Nag Panchami is a Hindu festival of worship of snakes throughout India, Nepal and other countries with Hindu population. Owing to the rich mythological background of the Hindu culture, it is fundamental to pay homage to the seven realms of the universe below the earth also called 'Patallok'. The deepest of them all is the 'Naga-lok'. As the name suggests, it is believed to be the abode of serpents. 'Nag' or snake adulation is a customary Hindu worship all over India. It is celebrated on the fifth day of the fortnight of 'Shravan', lending the term 'Panchami' to its name. This festival is celebrated in the month of July/ August depending on the Hindu calendar. Serpents are bathed with milk to please the 'Nag Devta', which ensures safety from snakes.
Legends & Folktales
Hindu mythology is full of legends and folktales. Nag Panchami celebrates quite a few of these tales. The Mahabharata has pointed to the significance of snakes. Janamejeya, the son of King Parikshit of the Kuru dynasty wanted to requite the death of his father owing to a bite from the snake king called Taksaka. In vengeance he performed a snake sacrifice called 'SarpaSatra' with several learned Brahmin sages to chant 'yagnas' and drag serpents into the fire. While most of the serpents succumbed to the chants, the mighty Taksaka sought Indra for protection, he coiled around Indra's cot but was unable to protect from the powerful 'yagnas'. Taksaka began to yield to the 'yagnas' and pulled Indra along with him. Horror-struck, the Gods requested Manasadevi (Goddess of snakes) to bring an end to the 'SarpaSatra'. Thus, she sent her son Astika to the 'Yagna Kunda' or sacrificial pit fire. Astika impressed Janamejeya with his wealth of scriptural knowledge and was granted a favour. He requested Janamejeya to end the 'SarpaSatra'. Janamejeya unwilling to grant this favour, gave in as he had never refused a favour to a Brahmin. This happened on the exact same day Nag Panchami is celebrated to commemorate the life spared to the 'Nagas'.
Another such legend is when a young Lord Krishna was playing with other cowboys near the Yamuna and while playing a ball got tangled in the high branches of a tree. Krishna climbed the tree to fetch the ball. Below the tree, a monstrous snake Kaliya used to live in the river. Losing his grip Krishna fell from the tree into the river. The formidable snake came out utterly angry, but Krishna started jumping on its head. Kaliya realised the strength of Lord Krishna and apologised. Lord Krishna forgave the snake and set it free.
However, it is not the only legend that carries such momentous tales. It is also believed that a farmer accidentally killed three little serpents one day in his field. The mother of the snakes came back to kill the farmer and his family. The husband, wife and two sons lay dead. The farmer's daughter afraid of the mother snake offered it milk and prayed that the snake revive the souls of her family. Happy by the offering of the little girl, the mother snake revived the dead family.
Worship & Rituals
On Nag Panchami snakes are revered with milk, sweets, flowers and 'diyas' as a result, fear of serpents is overcome and poisoning by venom is prevented. Though all snakes are prayed to on this day, the 'Navnag' is venerated as pivotal of all. The 'Navnag' comprises of nine serpents – Anant, Vasuki, Shesh, Padmanabh, Kambal, Shankhapal, Dhrutarashtra, Takshak and Kaliya. Images of Navnag (nine cobras) are drawn with turmeric or red sandalwood on a wooden seat. Nag deities made of silver, stone, wood, or paintings on the wall are first bathed with water and milk and then worshipped. On this day Hindus do not chop, cut or fry in a pan on fire and ploughing is forbidden. Fasting is observed by women for the long-life of their brothers as Satyeshwari the 'inferior goddess' died a day before Nag Panchami as she mourned her brother's death and did not eat a morsel.
Since snakes adore milk, pots of milk are placed near snake holes. Belief has it that if a snake drinks the milk from the pot, endless luck is bestowed upon the devotee.
Snake Worship Across India
Hindu's believe that eternity is depicted by a serpent consuming its own tail. Immorality is a quality attributed to serpents. Thus, Nag Panchami is celebrated all over India.
Central India is home to celebration of Nag Panchami. Nagpur, used to be infested with snakes and hence it was named after 'nag'. During this festival a tedious pilgrimage is arranged called 'Nagdwaryatra' to Panchmarhi. Food prepared is offered to snakes. In Maharashtra, snake charmers carry dormant cobras from one home to another seeking alms. It generally hails the coming of Lord Ganesha that falls exactly one month after this festival.
In the north, Punjab celebrates this festival during a different period. It is celebrated in September/ October and is called 'Guga Naumi'. A snake made of dough is taken to each house in the village and offerings of flour and butter is made. The 'dough snake' is then buried. Women continue to worship the snake for the following nine days by offering curd.
In Kerala, snake temples are crammed. Snake idols of 'Ananta', the greatest of all snake Gods, made of stone or metal is worshipped fervently. Every altar has a silver or copper cobra that is offered milk and sweets. Families pray for the welfare and prosperity of their generations to come.
Karnataka prepares itself for the festival five days in advance on the new moon day of 'Bhima Amavasya'. Girls take vows by tying a thread dipped in turmeric paste on their right wrist. On the night before Nag Panchami they consume salt free food. Every worshipper adulates the anthill where snakes are reported to reside. Women decorate the anthill with turmeric paste and vermillion and sugar mixed with wheat flour.
West Bengal, Orissa and Assam worship the goddess Manasa. Manasa is a snake goddess and the wife of a Brahmin sage. A twig of the Manasa plant symbolizing the goddess Manasa is fixed on the ground and worshipped.