Snake worship in India

Temple of Shirgan Naaga.

Atop the quiet Himalayan village of Bhanara that grows in random steps amidst pockets of orchards and farms high-up on a mountain in the hamlet of Jagatsuk near Manali, India, the newly renovated temple of the serpent deity Shirgan Naaga is a picture of enchanting tranquility to the backdrop of a dense forest of  cedar Deaodars, mysterious and alluring with light wisps of smoky mist, on a rainy day in the month of August, 2016.

Shaped by a new generation of architects versed in the traditional Kath Kuni form of architecture – a building technique that originated in this part of the western Himalayas – it is a melange of slate and tough Deodar wood with intricate carvings of the Hindu god Shiva and the hooded Cobra whose wooden gaze, straight and unwavering, overlooks the entrance to an interior that houses a Shiva Lingum and the residing deity himself.

In almost all versions of local Himalayan folklore (see Farbound.Net story: Behind the myth of the serpent people) that tells of how snake worship came to be in the hills of Himachal, Shirgan is identified as the brother of Kana Naga (see Farbound.Net snippet: The Trinty temple of Goshal) and one of the 18 children of Basuki, the lord of snakes. Like Kana who earned his honorific after the mythical fire accident left him blind in one eye, sometimes said to be started by his grandmother and other times his aunt, Shirgan earned his by being the first to break out of the container in desperation and making a mad rush to the area where his temple stands today.

Often mistaken by locals from outside the area and the rare visitor as Takshaka Naga, another snake deity whose legends are closely associated with the ancient region of Takshila, (a place of historic importance and now in present day Pakistan) with mentions in the epic Mahabharata, Shirgan is in fact a bonafide separate divinity with his own unique place in snake cult mythology. For generations, he has been a patron deity of his area, guarded and cared for the local dwellers from all manners of harm and evil, solved their problems, arranged martial partners and helped name children at birth.

His story while having picked up local flavor and altered by narrators over the years continue to bear similarity to more recognized myths associated with snake cults in India. A form of worship scholars believe predate the dominance of the Vedic Aryans and one that begun projecting the serpent as both a creative and divine force till its ultimate merge with the Hindu god Shiva under the Brahaminical system. The older temple was probably a cruder version of the new one as temples in hills is thought to have begun as simple mounds of stones piled up high and gradually refined upon with the passage of time. The Shiva lingum inside, a later addition as well.

Travel Tip: The temple of Shirgan Naaga is located near about an half an hour journey uphill from the village of Bhanara. It is one of the lesser known and rarely visited places near Manali as the only path that presently leads directly to the holy site is a steep and narrow mountain trail with roughly made stone steps at intervals and requires a measure of stamina to reach via foot. In the rainy season the trail can be slippery wet with moss, cow dung and rotten leaves. If visiting during this time, shoes with grip soles and a companion can be a good decision to avoid careless accidents – as during mid day certain areas of the path remains deserted for long spells. Best time to visit thus is during the dry season. The path for the temple starts as an alleyway in the hamlet of Jagatusk, in the middle of local shops and near the bus stop. It diverts along the way and getting lost is easy. Stop to ask the locals for directions if in doubt by referring to the temple in the local dialect as as the ‘Devta ka Mandir’ or by its name. Leather items such as shoes and belts are not allowed within the premises. Littering the area and defecating is also a punishable offense.


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