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Letter VII[1]

The fair was at its culmination when, having finished visiting the cells, climbing over all the stories, and examining the celebrated “hall of fighters,” we descended, not by way of the stairs, of which there is no trace to be found, but after the fashion of pails bringing water out of a deep well, that is to say, by the aid of ropes. A crowd of about three thousand persons had assembled from the surrounding villages and towns. Women were there adorned from the waist down in brilliant-hued saris, with rings in their noses, their ears, their lips, and on all parts of their limbs that could hold a ring. Their raven-black hair which was smoothly combed back, shone with coconut oil, and was adorned with crimson flowers, which are sacred to Shiva and to Bhavani, the feminine half of this god.

Before the temple there were rows of small shops and of tents, where could be bought all the requisites for the usual sacrifices – aromatic herbs, incense, sandal wood, rice and gulab, the red powder with which the pilgrim sprinkles first the idol and then his own face. Fakirs, bairagis, hosseins, the whole body of the mendicant brotherhood, were present among the crowd. Wreathed in chaplets[2], their faces daubed with bluish soot, with long uncombed hair twisted at the top of the head into a regular woman’s chignon, and with bearded faces, they presented a very funny likeness to naked apes. Some of them were awfully wounded due to self mortification of the flesh. We also saw some bunis (snake-charmers) with dozens of cobras, furzenas, and snakes round their waists, necks, arms, and legs – models well worthy of the brush of a painter who intended to depict the image of a male “fury”. One jadugar (sorcerer) was especially remarkable. His head was crowned with a turban of cobras. Expanding their hoods and raising their leaf-like dark green heads, these cobras hissed continuously with a heavy hiss of a dying person and so loudly that the sound was audible a hundred paces off. Swiftly showing their thin stings[3] they glittered with their small eyes with anger at the approach of every passer-by...

Here we happened to be the witnesses of a fact which I relate exactly as it occurred, without indulging in explanations or hypotheses of any kind. I leave to naturalists the solution of the enigma.

Expecting probably to be well paid, the cobra-turbaned buni sent us a boy with the offer to exhibit his powers of snake-charming. Not willing to lose the opportunity, we agreed, but on condition that between us and his pets there should be what Mr. Disraeli would call a “scientific frontier.” We selected a spot about fifteen paces from the “magic circle.” I will not describe all the tricks and wonders that we saw, but will proceed at once to the main fact. With the aid of a vaguda (a kind of musical pipe of bamboo) the buni caused all the snakes to fall into a sort of cataleptic sleep. The melody that he played, monotonous, low, and original to the last degree, nearly sent us to sleep ourselves. At all events we all grew extremely sleepy without any apparent cause. We were aroused from this half lethargy by our friend Gulab-Sing, who gathered a handful of some grass, and advised us to rub our temples and eyelids with it. Then the buni produced from a dirty bag a kind of round stone, something like a fish's eye, or a black onyx with a white spot in the center, not bigger than a grivennik[4]. He declared that anyone who bought that stone would be able to charm any cobra (it would produce no effect on snakes of other kinds) paralyzing the creature and then causing it to fall asleep. Moreover, by his account, this stone is the only remedy for the bite of a cobra. You have only to place this talisman on the wound, where it will stick so firmly that it cannot be torn off until all the poison is absorbed into it, when it will fall off of itself, and all danger will be past...

Being aware that the Government gladly offers any premium for the invention of a remedy for the bite of the cobra, we did not show any unreasonable interest on the appearance of this stone. In the meanwhile, the buni began to irritate his snakes. Choosing a cobra 8 feet long, he literally enraged it. Twisting its tail round a stub, the cobra arose and terribly hissed[5]. Finally it bit the buni at his finger, on which soon we all saw drops of blood. A unanimous cry of horror arose in the crowd. But buni stuck the stone on his finger with no hurry and proceeded with his performance.

“The poison gland of the snake has been cut out,” remarked our New York colonel. “This is a mere farce.”

As if in answer to this remark, the buni seized the neck of the cobra, and, after a short struggle, fixed a broken match into its mouth between two jaws, so that they remained open. Then he brought the snake over and showed it to each of us separately, so that we all saw the death-giving gland in its mouth. But our colonel would not give up his first impression so easily.

“The gland is in its place right enough,” said he, “but how are we to know that it really does contain poison?”

Then a live hen was brought forward and, tying its legs together, the buni placed it beside the snake. But the latter would pay no attention at first to this new victim, but went on hissing at the buni. Then he pushed a stick through tied legs of a hen and continued to tease the cobra until at last it actually struck at the wretched bird. The hen made a weak attempt to cackle, then shuddered once or twice and became still. The death was instantaneous...

