The Chronicles of Snake Charming

I have a theory on “why India was stereotyped as country of snake charmers”. Let me walk you through that with some history, a book review, and eventually, the reason will reveal itself.

For almost 15 centuries the Middle-Eastern Merchants (Jewish, then Arab) meticulously monopolized the stuff that flows into Europe from India (and SE Asia). These included the goods (cotton, Spices), Science (Astronomy, Algebra and so on) and culture (Chess, etc.). While they did a fine job selling these, they kept most information as top secret ensuring dependency and exclusivity.

However, the Europeans were a curious lot. They wanted little more knowledge on all exotic stuff such as elephant army, cotton farming, Indoor plumbing toilets and so on. The great Marco-Polo had increased their curiously through his chronicles. Between the centuries of Alexander’s Army and Portuguese colonizers, there were good 18 centuries during which, Europeans pretty much did not know anything about India.

And whenever they asked an Arab, he maintained: “Dude.. I’ve already promised you 30 min delivery on Pepper shipment otherwise one Pizza free for you! don’t ask anything more than that !!” So what do Europeans do? They invent stuff! They let their imagination run wild and went to on write chronicles of their travelogues of India, China and the rest of the known world. Even if they did not get a chance to visit east!

One of such published literature was “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville “. A book which was published in 1357 eventually went on to become instant superhit best-seller! The book was work of pure imagination, often childish. The stories explained was of literally out of this world. There were dragons, One-eyed giants, goat faced people and so on and on and on.

I will leave you with one illustration from this book. Image 5 is for Cotton Tree.

In his defence, it did indeed answer many questions on the rest of the known world. For example:

  • How does wool manufacture? Answer Chicken: and I quote him “In that country be white hens without feathers, but they bear white wool as sheep do here.
  • How do Camels survive the desert? By eating air! And I quote his book”And there be also in that country many camels; that is a little beast as a goat, that is wild, and he liveth by the air and eateth nought, ne drinketh nought, at no time.
  • Cotton Tree : Answer: Cotton and Lambs grow together from Tree.There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie.“.

This, in fact, makes a lot of sense – Wool maketh cloths, cotton maketh fabrics – Indian Lamb must grow on a tree along with cotton. Genius!

Imagine this, 600+ years later the book still sells for $9.99 on kindle!

Let’s fast forward 7 centuries. If someone went to the same audience and said India’s favourite pastime is Snake Charming, and they commute to the office through flying carpet, they would believe him right? Wouldn’t they?

Appendix

  1. I have a feeling that Arabs did not claim the number system as theirs. It was some over-excited Roman emperor attributed it as Arabic number system (and later Indo-Arabic). I don’t have sources on this one. If anyone does, please share.
  2. Decimal system can not be attributed to India alone. All cultures who have 10 fingers independently developed Decimal systems. India’s contribution is Decimal Placeholder system (i.e. 0, 10^1, 10^2… Right to left) !. Without this, we can not imagine how computation would’ve worked. !
  3. To give you an analogy to above – inventing the wheel was probably very easy – you just sit an observe rolling stuff. But the person developed axle was genius!

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