The Naagas of Indian mythology.

Feared, revered and edified longer than they have been vilified, snakes have been an object of worship since even before modern day humans walked out of Africa to colonize the known world.

In 2006 as archaeologist Shiela Coulson set out to search for artifacts in the Tsodilo Hills of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, a chance discovery inside a cave didn’t just push the origin of ritual practices to nearly 70,000 years back, it shed the skin right of the mystery as to the enormous span of time humans have worshiped one of the planet’s deadlier species, by bringing to light an ancient python stone indented with primitive tools to appear more life like (see the Applon article: World’s oldest ritual discovered).

Rock hard evidence that waited out the centuries to explain why snakes could have with such ease hissed, slithered and glided into the very heart of ancient cultures separated by time and distance with practically no knowledge of the other – ranging from the Aztecs in prehistoric Mexico to the Mesopotamian in the Middle East, and to the Koreans in the far East that left behind intriguing legends and myths born out of a shared fear of the reptile and respect for its power. Yet were all the fabled stories a product of man’s imagination?

The Naagas of ancient India.

Mythical beings endowed with the ability to transform at will into either humans or giant serpents. Anthropomorphism or inspired art.

Though pre-history India was populated by the Austroloid race, a descendant branch of the population that migrated out of Africa and among whom snake worship would plausibly have been common knowledge as it was with their ancestors, the earliest mention of snake cults, however, comes from the chronicles of the Indo-Aryans, a nomadic pastoral people of European stock who entered the region from the Hindukush mountains during the waning days of the bronze age, subjugating or assimilating earlier entrenched tribes to found empires and leave their legacy in the form of Hinduism and the language of Sanskrit.

In the oral literature fathered by the wise men of these Aryan people there appeared during this time the mention of a tribe that later would give rise to the legends of the half men half serpent begins of mythology. Not likely because some Aryan tribesman had been unfortunate enough to pick a quarrel with one such being only to watch it transform into a serpent, sink its fangs into his flesh and leave him writhing in agony while his brethren unable to save the poor wretch instead sat in council to think up a name for the new species of humans they had just encountered.

But more probably because the Aryans had made first contact with tribes who worshiped the Cobra and depicted the deadly reptile as its tribal totem. A symbol that visually and linguistically related to the word they reserved for the Cobra and not the “Sarpa” used for the common snake.

Connecting the Naagas to the Cobra would have begun with the discovery of the tribe’s affinity for the reptile for worship or use as a symbol.

Vivid descriptions in Vedic texts of the serpent tribes specially their women and various historical sources over the centuries have tend to confirm the existence of the Naagas in the sub continent, particularly in the region of India and later Sri Lanka, contesting the view their depiction in later Vedic mythology as mythical begins capable of transforming at will into either humans or snakes was not a mere product of anthropomorphism dreamed up by Aryan poets and narrators, but rather a form of symbolism inspired by a real people, their possible association with the serpent, and their deities.

To confirm their reality in the 19th century, some historians would go the distance curating information collected by travelers and explorers since the age of classical Greece. Like professor. A.K Mazumdar who theorized the Naagas were in fact a branch of Tibeto-Burman people who had migrated into India from the North East somewhere around 4000 B.C. and were of Mongoloid stock with high cheek bones, muscular frames and very little facial hair.

Ancient Jaffna by C. Rasanayagam

Scholars like Mudaliyar C Rasanayagam, author of the book Ancient Jaffna published in 1926, while disregarding the Naagas as a serpent cult would uphold the theory of their existence by claiming their later association with the serpent, and their depiction with the symbol of the Cobra, a result of an elaborate headgear that resembled a hood. Dedicating a full chapter to the Naagas, Mudaliyar held the opinion, the Naagas were the more ancient race to have arrived in India and lived alongside other indigenous tribes of their time including the Harappans, till the Aryan invasion made them migrate southwards, eventually reaching Ceylon – known in antiquity as Lanka. He further believed, the Naagas by this time were gradually becoming a more mixed race through intermarriages with other local tribes, the Harappans and the Aryans.

Yet others, more inclined towards their snake cult origin, picking out clues from Vedic literature that lay hidden under layers of mythological camouflage would suggest the tribes after living in close proximity to the serpent would over the centuries gained familiarity with its ways, learnt the art of handling the slithering reptile, and may have even developed a local form of anti-venom serum to combat its poison as well as use its venom to coat weapons of war. Poetic residues of which can be gleaned from both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as the serpent weapons of Nagastra and the Nagapasha – arrows that could paralyze one’s opponent.

