Bedes have always been known to travel from one place to another. Robiul, a member of the Bede community, recalled a time when he too lived the life of a nomad, but they are a people in transition now, in pursuit of a better life for their next generation.
Robiul spent his early life on a boat, but he has been living in Aharapara at Savar with his family for many years. Robiul's decision of shifting to land was not unique, contradicting the narrative that all Bede live on boats. In fact, everyone from his community, perhaps about 500 to 800 people, lives in a small cluster of huts and houses in the area.
Surrounded by a thick layer of vegetation, the Bede Palli (Bede village) in Ahrapara was almost hidden from the rest of the world. It felt like I had jumped back in time, about a couple of decades.
The roads were narrow and unpaved, and most of the homes were huts made from bamboo and tin without any electricity or running water. There were only a handful of structures made out of brick and concrete – a single shop and a few houses perhaps – but they were far apart.
Shirtless and wearing a lungi, Robiul was lounging at a local tea stall smoking a cigarette. He spoke about the time when they slowly started their transition to land. He recalled the words of his father. "How long do you want to continue doing this? Don't you want a better life for your children?"
The Bede, also known as river gypsies, are a nomadic ethnic group in Bangladesh who used to live on boats and never stayed in one place for more than a few months.
But at heart, Bedes remain as entertainers. They travel from one place to another and make a living charming snakes, puppeteering monkeys and performing magic tricks.
There was also a time when they were in the business of catching and selling snakes.
Many villagers believe that river gypsies have magical powers; they know of ancient ways to drive off evil spirits, as a result, gypsies also sell Ta'wiz (an amulet or locket worn for good luck and protection), herbal medicine. They are sold after a show, and people pay for them with whatever they can – it can range from a little bit of rice to a few hundred taka.
The Bede, however, are very marginalised people. They earn from Tk300 to Tk500 on the days they work, and nothing on the days they don't. As Robiul explained, "We live difficult lives. Initially, the government allocated land for us to live on. There were also some wealthy patrons who gave our fathers and grandfathers pieces of land. These were later passed down to us.
Our houses and huts are very small and we have to live with our entire families. Most of us cannot buy new land."
However, their life perspective is changing. "People come to Dhaka from faraway places to find work. We now live in Dhaka. There is no reason for us not to work for a better living," he added.
Some members of the Bede community pull rickshaws, some work at nearby factories, and their children go to school. However, most still rely on their old ways of making a living. But regardless of their occupation, almost every single household in the Bede village still has pet snakes.
'A very special relationship with snakes'
Sasmul, who was introduced to me as a master snake charmer with the ability of simultaneously capturing up to three wild snakes at once, two with his hands and one with his mouth, is now the proud owner of a local tea stall. And, he too has a pet cobra and dudhraj (copperhead) snake.
"We know many species of snakes. Some are venomous, while there are many who are not. We keep both," said Sasmul. "We have seen our fathers and grandfathers catch them, use them in shows, and care for them. We have a very special relationship with snakes."
The Bede, however, do not farm the snakes. All of them are wild-caught. Whenever one catches a wild snake, the first thing they do is break off the venomous fangs. Then they are kept in small wooden boxes.
The snake charmer and snake, over time, develop an understanding between them as they perform in shows throughout the years. A snake will learn when it is time for it to come out of the box to perform when it's time to eat, and that his handler is not there to harm him.
As Robiul explained, "When I need a new snake, I take out my shovel and head out. I look for them in the village and nearby woods. We know how to track these animals well. When I see a hole in the ground, I can tell if it belongs to a snake, and if it is still in there."
River gypsies also trade snakes with each other. Smaller species of snakes are usually sold for Tk300 to Tk400 while a cobra is sold at Tk600 to Tk800. The lifespan of a snake, under the care of a charmer, can vary from a few months to about 5-6 years. Some snakes will readily eat from the first day of captivity, while others are initially force-fed.
The Bedes' lives and well-being, however, are still intertwined with that of their snakes.
"Snakes cannot be tamed but we often have to rely on them to make a living," he added. "We feed them well and care for them to the best of our abilities. We feed them frogs, mice and fish that we catch for them. We also feed them fresh meat if we can afford to buy it.
If our snakes are sick or unhappy, they will not be as feisty and we cannot have a good show. If our snakes die, we often don't have any other means to make a living."
Tricks, shows and Bede's livelihood
Mohammad Tara Miya was one of very few Bede who does not own a snake. He, however, has a monkey which was given to him by his father. Tara Miya earns a living by performing magic tricks and monkey puppeteering.
"This monkey is my livelihood. Without him, I have no other means of earning. We are very poor people, but as long as I have him by my side, I can earn a little money and feed my family.
People usually call us to perform at various events during Pahela Baishakh and other national festivals. They contact our Commissioner Ramjan Ahmed, he usually assigns someone with a snake or monkey to go do a show."
There was a time when Bedes used to travel to the capital to perform, but in recent years they almost exclusively perform in various villages. Their children go to school, and teenagers work at factories but the adult men travel throughout the region – places as far as Rangpur, Dinajpur, Rajshahi to even parts of India – to perform their tricks.
A snake or a monkey show is usually performed at marketplaces and bazaars, people come to enjoy the show and often buy Ta'wiz, and herbal medicine from them afterwards.
A show can fetch a few kilograms of rice and cash ranging from Tk100 to Tk500. However, on the occasions that a Bede is invited for a show, they can receive an honorarium ranging from Tk5,000 to Tk10,000.
When asked about gypsy magic, people from the Bede village – who are primarily Muslims – claimed there is no such thing.
As Robiul explained, "It is up to Allah to decide if a Ta'wiz will work. The medicine we sell comes from various plants and herbs – such as the leaves of a Lajjabati plant can sometimes help with male impotency. They work for some and don't for others.
There is no such thing as magic. We sometimes perform tricks at shows, but they are just tricks and nothing more."