NĀGA CULT IN INDIA
The beginning of Nāga worship and the Nāga cult is shrouded in obscurity in India. As snakes are found across the country and people inhabited those regions, they must have come in contact from a very early stage of human colonization. Snake bite leading to death might have been treated like natural calamities, culminating fear and subsequently revering it. Here an attempt has been made to look for references of Nāgas evidenced in various literary sources as well as in the archeological contexts. This chapter takes a brief review of the mention of Nāgas in various religious and secular literatures. Besides taking a review of literature a brief description of the Nāga sculptures found from the archaeological excavation as well as from other archeological contexts are documented. The attempt here is also taken to understand the association of Nāga cult with other major contemporary religions i.e. Jainism and Buddhism, apart from other Brahmanical sects.
One thing we need to note at the outset is that , Naga ( Serpent ) worship is not just an isolated event that is found in India only. On a global perspective , Serpent worship has been found in ancients Lands of Egypt, Babylonia , Assyria, Persia as well. As we will also witness in this blog , that when it comes to the Indus Saraswati Civilization or Harappa civilization for the matter , we have archaeological evidence to support that Serpent Worship was popular in the Indus Valley Civilization as well.
When it comes to Egypt, we have clear evidence that the Earliest dynasties and the Middle Kingdom dynasties were Serpent followers. The Serpent can be found on the headdress of the Pharaohs of both these dynasties. It is probable that , when Egypt came under the occupation of the Greeks , the status of the Serpent in ancient Egypt underwent a full reversal. From being The Good One to being later showcased as the Evil One.
Another important factor to be noted is that, the spread of mankind has been from the African continent. And mankind has been on this planet for quite a long time. It should not come to us as a surprise, if we witness ancient traditions which had origins in the African continent to have crossed over to newer territories including India, when mankind started moving out of the African continent.
Many researchers and scholars are in agreement that The Indus Valley Civilization could have been contemporary to the Ancient Sumerians and the Ancient Egyptian civilization. From the various seals that have been found in this three Cradles of Human Civilization, it has been ascertained that , trade was definitely happening among these lands.
If we give ourselves a non-myopic view of the entire geography of the area spanning from Indus Valley to Ancient Egypt, we would be able to see, that along with Trade , Cultural and Religious ideologies were also in exchange . At this point , we need to keep in mind that , in the Southern Indian state of Kerala , there is a Temple dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess “ ISIS “ . Interestingly, The Nairs of Kerala, who have ruled the state of Kerala for several hundred years are “Serpent Worshippers “.
The Indian Epic “ Mahabharata “ gives us a clear account that during that period , Ahikhsetra ( Ahichchatra ) in today’s Uttar Pradesh was the epicenter of the Nagas. “ Ahi “ means Serpent or Snake and “Khsetra “ means Area or Land. The greatest irony that mankind has had is that , most people consider the texts of the Mahabaharata in literal sense. And because these ancient texts, mention the “ Nagas “ as semi-divine or a Half Snake , Half Human form, we fail to realize that , the texts are actually pointing us to an ancient Race of People , who were the original inhabitants of the Country of India.
The “ Nagas “ were a Race of people who were serpent worshippers. Historically, today most researchers and scholars agree, that the inhabitants of the Indus-Saraswati civilization were the Dravidian people of India.
Another important connection which we find between the Dravidian people of India and the Land of Ancient Egypt is that , in Dravidian temples , the Indian Sphinx “Purusha-Mriga “ is often found carved on the temple walls or as a sculpture in other cases and even worshipped. This important link, cannot just be considered as a mere co-incidence. Because, there are ancient texts as well , to support , why the Indian Sphinx should be prayed to. Had it been a sculptors, mere imagination , there would not have been elaborate texts to be found for the same.
While, this Blog will be pertaining to ancient Indian literature in respect to the “Nagas” of India only, we need to keep our minds open to a very important mysterious connection between India and The Lands of Ancient Egypt, Assyria , Babylonia and Persia. We will look into the greater mysterious connection of the Nagas from a global perspective in a later blog.