Prominent Naaga deities
of main stream Hindu mythology.

Later main stream Hindu mythology that evolved out of accumulated Vedic literature too would continue to offer clues with examples of the five Naaga serpents that have come to hold center stage in Indian culture.

Ananta-Shesh Naaga (unending): A thousand headed serpent that carries the world on its head. Inducted into Vedic lore as the bed on which lies the God Vishnu. Possibly once a Naaga deity or chieftain of greater magnitude belonging to a friendly Naaga tribe for his allusion to be associated with the super god of the Vedics.

Kaliya Naaga: A poisonous snake that dwelled in the river Yamuna till finally vanquished by Krishna of the Bhagvat Purana. Unlike the other Naagas, Kaliya’s history more clearly links him to an actual king of flesh and blood of an ancient place known as Kaliramaa, near Mathura. His descendants thought to have been around till the rise of Islam in India.

Taksha Naaga: The king of a snake clan that lived in the forest of Khandava, generally thought to the region of Delhi. The epic Mahabharata mentions his clan was wiped out along with several other tribes when the Pandavas set fire to the forest to built their imperial capital city of Indraprasta. The decimation forcing Taksha to relocate and establish the region of Takshila. Later texts mention Taksha avenging the death of his race by slaying a descendant of the Pandavas. The episode a possible genocidal event of the ancient world arising from a feud between the Aryans and other indigenous tribes of the time.

Astika Naaga: A half Brahmin, half Naaga sage that stopped a near annihilation of the serpent race. Astika’s mixed parentage suggestive of the earliest inter tribe alliances and wed locks between Aryans and Naagas, as speculated by Mudaliyar. C. Rasanayagam in Ancient Jaffna. Other allusions can be found in the wedlock of the Pandava prince Arjuna and Ulupi, a Naaga princess.

Vasuki or Basuki Naaga: The snake that adorns Shiva as a sacred Brahaminical thread. In western Himalayan folklore Vasuki is the father of the eighteen serpent deities of Himachal. He may originally have been a Naaga chieftain or an original deity of the tribe. Vasuki’s close association with Shiva, a possible allusion of friendly ties or alliance between the Naagas and some indeginious tribe that worshiped the ascetic god, or Shiva by this time may have become a Naaga deity himself.

Mansa Naaga: The sister of Vasuki, primarily worshiped in Bengal and in the north eastern states of India. The blessing of Mansa believed to prevent and cure snake bites. Mansa was once a certified tribal goddess of the lower classes of the Hindu cast system till her induction into the Brahamicial system. Her traits a possible allusion of the ancient serpent tribe’s knowledge of curing snake bites and harnessing the power of the venom for medicinal purposes.

The Atthara Kardu.

An extant collection of oral legends related to serpent worship in the Western Himalayas.

If the later Buddhist Mahavamsa, an account of the early history of the country of Sri Lanka records a descendant branch of the Naagas living on the Isles after their supposed exodus from the Northern plains of India, the Western Himalayan Folklores is a composite shot of the cult in the mountainous regions of present day Himachal where it is not uncommon to come across once crude stone mounds decked up and restructured along lines of the traditional Kath Kuni architecture adorned with a hooded cobra over the entrance and the resident deity bearing the surname Naaga.

The exact period the tribes appeared in the area is unclear but almost all legends associated with the rise of the serpent cults suggest the deities were introduced into the landscape with the remoteness of the hills working wonderfully to preserve many of their traits – including the tribal Shaman who still can be seen acting as an intermediary between the deity and the people in a trance like state, animal sacrifices that were banned as recent as 2014, and in the past even human sacrifices, periodically offered to the Naaga deities lest they devoured entire villages.

In the Kulluvi dialect, the Atthara Kardu directly refers to the 18 snake gods that took up residence in the Himalayan valley. The word is thought by scholars to have originated from Kadru of the Kashyapa-Kadru fame of Vedic mythology in which Kadru is portrayed as the mother of all snakes. Although, the opposite can also not be ruled out.

The folk tales orally recited and handed down from one generation to the next lost much of their history in the intervening passage of time at the hands of successive narrators, obscuring actual incidences and events that may have occurred during the advent of the tribes and their ancestral beliefs. Making the form that reached the present day a chaotic juxtaposition of superstition, mythology and zoomorphism – a prehistoric human tendency of infusing animal traits to fellow humans.

