The Naga Enigma
They are feared and revered at the same time. They are considered formidable yet benevolent; worshipped with awe, honoured and regarded. India shares quite a distinct and complex association with these elongated, legless, carnivorous reptiles. Snakes or Nagas have played a prominent role throughout Indian mythology, legends and folklore. India is still known to many as the Land of snake charmers.
According to Hindu mythology, the serpent deities are semi-divine beings who have descended from sage Kashyapa and Kadru. The Nagas who inhabit the Naga-loka with Takshaka as their King, have inspired and continue to inspire many legends and stories. They are depicted in Hindu iconography with a lower snake body and a human head with three to seven cobra hoods. The snake deities are usually portrayed in the fables as those who can bewitch human beings with their grace and beauty.
The snake primarily represents rebirth, death and mortality, due to its casting of its skin. Over a major part of India carved representations of cobras or nagas are worshipped by devotees. Snakes appear in many of the Puranas and epics in Hinduism. Ananta or the Adisesha is the infinite divine snake, upon which Narayana rests. In the images of many deities, snakes are depicted as the sacred thread worn around the body. Lord Shiva is almost always portrayed with the snake around his neck, and Shiva lingas are often shown sheltered by the many heads of the naga.
Snake as a protector, who protects the treasures is a common concept in many folklores. Farmers and land owners have a concept of a ‘guardian snake’ who guards their land. In yoga, a coiled-up snake symbolises kundalini. Snake gods are also associated with fertility and couples worship the serpent deity to have kids. In some parts of the country killing a snake is considered a bad karma. If a snake is killed by accident, it is customary to perform certain rites to avoid retribution from the serpent deities. Devotees believes that aggrieved snake deities can bring about misfortune, for which one has to perform purifying rituals.
There are a lot of temples in India related to snake worship. One of the oldest snake shrines is the located in Alleppey, Kerala. Manasa, the snake goddess, is one of the main deities of Bengal. The fifth day of the lunar month of Shravan is celebrated as Nag Panchami across India and Nepal. On this day Nagas, cobras, and snakes are worshipped with milk, sweets, flowers and lamps.
The tradition of worshipping the snakes still continue in many parts of the country and stories involving the nagas are still very much a part of our contemporary cultural traditions. The myths, legends and fables in the many strands of Hinduism that have been passed down through generations have added a mysticism, an enchanting enigma to the existence of these serpentine creatures in our country.