Now, the evidences related to the worship of snakes, one of the most remarkable and primitive forms of religion can be seen in various ways in earlier religious institutions of India. Snakes got a powerful hold upon the imagination of people because of several rituals and local customs are associated with this creature. The origin and gradual development of thought and ritual through different ages is very difficult to trace. Therefore, this practice has remained more or less mysterious among different socio-cultural and religious beliefs of India. However, the human psychology could perhaps provide reasons for the continuation of this practice even today. Snakes have a ubiquitous distribution and the threat of the loss of life due to these animals creates makes some sort of fear in human mind. This threat might have been one of the reasons leading to the worship of this animal. While the animal is dreaded on one side, it is admired on another side. This is because of the mysterious stories associated with this animal and also due to its unusual motion. People believe that snakes are the symbol of immortality and purification as its habit of stripping its skin on a regular basis. A closer analysis of Nāga Cult can help to trace pertinent Indian sources on the basis of its chronological. The snake as a symbol enters into the various mythology of the world over (Hartel 1979).
The practice of snake worship in India is an age-old system and has lots of stories to tell in the socio-religious aspect. During the earliest stages of the growth of religious ideas, it seems, it was conceived that the animal world to be superior to them. Naturally, snakes which are un-canniest of all animals became a symbol to express their ideas of divinity.
NĀGA IN DIFFERENT RELIGIOUS TEXTS
The occurrences of the Nāga worship can be seen in various ancient literatures especially Vedas, Epics, Sūtras, Purānās and other secular texts.
1) Vedas: Vedic texts mentions the word mostly used for snake is ‘Ahi'. The term ‘Ahi’ stands for expressing the fear of the snake. Simultaneously it wonders for its uncommon form and admires its beauty. These characters might have been the reason for the beginning of the snake-worship or the direct adoration of this animal. Rig-Veda mentions about the initial and developing stages of Nāga worship and it became a regular deity for worship by Yajurvedic people (Pratap 1990). The Rig-Veda records the sacrificial offerings that were started in the name of Nāga during this period (Arrowsmith 1972). Atharva Veda deals with numerous charms and prayers against Nāgas and also mentions a rite of propitiations on the full moon day of Mārgaśīrśa ( Also known as Purushamriga ). Atharvaveda shows Nāgas are associated with Vedic and post Vedic divinities as the protectors of the quarters. Snakes have been identified as divine beings and also expressed a desire for their destruction (Chand 1999; Macdonell 2004; Vogel 1926). This shows that the Snake worship probably originated out of fear.
2) Sūtra: The earlier sacred texts Sūtras contain instruction as to when and how the offering to the snakes should be made. Grihya- Sūtras, a secular text gives the details of annual ritual, ‘Sarppabali’. This ritual were conducted for two purposes; first one related to the honouring the snake and the next related to warding away of any kind of evils. ‘Asvalāyana Sutra’ says that offering the sacrifices is the way to gratify the Nāga. The ‘Paraskara Grihya Sūtra’ also gives the details of sacrificial rites to the Nāgas (Sastri 1985).
3) Mai- trāyani Samhitā: It tells about homage to the snakes. It can move along with the earth. It tells us that the snakes can live both on land and water. As mentioned above snakes are called by specific names in the early group of texts. The peculiar characterization leads to the adoration of snakes. The worship of snakes as semi-divine beings stands as the deities of the waters, springs and rivers. This development takes place in to the sub consciousness of a popular myth of a big demoniacal as well as divine dragon which is closely connected with the extensive myths of the storm and the struggle of light with darkness (Keith 1986; Basu 1979).
4) Epics and Purānās: In the famous Indian epics, Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana as well as in the Purānās, genealogical stories about the divine origin of the Nāgas were mentioned. The narrations of the stories of famous Nāgas were also mentioned. The names of such famous Nāgas vary and mentioned not only with Nāgaraja but also with Nāga devas. They were considered as the guardians of underworld wealth, health and offspring. It also tells us about the physical feature and the inviolability of the Nāga. There are many stories regarding the sanctity and the dreadful nature of the Nāgas both in Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ādiparva, opening of epic Mahabharata, is rich in myths and stories related to the Nāga. This also discusses about the myth related to the birth of Nāga. It also explains the story of enmity between Garuda and Nāga. The story of Nāga Padmanābha and the struggle between Krishna and Kāliya mentioned in Mahābhārata vividly show the characters of snake and their both destructive and benevolent nature. The murders of King Parikśit by the Takśakan, the hostility between the Nāga and Pāndava etc. are also mentioned in Epic literature (Fausboll 1981; Nair 1993; Vogal 1926; Vitsaxis 1977).
