Nag Panchami (August 19) is a Hindu festival that worships Nag, the serpent king. Pictures of Nag are posted in doorways, and milk is the prime offering of the day. If you have a keen eye, you must have noticed that snakes are quite prevalent in many wood, metal, and stone carvings in and around Kathmandu. That’s because they are a big part of local culture. And, although there’s a different myth behind Nag Panchami according to Hindu mythology, which we will come to a bit later, let me recount another myth that’s completely local in nature.
Ages ago, the Kathmandu Valley wasn’t a valley but rather a huge lake called Nagdaha (nag: snake deity, daha: lake), and was inhabited by numerous serpents. There came a time when some humans thought that it would be a nice place to live and grow crops, surrounded as it was by tall, protective mountains, and with such a nice climate. Now, if only they could make it habitable! Which they tried to do by making substantial efforts to drain the lake (one myth says that a sage named Manjushree drained the lake by cleaving out a gorge in Chobhar with his powerful sword). Whatever the case, their shenanigans aroused the nagas from their slumber and made them really angry. Who were these humans who were disturbing their restful lives? So, to show the humans their rightful place, they used their great powers to put a stop to the rains for several years.
The humans became desperate with the drought that ensued, but they had no idea what to do. Then, one fine day, a king with tantric powers rode into the valley. The locals begged him to do something about their plight, so he used his powers to compel the nagas to allow the rains to fall like before. But, he was a wise king, and knowing well about the great powers of the nagas, he knew they had to be compensated in some way if they were to be appeased. Therefore, he declared that every year the locals would observe the fifth day of the lunar month of Shrawan (July/August) as Nag Panchami, to show due respect to the nagas.
Another thing the king understood was that the nagas would have to be provided suitable places to live, places they would feel safe and comfortable in. Looking around the valley, he observed some sites that fit the bill—these were Nagadaha in Lalitpur and Taudaha in Kathmandu. These places are where people go during Nag Panachami to worship the nagas even today.
Now, here’s the other myth from Hindu mythology. There was once a king called Janamejaya of the Kuru dynasty. He was distressed and furious because his father, Parikshita, had died after being bitten by Takshaka, the king of the snakes. So, he gathered a large number of Brahmin priests and organized a great yagna (fire ritual) called Sarpa Satra that lasted for many years, the purpose being to totally annihilate all the snakes of the world. So powerful was the ritual that an innumerable number of snakes fell into the yagna fire and perished. However, Takshak, who was the one who had started all this by killing the king’s father, managed to escape, and he made his way to Lord Indra, where he coiled himself around the leg of the cot on which the god lay.
Realizing that the guilty snake had escaped, the priests doubled their efforts at the yagna so as to drag him into the sacrificial fire. Unfortunately, the powerful yagna not only started to drag Takshaka but also Lord Indra on his cot along with him, towards the raging fire. The other gods became apprehensive, and they pleaded with a Brahmin’s wife, Manasadevi, to do something to stop the ritual. She ordered her son Astika to appeal to the vengeful Janamejaya on her behalf to stop the destructive yagna. Knowing his devotion to the scriptures, Astika demonstrated his deep knowledge of all the shastras (holy books) to the vengeful king, and ultimately succeeded in impressing him. The king granted him a boon, anything he wanted. The only thing Astika wanted was for the yagna to be stopped, and although the king’s wrath was still not extinguished, he could not go against his word. That’s how the great Sarpa Satra yagna came to a halt, thus saving the lives of not only Lord Indra and Takshaka, but also of all other serpents on Earth. The day it was stopped was the fifth day of the bright fortnight of Shrawan, which was henceforth observed as Nag Panchami.
Inspired by tours where you can see festivals like this? Have a look at festival tours offered by Royal Mountain Travel:
Top image: Peretz Partensky/Flickr