A characteristic remarked upon by British era historian James Talboys Wheeler when speaking about the Naagas in his work, a History of India: In the process of time these Nagas became identified with serpents, and the result has been a strange confusion between serpents and human beings.

Legends of the Atthara Kardu.
Before the Vedic assimilation.

Among several versions of the legend associated with the appearance of the Naaga deities in the valley there is the popular theme of Basuki consorting with a beautiful woman of the village of Goshal in the guise of a handsome young man with the union producing the eighteen serpent deities who as per his instructions are to be kept inside a bamboo basket and fed with milk each day after lighting a bowl of incense.

A turnabout in events come about one day, when the mother is forced to leave on an errand and hands over the responsibility to her sister-in-law (sometimes her mother-in-law) hitherto unaware of what lay inside. Curious she lifts the lid and espying 18 slithering reptiles lifting their heads, drops the smoldering incense into the basket in horror. Starting a fire accident, that panics the serpents who, scorched and in agony, make a run for it by smashing their way out of the container, not stopping until each arrive at a distant village where they are discovered and edified by the local inhabitants – named after their individual ordeal.

The book Naga Cults and Traditions in the Western Himalayas, authored by O.C Handa records the name of the original eighteen deities. Many of them unique to the hills, not found in mainstream mythology. 1. Shrigan Naaga: The one who broke out of the basket. Residing deity of the village Bhanara. 2. Kana Naaga or the Goshali Naaga: The one with the defective vision, as a result of an injury to his left eye. Residing deity of village Goshal. 3. Dhumbal Naaga: The one who suffered burns from the smoke. Residing deity of Kothi Baragarh 4. Kali Naaga: Sometimes associated with Kaliya Naaga. Residing deity, Shiradh, Raison. 5. Phalal Naaga: Residing deity of village Pirni. 6. Piuli Naaga: The one with the yellow skin. Residing deity of Batahar. 7. Sogu Naaga: Residing deity of Sogu Khol, Ralha. 8. Kumara Naaga: Residing deity of Beasar. 9. Bhadu Naga: Residing deity, Nagar. 10. Balu Naaga: Resident deity of village Chethar, Seraj. 11. Mahuti Naaga: Residing deity of village Kais. 12. Kattheri Naaga: Residing deity of village Dalash, Seraj. 13. Ludra Naaga: Residing deity, Manikaran. 14. Chambhu Naaga: Residing deity of village Deugi, Seraj. 15. Kandha Naaga: Residing deity of Shrigarh. 16. Rai Naaga: Residing deity of village Dethua. 17. Natri Naaga: Residing deity of village Ramgharh Khandi. 18. Chhamahu Naga: Residing deity of village Golapur.

Another version of the same legend that may have appeared at an earlier date mentions only seven deities born to Bauski and his wife a Naaga woman. At the time of the birth the mother exhibiting serpent like qualities takes shelter within a potter’s shop inside an unbaked basket that when lit from outside one morning produced the same scattering effect. While the legend preserves the memory of Basuki and his wife as Naagas, the strong zoomorphism present indicates it may have cropped up some centuries after the advent of the Naaga tribes in the hills of Himachal – a period that was witnessing actual events gradually receding from memory with myths taking up their place.

Legends of the Atthara Kardu.
After the Vedic assimilation.

A third legend, features the Vedic sage Jamdagani bringing home the eighteen Naaga deities in a bamboo basket after visiting mount Kailash till violent winds sweep the basket of his head scattering the deities in the direction of the villages where their present day temple stands. Later reproductions of the same legend records the eighteen Naaga deities to have been either replaced or merged with vedic sages and deities – a time frame that also changed the selection process of the tribal Shaman,  once handpicked by the deity from any strata of society,  he now became one of Bharaminical bearings.

Weaning out the Vedic influence that appears in the form of the sage Jamdagani, this legend is perhaps the closest to explaining the coming of the Naagas to India as theorized by A.K. Mazumdar concerning the tribe whom he believed to be of Mongoliod origin and a Tibeto-Burmese speaking people, penetrating into India from the North East.

The north eastern migration theory of the Naagas. A contrasting view to middle eastern or Aryan origin.

The mention of the Kailasha peak of the Gandise Mountains that in later centuries would be incorporated into the Vedic religion as the abode of Shiva, as would Shiva and Basuki the lord of snakes, could imply the route some of the wandering tribes had followed upon entry.

One that meandered along the Indus and its tributaries, through the hills of the western Himalayas and to the Northern plains where the tribes would likely have met the Harappans, others of their kind coming in from other routes, and then proceeded down south and onward to Lanka, centuries before the arrival of the Aryans.