Following this, something so strange happened that one could be in advance confident, that my story would turn against itself all Petersburg and Moscow anti-spiritualists and critics. But facts will remain facts, the most exacting critic and disbeliever notwithstanding. Little by little the cobra grew so infuriated that it became evident the jadugar himself did not dare to approach it. As if glued to the stub by its tail, the snake never ceased diving into space with its upper part and trying to bite everything. A few steps from us a dog came in sight, and that is where buni tuned all of his attention. He wriggled on the ground on a reasonable distance from a raging cobra and stared at the dog with motionless glassy eyes, and then began to sing through the teeth a scarcely audible song. The dog grew restless. Putting his tail between his legs, he tried to escape, but remained, as if fastened to the ground. After a few seconds he crawled nearer and nearer to the buni, whining, but unable to tear his gaze from the charmer... I understood his object, and felt awfully sorry for the dog. But, to my horror, I suddenly felt that my tongue would not move, I was perfectly unable either to get up or even to raise my finger. Happily this fiendish scene was not prolonged. Crawling slowly, the dog was already about half of arshin [36 cm, 14 in] from the cobra: in a moment, with a terrible hiss, the snake rushed at it and bit it in the head... With a sorrowful squeal the poor animal fell on his back, made a few convulsive movements with his legs, and shortly died. We could no longer doubt that there was poison in the gland. In the meanwhile the stone had dropped from the wound and the sorcerer approached to show us the healed finger. We all saw the trace of the prick, a red spot not bigger than the head of an ordinary pin.

Next he made his snakes rise on their tails, and, holding the stone between his first finger and thumb, he proceeded to demonstrate its influence on the cobras. As the hands approached the heads of the snakes, they drew with the whole body back; with their eyes fixed on the stone, they trembled, leaned lower and lower, until finally they fell to the ground, lull to sleep... The buni then made straight for our sceptical colonel, and made him an offer to try the experiment himself. We all protested vigorously, but he would not listen to us, agreed at once and chose a cobra of a very considerable size. Armed with the stone, the colonel bravely approached the snake and brought it in front of its head. Inflating its hood, the cobra made an attempt to fly at him, then suddenly stopped short, and, after a pause, began following with all its body the circular movements of the colonel's hand. We could not dare to move out of fear. When the stone together with colonels fingers approached the snake's head at the distance of half of vershok [2.22 cm, 0.88 in], the snake staggered as if intoxicated, its hissing grew weak, its hood dropped helplessly on both sides of its neck, and its eyes closed. Drooping lower and lower, the snake fell at last on the ground like a broken twig, and slept.

Only then did we breathe freely. Taking the sorcerer aside we expressed our desire to buy the stone, to which he easily assented, and, to our great astonishment, asked for it only two rupees. This talisman became my own property and I still keep it. The buni asserts (and our Hindu friend confirms), that it is not a stone but an excrescence. It is found in the mouth of one cobra in a hundred, between the bone of the upper jaw and the skin of the palate. This “stone” is not fastened to the skull, but hangs, wrapped in skin, from the palate, and so is very easily cut off; but after this operation the cobra is said to die. If we are to believe Bishu Nath (for that was our sorcerer's name) this excrescence confers upon the cobra who possesses it the rank of king over the rest of his kind.

“Such a cobra,” said the buni, “is like a Brahmin, a Dwija Brahmin amongst Shudras, other cobras obey him. There exists, moreover, a poisonous toad that also, sometimes, possesses this stone, but its effect is much weaker. To destroy the effect of a cobra's poison you must apply the toad's stone not later than two minutes after the infliction of the wound; but the stone of a cobra is effectual to the last. Its healing power is certain as long as the heart of the wounded man has not ceased to beat.”

Then buni offered to catch another dog, which was done: a snake bit it, and he put a stone on the wound; the dog did not even notice the bite, remaining very calm until he took the stone from the wound.

Bidding us good-bye, the buni advised us to keep the stone in a dry place and never to leave it near a dead body, also, to hide it during the sun and moon eclipses, otherwise it will lose all its power. In case we were bitten by a mad dog, he said, we were to put the stone into a glass of water and leave it there during the night, next morning the sufferer was to drink the water and then forget all danger.

“He is a devil and not a man!” exclaimed our colonel, as soon as the buni had disappeared on his way to a Shiva temple, where, by the way, we were not admitted.

“As simple a mortal as you or I,” remarked the Rajput with a smile, “and, what is more, he is very ignorant. The truth is, he has been brought up in a Shivaite pagoda, like almost every snake-charmer. Shiva is the patron god of snakes, and the Brahmins teach the bunis to produce all kinds of mesmeric tricks by empirical methods, almost never explaining to them the theoretical principles, but assuring them that Shiva is behind every phenomenon. So that the bunis sincerely ascribe to their god the honor of their miracles.”

