Snakes in myth and in life: the cult of the snake in India

There are few places in the world where snakes feel as free as in South Asia. Here snakes are revered as sacred, they are surrounded by respect and care. Temples have been erected in their honor, images of reptiles carved from stone are often found along roads, reservoirs and villages. 

The cult of the snake in India has more than five thousand years. Its roots go to the deep layers of pre-Aryan culture. For example, the legends of Kashmir tell how reptiles ruled over the valley when it was still an endless swamp. With the spread of Buddhism, myths began to attribute the salvation of the Buddha to the snake, and this salvation took place on the banks of the Nairanjana River under an old fig tree. To prevent the Buddha from reaching enlightenment, the demon Mara made a terrible storm. But a huge cobra upset the intrigues of the demon. She wrapped herself around the body of the Buddha seven times and protected him from rain and wind. 


According to the ancient cosmogonic ideas of the Hindus, the multiple heads of the serpent Shesha, lying on the waters of the oceans, serve as the backbone of the Universe, and Vishnu, the guardian of life, rests on a bed of his rings. At the end of each cosmic day, equal to 2160 million earth years, the fire-breathing mouths of Shesha destroy the worlds, and then the creator Brahma rebuilds them. 

Another mighty serpent, the seven-headed Vasuki, is constantly worn by the formidable destroyer Shiva as a sacred thread. With the help of Vasuki, the gods obtained the drink of immortality, amrita, by churning, that is, churning the ocean: the celestials used the snake as a rope to rotate the giant whorl – Mount Mandara. 

Shesha and Vasuki are recognized kings of the Nagas. This is the name in the myths of semi-divine creatures with snake bodies and one or more human heads. Nagas live in the underworld – in Patala. Its capital – Bhogavati – is surrounded by a wall of precious stones and enjoys the glory of the richest city in the fourteen worlds, which, according to legend, form the basis of the universe. 

Nagas, according to myths, own the secrets of magic and sorcery, are able to revive the dead and change their appearance. Their women are especially beautiful and often marry earthly rulers and sages. It is from the Nagas, according to legend, that many dynasties of Maharajas originate. Among them are the kings of Pallava, the rulers of Kashmir, Manipur and other principalities. Warriors who heroically fell on the battlefields are also in the care of the nagini. 

Naga queen Manasa, sister of Vasuki, is considered a reliable protector from snake bites. In her honor, crowded festivities are held in Bengal. 

And at the same time, the legend says, the five-headed naga Kaliya once seriously angered the gods. Its poison was so strong that it poisoned the water of a large lake. Even the birds that flew over this lake fell dead. In addition, the insidious snake stole cows from local shepherds and devoured them. Then the famous Krishna, the eighth earthly incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu, came to the aid of people. He climbed a kadamba tree and jumped into the water. Kaliya immediately rushed at him and wrapped his mighty rings around him. But Krishna, having freed himself from the embrace of the serpent, turned into a giant and drove the evil naga to the ocean. 


There are countless legends and tales about snakes in India, but the most unexpected signs are also associated with them. It is believed that the snake personifies perpetual motion, acts as the embodiment of the soul of the ancestor and the guardian of the house. That is why the sign of the snake is applied by the Hindus on both sides of the front door. With the same protective purpose, the peasants of the South Indian state of Kerala keep small serpentaria in their yards, where sacred cobras live. If the family moves to a new place, they will certainly take all the snakes with them. In turn, they distinguish their owners with some kind of flair and never bite them. 

Intentionally or accidentally killing a snake is the gravest sin. In the south of the country, a brahmin utters mantras over a killed snake. Her body is covered with a silk cloth embroidered with a ritual pattern, placed on sandalwood logs and burned on a funeral pyre. 

The inability of a woman to give birth to a child is explained by the insult that the woman inflicted on the reptiles in this or one of the previous births. To earn the snake’s forgiveness, Tamil women pray to its stone image. Not far from Chennai, in the town of Rajahmandi, there was once a dilapidated termite mound where an old cobra lived. Sometimes she crawled out of the lair to bask in the sun and taste the eggs, pieces of meat and rice balls brought to her. 

Crowds of suffering women came to the lonely mound (it was at the end of the XNUMXth – beginning of the XNUMXth century). For long hours they sat near the termite mound in the hope of contemplating the sacred animal. If they succeeded, they returned home happy, confident that their prayer was finally heard and the gods would grant them a child. Together with adult women, very little girls went to the treasured termite mound, praying in advance for happy motherhood. 

