Worship of the Naga or Serpent Worship

The Naga worship or Serpent worship ( also known as Ophiolatry ) is among the oldest and most widespread forms of religious practices in that the world. In the minds of the early men there were a fear of the nature and powerful animals, with a feeling that they were stronger and wiser than him, or in short: uncanny. This was specially true of the snake or serpent because of its swift, mysterious, yet graceful gliding movements without possessing any feet or wings, its fascinating eyes, the power to disappear swiftly, shedding of its skin which gave a sign of immortality, and the deadly consequences of its bite. all these characteristics produced mixed feelings of fascination, fear and respect, which led to the start of serpent worship, and a subject of many myths and folktales. In the cults that worship animals, such as the Naga cult worshipping serpents, there is generally found among its followers a strong belief in the animal’s magical powers, beneficence, healing powers, wisdom, and the possession of secret higher knowledge. In the ancient world serpent worship was popular and universally practiced in Arabia, Persia, Asia minor, Syria, Egypt, Italy, Greece, in many parts of northern and western Europe, the current Latin American nations, China, Sri Lanka, and Japan. However, the Naga cult assumed special importance in India, and unlike the other nations it took a more developed form with many interesting variations, and was also more widely distributed. India is also a country which always had a wide distribution of a variety of snakes, and the large number of deaths that took place from their venomous bites explain why the serpents or Nagas were feared, respected, and worshipped from prehistoric era.

Manasa devi, the Goddess of Serpents. Popularly worshipped still today in the states of West Bengal and Odisha.
Textual references to Nagas

There are innumerable references to the Naga worship cult in the ancient Indian scriptures , such as the Vedas, Epics, Sutras and in many other literature. While the worship of the Naga was in its initial stages in the Rig-Veda, it became a regular object of worship in the Yajurveda, with offerings of various sacrificial items. The Rigvedic term Ahi budhyna, meaning the “serpent of the Deep” could be a represention of an atmospheric deity, with a figurative form of a serpent. Atharvaveda gives more details of the Naga worship and is filled with many charms and incantations against snakes, and also describes a rite for gaining the favour of the Naga devta on the full moon day in the month of Agrahāyaṇa/Mārgaśīra. Atharvaveda also mentions names of many snake gods (such as Asita, Rabhru, Kairata, Prsna, Apodaka, Taimata, etc) in different contexts, and sometimes associates them with the gandharvas, yaksas (punyajanas), apsaras:

Gandhravapsarasah sarpandevanpunyajananpitrrn |

Five such snake gods Tirasciraji, Prdaku, Svajo, Kalmasagrivo, and Svitro are believed to be the protectors of the southern, western, northern, eastern, and upper quarters. In Atharvaveda there is the first mention of the famous Taksaka described as the descendant of Visala (Taksako Vaisaleyo). The Epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) are also full of references to the Nagas in various ways. Dhrtarastra the son of Iravant is said to be the person who milked poison, (the subsistence of the nagas) from Viraj (Universe), and is mentioned as the best of the Nagas in Mahabharata. Mahabharata also mentions another Naga by the name Manimat, alluding to the belief that snakes bear jewels on their hoods. This belief is an ancient one, and as Varahamihira says “the snakes of the lineage of Taksaka and Vasuki and the snakes roaming at will (kamagah) have bright blue tinged pearls in their hoods” (Brhatsamhita, LXXXXI, 25).

Naga devi, Rajarani temple, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, photo by Kevin Standage (taken from pinterest)

The Nagas found a place of great importance among the Vedic and post Vedic deities, and the Gryhya Sutras include a ritual known as Sarpabali , which was an annual rite that took place for four months during the rainy seasons, and was held specifically for two fold reasons: honouring the nagas and also warding off all evil from them. The tradition of worshipping the Ashtanagas (Taksaka, Vasuki, Ananata/ Sesha,  Karkotaka, Shankhapala, Gulika, Padma and Mahapadma), and Manasa (the goddess of snakes, very popular in West Bengal and Odisha even today) during the monsoons, and on Nag Panchami day (in the month of Shravan) are a modern day continuation of the Sarpabali ritual.