5) Vaiśnava mythology: Vāyupurāna mentions the name of some of the Nāgas in Pātāla as Naimichi, Kāliya, Hayagrīva, Takśaka, Hemaka, Kalanemi, and Vasuki (Aiyar 1914). Nāgas were also mentioned in Jātaka stories such as story of ‘Nāga and the bird’, ‘Foolish rafts men and the angry Nāga’, and ‘The Nāga Pandura who let his secret out. Nāgas were also seen in different fable and fairy tales like the stories of ‘The Gold grading Snake and the poor Brahmin, ‘the maiden that wedded a Snake’ etc. The ‘Bhāgavatha and Vishnu Purāna’ also mention the cosmic snake Ananta being both the source and physical support of all creation. Ananta means endless is also called Śeśa or Adiśeśa. The ‘Matsyapurāna’ tells that when “all creatures are consumed by fire at the end of the Yuga, Śeśa only will remain (Akhtar 1972; Banergea 1968; Mani 1999; Wilson 1986).
6) Jataka: Jataka is a story about the collection of tales of the repeated births and deaths-of the Bodhisattva. Different types of Nāga stories were mentioned in these tales. The stories were exclusively related to the Nāga. These are, virtuous Nāga Śankhapāla, and Nāga Champaka who were caught by a snake charmer, the pious layman and the barbar, prince Padma sheltered by Nāga, Nāga Pāndūra who let his secret out, the old well, the King Sēnaka received a charm from a Nāgaraja, the story of Dārdara; the exiled Nāga and the bird (Oldham 1988; Vogel 1926).
Apart from these, some foreign writers have also dealt with the theme of Nāga worship in India. Writers mentioned that snakes were getting priority and treated probably as a God during the invasion of Alexander. Such kinds of references also help to provide evidences of the existence of Nāga worship in India during the later centuries before the Christian era. Some of these descriptions satisfy with the rites which are still practised today at the ‘Nāgapanchami’ and Āyilyam ceremonies (Bunce 2000; Rose 1986).
EVIDENCES OF NĀGA WORSHIP; ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOURCES
The earliest evidences of snake representations in archaeological contexts can be traced as early as to the prehistoric period as the evidence are found in paintings on rock shelters in India found at Bhimbetka, Lekhania and Mahadaria (Wakankar 2005) (Plate 3.1). The evidence of the snakes has also been found in a number of Harappan sites. They appear at the archaeological sites in Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal. The materials which were found from these sites include terracotta figurines, depiction on potsherds and seals with the depictions (Kaul 2008) (Plate 3.2). Two of such examples come from the site of Lothal. One of these specimens without head and the other is a depiction of two upright snakes below a tree on a pottery fragment (Hartel 1976; Ravindran 1993) (Plate 3.3). These two examples give the idea about the probable relation between tree and Snake worship in India. In another depiction, the representation of two snakes entering and leaving an ant-hill was found on pottery from the same site (Plate 3.4). This depiction shows that the snakes guard the treasures of the earth or probably pot containing wealth. The theme resembles with the concept of snake as a guardian of treasure. The worships of ant-hills in relation to Nāga worships can still be seen throughout India. The illustrations of Harappan period showed theriomorphic or zoomorphic figure with a ‘single hood’ (mono-cephalous) snake rather than ‘multi hooded’ (poly-cephalous) mythical snakes has evidenced. Other than terracotta and pottery, seals are the other objects that depict snakes. The depictions on seals, sealing and amulets explain about Nāga cult not directly, but in an indirect way. One of the seals from Mohenjo-Daro shows a ‘divinity seating on a platform with its legs bent and is honoured by two kneeling adorers’ and an erect mono-cephalous snake just behind the figure (Harlet1976, Kaul 2008; Suresh 2000; Nair 1993) (Plate 3.5).
However, the representation of snake during the above periods though does not give the direct evidence of its association in religious aspect or worship of Nāga cult but suggest their presence of importance. Yet, it also cannot be denied that the Nāga association with culture was not prevailing in those periods.
The pictorial representations of snakes were rare during the second and first millennium B.C.E. After the decline of Indus valley civilization, the material evidences were very scarce and it is difficult to explain the religious background of Nāga worship in India on the basis of such evidences. On the other hand, this was the time of the emergence of sacred secular texts like Vedas and Puranas. Such texts help to draw cultural and historical events and the presence of Nāga in the society (Nair 1993).