A favorable omen is the discovery of a snake crawling out – an old skin shed by a reptile during molting. The owner of the treasured skin will certainly put a piece of it in his wallet, believing that it will bring him wealth. According to signs, the cobra keeps precious stones in the hood. 

There is a belief that snakes sometimes fall in love with beautiful girls and secretly enter into a love affair with them. After that, the snake begins to zealously follow her beloved and pursue her while bathing, eating and in other matters, and in the end both the girl and the snake begin to suffer, wither and soon die. 

In one of the sacred books of Hinduism, the Atharva Veda, snakes are mentioned among animals that possess the secrets of medicinal herbs. They also know how to cure snake bites, but they carefully guard these secrets and reveal them only to severe ascetics. 


On the fifth day of the new moon in the month of Shravan (July-August), India celebrates the festival of snakes – nagapanchami. Nobody works on this day. Celebration begins with the first rays of the sun. Above the main entrance to the house, Hindus paste images of reptiles and perform puja – the main form of worship in Hinduism. A lot of people gather in the central square. Trumpets and drums rumble. The procession heads to the temple, where a ritual bath is performed. Then the snakes caught the day before are released into the street and into the yards. They are greeted, showered with flower petals, generously presented with money and thanked for the harvest saved from rodents. People pray to the eight chief nagas and treat live snakes with milk, ghee, honey, turmeric (yellow ginger), and fried rice. Flowers of oleander, jasmine and red lotus are placed in their holes. The ceremonies are led by brahmins. 

There is an old legend associated with this holiday. It tells of a brahmin who went to the fields in the morning, ignoring the day by the Nagapancas. Laying a furrow, he accidentally crushed the cubs of the cobra. Finding the serpents dead, the mother snake decided to take revenge on the Brahmin. On the trail of blood, stretching behind the plow, she found the dwelling of the offender. The owner and his family slept peacefully. Cobra killed everyone who was in the house, and then suddenly remembered that one of the Brahmin’s daughters had recently married. The cobra crawled into the neighboring village. There she saw that the young woman had made all the preparations for the nagapanchami festival and set out milk, sweets and flowers for the snakes. And then the snake changed anger to mercy. Sensing a favorable moment, the woman begged the cobra to resurrect her father and other relatives. The snake turned out to be a nagini and willingly fulfilled the request of a well-behaved woman. 

The snake festival continues until late at night. In the midst of it, not only exorcists, but also Indians take the reptiles in their hands more bravely and even throw them around their necks. Surprisingly, snakes on such a day for some reason do not bite. 


Many Indians say that there are more poisonous snakes. Uncontrolled deforestation and replacement with rice fields have led to the massive spread of rodents. Hordes of rats and mice flooded towns and villages. The reptiles followed the rodents. During the monsoon rains, when streams of water flood their holes, reptiles find refuge in people’s dwellings. At this time of the year they become quite aggressive. 

Having found a reptile under the roof of his house, a pious Hindu will never raise a stick against her, but will try to persuade the world to leave her home or turn to wandering snake charmers for help. A couple of years ago they could be found on every street. Wearing turbans and home-made pipes, with a large resonator made of dried pumpkin, they sat for a long time over wicker baskets, waiting for tourists. To the beat of an uncomplicated melody, trained snakes raised their heads from baskets, hissed menacingly and shook their hoods. 

The craft of a snake charmer is considered hereditary. In the village of Saperagaon (it is located ten kilometers from the city of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh), there are about five hundred inhabitants. In Hindi, “Saperagaon” means “village of snake charmers.” Almost the entire adult male population is engaged in this craft here. 

Snakes in Saperagaon can be found literally at every turn. For example, a young housewife waters the floors from a copper jug, and a two-meter cobra, curled up in a ring, lies at her feet. In the hut, an elderly woman prepares supper and with a grunt shakes a tangled viper out of her sari. Village children, going to bed, take a cobra with them to bed, preferring live snakes to teddy bears and the American beauty Barbie. Each yard has its own serpentarium. It contains four or five snakes of several species. 

However, the new Wildlife Protection Act, which has come into force, now prohibits the keeping of snakes in captivity “for profit”. And snake charmers are forced to look for other work. Many of them entered the service of firms that are engaged in catching reptiles in settlements. Caught reptiles are taken outside the city limits and released into their characteristic habitats. 

In recent years, on different continents, which is of concern to scientists, since no explanation for this situation has yet been found. Biologists have been talking about the disappearance of hundreds of species of living beings for more than a dozen years, but such a synchronous decrease in the number of animals living on different continents has not yet been observed.

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