Snake Worship
In Sanskrit, snakes are known as sarpa, meaning 'any gliding creature', and naga, or cobra. Sanp is the common Hindi word for snake.
SNAKE IDOLS

The snake ranks sacred second only to the cow. Because of its swift and gliding movement, scaly skin, hypnotic eyes and poisonous bite, it is feared and therefore the subject of myth and legend. Inevitably, it was worshipped in the hope that veneration would make it protect and not harm its devotees. Snake worship forms an important part of mythology, especially in southern India, and the Atharva Veda  speaks of this practice.

Snakes or nagas are usually represented as gigantic cobras with several hoods, or with a human head and serpent body. They are considered the kings of all other snakes, capable of assuming beguiling human forms. They live in Patala loka and their capital city, Bhogvati, is the richest and the most beautiful city in the whole universe.

There are various beliefs about the origin of snakes. The most popular belief, according to the Puranas, is that snakes are the progeny of Sage Kashyapa and Kadru. The Brahmanda Purana, says that they were produced from water, while the Linga Purana states that they originated from Brahma's tears, produced after he realised that he could not create the universe alone  Shiva

Eight pre-eminent snakes from mythology are: Shesha, Adisesha or Seshnaga, whose name literally means 'residue', is believed to have been born of what was left after the universe and its inhabitants had been created. Revered as the king of the snakes, he has a 1,000 heads ('sahasrashirsha') which form a massive hood. He is believed to be Vishnu's couch, and his hood shelters the god during the periodic deluges. Earth is said to rest on Seshnaga .He is believed to spew venomous fire that destroys all creation at the end of each kalpa, and is worshipped as a manifestation of Vishnu. Ananta, literally 'endless', is a very long snake, encircling all earth and therefore symbolising eternity. Believed to be dark blue in colour, he, too, is regarded as a manifestation of Vishnu.

Vasuki, literally 'of divine being', is believed to be the green, seven-headed naga king who was used as a churning rope around Mount Mandara during the samudra manthan. He is of the same royal status as Shesha and Takshaka.

Manasadevi, the queen of the snakes, is sister to Vasuki. She is said to possess special powers to counteract snake venom and protects mortals from snakebite during Chaturmasya Takshaka, lord of the nagas, said to be saffron-coloured and have nine hoods. He was almost destroyed by King Janamejaya, a descendant of the Pandavas, but was saved in the nick of time by a young ascetic,

Astika, who was half Brahmin and half naga. This story is probably a mythification of Aryan-Dasa conflict and integration.

Kaliya, the five-headed demon serpent, who lived in the depths of the Yamuna, is believed to have troubled Krishna and his friends in their childhood. Finally, Krishna danced on his hood and subdued him, but spared his life at the behest of his wives.

Padmaka or Padmanabha is the five-hooded, green-coloured snake who guards the south.

Kulika, of whom not much is known, is described as dusky brown, with a half-moon crescent on his head.

Each snake is worshipped on a particular day at different times of the year. Besides Vishnu, snakes are also commonly associated with Shiva. He wears a serpent across his chest, as his sacred thread Upanayanam Coiled serpents adorn his hair, neck and arms. For this reason, snakes widely worshipped by Shaivas everywhere and particularly in south India, where Shiva is more popular than Vishnu.

Indeed snakes are extremely popular objects of veneration in south India, where they are worshipped as the source of happiness, wealth and fame. It is believed that when they are angered by disrespect, they curse people, resulting in sickness, death and the loss of property. Therefore, most homes have their own snake shrines in a corner of the garden, often under a neem tree. This is usually a stone with a snake carved on it. Similar stones are found under a large tree in a common area of the village, or in temples. In fact, snakes are regarded as part of a property, and land transfer deeds make a special mention of the family serpent as part of the property sold. Snakes are also believed to be spirits of the dead. Therefore, they are treated as one's ancestors and paid special attention during the Shradha ceremony. If a person dies of snakebite, he is believed to remain a preta until Shradha is performed for him at Hatakeshvara. Only then is he believed to become a pitra.

The fifth day of any lunar month is considered auspicious for snake worship. According to the Bhavishya Purana, Kadru cursed her serpent-sons to be consumed by fire for disobeying her. Brahma, however, softened the curse and sent them to live in the nether regions. This happened on the fifth of the month. Since their lives were spared on the fifth of the month, this day is considered auspicious for snake worship.

Snake festivals are held at various times of the year, depending on local customs. The main features of snake worship are bathing idols of snakes in milk and sometimes blood, offering milk to the idols, or pouring milk into snake holes.

Nagapanchami, on the fifth day of Craven, is an important snake festival. On this day, snakes are worshipped to gain knowledge, wealth, and fame. Snakes are drawn on wooden boards with red sandalwood paste. These depictions are worshipped, and milk is offered to them. Manasadevi is also worshipped on this day. Incense, flowers, milk, and ghee are offered to her, and neem leaves are eaten by the worshipper, as a guard against snakebite.

Certain snakes are believed to have the power to fulfil desires ('icchadhari sarp' in Hindi). A nagatirtha to Prabhasa is believed to bestow sons on a woman who worships the snake idol there on the fifth day of Shravan.

Snake-worship continues unabated in India and some of the most successful popular films have this absorbing subject as their theme, with all its fear, fervour and magical wish fulfillment.

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