The earlier images of Nāga after Indus valley civilization started to appear in the second century B.C.E in the form of stone reliefs of many Stūpas. The snake representations are found in the reliefs of Bharhūt Stupa of 2nd century B.C.E and Stūpa at Sanchi. The Nāgas were revered by constructing huge stone images near to the irrigation dam (Shaw 2000). All the depictions in Bharhūt Stupa belong to anthropomorphic category. Depiction of Nāgas can be seen in the railing, gateways, bas reliefs and pillars of Bharhūt Stupa. One of the depictions is a standing five hooded Nāga with two female attendants in the shape of Nāginis are seen in the medallion relief on a railing pillar at Bharhūt (Plate 3.6).The female attendants to the sides of the five hooded Nāga are represented in Therio-anthropomorphic style. Both were having Jatāmakuta with necklaces and ear rings. Another depiction of Nāga can be seen in the pillar relief showing a male wearing dhoti with turban on his head. Five snake hoods like a canopy were depicted at the back of the image. This typical anthropomorphic Nāga hooded figure is termed as Nāgarāja (Vogel 1926) (Plate 3.7). The relief from Bharhūt as a whole can explain the importance of male Nāga divinity in all his dignity as a worshipper of Buddha (Plate 3.8). Sometimes these figures are found directly related to plants and leaves. The Nāgarāja figure from the pillar relief stand in a tree leaves basement. As a whole, Nāga figures from Bharhūt Stupa have shown in all three varieties like theriomorphic, anthropomorphic and therio-anthropomorphic. So it can be assumed that these three image classification of Nāga figures started to become visible in the earlier periods of millennium B. C. Nāgas as a poly-cephalous with five hooded mythical snake can be seen in the tops of Bharhūt, Sanchi, Amrāvati and the frescoes of Ajanta (De 1954).
The next evidences are available from the region of Mathura, a home of most popular art school of Ancient India and a great centre of Nāga worship. Number of Nāga sculptures had been evidenced during 1stcentury C.E. from this place. The oldest Nāga sculpture, belonging to 100 В.С. was found from Mathura and now placed in State Museum, Lucknow. The particular oldest figure has lot of similarity with famous old Yaksa image of that particular art school. The life sized figure is in a standing posture with lower garment and edged by seven-snake hood at the back of collapsed head. It might have been used for worship due to its independent pattern and measurement. Another important Nāga figure with seven-hood accompanied by two female Nāginis are preserved in State Museum, Mathura (Plate 3.9). A group of four male and five female worshippers of completely human shape with two children are depicted in a line. An interesting feature is that, all these anthropomorphic nāga figures are holding one third of snake body in their left arm. However it can be explained as the particular figure deliberately wanted to attach a mythical Nāga aspect with his character (De 1954; Hartel 1976; Panda 1986; Nair 1993; Suresh 2000).
There are different types of Nāga images in Mathura sometimes similar to life size Nāga image or sometime small and images depicted on railing or single figures. Similarly this is the basic theme of Nāga worship in Central Kerala. Here the south-western portion of the house compound always left for the worship of snake Gods and call it as sacred grooves or Sarppakkāvu. Atmosphere of sacred groves include the above mentioned water body (pond or kulam), garden (canopy of forest) and images of Nāga.
Nāga and Nāgini images became quite common in around 7th – 8th century C.E in northern and eastern part of India. The temples like Mukteswar and subsequent temples have beautifully carved images of Nāga and Nāginis (Plate 3.10). Besides this the depiction of Anantaśayanam Śeśasāyi at Deogarh temple during Gupta period tells the affiliation of snake in Vaiśnavite faith (Plate 3.11). The Tirthankara image (Plate 3.12) and the Nāgarāja image at Ajanta reveal their popularity (Plate 3.13).
There are several inscriptions which explain different aspects of Nāga worship with different names (Sanskrit inscription preserved in Lucknow Museum). All these different types of inscriptions give homage to Nāga worship during the early centuries of Christian era. On other hand, some inscriptions give the idea of a close connection between Nāga images and water bodies and also explain the donation of Nāga images. Several epigraphic and numismatic evidences clarify that the Northern and Central India witnessed the establishment of kingdom associated with Nāga cult after the decline of the Kuśana rule. Several coins of rulers like Virasena, Visakhadeva, Dhanadeva and Kumundasena depicted a snake image during early years of Christian era (Kaul 2008; Panda 1986).
