Naag Panchami: The Day of the Snake Gods
Naag Panchami, the day of the Nagas, Snake/Serpent Gods falls on Shrawan Shukla Panchami, the fifth of the brightening lunar fortnight during the monsoon rains. Usually in July or Early August and also within the Buddhist holy month of Gunla.
The Head of a family or a family priest cleans the lintel beam over the entrance door with water before holding a worship ritual. Using cow dung as adhesive, a vibrant poster depicting snake god is affixed to the area. He then makes offerings of tika (vermillion powder) on the forehead of the serpent god, followed by akshata (rice), jau (unhusked oats) teel (black non-edible sesame seeds), and fulpati (flowers. Incense and oil wicks offerings are made at the end of the ritual with the ringing of ghanta (bell). Naibedya, the food offerings, like dudh (milk), honey, yogurt, and boiled rice are set out for snakes. Some also offer strings of cotton wool balls as a garland offering.
Every house, temple, shop honours the Serpent Deities by displaying pictures of Nagas over the doorways. Prayers are intoned to appease the Nagas and to evoke their protection and blessing.
Although Naag Panchami is the annual day dedicated to snakes and serpents, people worship throughout the year where the Nagas are supposed to dwell. Gardens and courtyards corners, near waterspouts, pools, springs, and streams.
Sithi Nakha is a special annual day to clean the Nagas’ dwellings. Apparently, on this day Nagas like people are out of their burrows to worship their ancestral deities, hence all the water bodies and resources where they dwell are cleaned on this day to avoid disturbing their lives.
In Nepal, it is taboo to kill snakes because they fear the danger of angering the Snake Gods. And on this day, people refrain from digging earth lest they accidentally kill any snake.
Nagas are widely worshipped as controllers of rainfall. Special ceremonies are performed to Nagas in case of a dearth of rain. Many milk their cows into the sacred Bagmati River to feed and appease them. Farmers implore paani deu Naag Raja (give us rain) while performing rituals at Taudaha Pond, situated in Southern Kathmandu. Taudaha is abode of Snake God Karkot Raja.
Karkot Naga (Karkot Raja)
Karkot Naga lives in a fabulous palace of gold and silver deep under Taudaha Pond, Southern Kathmandu.
According to a legend, Danasur, a demon king who once ruled the Kathmandu valley managed to steal the wealth of Indra. Indra, the lord of rain and heaven asked Karkot to retrieve the stolen treasure. Karkot kept one-fourth of the bounty when he returned the valuables to Lord Indra. Perhaps this explains why Karkot now lives deep under Taudaha Pond.
According to another legend, Kathmandu Valley, 10,000 years ago, was a lake called Naga-hrad or Naga-Vala, the abode of the Snake Gods. The Buddhist saint Manjushree from Mahachina (present day China) came with his sword struck a deep ravine at Chobhar gorge and let all water drain out of the valley. Most of the Nagas were driven out, few like Karkot were persuaded to remain in the valley. Karkot was given the Taudaha Pond and given power over the wealth of the valley. When Taudaha pond was dug for him, the mud unearthed from the place was heaped on its eastern side is now called Bosan hill.
They say, once when a ruler of Kathmandu valley committed incest, god inflicted prolonged drought all over the valley as a punishment. This king with his magical powers of tantrism summoned all the snakes to force them to produce rain. All the Nagas appeared at the king’s command except for the Karkot. The king with all the Nagas then proceeded to the Taudaha Pond and surrounded Karkot with his magical spells. The Nagg, upon seeing the miraculous feat, bowed down before King presenting with a picture of himself drawn by self-blood. He further declared that drought would be dispelled hereafter by the worshipping of these images, as is done to this day during Naag Panchami.
Takshaka Naga was driven out of the valley when Manjushree drained the lake to make the valley inhabitable. Much annoyed Naga developed a sinful habit of striking people without provocation, and he contracted leprosy as a punishment thusly. To atone for his sins and rid himself of the infection, he returned to Kathmandu Valley to perform a severe penance and abstinence in honor of Lord Shiva. Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, jealous of Takshaka’s penances attacked the Naga and held him underwater. Lord Macchendra riding on a lion came to rescue Takshaka and so did the Vishnu.
After establishing peace between the two, Takshaka coiled himself about Garuda’s neck, Garuda took Vishnu on his back, and the lion lifted Garuda and Macchendra upon his shoulders and flew to the Changunarayan temple, the eastern side of the Valley. There, to this day, is the image of a lion, Garuda, Vishnu, and Macchendra, one atop the other.
They say when Nagas and Garuda fight, the image of Narayan (Vishnu) enshrined at Changunarayan becomes damp with ‘sweat’. Temple priests carefully wipe His face with a cotton cloth, which when worn by devotees are believed to become immune to snakebites. Formerly this sacred piece of linen was presented to the King of Nepal.
Basuki Naga, as ancient chronicles reveal, guards Lord Shiva’s fabulous treasures at the Pashupatinath temple. Shiva wears the Naga as his necklace and is a symbol of an eternal cycle of ages.
On Naag Panchami Day devotees visit the temple to worship the Basukhi Naga.
There is a story of Basuki Naga ferociously chasing two water goblins who stole Shiva’s prized possession Rudraksha and recovering the invaluable for Shiva. That is why old people said due to Basuki Naga’s vigilance the valley formerly was free of theft and snakebite.
Jaya Prakash Malla, the last Newar King of Kathmandu Valley, when lacked funds to raise an army against Prithivi Narayan Shah, ordered to retrieve Pashupatinath temple’s fabled wealth. When the chief priest unlocked Shiva’s treasure room for the King, the large Basuki Naga coiled about piles of silver and gold raised his hood, and darted flames from his eyes. Terrified King immediately ordered the doors to be relocked and never coveted the divine treasures of Shiva again. Also, this Malla King after losing his Kingdom to Shah lived the rest of his life at the Pashupatinath temple as god’s devotee.
Lord Krishna standing on Kaliya Naga’s hood and playing flute often appears in the pictures of Naga over doorways on Nag Panchami day.
According to the scriptures, Kaliya Naga was forced to take refuge in Yamuna River in Gukul of present-day India after Garuda harassed and chased him from his residence Dwipa. Once when Lord Krishna and herd boys were playing nearby Yamuna river, Krishna jumped into it to retrieve the ball. The Kaliya Naga spewed poisonous venom out from his 110 heads at Krishna and tried to coil Him dead. Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu jumped on Kaliya’s head and performed a dance. Kaliya realizing who Krishna was capitulated and prostrated to god for forgiveness. God forgave the Naga and his wives and sent them back to Diwpa and promised that Garuda would never endanger them again.
Nepalese believe that gods live in the sky, people live on earth and the Nagas live in Patal, the Netherworld, and their Kingdom is called Naaglok. People have propitiated and feared the snakes and serpents since time immemorial. Because Nagas like all the gods require propitiation, respect, and devotion, when adequately assuaged they bring good rains and grant wishes. But when angered, they swirl and gyrate to cause earthquakes collapsing houses and buildings, and also bring drought and famine.
- The festivals of Nepal, Mary M. Anderson
- Featured photo of Naag Pokhari by Suraj Belbasa