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Festivals of India: Nag Panchami
by Smt. Anjali Ambekar

Hinduism as a religion is many-sided yet bound by a common search for Truth. It is a way of life and a fellowship of faiths.
Nag Panchami
Nag-Panchami, the festival of snakes, is an important all-India festival and is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit fortnight in the month of Shravan (July /August). On the auspicious occasion of Nagpanchami, all across India, people celebrate the day of the worship of the snake in their very own way. Snakes have been associated with many Hindu Gods. Sheshnaga (Snake with Six hoods) on which Lord Vishnu lays down.
Most of the Indian festivals have an ancient origin and naturally, almost all of the traditional festivals of India are steeped in myriad colourful legends that owe their origin to ancient Hindu scriptures and religious texts. The same goes for Nag Panchami, one of the grandest Indian festivals. A number of beautiful legends are associated to the Nag Panchami festival.
The Legend
Cobra has a special significance in Hindu mythology. Nag Panchami is celebrated to worship snakes. It is a festival in the honour of the Snake God, Shesha Nag. People worship snakes by offering milk and Puja. Snakes are worshipped since ancient times as they protect crops from getting damaged by rats and other rodents. Snakes are also a part of the Puranas, they took part in 'Sagar Manthan', and is also worn by Lord Shiva around his neck.
The victory of Krishna over the Kaliya snake is also remembered on this day. For this reason, Krishna is known as 'Kaliya Mardan'. The festival celebrates during the rainy months. It is believed that the festival is to counter the increased possibility of snakebite during this time. People visit temples specially dedicated to snakes. Shiva temples are also crowded during this festival, as snakes are considered dear to him.
In Jainism and Buddhism snake is regarded as sacred having divine qualities. It is believed that a Cobra snake saved the life of Buddha and another protected the Jain Muni Parshwanath. To-day as an evidence of this belief, we find a huge serpent carved above the head of the statue of Muni Parshwanath. In medieval India figures of snakes were carved or painted on the walls of many Hindu temples. In the carves at Ajanta images of the rituals of snake worship are found.
The custom of snake-worship is believed to have come from the "Naga" clan, a highly developed tribe who lived in ancient India. The Indus Valley civilisation of 3000 B.C. gives ample proof of the popularity of snake-worship amongst the Nagas, whose culture was fairly wide-spread in India even before the Aryans came. Later, the Indo-Aryans began to worship many of the snake deities of the Nagas.
Many scholars have detected traces of existence of snake-worship contained in the 8th Ashtaka of the Rig Veda, wherein the earth is addressed as the Sarpa-rajni or "the queen of the serpents or the queen of all that moves". The Yajur-Veda provides a more definite account of serpent-worship; the Samhita of this Veda contains prayers to the Sarpas(snakes) who are addressed as denizens of the heavens, the skies, the rays of the sun, the waters, the vegetables and the like. In the Brahmanas of the Samhita part of the Yajur-Veda, invocations are addressed to serpents and sweet sacrifices are offered for their acceptance. Manu, the ancient law-giver of the Hindus also makes mention of the Nagas and the Sarpas. Carved or painted figures of snakes can be found on the walls of many Hindu temples that exist from the medieval era. Images of snake worship rituals can also be spotted in the world famous Ajanta caves. Detailed description of the cobra snakes can also be discerned in Arthasastra, the classic ancient Hindu political text by the great Hindu philosopher Chanakya (c.300 bc).
In medieval India figures of snakes were carved or painted on the walls of many Hindu temples. In the carves at Ajanta images of the rituals of snake worship are found. Kautilya, in his "Arthashastra" has mentioned. The mention of the Nagas and the Sarpas is also found in the Mahabharata. In the sacred Hindu text BhagavadGita, one witnesses how Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that Vasuki and Ananta represent him amongst the Sarpas and the Nagas respectively.
The Hindu Puranas(Sanskrit encyclopedic texts) also mention the Nagas and the Sarpas. In the Bhagavata Purana, Vasuki and eleven other Nagas are mentioned as forming the string of the sun's chariot, one serpent being held to be sacred to each month. The Markandeya Purana embodies the well-known story of the marriage of Madalasa, a Naga princess of superb beauty, with King Kulvalasva. The five "Naga"s or snakes worshipped on Nag Panchami are Ananta, Vasuki, Takshak, Karkotaka and Pingala. According to the Bhavishya Purana, when men bathe these snakes with milk on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of Shravan, they ensure freedom from danger for their families.
Numerous traditions are associated with the Nagapanchami festival and are performed all over the country though a little differently from region to region owing to the fact that India is a vast multicultural land. The fact that it is celebrated more in the rural areas underlines the dread of snakes of the simple village folk who saw in the worship of the snake-god a way to propitiate the supernatural forces, that seem to control every aspect of human life including life and death, and thus keep death from the deadly and poisonous snakes at bay.
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.
The grandest Nag Panchami celebrations can be beheld in Battis Shirale, a village situated approximately 400 kilometers from Mumbai. About a week prior to the festival, the people of this village dig out live snakes from holes and keep those in covered earthen pots. The snakes are fed with rats and milk. The villagers do not remove the venomous fangs of their captives as they believe that it is unholy to hurt the snakes. It is surprising however, that the poisonous snakes never bite their captors. On the day of Nag Panchami, all the people of the village, young and old, dance to the tune of musical bands. Each of them carrying a snake-pot on his head, they walk in a long procession to the sacred-temple of goddess Amba where they offer a worship service to the deity. When the performance of all rituals are complete, the snakes are taken out from the pots and the temple priest sprinkles haldi-kumkum and flowers on their raised heads. The snakes are offered plenty of milk and honey and set free in the temple courtyard. During Nag Panchami, people from all over the world flock to Battis Shirale to worship live snakes. Vast crowds arrive from Kolhapur, Sanghli, Poona and even from foreign lands to see this wonderful spectacle and enjoy in the fair. The following day the snakes are released in the jungle.
The Rituals
After all the obeisance is rendered to the goddess and the ritual puja is over, the snakes are put back in the pots and carried in bullock-carts in procession through the 32 hamlets of Shirala village where women eagerly await outside their houses for "darshan" of the sacred cobras. One or two cobras are let loose in front of each house where men and women offer prayers, sprinkle puffed rice, flowers and coins over them, burn camphor and agarbattis and perform "aarti”. Girls of marriageable age regard the cobras as blessings of good luck in marriage. Some courageous girls even put their faces near the cobra's dangerous fangs. Behold the wonder the cobras do not bite them!
Director of the Madras Snake Park thoroughly examined these cobras and confirmed that neither the fangs nor the poison had been extracted. This truly is something so wonderful that it cannot be possibly explained by man's rational thinking.
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 parts of Assam and Orissa, the snake deity worshipped on Naga Panchami is the goddess Manasa.

There are snake-temples in our country with idols of snake-gods. In these temples cobras are also reared and live snakes are worshipped on Nag-Panchami day.
• Adiesha Temple in Andhra Pradesh.
• Nagaraja Temple in Kerala.
• Nagathamman Temple in Chennai.
• Hardevja Temple in Jaipur.

The manners of snake-worship practiced here resemble the traditions prevalent in India. The people go to the popularly believed to be tenanted by the ophidian deities to make their offering to them.

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