Tuesday, 24 July 2012


“Even if a snake is not poisonous, it should pretend to be venomous.” - Chanakya

Naag Panchami, or the Festival of Snakes, is celebrated in India on this day today. Snake worship has ancient roots and is found worldwide in many cultures. It probably owes its origin to humans’ natural fear of these reptiles. Hindu mythology is full of stories and fables about snakes, the most important being the Sheshnaga of Lord Vishnu (it is on this snake that Lord Vishnu reclines while sleeping in the sea).

Naag Panchami is one of the most ancient feasts in India and also finds mention in the Puranas (a class of Sanskrit sacred writings containing Hindu legends and folklore of varying date and origin, the most ancient of which dates from the 4th century AD). This feast day is believed to be one of the most auspicious days of the entire year. According to the Bhavishya Purana, when men bathe snakes with milk, on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Shravan, they ensure freedom from danger for their families.

There are a number of legends associated with Naag Pancahmi. One has it that on this day, while tilling his land, a farmer accidentally killed some young serpents. The mother of these serpents took revenge by biting and killing the farmer and his family, except his one daughter, who happened to be praying to the Nagas (in Indian mythology members of a semidivine race, part human and part cobra in form, associated with water and sometimes with mystical initiation). This act of devotion by the daughter resulted in the resurrection of the farmer and the rest of his family. It is understandable then, that on this day, ploughing a field is forbidden.

There is yet another legend related to this festival. Young Lord Krishna was playing with the other cowherds near the river Yamuna, when their ball got entangled in the high branch of a tree. Krishna volunteered to climb the tree and fetch the ball. Below the tree, by the river used to live a terrible snake called Kaliya. When Krishna fell from the tree into the water, the terrible snake came up with anger, but Krishna started jumping on its head. Finally, Kaliya said sorry to Lord Krishna and he forgave the snake and let it go free. Since then, on Nag Panchami day, the victory of Krishna over the Kaliya snake is commemorated.

In India, snakes are so revered that temples have also been erected in their honour. There is a particularly famous temple in Mysore, at a place called Subramania (Sheshnaga). The Naga culture was fairly widespread in India before the Aryan invasion, and continues to be an important segment of worship in certain areas. After the invasion, the Indo-Aryans incorporated the worship of snakes into Hinduism. The thousand-headed Ananta is Vishnu’s couch and also holds up the earth, while snakes play an ornamental role in the iconography of Shiva.

In celebrating of Naag Panchami women fast on this day and they draw images of snakes on the walls of their houses with a mixture of cowdung, milk and black powder. Offerings of milk, ghee, sweets, water and rice are also made at sites of snake holes in the countryside. Devotees consider themselves lucky if snakes drink the offered milk.

The festival is mainly observed in Southern India, Maharashtra and Bengal. In Jodhpur, huge cloth effigies of the serpents are displayed at major fairs. Also in West Bengal and parts of Assam and Orissa, the snake deity worshipped on Naga Panchami is the goddess Manasa. In Kerala, huge crowds throng snake temples on this day to worship stone or metal icons of the cosmic serpent Ananta or Sesha. The Serpent God or Naag Devta is worshipped in many other places in India.

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