Manasa devi being worshipped in Sunderbans, West Bengal. Photo from Wikipedia
Manasa devi, Pala era 12th c. CE, Bengal, Rubin Museum of Art, New York

Besides Hinduism, Nagas have also found a place of significance in Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and in other local and regional cults, as clearly evident from their religious monuments, sculptures, paintings, literature, tradition, and folk tales. The Buddhist text Cullavagga (v. 6) names four tribes of snake kings that are: Virupakkha, Erapatha (Elapatra), Chabyaputta, and Kanhagotamaka, of which the first two are well known in many Buddhist texts. The Buddhist texts also refer to the Naga chiefs Mucalinda, Apalala, Kaliya, etc. who all pay respects to Buddha in various contexts. Similarly Krishna’s victory over the Naga Kaliya in Mathura, speaks of the domination of the Krishna sect (Vaishnvism) over the more primitive Naga cult.

Interestingly the census report of 1891 prepared by the the British government in India contains a detailed account of the distribution and number of snake worshippers in different parts of the country. At that time “there were 35,356 worshippers of Naga and 12,2991 worshippers of Snake hero Guga pir with other groups in the United provinces of Agra and Oudh, In Punjab 35,344 worshipped Guga,”1 James Fergusson in his book “Tree and Serpent worship” has written about the worship of live snakes in Manipur and Sambalpur (Orissa). A snake temple at Calicut kept many live Cobras that were taken care of by the priests and worshippers. The snakes were carefully protected and allowed themselves to be handled and made into necklaces by those who fed them. They were worshipped as representing the spirits of ancestors.2

1. Census Reports of India, 1891.
2. M.A.Handley, Roughing it in South India, London, 1911,p,70.

ICONOGRAPHIC DEVELOPMENT

Apart from ancient Vedic and other literature to the medieval era texts that give innumerable descriptions of Naga worship, there are also epigraphic records that show the Nagas in primarily three different iconographic forms:

  • In the first form the serpent is many headed.
  • In the second type, it is shown in a human form with a polycephalous serpent hood.
  • The third type combines the two, where the upper part is that of a human body while the the lower half is that of a coiled snake.
First form: the serpent is many headed. Cambodian seven-headed naga at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. (Photo from Wikipedia)
The second type: a human form with a polycephalous serpent hood. A granite Nagaraja  from Sri Lanka,  (800 to 900 CE). Now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in West London. (Photo from Wikipedia.).
Third type: a combination of the first two, where the upper part is that of a human body while the the lower half is that of a coiled snake. Naga and Nagini in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. (photo from Wikipedia).

The Nagas appear early in the Indic religious scenario as evident from the excavation finds from the Harappan culture. Among them, there are two seals from Mohenjo daro that depict a seated deity in yoga posture, with two kneeling figures one on either side, and behind each figure is seen a snake head raised with expanded hood . Besides these, snakes have been found painted on Harappan potteries, and a clay amulet has been found where a snake figure is seen in front of a low stool on which there seems to be some kind of an offering.

Harappan seal showing serpents

The iconographic traits of the Nagas as found defined in the Mayasamgraha says that Nagas have two tongues and hands, 7 hoods with jewels on them, in one hand they carry aksmala or jaomala, and have curling tails as their lower body part. The Naga women and children have one or three hoods. In Vishnudharmottara, Ananata Naga is depicted as four armed, having many hoods with bhu-devi standing o the cengtral hood. In his two right hands should be placed a lotus and a pestle, while his left hands should carry a plough and a sankha. There are further mentions of ‘sea of liquor’, ‘palm tree,’ and various other things that show a definite connection with Samkarsana/ Balarama. The text Silparatna (compiled in 17th century) say that Nagas are humans from naval upwards, and their lower parts are serpentine. There are hoods encircling their heads and their numbers vary from 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9. They should have two tongues, and in their two hands should be shown a sword and a shield.

