| Naga literally means 'serpent' and panchami is the
'fifth day' Naga Panchami is the festival of snakes celebrated on the fifth day
of the bright fortnight in the month of Shravan. The festival falls during the
rainy months and is believed to counter the increased possibility of snakebite
during this time. People visit temples specially dedicated to snakes and worship
them. Shiva temples are also favored places of worship, as snakes are considered
dear to him. In South India, people craft images of snakes using cow dung on either
side of the entrance to the house to welcome the snake.
|| The Puranas and scriptures have described the worship
of snakes and their importance. Prithvi (Earth) is believed to be supported by
Sesh Nag (the snake on which god Vishnu sleeps). Therefore the worship of snakes
is in gratitude to this reptile. Thus Naga panchami is celebrated on the 5th day
of the light half of the shravan in honor of the Nagas.
Snakes are believed to like milk. As this is the day of the serpents, devotees
pour milk into all the holes in the ground around the house or near the temple
to propitiate them. Sometimes, a small pot of milk with some flowers is placed
near the holes so that the snakes may drink it. If a snake actually drinks the
milk, it is considered to be extremely lucky for the devotee. All, especially
women, celebrates the festival with much enthusiasm.
|As most rivers in India are in
spate during the month of Shravan, poisonous snakes come out of their subterranean
abodes and creep about in plenty all over the place. Many also float on flooded
rivers running through the countryside. Mortality from snakebites must have been
considerable to prompt people to worship the nagas to seek protection from them.
Because of the fear, the Hindus elevated nagas to a divine status. The serpents
are believed to have the capability to change their shape at will. When in human
form, they are depicted as beautiful women and handsome men.
According to a legend, Kadru, the mother of the nagas, once bet with her sister
Vinata about the color of the tail of Indra's horse. She asserted that the tail
was black even though the horse was absolutely white. According to Vinata however,
the tail of the horse was as white as the rest of it. Kadru then asked her sons
the nagas to coil around the white tail of the horse so that it appeared black.
When they refused to participate in deceit, Kadru cursed them to be consumed by
fire for disobeying her. Brahma however softened the curse and sent them to live
in the netherworld. This happened on the fifth day in the month of Shravan and
because the lives of the nagas were spared on this day, it is considered to be
auspicious for snake worship.
Naga Panchami is observed in different ways in different parts of India. It is
one of the most ancient fasts, and finds mention in the Puranas. It is believed
to be one of the most auspicious days of the entire year. According to the Bhavishya
Purana, when men bathe the snakes called Vasuki, Takshaka, Kaliya, Manibhadra,
Airavata, Dhritarashtra, Karkotaka and Dhananjaya with milk on the fifth day of
the bright fortnight of Shravan, they ensure freedom from danger for their families.
Again, according to the BhavishyaPurana, worshippers should make gold, silver
or clay images of snakes and worship them with kaner, jasmine and incense, feed
Brahmins with ghee and payasa, and bathe the snake images with milk. This would
bestow safety from snakebites on the worshippers. The Bhavishyottara Purana enjoins
a person to make figures of cow dung and place them on both sides of his door.
He should then worship them with curds, Durva tendrils, Kusha grass, sandalwood
paste, flowers and presents of food.
| In some parts of southern India, figures of snakes
are drawn with red sandalwood paste on wooden boards, or clay images of snakes
colored yellow or black are purchased. These are then worshipped and offered milk.
Snake charmers wander about with all sorts of snakes, to which people offer milk.
The snake charmers are paid some money for allowing this Serpent worship developed
gradually from the fear of serpents that must have taken a heavy toll on life,
particularly at the beginning of the rainy season. In the Ashvalayana Grihyasutra,
the Paraskara Grihyasutra and other Grihyasutras, a rite called Sarpabali or 'offerings
to serpents' was performed on the full moon night of Shravan. However the reason
that it was moved from the full moon night to that of the fifth night of the bright
fortnight is not apparent. It may be due to the slight change in the time of the
onset of the rains.