“But the Government offers a reward for an antidote to the poison of the cobra. Why then do the bunis not claim it, rather than let thousands of people die helpless?”[6]

“The Brahmins would never suffer that. If the Government took the trouble to examine carefully the statistics of deaths caused by snakes, it would be found that no Hindu of the Shivaite sect has ever died from the bite of a cobra. They let people of other sects die, but save the members of their own flock.”

“But did we not see how easily he parted with his secret, notwithstanding we were foreigners. Why should not the English buy it as readily?”

“Because this secret is quite useless in the hands of Europeans. The Hindus do not try to conceal it, because they are perfectly certain that without their aid nobody can make any use of it. The “stone” will retain its power only when it is taken from a live cobra. In order to catch the snake without killing it, it must be cast into a lethargy, or “charmed” as they say. Who is there among the foreigners who is able to do this? Even among the Hindus, you will not find a single individual in all India who possesses this ancient secret, unless he be a disciple of the Shivaite Brahmins. Only Brahmins of this sect possess a monopoly of the secret, and not all even of them, only those, in short, who belong to the pseudo-Patanjali school, who are usually called Bhuta (demons) ascetics. Now there exist, scattered over the whole of India, only about half-a-dozen of their pagoda schools, and the inmates would rather part with their very lives than with their secret.”

“We have paid only two rupees for a secret which proved as strong in the colonel's hands as in the hands of the buni. Is it then so difficult to procure a store of these stones?”

Our friend laughed.

“In a few days,” said he, “the talisman will lose all its healing powers in your inexperienced hands. This is the reason why he let it go at such a low price, which he is, probably, at this moment sacrificing before the altar of his deity. I guarantee you a week's activity for your purchase, but after that time it will only be fit to be thrown out of the window.”

We soon learned how true were these words. On the following day we came across a little girl, bitten by a green scorpion. She seemed to be in the last convulsions. No sooner had we applied the stone than the child seemed relieved, and, in an hour, she was gaily playing about, whereas, even in the case of the sting of a common black scorpion, the patient suffers for two weeks. But when, about ten days later, we tried the experiment of the “stone” upon a poor coolie, just bitten by a cobra (killed at once), our talisman would not even stick to the wound, and the poor wretch shortly expired.

I do not take upon myself to offer, either a defense, or an explanation of the virtues of the “stone.” I simply state the facts and leave the future career of the story to its own fate. The skeptics may deal with it as they will. Yet I can easily find people in India who will bear witness to my accuracy. Dr. Fayrer had lately published his Tnanatophidia, a book on the venomous snakes of India, a work well known throughout Europe, in which he categorically stated his disbelief in the wondrous snake-charmers of India. About a week or a fortnight after the book appeared among the Anglo-Indians, the following incident occurred. His own cook was bitten by a cobra. A buni, who happened to pass by, readily offered to save the man's life. The celebrated naturalist was going to order the buni to be ejected from the house, but Major Kelly and other officers urged him to permit to try the experiment. Declaring that in spite of all, in an hour his cook would be no more, he gave his consent. But it happened that in an hour the cook was quietly preparing dinner in the kitchen for the honored scientist and his guests, and professor himself was going to throw his book into the fire...

The day grew dreadfully hot. We felt the heat of the rocks in spite of our thick-soled shoes. We resolved to go home, that is to say, to return to the cool cave, six hundred paces from the temple, where we were to spend the evening and night. We would wait no longer for our Hindu companions, who had gone to see the fair, and so we started by ourselves.



  1. Moscow News, № 324, 20.12.1879, p. 4; Russian Herald, January 1883, Supplement, vol 163, pp. 70-77.
  2. A chaplet is a form of Christian prayer which uses prayer beads. – Ed.
  3. The expression, “the sting of a snake,” is universal, but it does not describe accurately the process of bite. The “sting” of a snake (or its tongue) is perfectly harmless. To introduce the poison into the blood of a man, or of an animal, the snake must pierce the flesh with its fangs, not prick with its sting, something no snake ever does. Its needle-like eye teeth communicate with a small bag (a poison gland under palate), and if this gland is cut out the cobra will not live more than two or three days. Accordingly, the supposition of some sceptics, that the bunis cut out this gland, is quite unfounded.
  4. Grivennik – a coin of 10 kopeek value, 1/10 of rouble. Its size changed several times; at the end of the 19th century its diameter was 17.6 mm. – Ed.
  5. The term “hissing” is also inaccurate. The snakes (at least cobras) do not hiss, but rather rattle. The whole body is blown by this loud and heavy breath like breast in human.
  6. In India, from two to three thousand people die every year from being bitten by snakes. Last year [1878], up to 15,000 people died because of tigers and snakes.