The snake charmer of Kuala

Raja Chulan Raja Ahmad Tajuddin recalls fond memories of being mesmerised from watching a snake charmer plying his trade. He also recalls a not-so-fond memory of why he will never be close to one of these slithery reptiles!

The streets and buildings of Kuala Kangsor may have changed tremendously but it is the people who coloured the face of Kuala which remains etched in my memory. I was watching a re-run of Madu Tiga on Astro, and during the car chase scene when the three wives were pursuing Jamil (performed by the talented P Ramlee), I was reminded of the snake charmer who used to show off his snakes under the flame of the forest (butea monosperma to any of you budding botanists out there -Ed.) in front of Cathay cinema and Lembah Kuala. In that hilarious scene when Jamil drove through a garden where the snake charmer was about to place his snake basket on the ground, I knew it was the same snake charmer of Kuala! How could I forget the tanned face with the tarbus (fez) on his head, and his unmistakable handlebar moustache!

Still from the 1964 Malay Film Productions' film 'Madu Tiga' depicting the scene with the Kuala snake charmer. The cobra was still rearing its head when the charmer carried the basket!

The spot under that large tree at Lembah would be his almost every Saturday morning. He would display a few weaved rattan baskets, big and small. Before blowing his flute, he would dangle a small python around his neck which then slithered all over him. When the crowd grew in number, he would play his flute directly above one of the smaller baskes. The lid would then uncover revealing a ‘dancing’ cobra, drawing gasps from the mesmerised crowd and how did they take a step back on seeing the venomous reptile! At the end of first act (with the cobra back in the basket), the snake charmer would go around the crowd with an empty coconut shell for contributions from his captive audience, at the same time bragging that his next act will be more dangerous than the first.

For the second act, the snake charmer would sit cross-legged in front of the biggest basket and, for effect, he would wipe his ‘perspiring’ face with a hanky. The crowd would be all hushed as they took a few more steps back. The flute took up tune with a higher pitch as the lid on the basket was removed. The crowd gasped to see a much bigger cobra, looking menacing and threatening at the snake charmer himself who slowly picked himself up. From his pocket, he took out an egg and placed it in the basket, signaling that the show was almost over.

I never did take a chance to be near the snake charmer every time I watched him. Awed yes, but you will never catch me in front of the crowd. This was not due to my fear of snakes but I had an unforgettable experience with one. It was a Saturday and I was roving the streets of Kuala as I always did. I was walking under this big flame of the forest in front of Ghee Kheng when suddenly I heard a branch fell right behind me, missing me by mere inches. I turned around and my blood turned cold for facing me with its head reared was a big and long yellowish snake! I froze with just my eyes blinking. I breathed again when the snake slithered up the tree again. The snake must have been shocked by the fall and decided to call it a day!

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