During their journey they would have intermingled with other indigenous tribes including the Harappans, formed alliances, inter married, sired children, and planted their own deities and beliefs among them – allusions of which can be traced in both main stream mythology and local legends such as the Western Himalayan Folklores.

The photo clipping of a map indicating the habitat of the King Cobra. The Naagas at times have been associated with the King Cobra, a species of serpents found predominantly in the regions highlighted in dark brown – a reptile they would have been familiar if their ancestral home was near about its habitat. The map originally appeared in the National Geographic Magazine, November 2001 in an article featuring the King Cobra.

Modern day geneticists studying the genetic history of the diverse people of India support the existence of four major branches in the country comprising of the Austro-Asiatic speaking people (the Mundas of Jharkhand), the Ancestral North Indians (Euroasians/Aryans), the Ancestral South Indian (Harappans/Dravidians) and the  Ancestral Tibeto-Burmese (speculated to be the Naagas). Of which the Austro-Asiatic and Ancestral South Indian group is affirmed to be older. Followed by the Tibeto-Burmese, then the Ancestral North Indian.

Trickling in from the North East, the Naagas ancestral grounds likely would have been somewhere around the present day countries of Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, southern China or possibly farther east. Regions infested with snakes including both the Cobra and the King Cobra, and where the serpent is still worshiped either as a reptile or as the dragon.

Coming of age as a tribe with the serpent as a constant neighbor the Naagas would have undoubtedly taken to it right from the early human era. They would have worshiped it, developed rituals to appease it, tamed it, used it as their totem, named themselves after it, as well as fashioned elaborate head gears to appear more like it – ahead of their migration to other lands.  The recurring mention of snakes and baskets in the legends of the Western Himalayan Folklore perhaps indicative of their propensity to harbor snakes within pots and baskets. A practice that may have begun in prehistory as it can also be found in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and even Europe – with similar legends erupting out of Africa (the rainbow serpent).

More over, Vedic annals and the history of Cambodia speak of the Khemer people whose origin is supposed to have sprouted from the union of the Vedic sage and a Naaga princess, indicating the area was already a Naaga stronghold before the arrival of the Aryans.

The pair of Shiva and Basuki.

A combination arising out of an intermingling of Naaga and other indigenous tribes, before the coming of the Aryans.

Before both their amalgamation and development in Vedic lores, the pair of Shiva and Basuki is believed to have existed much before the Aryans. Cave paintings from the prehistoric era have revealed the crude picture of a man dancing with a trident in hand next to a cow – a depiction that could have eventually inspired the story of Shiva beginning as a small time local deity of an unknown tribe with dominance restricted to a small locality. Basuki as the close companion is believed to have happened at a later date, tenably a result of the Naagas coming to the region, roughly around 4000 BC, and developing friendly ties with the tribe – which they may have assimilated into their own religion, then in turn were merged into Hinduism.

Naagas, an ancient tribe put on the road to obscurity.
Likely as the result of a misnomer started by the Aryans.

Trying to guess the complete picture with just a few pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle in hand can be an impossible task, specially when it happened so long ago in the past and left behind no perceptible evidence other than what can be collected in bits and pieces from a literature whose composition has changed with the coming of each generation.

There always remain too many missing pieces and questions demanding answers, leaving historians and scholars with speculations and theories alone. To confound matters, in the course of their existence, the Naagas intermingled, assimilated and in turn merged into other cultures so many times, that when keeping factual record became the norm, they had completely disappeared as a homogeneous ethnic people with the Indo-Aryans themselves likely responsible for putting them on the road to obscurity by misinterpreting their name, thanks to their affinity for the serpent. Later inscriptions found in the region of Sri Lanaka, suggests the tribe as the Naya.

The eastern migration theory of the tribe isn’t an absolute proof of their identity. It conflicts with other views that see the Naaags as another branch of the Aryans themselves or having appeared from the middle east like the Harappans. Although there is little doubt they did exist as a people of flesh and blood – far distant from their image of serpent beings – the worship of the snake was a feature to be found among the Aryans as well. In the cult of the serpent: An interdisciplinary manifestation and origins, author Balaji Mundkur states:

Other than Indo-European traditions related to conquests of ethically different people, the Indo-Aryans were primarily not a bird venerating people, opposed to ophiolatary. On the contrary there is good evidence in the Rig Veda that the Indo-Aryans themselves venerated the serpent as did the Europeans the Balts, with whom they were allied in prehistory.


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