The only tribe of Rajasthan who have been mastering the unique skill of taming poisonous snakes since time immemorial, the Kalbelia community possesses a rich and beautiful culture. While the children of other communities grow up playing with soft toys, the children of this tribe play with venom and snakes, which might sound strange to an outsider but is very common and usual for them.
The origin of the KAALBELIAs can be traced back to the 12th century in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. There are different explanations given by different scholars in this regard. According to a famous native legend, once upon a time, Guru Gorakhnath offered a bowl of poisonous fluid to his disciple Kanifnath and asked him to drink it. A diligent Kanifnath drank all the poison at a stretch without a question. Impressed by his devotion, Guru Gorakhnath bestowed upon him a boon: he would have the power to tame every poisonous creature in the world, and this power would be passed down to his descendants. It is believed that the descendants of Kanifnath are the Kaalbelias. KAAL means Mrityu, while Belia means bowl . So it literally refers to the bowl of death (poison) drunk by Kanifnath.
According to another group of scholars, Kaal signifies MAHAKAAL (SHIVA, the God of time and death), while Belia refers to his beel NANDI. The fact supporting this theory is that the Kaalbelias are the only Hindus who bury their dead bodies after death and a sculpture of Shiva's Nandi Beel is placed over their grave.
The language spoken by the kaalbelias is called Sapera. The various castes of the tribe are
According to Jan Kochanowski, the time period between the 12th and 13th centuries was the Golden Era of the Kaalbelias, marked by immense prosperity and recognition. However, the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan by Mohammad Ghori converted the Golden Era into a leaden period.
With the fear of being forced to convert their religion or being pushed into the vicious circle of slavery, many members of the KAALBELIA community migrated to different places in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. By the 14th century, a major portion of the tribe was scattered all throughout North India, where they continued to preserve and showcase their culture of snake taming to the world. From the 16th to the 18th century, the Kaalbelias got the coveted opportunity of showing snake games and performing their traditional folk dance in the Mughal court.
The community members are wanderers. They spend their lives travelling from one place to another in quest of life. They generally live on the outskirts of the villages in their transient camps called Dera.
It is mandatory for every family to have at least one male as a professional snake charmer. He has to carry tamed poisonous snakes in bamboo baskets and entertain people with snake games from door to door. The women folk wear their ethnic attire and perform the traditional Kaalbelia dance before the mob. This God-given lineage has been their source of income since time immemorial. Whenever anyone in the general public is bitten by some poisonous snake, it is the Saperas who are called upon to heal the victim. They have a vivid knowledge of various species of snakes and the cure for their bites. The Kaalbelias also extract precious venom from snakes and sell them on the market.
A change came in the occupation of the Kaalbelias with the implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, with the view of protecting all the wild animals . The use of wild animals in such plays and games is now prohibited.Now, the community can no longer depend on snake charmers for survival. This was the time when the women came forward with a modern outlook and showed the courage to alter the age-old traditional occupation of the tribe.
They switched their occupation from snake charmers to folk dancers.
Now, it is the woman of the family who takes the lead role. She dresses herself in her gorgeous ethnic attire and performs the spectacular KALBELIA DANCE in front of people. The dance is accompanied by local folk music played by the men.
The kalbelia dance form consists of swirling, graceful movements that make this dance a treat to behold. Women in long black skirts and heavy makeup dance and swirl, imitating the moves of a cobra. They disseminate mythological knowledge through stories.
The name of Padmashri Gulabo Sapera has made a significant contribution to the upliftment of the Kalbelia dance and helping it to regain its prestige on an international level. She has represented India on many international platforms through her dance.
The Kaalbelia community has not only been protecting society from poisonous snakes since time immemorial but also spreading the glory of their rich culture across the globe. Today, many students from various parts of the world come to Rajasthan to learn this sensuous dance form. This helps in promoting tourism in India. Above all, the contribution of the women folk in revolutionising the traditional occupation of the tribe sets a perfect example of women's empowerment and true feminism in front of the world.
We are sharing our rich heritage through this platform, starting with the cultural preservation efforts by voices of indigenous communities themselves.