In Bundi, I teamed up with Om Prakash Kukki, a local guide and amateur archaeologist. He is a very interesting man who is interested in three things: archaeology, local indigenous culture, and learning. Kukki ji took me around the surrounding countryside on his motorbike and when he realized that I am as curious as he is with minimum regard to comfort, he gave more than his professional fee warranted. Thus, it came that I explored the amazingly beautiful Bhilwara countryside, saw stunning ancient rock paintings, and met different indigenous communities of the region. Of all the groups of people that I met, the Kal Beliya community intrigued me the most and it is their astonishing heritage that caught my interest.

Kal Beliya, the nomadic desert snake charmers

Popularly known as the snake charming gypsies of the desert, the Kal Beliya people’s heritage lies in snake handling. The Kal Beliya tribe were once professional snake handlers and they are famous for their incredible dance in which they incorporate their former occupation. This community belongs to the scheduled tribe category in India and they lead a nomadic life. Most of their settlements can be found in the Pali district of Rajasthan. They move around Ajmer, Chittorgarh, and Udaipur as well. Thus, they are born in harsh conditions, and scorching sands, hot winds, and temporary homes are familiar grounds with them. Their community name suggests their erstwhile profession with Kal meaning death and Kal Beliya refers to the tribe’s control over poisonous snakes and the ultimate fear of death.

A beautiful Kal Beliya woman

The ancestry of this interesting community

Apart from the bizarre profession, Kal Beliya also has a very interesting history. This community traces their ancestry from Kanlipar, who was the 12th disciple of Guru Gorakhnath, the founder of the Nath tradition. Thus they have an affinity towards this sect and its beliefs. They are also followers of Guru Kanipa, one of the nine masters who resides on Mount Kailash, alongside Lord Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva offered a bowl of all the poison of the universe to Kanipa, who consumed it all at once. Moved by his dedication, Lord Shiva promised Kanipa that the world would always remember him and his descendants.

See the beautiful tattoos on the Kal Beliya woman’s face

Traditional healers and toxin purgers

This mythological story explains the traditional occupation of the Kal Beliya as snake charmers, snake catchers, and venom traders. Some of the members of this community are also healers who, are capable of curing poisonous snake bites. Their remedies largely include mantras, as well as an unusual mixture of herbs and camel urine, whose bitter taste causes the victim to vomit, thus purging their body of the toxin. Over the generations, the Kal Beliya owing to their nomadic lifestyle have acquired a unique understanding of the local flora and fauna. They also know herbal remedies for various illnesses and this knowledge provides them with an alternative and additional source of income. Ironically, despite their affinities with Hinduism, the Kal Beliya people have one tradition that is completely different from the Hindu practice – they bury their dead, rather than creating them. In fact, the Kal Beliyas have elaborate post mortem rituals that bear an uncanny resemblance to the Pharaonic practices and these are related to pollution, as well as the restoration of purity after death.

A Kal Beliya playing his traditional ‘been’                    Photo Credit – Harmoniummusicblog

The UNESCO listed Kal Beliya dance

These desert gypsies are also famous for their dance form, which is an integral part of their identity. For them, their dances are expressions of their traditional way of life, and in 2010, Kal Beliya dance was included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). The Kal Beliya dance is performed only by women and the men play the music. It is an extremely graceful dance where the movements resemble those of a snake – sensuous and gyrating. Women in black flowing clothes swirl, replicating the movements of a serpent, while men play the “khanjari” instrument and the “poongi”, a musical woodwind instrument traditionally played to capture snakes. The dancers embellish themselves with traditional tattoos, jewellery and their clothes are embroidered with small mirrors and silver threads.
The dancers wear traditional tattoo designs, jewellery and garments richly embroidered with small mirrors and silver thread. The Kal Beliya songs are inspired by Rajasthani folklore and these are passed down through generations as an inheritance. These songs and dance routines do not have any written text or training manual and form part of the oral heritage of the community.

Kal Beliya dancers          Photo Credit –

A revival of one of the most sensuous folk dances

In the olden days, the Kal Beliya people used to work as professional snake charmers, healers, and venom dealers. However, the enactment of the Wildlife Act of 1972 has forced them to stop their traditional trade of snake catching. As a result, performance art has become a major source of income for this once nomadic tribe. Once upon a time, their artistic acumen made them very popular as performers and they were hired to entertain kings and noblemen. Nowadays, with the near extinction of their erstwhile trades, Kal Beliya people struggle for existence. While many of their women have resorted to prostitution, the men work as blue-collar workers. This not only has resulted in the dissolution of their ways of life but their art is also in danger of getting extinct. However, not all is bad with this community, which especially has the fame for being adaptable and resolute. Many of these desert gypsies are exploring new and creative ways to keep their heritage alive, the most famous being the Youtube tutorials offered by Divya Dance School. Over the last few years, governmental agencies are making efforts towards preserving this dance form by offering Kal Beliya performances in international fairs and festivals. Thus, this UNESCO-listed dance is gaining recognition around the world and giving chances to Kal Beliyas with better opportunities of existence.

A beautiful Kal Beliya dancer       Photo Credit –

Kal Beliya children at the settlement I visited

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