From inside a straw hut she had built, Meeran pulled out a small, woven basket and opened the lid covered in a swatch of azure blue fabric. With quick, nimble fingers she nudged the coiled cobra sleeping in the folds of a dusty pale cloth. The four-foot-long snake rose up, and, displeased at being awakened, began to sway, spreading its hood. Its eyes were level with Meeran’s steady gaze.

I was in Sobharo Shah, a small village 50 kilometres from Mithi, the capital of the Tharparkar district in Pakistan. Sobharo Shah is one of the many small settlements in the vast desert where Meeran and her nomadic Jogi tribe live. The Jogis make a living working the land during harvest season, earning a tidy sum in the process. During the rest of the year though, they trek by foot in the Tharparkar desert, performing snake shows and selling handicrafts. They can be identified by the quilted bags slung on their shoulders, in which they carry cobras and the snake charmer’s flute, a been.

As an anthropologist from Tharparkar who has worked with the Jogis, I had heard about a female snake charmer – the first female jogi or “jogan”, a fearless woman who had caught some of the finest cobras. My search for her had begun in Mithi.

“The jogan lives in the village by the tube well,” said the locals I met by the roadside, as I drove along the endless sand dunes of Tharparkar with my photographer. It was wintertime, and the temperatures during the day were a comfortable 25 degrees Celsius. The nights were cooler.

From the beginning

Amid a cluster of small huts made of mud and straw, we found Meeran, 50, tending to her two goats and cow. She was friendly. A smile broke out on her face, as we came closer. She laid down a rilli, a handmade patchwork quilt, that was much too small for all of us, so we ended up sitting on the sand. In the winter chill, the grains felt biting cold on the palms of my hands. Meeran seemed perfectly at ease.

Locals walked past us, wrapped in black shawls shot through with glowing coloured thread. Meeran stood out among them – she was dressed simply in an ajrak print ghagra and a top called a polka. Around her neck was a beaded necklace, and on her finger was a dull gold ring. She lit a cigarette and called to her daughter to bring tea. Smiling, she began her story.

“My husband was a Jogi, but he was afraid to touch the cobras,” said Meeran. “Whenever he ventured into the desert to catch snakes, he would take me along.”

Upon spotting a burrow, her husband would lure out the cobra, using the techniques the Jogis have perfected over generations. When the snake would surface out of the pit, he would pin its head down with a stick – and then call his wife. Meeran would reach over and grab the cobra with her bare hands and help place it in a basket.

After her husband died in 2007 from a heart attack, Meeran decided to continue catching snakes. But her first chance came two years later.

Meeran was working in the cotton fields with her daughter when a snake slithered past the daughter’s foot. “All the workers ran away from the field,” Meeran told me. Terrified, her daughter kept exhorting Meeran to get away. Meeran had another idea: “I wanted to keep the cobra.”

Breaking a branch from the nearest tree, Meeran followed the snake’s trail. Snakes are at an advantage in the sand, which allows them to move faster and disappear easily into the shifting earth. But there was no sand here, only a river nearby and the stony ground. Meeran soon caught up with the cobra. Pinning its head to the ground with the branch, she lifted it with her hands. Her daughter screamed and begged her to drop the serpent. Other workers stood around stunned. Meeran took her quilt bag and, placing the cobra inside, hung the satchel from a tree branch. She then calmly resumed her work in the field. Later, she took the cobra home and kept it in the basket that once belonged to her husband.

Meeran’s fearlessness was evident on the day we met.

The cobra in the basket was a recent catch and easily provoked. It shared the basket with some gems, trinkets and a small smooth stone called a “mann”. The mann, the Jogis believe, has powers to heal. It is formed when the sand accumulating in the belly of the snake mixes with its poison. Snake bites are often treated by placing the mann on the wound, which “sucks the poison out of the body”.

Meeran slowly began to push the cobra back down into the basket. There was a second, younger snake in the quilt bag, she told us. “If the basket is left open, the cobra will eat the younger snake.”

Everything in the basket was for sale, other than the cobra and the mann, Meeran said, as she closed the lid, the cobra retreating into the basket.

I had spent years following the Jogis, writing about their culture and lives. But there was still much about their rituals and beliefs that remained mysterious. On Meeran’s forehead, for instance, was a tattoo of a celestial body, which she said was the moon. To my eyes, it appeared like a star. On each of Meeran’s eyebrows was a tattooed line. She would not tell me their meaning, other than saying that the heavens were an inextricable part of the Jogis’ belief system.

Life had not been easy for Meeran. She had seven daughters and one son. Two of her daughters – both married within the community – had been abandoned by their husbands, a common occurrence among the Jogis. There was no ostensible reason for the abandonment, said Meeran. “There are a lot of problems in our homes. But we seldom go to the police. We try and solve the issues amongst ourselves.” Meeran’s daughters had moved back in with their mother.

As we were chatting, her youngest daughter, a 20-year-old, came to sit by her side. I asked the young woman if she had ever tried to catch a snake. “No,” she replied. “Even my brother cannot catch snakes. It is very dangerous.” Meeran smiled.

It was this past fall that Meeran became really famous. She had moved to Nagarparkar, near River Hakra in Tharparkar district. She was busy setting up her straw home when a cobra appeared. There were many Jogis present, but no one had a stick to pin the snake down. It was a large-sized serpent, more than five feet long. The Jogis there decided it was dangerous and futile to catch it. Meeran disagreed.

She asked a Jogi to play the been before the cobra. The snake paused. No one dared approach it. Meeran crawled up stealthily from behind and caught the cobra by its head with her hands. “I felt immense pride that day, being a woman amongst all the snake catchers. I felt I had proven myself to the community.”

The women of the Jogi tribe mostly tend to crops and the home. At times, they go out begging. Catching and training snakes was the men’s domain.

The harvest season in Tharparkar was coming to an end. The Jogis were going to migrate again soon. Meeran’s family would join the caravan, taking along their goats and cow. Along the way, the Jogis would look out for snakes. Meeran was hoping to catch a big cobra for herself. “The cobra is our identity,” Meeran said, with a smile, taking a deep puff of her cigarette.