Snakes in Odishan Art

Wherever people live for certain time they create culture, which evolves organically. Culture also evolves through geographical adaptation. Fearsome animals, such as snakes which harm people are often worshipped. In my Ahmedabad experience I have found people living in the old city painting their kitchen walls with murals of naga on the occasion of Naga Panchami. The murals are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also have deep culture-geography connection.  This I have shared in one of my previous posts.

Once, snakes used to be a common sight in Odisha, especially in the Chandaka forest of Bhubaneswar region. Now their numbers have drastically come down due to massive urbanisation. In my childhood I have on many occasions met keluas (snake charmers) in a village called Kalarahanga on the outskirt of Bhubaneswar. The village was barren surrounded by undulating laterite mass, and bushes, comprised of a few makeshift huts. The male members often went out of their village in search of snakes throughout Odisha. Now if someone steps into Kalarahanga would not be able to trace anything that I am saying here as the area has transformed completely into a high-tech urban district.

I have heard stories from keluas how snakes used to create havoc in the psyche of people. This is just 30/35 years back. Imagine Odisha of 2000 years back. Due to large scale snake bites, people treated it as a god. A folk cult evolved around snake. Archaeologists have found life size images of Nagas and Nagins in the vicinity of medieval temples of Bhubaneswar, which now are displayed in the State Museum. But if someone wants to see them in the context, the best place would be the Ananta Gumpha at Khandagiri Hill where a five hooded snake is sculpturally depicted in the cave facade. The other prominent example is serpentine cave in the opposite Udayagiri Hill. The caves dated to 1st century BC show the popularity of the cult, a tradition still followed by a section of women in coastal Odisha.

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On the occasion of Naga Chaturthi Osha, in September-October women keep fast and worship Lord Pingala, the Serpent God in the form of a snake image. Lord Pingala’s blessings are sought for the welfare of their families and children.

In the early medieval time, the cult was integrated with Buddhism and Shaivism. In art motifs nagas are depicted as having human upper torsos and snakes from the waist down.

In Buddhist adaptation, especially in Mahayana Buddhism eight great Nagas came to hear the Buddha’s teaching and were converted on the spot.  From then on the Nagas were said to have protectors of dharma. In Ratnagiri and Udayagiri Buddhist sites, there are beautiful depictions of nagas and nagies.

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The Buddha is also shown as a snake-like being, who protected the Buddha from the elements after his enlightnment.

It is said that four weeks after Gautama Buddha began meditating under theBodhi Tree, the heavens darkened for seven days, and rained heavily. However, the mighty King of Serpents, Mucalinda, came from beneath the earth and protected the Buddha with his hood. When the storm cleared, the serpent king assumed his human form, and returned in joy to his palace.

In Lalitgiri, there are depictions of Mucalinda Naga.

Nagas and Naginis coexist with Yakshinis in the temple walls of Bhubaneswar. These serpent deities are associated with the subterranean realm and are guardians of earth’s treasures. They reside at Patala, a more splendid city than Indra’s Heaven. Nagas and Naginis boast their wealth by their jewellery, heavy necklaces, arm bands, even crowns and by the jewel-offerings they hold in their hands. On the walls of the temple, the nagas take on a worshipful role, offering garlands as well as jewels.

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 As time passed the tradition of depicting snakes in temples and monasteries did discontinue. But even today they allure everyone through their forms, and aesthetic appeal and transport us to an era of intense interaction between human and natural world.



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