Friday, June 22, 2012



 Motif of a pair of snakes chasing a hare - do not know what it signifies !
Lintel of Eastern gate, Krishna temple, Hampi.

Snake - known as 'Naga' in Sanskrit - holds a strange position in Hindu mythology.  They are associated with the greatest among Hindu deities, a few 'Naga' character play a big role, but, never gets a central role in any  'event'. 'Naga' characters have been widely depicted in our temple art -  it is not clear whether just as sacred motifs or representation of clans who worshiped 'Nagas' as totem !

 'Samudra Manthan - 'Churning of ocean .
'Vishnutala' Cave, Badami, Karnataka.

Let me recount here some of the well-known mythological tales  connected with 'Nagas' :
  • Sheshanaga  supports the earth on his numerous hoods.
  • Vishnu rests on coiled Sheshanaga in cataclysmic ocean. This is his famous posture known as 'Ananatashayane Vishnu'.
  • Milky ocean was churned  by gods and demons ( Devas & asuras) - mountain Mandar was the shaft and  Vasuki naga allowed himself to be the coiled on the mountain for churning.  This is when elixir of immortality surfaced which gods did not share with demons creating ever-lasting enmity between these two races. Exhausted Vasuki threw up poison which Siva drank to save the universe from its effects - Siva's throat thus turned blue & he came to be known as 'Neelkantha' - 'One with blue throat'.
  • Siva wears a snake  around his arm, throat or shoulder. Also a 'sarpakundala' on one of his ears. Garuda,  Vishnu's mount   also wears snakes on his arms - details in a long tale - as a token of his supremacy over the clan of snakes after a fight involving his mother .  
  • Krsna tamed Kaliya during his Vrindavan years. 
  • Mahabharata records  King Janmejay's wrath against snakes. 
 Siva with 'sarpakundala in his right ear and a snake across his 
left shoulder to his right arm as his armlet.
'Siva' cave, Badami, Karnataka.
 There are a few more points  I would like to bring out which are connected with stature of snakes in Indian society - but after  we discuss a few photos.1st among the ones I want to present is of snakes in union which a section of Indians believes to be a very good omen. Here is a photo of a stone-relief I found at Mahakuta temple complex,Karnataka :

A seven-hooded snake  in union with a single-hooded snake.

 Sun temple of Konark has a huge display of 'Nagas' -  a researcher might have already counted how many - but, I  do not have the figure as yet. Here, what we find are half-snake-half-human figures. Following is one wall-relief  almost identical to the above theme - but both the male and female 'Nagas' have numerous hoods.

 Please do not miss out the small figure at the base with 5-hoods !

Aggression and subsequent domination of 'Nagas'  have remained a subject of temple art across India - I have come across  many depictions of 'Kaliyadaman'  - subjugation of Kaliya ( not a literary translation) in my limited exposure to temple art. I have viewed them in terra cotta temples of Bengal, pata chitra, fresco @ SriKurmam temple (*), Hampi. Here is a portion from a 'Torana' of Krishna temple, Hampi :

 As Krsna dances on Kaliya's hood and holds his tail in his left hand, two 'Naginis'  prays for  his forgiveness .

'Anantashayane Vishnu'  - Vishnu resting in cataclysmic ocean - is a theme pursued by numerous temple artists. But, the famous 'Vishnutala' cave at Badami has Vishnu in a seated posture on coiled snakes and 'Anantashayane Vishnu'  is depicted in a high-elevation and smaller wall-relief  in this cave (photo not posted in this blog) !

 Vishnu  seated on  throne of a coil of 'Naga'. Its hoods spread over Vishnu's head like a canopy.

Manasa , Siva's daughter, destroyed Chand Merchant's life . A reluctant Chand's offer initiated her 'puja' in Bengal.
Terra cotta Manasa at Bighna, WB.

 Beyond the Brahminical mythology of India, 'Naga' holds a position of reverence in local levels among Hindus too -  'Naga Panchami' , worship of Manasa the snake goddess being the examples. I can extend this discussion to other countries and cultures, but,   shall stop here with one last reference to Jainism. Parsvanatha  has snake as his symbol and those of his Yaksha and Yakshini too. There are other Naga motifs in Jainism too, e.g. one of the 'sixteen dreams' etc But, this aspect may be discussed later in a different post, after I understand  elementary Jain Iconography. It is a deep subject.

1. * Pl view

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