Nāga Cult was also prominent in Bihar during the early historic period. For instance, a circular brick structure popularly known as the Maniyār - Math is situated at Rajagriha in Bihar. It is a collapsed brick structure and ten stucco-images are arranged around the base of this structure. Following figures are being represented: Śiva-liņga, Viśnu, two Nāgas, Nāgini, Ganeśa, three Nāgas again and Siva (Hartel 1976; Nayar 1993) (Plate 3. 14). These images belong to 5th century C.E and they illustrate Nāga cult as a part of the Hindu pantheon. But excavations in the peripheries of the Maniyār Math unearthed two earlier structural phases below the circular brick structure. The earliest structural phase belongs to the first century В.C.E (Panda 1986). Terracotta figures of snakes and other animals were found from the excavation. Most important findings were that of a group of terracotta cobra hoods forms the necks of vessels. The exact period of the particular figures has not been dated. Eight Nāga in a standing posture were found in the reverse side of a carved stone relief panel from the excavation. Nāgini figures are also depicted in the left and niche of a stone relief. Base of the panel has one inscription which extracted and explains the meaning that it is dedicated to ‘Mani-Nāga’. The particular mythical name of Nāga also is very common in almost all part of Central Kerala. Two Nāgas in a standing posture accompanied by attendants were also found from the obverse side of the stone relief. The style of inscription suggested that it can be placed in the date of the second century C.E (Hartel 1976).
Another evidence of Nāga image was found on an excavation done by the archaeological team of the Berlin Museum of Indian Art at Sonkh, Mathura in 1971 (Kaul 2008). The excavation revealed stone image of Ćāmardevi, Ćāmundã or Kāli with the representation of seven hooded Nāgarāja. A theriomorphic seven headed snake depiction was shown on the reverse side. Another relief on stone was collected from a private house near the temple was a piece of a carved door-relief. It shows a mounting ornamented male figure and also holds a three-hooded snake with his right arm. This depiction explains, the male figure is not fighting with snake whereas trying to taking out from the hidden area (Plate 3.15).
Excavation of the temple at Sonkh also unearthed seven hooded Cobra image on terracotta. Apart from this two more stone images were also recovered. First one was three hooded image of Nāgini; Abhaya-mudrā on right hand and holds a snake in the left hand (Plate 3.16). This terracotta Nāga image is dated to early Kuśana period of 100 C.E on the basis of some coins of Wima Kadphises and KanishkaI were unearthed from this excavation (Hartel 1976; Panda 1989). Northern and Central India had fallen under control of foreign invaders from Bactria during Pre-Kuśana period. These rulers had a better attitude towards a multi religious tolerance. This freedom of worship becomes noticeable in the artistic innovations discovered in Pre-Kuśana sites and this influences lead depiction of anthropomorphic and theriomorphic figures of Nāgas and Nāginis together in an elaborated canvas.
The snake deity worshipped as a tutelary god has been evidence from Odisha. The images of Nāga and Nāginis were discovered from many parts of Odisha. Some of these images are shown snakes in two hands. Female Nāga images were holding snake on left hand the right shows Varada mudra whereas some other deities holding pot in left hand and Varada pose on right hand. In Mayurbhanj a dynasty is known by the name of Virata Bhujanga or Virata. Evidences of Snake worship by this dynasty are found many places of Mayurbhanj. In Orissa there is also mentioning of female deity called as Nāgamātha; holding a child in left and Nāga on right hand (De 1954). Ancient image of two armed seven-hooded Nāga Goddess in a seating posture has been discovered in the Tundara village at Balasore district (Panda 1986; Panda 2004). The composite figure of snake (Therio-anthropomorphic) frequently appears in the temples of Mukteswar dated to 8-9th century C.E (Plate 3.17). This depiction becomes a regular feature in the subsequent temples in Odisha.
