It is on the fifth day of the bright half of the Shravan that Naga Panchami, or the festival of snakes, is celebrated. The setting sun is witness to mile-long processions of gaily-decorated bullock carts, cheerfully trundling to the nearby Shiva temple. The excitement and merry-go-round of a fair takes over, lasting well into the night. The snakes that the men had captured from the deep forests the week before can now return to where they came from.
Snake worship no doubt owes its origin to man's natural fear of these
reptiles. Hindu books are filled with stories and fables about snakes,
and pictures and images of them meet you at every turn. Worshippers
search for holes where snakes are likely to be found. When they have
found a hole, they make periodic visits, placing before it milk,
bananas, and other food that the snake is likely to fancy.
Because of its cyclical moulting, the serpent is believed to be
immortal by the Hindus, and eternity is thus illustrated in the form of
a serpent eating its tail. Temples have also been erected in honour of
snakes. There is a particularly famous one in Mysore, at a place called
Subramania, which is also the name of the great snake (it is on this
snake that Lord Vishnu reclines while sleeping in the sea), so often
mentioned in Hindu fables.
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, as is apparent in prevailing worship and
mythology. The thousand-headed Ananta is Vishnu's couch and also holds
up the earth, while snakes play an ornamental role in the case of Shiva.
Snake worship is more common in peninsular India than in the north. On
this day, ploughing a field is forbidden. Legend 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 one daughter, who happened to
be praying to the Nagas. This act of devotion resulted in the revival of
the farmer and the rest of his family.
On this day, the women draw figures of snakes on the walls of their
houses using a mixture of black powder, cow dung and milk. Then
offerings of milk, ghee, water and rice are made. It is believed that in
reward for this worship, snakes will never bite any member of the
In Maharashtra, snake charmers go from house to house carrying dormant
cobras in cane baskets, asking for alms and clothing. This festival
heralds the arrival of Ganesha, almost exactly one month later.
In Kerala, snake temples are crowded on this day and worship is offered
to stone or metal icons of the cosmic serpent Ananta or Sesha. Altars in
many Kerala homes have a silver or copper cobra that is worshipped and
offered milk and sweets as families pray for the welfare of their
children and for prosperity.
In Punjab, the festival is celebrated in September-October and is
called Guga Naumi. A snake made of dough is taken round the village in a
basket, and an offering of flour and butter is made from each house. The
'snake' is then buried.
In West Bengal and parts of Assam and Orissa, the snake deity
worshipped on Naga Panchami is the goddess Manasa.
Lord Krishna and the Kaliya Snake:
Nag Panchami is also connected with the following legend of Krishna.
Young Krishna was playing with the other cowboys, when suddenly the ball
got entangled in the high branch of a tree. Krishna volunteered to climb
the tree and fetch the ball. But below the tree there was a deep part of
the river Yamuna, in which the terrible snake Kaliya was living.
Everybody was afraid of that part of the river.
Suddenly Krishna fell from the tree into the water. Then that terrible
snake came up. But Krishna was ready and jumping on the snakes
head he caught it by the neck. Kaliya understood that Krishna was not an
ordinary boy, and that it would not be easy to overcome him. So Kaliya
pleaded with Krishna: Please, do not kill me. Krishna full
of compassion asked the snake to promise that henceforth he would not
harass anybody. Then he let the snake go free into the river again.
On Nag Panchami day the victory of Krishna over the Kaliya snake is
commemorated. For this reason Krishna is known as Kaliya Mardan.
Snakes are believed to like milk. As this is the day of the serpents,
devotees pour milk into all the holes in the ground around the house or
near the temple to propitiate them. Sometimes, a small pot of milk with
some flowers is placed near the holes so that the snakes may drink it.
If a snake actually drinks the milk, it is considered to be extremely
lucky for the devotee. The festival is celebrated with much enthusiasm
by all, especially women.
As most rivers in India are in spate during the month of Shriven,
poisonous snakes come out of their subterranean abodes and creep about
in plenty all over the place. Many also float on flooded rivers running
through the countryside. Mortality from snakebites must have been
considerable to prompt people to worship the nagas to seek protection
from them. Because of the fear, nagas were elevated to a divine status
by the Hindus. The serpents are believed to have the capability to
change their shape at will. When in human form, they are depicted as
beautiful women and handsome men.
Naga Panchami is observed indifferent ways in different parts of India.
It is one of the most ancient fasts, and finds mention in the Puranas.
It is believed to be one of the most auspicious days of the entire year.
According to the Bhavishya Purana, when men bathe the snakes called
Vasuki, Takshaka, Kaliya, Manibhadra, Airavata, Dhritarashtra, Karkotaka
and Dhananjaya with milk on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of
Shriven, they ensure freedom from danger for their families.
In some parts of southern India, figures of snakes are drawn with red
sandalwood paste on wooden boards, or clay images of snakes coloured
yellow or black are purchased. These are then worshipped and offered
milk. Snake charmers wander about with all sorts of snakes, to which
people offer milk. The snake charmers are paid some money for allowing
this Serpent worship developed gradually from the fear of serpents that
must have taken a heavy toll on life, particularly at the beginning of
the rainy season. In the Ashvalayana Grihyasutra, the Paraskara
Grihyasutra and other Grihyasutras, a rite called Sarpabali or
'offerings to serpents' was performed on the full moon night of Shriven.
However the reason that it was moved from the full moon night to that of
the fifth night of the bright fortnight is not apparent. It may be due
to the slight change in the time of the onset of the rains.