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Naga Panchami
Nag Panchami

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 family.

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 snake’s 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.



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