South India is famous for Nāga worship in different forms, sacred grooves or Sarppakkāvūs are used as a ritual space for all kind of Nāga worship. Sacred grooves in Kerala have a resemblance to Nāgavana of North India. The prevalence of Nāga worship in South India in ancient times is known from different inscriptions at Banavasi in Kanara which records the erection of Cobra stone in the middle of 1st century C.E (Vogel 1926). Such snake stones are common in every village in the Bellary district, Gulbarga, Siddhapur and Sampgum in Karnataka (Bolchmann 1875). Theriomorphic as well as anthropomorphic figures are also evidenced in the caves of Badāmi and one of the depiction in Badāmi is showing the varāha incarnation of Viśnu (Plate 3.18) whereas a therio-anthropomorphic figure is shown in the medallion of a pillar (Plate 3.19). Another deity (Viśnu) is in a sitting posture which is depicted in a highly ornaments and having seven cobra hoods caped behind the head and sitting on a coiled snake body (PLATE 3.20). The following figure shows details of the ritual spaces given for Nāga worship in central Kerala (Fig 3.1).
ASSOCIATION OF NĀGA WITH DIFFERENT SECTS:
The Nāga cult emerged in India as one of the most famous independent cult. It is still noticed frequently to be associated with major religions like Buddhism and Jainism along with other sub sects of Brahmanism.
Association of Nāga cult with Buddhism:
Buddha is not an Nāga descent but Nāgas are associated with the life of Buddha. According to the mythical stories, there are several mentioning about Buddha and Nāga. Among this the story of two Nāgaraja Nanda and Upananda are connected with the birth of Bodhisattva Gouthama. Another story says the relation of Nāga, ‘Mucchilinda’ with Bodhisattva. The story says Nāga, Mucchilinda gives protection to Buddha by capping his large hood over his head from the rain when he got enlightenment. Moreover, it is believed that a stupa was constructed over his relics after the Nirvana of Buddha and protection had given by the Nāgas. It can be seen in the Stūpas of Amrāvati, Bharhūt and Nāgarjunkōnda. The frescos and sculptural depiction of Ajanta has the evidences of Buddha with Nāga. He is represented as a five hooded Nāgarāja at the Ajanta cave number nineteen. Thus Buddhist Art and literature symbolize and endorse Nāga Cult and made a great mass of Nāga worshippers faithful to Buddhism. Most of the depictions in Bharhūt are also explain the worship of Buddha by Nāgas.
The adoration of the snakes has some differences in northern India and southern India. The Buddhism itself has two sectarian categories such as northern Buddhism (Mahayana) and southern Buddhism (Theravada). The canonical texts of both these sects of Buddhism have mentioning about Nāgas as wise and benevolent animal. One of the myths of Mahāyāna Buddhist says that they are the guardian of water and Sūtras. All over India Nāgas are considered as water deity by almost all Brahmanical religious sects. In Mahayana mythology, mentioned Nāga-King Vāsuki treated as king of the snakes in the earth and also mentioned the details of eight great Nāgas. Nāgas were considered as the protectors of the Dharma. Years after Buddha’s death, Mahāyāna Buddhism is still dealing with the Snake cult. The story of Nāgārjuna is justifying this statement (Jakson 2000; Warder 1970).
Infact, such kinds of myths gave a smooth way to incorporate lower tradition cultic thoughts into large and great tradition. In the later stages of Buddhism, Nāgas were started to consider as a protector of Buddha as well as Dharma. It is also believed that Buddhism has been migrated to China and Japan from India through the monks. In China Nāgas are considered as Dragons whereas in Japan Kami is the name used for denoting Naga or Dragon spirit.
Association of Nāga cult with Jainism:
Nāgas played a prominent role in Jainism. The important evidences are the snake symbol of Pārśvanātha and Supārasvanātha. Nāgas are also represented in Jain sculptures as worshipping the Stūpas. The sculpture of Pārśvanātha is represented in a standing posture with a multi-hooded snake covering his head (Plate 3.21). Ancient Tamil country including Chēra kingdom witnessed the spread of culture and architecture of Jainism in the form of rock cut temples (Damodaran 2002). The temples at the northern boundary of Kerala like the Chitharal rock temple (Tirucharanthumala), Chathurmukha Basati, Manjeswaram and Nāgarcovil temple at the southern frontier along with Kallil in Ernakulam district and Kaviyoor rock temple in Pathanamthitta district suggested the foundation of Jain culture together with the presence of Nāga Worship (Plate 3.22). There was a custom that the Nāga images were consecrating under the sacred trees and placed open to the nature (Nāga Bana) by a particular Jain community called Bunt. They admire Cobra greatly.
