The show was hardly charming. Hawa Singh Nath carefully opened his bag inside the Hindu temple. He looked around, making sure the police were nowhere near. And then he pulled out his illegal goods -- two sad-looking cobras, coiled in cane baskets. One reared back and appeared about to fall over. The other hissed and darted out a tongue.
Nath dunked their heads in milk, and that was it. "Enough?" Nath asked the crowd. He then stuffed both snakes back in his bag, slung the bag over his shoulder and walked back home to his neighborhood of snake charmers, not giving a second look to the police sitting on the side of the road.
But Nath was scared, like the rest of his community. Such snake shows are becoming increasingly unusual. Snake charming might be a stereotype of India, but the profession is dying. Capturing snakes is illegal. Seeing a snake dance has also lost much of its allure in fast-paced Indian cities.
"The next generation won't even know that something like this existed in the world," said Nath, 26, whose three children are afraid of snakes. "It's sad."
The plight of the snake charmer highlights the sweeping changes in India in recent years. Once known as the country of elephants, palaces, cows and snake charmers, India is turning into an economic powerhouse, a country of software programmers, call centers and millionaires.
India's giant rural population is largely left behind, mired in poverty, often without power or running water. Snake charmers are caught in the middle, dependent on selling their service in villages and cities to survive.
The pressures have been increasing. Last fall, snake charmers in the eastern state of Orissa threatened to release snakes in the state assembly after a crackdown, although they ended up only waving around their snakes before going home.
A report by a wildlife conservation group last year tried to chart new ways to employ snake charmers, such as turning them into "barefoot conservation educators" who would travel the countryside and teach people about snakes and healing plants.
"We need to see if they can educate people," said Bahar Dutt, who spearheaded the snake-charmer study for the conservation group, the Wildlife Trust of India. "Can we use their knowledge?"
Communities of snake charmers are sprinkled across India, largely in the north. Changing jobs for them is not as simple as it might seem. Nath's father and grandfather charmed snakes. His two brothers do. He was pulled out of school after fourth grade to learn the trade. He knows nothing else.
The snake charmers have their own Hindu caste and share the last name of Nath. Their families have worked with snakes for generations, and for generations they earned respect, because the snake was seen as the worldly form of Shiva, one of the most important Hindu gods. Snakes were even given away as part of a bride's dowry.
Then came wildlife activists, nature shows and the MTV generation.
The wildlife protection act was passed in 1972, but when it came to snakes, the law was ignored for decades. Only in the last few years have police started fining people for capturing snakes, largely because of pressure from activists. Enforcement is still spotty, as police are not clear what to do with rescued snakes. Zoos are often full. The snakes are often sick.
It's easy to see why, activists say. Snake charmers regularly defang the snakes, which sometimes develop infections. The snakes spend their lives in small cane baskets.
"Snakes are dying," said Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India. "They are very poorly kept. They are not fed the right food. They are fed milk."
After several months of captivity, the snakes are released into the forest, even the defanged ones. Menon likened this to leaving an intensive-care unit patient alone in the forest.
Nature shows, such as those created by National Geographic, also took the mystery away from snakes for many Indians. Rather than being scared of snakes, people started to see snakes as snakes.
And nowadays, some people would rather not see snakes at all. They would rather play video games or watch movies.
"Younger people, they are not interested," said Kamal Nath, 22, a trained snake charmer who works in a furniture store. "They go for other kinds of entertainment, like TV."
Years ago, tourist buses stopped in the Mollarband community, where Kamal and Hawa Singh Nath live. This neighborhood, on the southeastern edge of New Delhi, is more like a village than a part of the capital city. Here, pigs rut through garbage, and sewers do not exist.
About 100 snake-charming families live here. Many have found other work, maybe in a tile shop, maybe as a driver. Some work for bands that play at weddings and festivals. If asked, they bring their snakes.
Tourists no longer come to Mollarband. Instead, tour operators pick up snake charmers and drive them to Delhi hotels to perform for tourists, but police have raided the hotels during the shows.
On the main road of Mollarband, signs advertise bands, along with drawings of drums, flutes and snakes. But a few signs no longer picture the snake, so they do not attract unwanted attention. Bheema Nath, 26, decided to show only the flute, a drummer and a goddess on his business card. He was afraid a snake might attract the authorities.
"Look for a job for us," he said, sitting in a shack on the road. "We're waiting for someone to call. Nobody calls us."
Older snake charmers sat around, playing cards and remembering the good times, such as when the tour buses used to come, when they were asked to catch a snake in the prime minister's house, and when they caught a snake from one of the new malls in Gurgaon. They remembered when Hindu extremists threatened to disrupt the India-Pakistan cricket match by releasing snakes in the stadium in 1999, and snake charmers were asked to patrol the grounds.
The elders remembered the bad times as well, such as when a television crew filmed the snakes and their keepers and then suddenly revealed themselves to be forestry officials, who took the snakes and fined the men.
Durga Nath, 65, the uncle of Hawa Singh, referred to himself as the chief of the snake charmer program in India, although no such group exists. He wears Mr. Magoo glasses that magnify his eyes, has only a few teeth and keeps his snake-charming memorabilia in a beat-up gray suitcase.
He insisted that he treats all his snakes well. "We keep them very nicely," Durga Nath said. "We keep them in a basket. We feed them. We sleep with them in our house in the winter. "
Next to him, a friend pulled off the lid from a small basket, and a cobra popped up, flicking out his tongue and hissing. The man punched at the snake. The snake hissed and jabbed at the man. Durga Nath put the basket and snake on his lap and kept talking. He had no fear. The snake's venom sac had been removed.