Naga Panchami is a festival dedicated to the worship of Serpent deity. In Gujarat, the serpent is worshipped by the name “Bhujang”, the Sanskrit word for serpent. In States such as West Bengal, Orissa and Assam, the goddess Manasa Devi, queen of the serpents is worshipped on Naga Panchami day. In some parts of India, the festival is celebrated as Vishari Puja or Bishari Puja. Visha or Bisha means “poison”. Naga Panchami is celebrated as Garuda Panchami/ Bhratru Panchami too.
When is Naga Panchami celebrated?
In most of the States of India, the festival is celebrated on Shravana Shukla Panchami (5th day of waxing moon in the month of Shravana masa (July- Aug). In some areas of South India, the festival is observed on the 6th day of waxing moon in Margashira Masa also known as Skanda Shasti). The serpent deity is worshipped in the form of Lord Subramanya.
In Gujarat, the festival is observed on Shravana Krushna Panchami. It is known as Naga Pancham and is celebrated three days before Krishna Janmashtami.
In States such as West Bengal, Orissa and Assam, the festivities which start from Shravan Shukla Panchami extends upto Bhadrapada Masa. (Sep- Oct)
In Punjab, Naga Panchami is celebrated during Bhadrapada Masa (Sep- Oct) as Guga Navami.
Benefits/goals of worshipping serpent deity
On Naga Panchami, snake gods are worshipped to ward off the evil effect of Kaala Sarpa Dosha (Kaala Sarpa Dosha is when seven planets are placed in houses between Rahu and Ketu in the Janam Kundali).
Garuda, the vahana of Lord Vishnu is worshipped for health and for begetting strong children.
Childless couple pray to the serpent deity to beget children.
As snakes venture out during rainy season, they are worshipped to seek protection from snake bites.
During Garuda/ Bhratru Panchami, women worship the serpent deity for the well being of their brothers and protection against snake bites.
Rituals observed across the country
Although the entire Hindu community observes Naga Panchami, the rituals associated with the worship and festivities vary from State to State. The festival starts on Naga Chaturthi, the previous day of Naga Panchami. Depending upon the region and family customs/rituals, women fast either on Naga Chaturthi and break the fast on the next day or fast on the day of the festival.
Idols of snake made out of clay, sliver, brass or in some cases images drawn on the walls are worshipped. A rangoli of five hooded snake is drawn on the floor with a brush and sandalwood or turmeric paste is used as paint. Then a lotus flower is placed in a silver bowl and prayers are offered to the image drawn on the floor. The serpent deities are bathed with water, honey, ghee, sugar, curd and milk. Then Vermillion, Turmeric, doop, deep and Naivedhya is offered to the serpent deity.
Laddos made of Till and Jaggery is offered as Naivedhya. Women also visit anthills and offer puja to the anthill. Fresh milk is offered to the snakes that may be residing in the anthill. Sometimes crystallized sugar along with milk is also offered to the snake. Incense is burnt and the anthill is decorated with flowers. Threads are tied around the anthill. At the end of the puja, women get some mud from the anthill, as it is believed to cure skin related ailments.
Ploughing and digging of fields is strictly avoided on this day, as it might kill or harm the snakes. In some parts of the country, farmers don’t till the land during the rainy season for the fear of killing or hurting the snakes. Women don’t make fried stuff on Naga Panchami day.
In South India, snakes are associated primarily with Lord Subramanya. They are also identified with Lord Shiva, Ganesha and Vishnu.
In Karnataka, women draw an image of the snake on the floor in front of the house and offer prayers.
In Kerala, a shrine for the serpent deity is established at the southwest corner of the ancestral house.
In a village, Baltis Shirale located about 400 kms from Mumbai, the village holds the largest celebrations of Naga Panchami when snake charmers from far and nearby cities/villages congregate and live snakes are worshipped.
In the region of Kutch, Gujarat, the festival is celebrated as Ketarpal or Kshetrapal, meaning the protector of his domain. The town Bhuj, located below the hill, Bhujiya, gets its name from the hill Bhujiya, which was once the abode of snakes. There is a fort on top of the hill, Bhujang Fort which has a temple dedicated to the serpent deity and another temple at the foot of the hills dedicated to Naina Devi. A fair is held in the premises of the temple on the day of Naga Panchami.
In the Sindhi community, the festival is celebrated in honour of Gogro. (Gogro is folklore from Kutch, Gujarat)
In States such as West Bengal, Orissa and Assam, the goddess Manasa Devi also known as Jaratkaru is worshipped. Jaratkarure, a Brahmin sage had married Manasa Devi. On the day of the festival, a twig of manasa plant (euphorbia lingularum) symbolising goddess Manasa is fixed on the ground in the house and worshipped.
In Benares, the Akhara’s (places where wrestling practices and competitions are held) are decorated and the images of snakes are painted on the walls. On the day of Naga Panchami, Gurus of Akharas are felicitated.