The most common and the popular festival for propitiating the Nāgas is Nāgapanchami which is celebrated on the fifth lunar day of the month of Srāvana (July–August). Apart from Nāgapanchami, Āyilyam Pooja and Nagulachivathi are other festivals which are celebrated in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, respectively. It is reported that the festivals are marked by rituals bathing and worship of the images of the sacred Nāgas. Even live Snakes (Cobra) and also ant hills are worshipped during this day (Plate 3.23). During this time, the sacred Nāga images were worshipped by ritual bathing and pious fasting.
Association of Nāga cult with other religions:
The snake figures prominently showed in the art and narratives of contemporary Saivism, Saktism, Vaishnavism, and even in Christian religion too. In addition to these religions, many popular devotional practices of villages and ethnic peoples throughout India worship snakes Gods in a separate ways. Commonly, Nāga images or sculptures were defied and set up in the shrines for worship. These images are sometimes worshipped as a sub deity together with other Gods and Goddesses of other Brahmanical religious sects. Nāgas appear in association with the major Gods of Brahmanical religion such as Śiva, Viśnu, Subramanian, Bhadrakāli, Swāmi Ayyappan or Dharma Śāsta, Buddha and Jain. Additionally, there are some temples which are dedicated to the worship of Nāgas only. However, the number of such temples is very less as compared to the other major religions. In Kerala, instead of shrines, south western portion of the house compound were left for the consecration of Nāga images precisely under the pipal or nēm trees for the worship. This particular area is known by the name of Sarppakkāvu. The snakes are known by different names in different states of India. Such as Sarppam or Nāgam in Kerala, Mānasa and Vishahārīs in West Bengal, Guja in Panjab, Basera in Shimla, MulNāgand star Nāga in Chhamba, Nāgadeo in Sagar, SubbaraYudu in Andhra Pradesh, Subbaraya in some parts of Karnataka, Subbarama in Tamil Nadu and Śeśa Nāga in Chhatishgarh.
The place of Nāga in the later orthodox cults like Brahmanical Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and also regional cults and its presence in architecture, sculpture, paintings, literature, tradition and folklore became prominent. On the whole, wide distribution of the snakes deities, presence of Nāga in art and architecture, worship of Nāga by the followers of different religions in India suggests that it was one of the most popular forms of worship in India. Some studies about the Nāga worshippers’ show that there are innumerable people from different areas like Punjab, Sambalpur in Odisha, Agra etc. who are involved in Nāga worships. The census report of 1891 showed the detailed report of the distribution and number of snakes worshippers in different part of the country. James Fergusson in his book entitled ‘Tree and Snake Worship’ recounts the propitiation of live Snakes in Manipur and Sambalpur. A snake temple at Calicut (Kerala) contained several live cobras which are feed by the priest and worshippers. At Mysoor and Vaisar Padi, near Chennai, crowds used to assemble on Sundays to see the snakes preserved in the temple ground (Vogel 1926).
Through the course of time, many new features and some adjustments were occurring in the sphere of the Brahmanical religions as well as associated with Nāga worship. However, the ways the snakes were worshiped continued to be more or less same except the change seen through economy and were not influenced much by these developments of Brahmanism. The religious texts of the early period give details of the early Gods. One can see that many of the Gods have been given many new characters and become more tangible. This situation in the religion was leading to the beginning of idea of anthropomorphism with the development of Yaksha on the human attributes of early deities. Thereafter the figural representation of the Gods became common and a regular Iconography began to develop (Panda 1986). Gradually myths and legends emerged from various sources and lead to a diversification of cults and deities. Slowly some sacred text like ‘Dhyānaslōka’ and Śilpaśāstras were introduced to explain the iconic characters of different deities (Narayanan 2000; Bumer 1986). These developments in religion continued even after the rise of Buddhism and Jainism with a little variation. In-fact, the origin and developments of religious forms and believes goes along with human developments.
The question like why, how and when the Nāga worship has started in India need an elaborated and exhaustive examination. Here, it is the only possible way to recount and examine some of the basic and most essential information concerning the Nāga Cult in India. Apart from the ancient religious as well as secular literature from Vedic Age down to the modern period, the details of Nāga worship can be traced from the following details and it will be helpful to draw the antiquity of Nāga worship in India as a whole and Central Kerala in particular.