image of India as the land of snake charmers.
Words by Madhuri Mukherjee