In Varanasi, there is a shrine dedicated to Naga Raja (King of Snakes). In the temple a bowl of milk is suspended above the image of a snake, which looks like the milk trickling on the snake.
In Punjab, the idol of snake is made out of rice flour and is taken around the village. An offering of butter and rice floor is made for the snake from each house. The snake is then buried.
Naga Panchami is observed in Nepal too. The festival is celebrated in honour of Anantha, a thousand hooded serpent on which, Lord Vishnu is resting. The festival is also observed for the fight between Garuda and the great serpent.
In Kathmandu, there is a statue of Garuda in Changu Naryana Temple, which is established by Garuda himself. Garuda is said to sweat on the day of Naga Panchami, reminding the great fight with the giant serpent. The sweat is said to cure people of leprosy.
There is a mention of the festival in Skanda Purana, Garuda Purana, Narada Purana, Agni Purana and Mahabharata.
In Bhavishya Purana, bathing snakes such as Vasuki, Takshaka, Kaliya, Manibhadra, Airavata, Dhritarashtra, Karkotaka and Dhanjaya with milk will protect the family from dangers.
In Mahabharata, Janamejaya the son of King Parikshith of Kuru dynasty performed the Sarpa Satra Yagna to avenge the death of his father who was killed by a snake, Takshaka. A big Yagna Kunda was prepared by sages and when the Yagna began, all the snakes started to fall into the Yagna Kunda. This frightened Takshaka, and he coiled himself around the cot of Lord Indra seeking His protection.
As the Sages knew that it was only Takshaka which had escaped into the nether world, they raised their tempo of reciting the shlokas. The Yagna was so forceful that it not only dragged the snake, Takshaka, but also Lord Indra into the fire. This scared the gods, who requested Manasa Devi, (the goddess of snakes) to stop Lord Indra from being dragged into the fire. She asked her son, Astika to appeal to Janamejaya and stop the Yagna. Astika, who was well versed with scriptures, impressed Janamejaya with his knowledge. Janamejaya then asked Astika to wish for a boon. Astika requested that the Yagna be stopped. The king could not refuse Astika’s request, as he had come in the guise of a Brahmin. Sages who knew about Astika, asked Janamejaya not to grant the boon, but as a King he could not refuse the request of a Brahmin. Thus the Yagna had to be stopped which saved the lives of Lord Indra and the snake, Takshaka and its community. As the day, on which the Yagna was conducted happened to be Shravana Shukla Panchami, snakes are worshipped on this day.
According to Garuda Purana, worshipping snakes on Shravana Shukla Panchami will bring good luck.
Another reference is once Lord Krishna was playing with his friends, the ball fell into the Yamuna River. When Krishna entered the river, the dreaded cobra, Kaliya attacked Him. Krishna jumped on the snake’s hood and caught Kaliya by its neck. Kaliya realised that Krishna was no ordinary boy. It pleaded with Krishna to spare its life. Krishna spared Kaliya on the condition that, henceforth it would not harm anybody. Naga Panchami is also celebrated to commemorate the victory of Lord Krishna over Kaliya, the snake.
Another puranic reference about Garuda Panchami celebration is that Sage Kashyapa had thirteen wives, of whom two were Kadruva and Vinata. Kadruva gave birth to 1000 serpents, while Vinata gave birth to two sons- Surya or Aruna and Garuda.
Kadruva wanted to dominate over Vinata. So she started an argument with Vinata about the colour of Lord Indra’s horse- Uchaiswaras, which was a white horse. Kadruva began the argument by saying that the tail of the horse was black in colour. Vinata did not agree as she had seen the horse. Kadruva, knowing very well that the horse was spotlessly white in colour wanted to enslave Vinata. So Kadruva said that if it was found that the horse’s tail was indeed black in colour, then Vinata would be a slave to her all her life and vice –a- versa. Vinata agreed to Kadruva. To prove her point, Kadruva asked her children, all black snakes to entwine themselves around the horse’s tail. When the horse flew to Deva Loka, Vinata, to her surprise saw that the horse’s tail was black, thus she became a slave to Kadruva. Vinata then narrated the whole incident to her son, Garuda, who wanted to free his mother from slavery. He approached his step mother, Kadruva and asked her about how he could end the slavery of his mother. Kadruva, thinking that it would be difficult for Garuda to get nectar from Deva Loka, asked Garuda to get nectar or Amruth from heaven. Garuda then left for heaven to get the nectar. In the heaven, Lord Indra fought with Garuda fiercely and when Garuda narrated how his mother was cheated, Indra gave the nectar to Garuda. Lord Indra also blessed Garuda with the boon that henceforth all snakes would be slaves to him. When Garuda returned with nectar, Kadruva was surprised and felt that Gaurda could be a threat to her. She immediately released Vinata. Garuda Panchami is the other name for the festival, as it was on Shravana Shukla Panchami that Gaurda, the Vahana of Sri Vishnu ended the slavery of his mother from the clutches of Kadhru, his step mother.