Some of the earliest representations of Nagas in the historic period are of Elapatra and Chakravaka on Bharhut railings (2nd c. BCE). Both are full humans with five hooded snake heads on top and in namaskara mudra showing respect to Buddha.

Elapattra worshipping Buddha (Bharhut), Courtesy: Vogel J (Wikipedia)

It is the Naga images found from Mathura area dating back to the Kushana period that depict them as strong cult objects enshrined by their devotees. A Naga image found in Chargaon near Mathura is a typical cult object with 7 hoods and serpent coils visible both in front. Here the dual nature of the Naga devta is shown by sculpting a human being standing in front of the polycephalous snake. This form is very similar to what we see in Balarama. In fact such Naga murtis often still receive worship in the villages, but under different names where they are referred to as Dauji ( elder brother) or Baldeo ( Balarama). With the decline of Kushana empire the Naga worship cult spread in and around North and Central India where they found other royal patronages. This is corroborated by the fact that innumerable epigraphic, numismatic, and literary evidences have been found at Taxila, Padmavati, Vidisa, Mathura, Kantipura, and Ayodhya that talk of Naga worship. From the few available coins of a ruler named Virasena ( his capital was at Mathura) are seen the images of a serpent rising over the throne on which a female figure is seated (could be devi Ganga) holding a kalasha in her raised right hand. The coins of three kings Kumudasena, Dhanadeva, and Visakhadeva (likely kings of Ayodhya between 150 BCE and 100 CE) depict snakes as one of the symbols on them.

Standing Naga Deity Installed by Senahasty and Bhanuka in the Time of 40 Year of Kushan Emperor Huvishka – Circa 2nd Century CE – Chargaon . (Wikipedia)

The Naga family of Mayurbhanja ( Odisha) known as the Virata Bhujanga /Vairata / Virata, had Naga deva as their kul devta, The Patamundi hill near Puradaharis was once a seat of a Naga devi, which bore a testimony with the carved image of Kinchaka Naga. Another example of the Naga cult was seen at the excavation site of Maniyar matha in Rajgir, which held a temple built in the Gupta period dedicated to the Nagas, and was known as Naga-Ghara.

Mani Naga and Swastika, Naga devtas, Kushana era, 2nd c. CE, Rajgir.

This strong Naga cult however lost its importance in the northern part of India from the time of the Gupta period, as is evident from the fact that they turned into accessories of the higher gods, especially Vishnu. While their hybrid iconographic form was continued, but when shown as Sesha or Ananta Naga with Vishnu sitting or lying down on it, they were depicted as huge polycepahlous snakes.

Vishnu on Sesha Naga, Dasavatara temple, Deogarh. Gupta period. photo from Wikipedia


In South India the Naga worship has a stronger presence even today, and it is common to find Kavu or snake groves ( resembling the Nagavana of North India) usually known as Vishattam kavu or poison shrine or Nagakotta. That Naga worship was prevalent in Southern India from ancient times is known from an inscription at Banavasi written in Kannara, which records the erection of a snake stone in the middle of the 1st c. CE. Snake stones are still common in almost all villages in south India, and they are also frequently seen under vata or asthwa trees within temple complexes, or in separate shrines inside large temple complexes.

Snake stones in a temple in Kanchipuram, TN
Naga devta, Kakatiya dyasty (12th c. CE), Telengana.
Naga devtas in their separate shrine at Brihadesvara Peruvudaiyar temple in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu
Sarpa Kavu at Sakthanthamburan palace, Thrissur, Kerala (Wikipedia)

Naga Stone, Karnataka.

References

J. Fergusson, Tree and Serpent Worship. London,1873.

J.P. Vogel, Indian Serpent Lore, London, 1926.

A. Cunningham, The Stupa of Bharhut, London, 1879.

V.A.Smith, Catalogue of the coins of the Indian Museum, Calcutta, 1907, pp.148-50.

N.N.Vasu, Archeological Survey of Mayurbhanja, Vol.I, Calcutta, 1912

V.S.Agrawala, Ancient Indian Folk Cults, New Delhi, 1970.

TAG Rao, Hindu temple iconography, 1914.

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