India is known for its many unusual festivals and Nag Panchami is definitely one of them! This Hindu festival is dedicated to the worship of snakes. Read on to find out why, as well as when and where the festival takes place, in this guide.
History and Meaning
Many ancient cultures around the world are known to have revered snakes because of the deadly venomous power they possess. This was no different in India. The custom of snake worship in India is extremely old — older than Hinduism as we know it. It has been traced as far back as 3,000 BCE, to the indigenous Naga tribe who widely inhabited the country during the Indus Valley Civilization. The cobra was their tribal totem.
How did snake worship find its way into Hinduism, though?
It was initially believed that Aryans migrated to northern India from central Asia sometime around 2,000 BCE, bringing with them the Vedic culture that formed the basis for early Hindu Vedic texts. They were said to have intermingled with the Nagas and adopted their snake-worshiping rites.
However, current archeological evidence suggests that the people who call themselves Aryans were actually an indigenous ethnic group in India, existing as far back as 6,500 BCE. It's also said that the south Indian Dravidians, and other snake-worshiping communities such as the Nairs of Kerala, are actually of Naga origin.
Nevertheless, the Vedic texts composed by the Aryans contain various mentions of snakes and snake worship. The Vedas stipulate the importance of rituals for appeasing the gods in return for protection and prosperity. In particular, the Grihya Sutras (texts prescribing Vedic domestic rites and rituals) set out annual rites of Sarpa Bali to honor the Nagas (snakes) and ward off evil caused by them. Although snakes are generally considered to be benevolent forces of nature, they can be hostile if provoked and curses from aggressive snake gods may cause all sorts of misfortunes.
The Vedas shaped, and gradually evolved into modern Hinduism from about 2,000 BCE. During this time, it's thought that a great exchange of practices and philosophies took place between various cultures in India. Core Hindu texts such as the Puranas, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana were written, with Vedic literature contributing significantly to Hindu mythology and beliefs.
In the Puranas, snakes are associated with most of the main Hindu deities as weapons, symbols of knowledge or power, and ornaments. This superhuman way they're portrayed adds to people's fear and reverence of them. Snakes also play significant roles in events narrated in the Hindu texts. It's one such event in the The Mahabharata, which recounts what happened around the time of a war at Kurukshetra in northern India, that is believed to have given rise to the Nag Panchami festival.
It's stated that King Parikshit, a ruler of the Kuru Dynasty, was bitten by Takshaka (the king of snakes) and died. The king's son began a fire sacrifice ritual to avenge his death and kill all snakes. Takshaka sought protection from his friend Lord Indra and coiled himself around him. However, the ritual was so potent that even Indra was pulled towards the fire. Eventually, snake goddess Manasa Devi successfully intervened and saved the snakes from extinction. Apparently, the day the ritual ceased is the day now celebrated as Nag Panchami.
When is Nag Panchami
The date of the festival is determined according to the Hindu lunar calendar. It falls on Shukla Paksha Panchami, the fifth day of the bright (waxing) phase of the moon, in the lunar month of Shravan. This is in late July or August. In 2020, Nag Panchami is on July 25. However, it varies in some parts of India.
The festival occurs during the rainy monsoon season, when water drives snakes out of their holes and into areas inhabited by humans, increasing the chance of being bitten.
How and Where is Nag Panchami Celebrated
Although Nag Panchami is widely celebrated across India, diverse communities and lack of uniformed beliefs in Hinduism mean that rituals vary. Most of the action happens at snake temples, where special rituals are performed. However, devotees visit temples dedicated to Lord Shiva as well. This is because of the god's special association with snakes. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva swallowed a snake's poison to save the world and he wears a serpent around his neck.
In some areas, live snakes are worshiped as representatives of god, while people worship snake idols in others. Married women commonly fast, dress in new clothes, chant a special mantra, and offer milk to the snakes for the well-being of their families and to provide safety from snake bites. (Never mind that snakes don't in fact like milk.) It's also considered taboo to dig the earth on Nag Panchami to avoid disturbing the snakes.
Traditionally, live snakes are captured by snake charmers and displayed for devotees to worship. They're carried in procession to temples, where they're venerated and made to drink milk as a sign of good fortune. This practice has become contentious in recent years though, due to concerns about the snakes' welfare. It was widespread in Maharashtra, particularly in Battis Shirala village, but the Bombay High Court banned it in 2014. Devotees now use snake statues and photos instead. Apart from Battis Shirala village, extensive Nag Panchami celebrations happen in and around Nagpur in Maharashtra, where there are many snakes and snake temples.
Other notable places where Nag Panchami is celebrated include:
- Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, where a highlight of the festival is the traditional dangal wrestling matches held at various akhadas (training venues) in the city. The wrestlers worship snakes for virility, and the akhadas are decorated with images of snakes. Narasinghgarh akhada has a shrine dedicated to the king of snakes and milk is poured over the snake idol. People also offer prayers at Nag Koop (a well for snakes) and the city's Shiva temples.
- Nag Vasuki Temple in Allahabad (Prayagraj), Uttar Pradesh, which is dedicated to serpent king Vasuki and mentioned in the Puranas.
- Manasa Devi temple in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, which is dedicated to the snake goddess Manasa.
- Nag Devta Temple, an ancient snake temple in Mussoorie in Uttarakhand, which is beautifully decorated on Nag Panchami and has refreshing mountain views.
- Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, where its Nagchandreshwar shrine is only opened once a year for 24 hours during the festival. A special puja (worship ritual) is performed.
- Bhujang Nag Temple at Bhujia Fort, near Bhuj in Gujarat's Kutch region, where there's a colorful procession and fair.
- Kerala, where snake worship is integral to peoples lives. Devotees flock to ancient and secluded Mannarasala Shree Nagaraja Temple, the state's largest snake temple, in Alleppy district. It has thousands of snake idols.
- Mukti Naga Temple, in Ramohalli village on the outskirts of Bangalore, has what's considered to be the world’s biggest monolithic statue of the snake god. It's 16 feet tall and weighs 36 tonnes.
- Kukke Shree Subramanya Temple, in Karnataka's Subramanya village, where Kartikeya (son of Lord Shiva and Parvati) is worshiped as Subramanya, the lord of all serpents. The temple is located in the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada, and Nag Panchami is celebrated there with an elaborate ritual folk dance known as Naga Mandala.
- Newly renovated Shree Ananthapadmanabha Temple, in Kudupu village near Mangalore in Karnataka, which is famous for snake worship and has more than 300 serpent idols.
- Kandkoor village, in northern Karnataka, holds a rather disturbing scorpion fair on Nag Panchami. People worship the scorpions and let them crawl over their bodies. They believe scorpion goddess Konddammai will protect them.
Etiquette and What to Expect
If you plan on visiting any temples on Nag Panchami, be prepared for large crowds and long lines. Devotees commonly bring offerings such as coconut and flowers, in addition to milk. Make sure you dress conservatively by covering your legs and shoulders.