Nagpanchami / Nagapanchami in India
NagapanchamiPanchami means the fifth and on the fifth day of the bright half of Shravana, nagas (serpents) are worshipped. Snakes symbolize energy and prosperity. Snake-worship is pre-Aryan and was incorporated into the Aryan religion at an early stage.

In the rainy month of Shravana many snakes come out of their holes. A large number of human and cattle deaths were caused by snake-bites. Thus, this worship must have been started to appease the nagas.

Nagas are descendents of the sage Kashyapa. He had two wives - Kadru and Vinita. Vinita was the mother of the great eagle Garuda and Kadru, the mother of serpents. There was great rivalry between the two wives. Kadru won a stake through deceit. Consequently, Vinita had to work as Kadru`s slave. One way to free her from bondage was to procure the `amrit` - the nectar of immortality from the city of Gods. Garuda, the mighty bird, procured the amrit and bought his mothers freedom. But, Indra stole it back before the serpents could drink it. However, a few drops of the divine potion fell on the grass on which the serpents slithered. Hence, they are endowed with the capacity to throw away the old skin and grow a new one in its place!

The prominent Cobra snakes mentioned in the Puranas are Anant, Vasuki, Shesh, Padma, Kanwal, Karkotak, Kalia, Aswatar, Takshak, Sankhpal, Dhritarashtra and Pingal. Some historians state that these were not snakes but Naga Kings of various regions with immense power.

Vishnu sleeps between the cycles of creation on a serpent-couch and this form is called Seshshayana Vishnu. This thousand-headed cobra is also called Ananta (endless). He is considered immortal by Hindus as it can slough off its skin. As such Eternity in Hinduism is often represented by a serpent eating its own tail.

In Jainism and Buddhism, snake is regarded as sacred having divine qualities. It is believed, that a Cobra snake saved the life of Buddha and another protected the Jain Muni Parshwanath. As an evidence of this belief, we find a huge serpent carved above the head of the statue of Muni Parshwanath.

In medieval India, figures of snakes were carved or painted on the walls of many Hindu temples. In the caves at Ajanta, images of the rituals of snake worship have been found. Kautilya, in his "Arthashastra" has given detailed description of the cobra snakes.

The most popular legend is about Lord Krishna when he was a small boy. While playing the game of throw-ball with his cowherd friends, the ball fell into Yamuna river. The legend explains how Krishna destroyed Kalia Serpent. He forced Kalia to go away and saved the people from drinking the poisonous water.

This is an ancient festival. Hemadri, an historian, has stated that on Ashvina Shukla Panchami people worshiped images of nagas and Indrani. These images were placed on a white cloth, on platform. The images of nagas were bathed with water, clarified butter and milk. The images of Indrani was washed with water only.

According to Agni Purana, snakes are to be worshiped on the Panchamis of Shravana, Bhadrapada, Ashvina and Kartika. Such worship is performed in the honour of Takshaka, the king of serpents. The festival is called Takshaka Yatra.

NagapanchamiIt is celebrated with more enthusiasm in the rural areas. On this day, women and children visit snake-pits and worship the snakes residing there. They perform puja (a form worship with an invocative prayer). Then, they offer milk and honey to the naga-devta (snake-god). In urban areas, small clay images of cobra are worshipped.

Married girls visit their parents. Swings are put up in the villages on which both adults and children enjoy themselves without any inhibition, irrespective of caste, creed or sex. In several houses, clay images of snakes are worshipped.

On this day, people whitewash a portion of a wall. Then, the figures of cobras are painted in black. They worship these figures with incense, lamps, sweets, and flowers. Women observe a fast. Images of snakes made of silver, gold, wood or clay are also worshipped. Cloth effigies of serpents are worshipped in Jodhpur.

In Punjab, Nag-Panchami is known by the name of "Guga-Navami". A huge snake is made from dough. Every household contributes the flour and butter needed to prepare the dough-snake. The dough-snake is then placed on a winnowing basket and taken in a procession in which women and children sing and dance and onlookers shower flowers. All the religious rites are performed to invoke the blessings of the snake-god and then the dough snake is ceremoniously buried.

The body of Shiva is entwined with snakes, thus, on Naga Panchami day, people worship him. Shiva worship is observed particularly at his temples at Varanasi and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and at Vaidyanatha and Naganatha in West Bengal.

Manasa, a daughter of Shiva, is worshipped as the snake-goddess. She is worshipped particularly in Rajasthan, Bengal and the hill areas of India. On this occasion, snake-charmers are also requested to invoke the Snake Queen by playing melodious tunes on their flutes.

In Maharashtra, snake-charmers are seen especially on this day. They go from house to house asking for alms and clothing. The snakes are kept in flat and round baskets. These baskets are opened only when women offer milk and cooked rice for the worship. Women sprinkle haldi-kumkum and flowers on the heads of the snakes and offer sweetened milk to the snakes and pray.

NagapanchamiThe village of Baltis Shirale, which is situated approximately 400 kilometers (approximately 250 miles) from Mumbai, witnesses the most impressive of all the Nagapanchami celebrations. In this village, people pray to live cobras that they catch on the eve of this pre-harvest festival. About a week before this festival, they dig out live snakes from holes and keep them in covered earthen pots and these snakes are fed with rats and milk. Their poison-containing fangs are not removed because the people of this village believe that to hurt the snakes is sacrilegious. Yet it is amazing that these venomous cobras do not bite instead protect their prospective worshippers.

After all the obeisance is rendered to the goddess and the ritual puja is over, the snakes are put back in the pots and carried in bullock-carts in procession through the 32 hamlets of Shirala village. Women eagerly await outside their houses for "darshan" of the sacred cobras. One or two cobras are let loose in front of each house where men and women offer prayers, sprinkle puffed rice, flowers and coins over them, burn camphor and agarbattis and perform "aarti".

Large crowds arrive from Kolhapur, Sangli, Poona and even from foreign lands to see this wonderful spectacle and enjoy in the fair. The following day, the snakes are released in the jungle.

There is one legend associated with the celebration of this festival. Once Guru Gorakhnath was passing through this village. He saw a woman praying before a clay-cobra idol. He turned it into a living snake and told her not to be afraid of snakes. Since then, the Baltis Shirale village and its neighbouring regions worship snakes. Guru Gorakhnath`s temple is on a nearby hillock.

In Maharashtra, acrobatics and the magic performances by the tribals in the interior parts attracts big crowds.

Some of the other areas of worship during Nagapanchami are the Hardevja temple in Jaipur, Adishesha temple in Andhra Pradesh, Nagaraj temple in Kerala and Nagathamman temple in Chennai.

In the South, images of Snakes are crafted in cowdung on either side of the entrance to the house as a mark of welcome to snake God. Offerings of milk are given in the holes around the house.

There are snake-temples in our country with idols of snake-gods. In these, temples cobras are also reared and live snakes are worshipped on Nag-Panchami day. In Hindu homes, frying any thing on this day is forbidden by tradition.