An oblation of rice and milk and the subdued burning of camphor and incense sticks, the flickering wicks soaked in the shimmering brass lamps crested with the swan image and the strewn flower petals all invoke an abiding faith and awe in the inscrutable powers of the snake god. Through the corridors of time one hears the echo of chorus songs and dance beats all in praise of the powers that the snakes are believed to possess. An ancient snake cult still flourishes in the woodlands of pampumekkattumana near Trichur in Kerala. An eerie quietness pervades the place, with its lichened stonewalls, the dense and towering jungles, the moss covered temple tank and the granite images of cobras with outspread hoods. One could fee the snake god's omnipresence, though one may not see any live snake around. Farther south in Kerala is another snake shrine at Mannarasala near Haripad in Alleppey District.
Perhaps the only city in India that derives its name and origin from a snake shrine is Nagercoil, the headquarters of Kanyakumari District in Tamil Nadu; the Nagarammankoil of the city has its close lines with the priestly family of Pampumekkattumana.
In both Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu serpents are also believed to contribute to the fertility of the soil. Hence they are held in awe by peasants as well. This explains why some of the priests in Tamil Nadu serpent shrines come from agricultural communities like the Padayachi. In both these states the carved images in stone of the cobra can be found under the sprawling pipal tree in almost every temple or near the temple tanks. In many temples of Kerala, after the offering of prayers in the sanctum sanctorum of the main temple, devotees make it a point to go around the altar of snake deities, offering flowers and fruits.
In many parts of India there is a popular belief that the eight fabled serpents (Ashta Nagas) as described in the Puranas i.e. Ananta, Vasuki, Karkotaka, Pinglaka, Shankha, Padma, Mahapadma and Takshaka are still in existence. The roots of the snake cult run deep in different parts of India. Some believers still associate the family prosperity with the ritual of propitiating the snake deity. Periodical offerings are made to serpents, regarded as the tutelary deity of many a family.
There is concrete evidence to indicate that during the Indus Valley Civilisation at Moheno-daro and Harappa there was a section of people who worshipped the snake gods. The celebrated archaeologist, John Marshall avers that the Nagas' habitat is "one of the seven regions of puranic geography, and they had dispersed along coastal regions of the Indian Ocean and crossed over to Ceylon".
The great conqueror Alexander the Great came into contact with the followers of the snake cult in Takshasila. The chronicler Abul Fazel refers to the representations of the serpent gods in stones set up and worshipped in 700 places. Up to the Muslim invasion of India the people between Kabul and Kashmir worshipped serpent gods. There were Hindu kings in Kabul who worshipped serpents more than two centuries before Huen Tsang's arrival about 631 AD. Nagarajas were numerous and powerful and they held sway as independent chieftains in the region between Yamuna and Narmada during the first two centuries of the Christian era. With the Brahminic revival in the wake of the downfall of Buddhism, the protagonists of the Naga cult were forced to embrace orthodox Hinduism.
In Buddhism too there are prolific references to serpentology. Sanghamitra, daughter of king Ashok, had once to assume the form of Garuda to counteract the magic power of the Nagas who tried to snatch the branch of the Bodhi tree she was carrying with her. The Sanchi stupa also abounds in reliefs representing the Nagaraja sheltering Lord Buddha under its majestic hood.
Who can forget the grand spectacle of the poly-headed Ananta or Shesha Naga on whom rests Lord Vishnu in the Ocean of Milk? Our epics and scriptures make ample reference to the deification of snakes and the roles played by snake gods in different episodes.
India apart, in many countries the serpent has been worshipped as a symbol of water, longevity or wisdom perhaps because of its wiggling movement, renewal after the sloughing of its skin and its unblinking stare. "The entire globe is supported, not upon the shoulders of the mighty giant Atlas, as the Greeks had imagined, but upon the raised hood or head of a huge serpent called "Shesha".
The serpent did not get all that enviable niche in the Bible, however. His wily role in the Gaarden of Eden and the fall of man is well known. "Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that Lord had made
. He said to the woman
"Your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
.And after God discovered that Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of knowledge, He cursed the serpent
. "upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the day of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel."
In Egypt the serpent symbolized fertility. The snake goddess Ejo was worshipped in the lower Nile Valley, and was usually depicted as an asp (the Egyptian variety of cobra). It was the deadly fangs of the asp that Cleopatra used to kill herself. As a golden emblem worn on the forehead, Ejo was not only the pride of Pharoahs, but also a symsbol of protection to royalty.
The ancient Greeks and Raomans took the snakes as the earthly manifestations of gods. The Greek God Zeus was thought often to assume the form of a serpent when he visited the earthly beings.
The Hopi snake dance, sacred to the American Indians in southwest part of USA symbolizes the snake as the god of fertility. It is a nine-day festival, which includes, among other things, the capture of rattlesnakes and keeping them in a sacred place for a number of days. The final comes when the snakes have an ablution followed by an orgy of dance with the snakes dangling from the mouths of dancers. The ceremony, the Indians believe, would bring them the long-awaited rains for the arid countryside.
In Tibet, China and Germany the snake gods are believed to control the lakes, springs, rivers and rains. The serpent is very much linked with water for it is during the rains that the snakes, driven out of their holes by the water, seek a refuge in the dwelling of man. They are also said to have a sway over the fertility of the Mother Earth. The Chinese have been even adopted the Dragon (the Giant Snake) as the protector of their Empire and as ferocious symbol of their warlordship. There are shrines in China dedicated to Ling Wang, the Dragon King who is the guardian deity of China.
Sometime in June 1976, a cobra is said to have helped Juma Khamrayev, a staff member of the University library in Samarkhand, Soviet Uzbekistan, to locate a treasure chest of rare manuscripts. Khamrayev was visiting a forlorn village dotted with many mud huts where the Uzbeks lived early this century. In one of the huts he noticed a snake and recalled an ancient legend which mentioned about the snake keeping vigil over archieves. After scaring away the snake with a flourish of the stick, he began inspecting the room. He touched the old wall where the cobra was spotted. At the mere touch of the hand, half the wall caved in and ancient manuscripts fell at his feet.
The most valuable finds Khamrayev sorted out were the works of the famous poet of the East, Abdurakham Jami, titled, Usuf and Suleika (15th century) and The Ethics by an unknown thinker of the Middle Ages and the translation in the Tajik language from the poetical works by Amir Khazma (8th century).
Serpentology should not be considered in isolation. Throughout the centuries, the devotees, immersed in tradition, have been seeing God in every living object. Be it the cow (beloved of Lord Krishna), the bull (the famous Nandi in Siva temples), the cattle (worshipped by the Tamils during Pongal festival), the rat (regarded as the vehicle of Lord Ganapati), the peacock (the mount of Lord Subrahmanyam), the Garuda, the monkey (revered in many parts of Karnataka), etc., the ardent votary finds the divine presence not only in animals, but in plants like the basil or Tulasi which he worships every morning.
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