On Nag Panchami, snake charmers line the streets of towns and cities displaying an array of snakes. Pythons, rat snakes, and cobras mingle in deep baskets and are brought out, each in turn, to dance to the tune of their charmer’s flute. Alternatively they hang, listlessly limp, around his neck as crowds of people gather to witness the drama. At temples dedicated to Nag Raja (the King of Snakes), offerings are made to sacred “pet” cobras who represent the deity. Even at temples not directly associated with Nag, cobras are often brought in by snake charmers in order to enhance the spirit of the festival. These common snakes—which otherwise languish in their charmer’s basket—are also made the object of ritual worship (cf. Kitts 1885).
The main ritual event of Nag Panchami is to offer milk and crystallized sugar to a cobra. As Premlata Vatsyayan writes, “On Nag Panchami one fasts and feeds milk or khir [rice pudding] to snakes. A white lotus flower is placed in a silver bowl. One then takes a brush made either of clay, wood, silver or gold, and using either turmeric or sandalwood paste draws the image of a five hooded snake on the floor. People then pray to this image” (1985: 66).
In rural areas people often go to anthills or other places where snakes are thought to live. They make their offerings by lighting incense in front of the snake’s hole. Milk is placed in a bowl to entice the snake out and is later poured down the hole as a libation (cf. Fuller 1944). As a number of authors have noted, feeding milk to snakes is a common motif in myth and folklore (La Barre 1962: 94; Thompson 1955–1958: B391.1.3, B7184.108.40.206, B765.4.1, Q452; Vogel 1926: 174–175).
Nag Panchami is a day to pray to snakes so as to avoid being bitten. Pandit Rakesh (1986: 61), referencing the Garuda Purana, points out that praying to snakes is an auspicious act which can make wishes come true. He also says that after having made an offering to a snake one must follow the common ritual injunction of feeding a Brahman (ibid). Having done these things, Rakesh concludes, one will encounter no major difficulties in life.
On a commonsense level snakes are regarded as dangerous. Nag Panchami is a festival which functions on a symbolic plane to subvert any possible danger of being poisoned. Taking ritual action to avoid being poisoned is translated into a general condition which insures auspicious health and longevity.
In addition to the salient points outlined by Rakesh, many people I spoke with in Banaras said that plowing or digging is forbidden on Nag Panchami because one might inadvertently kill a snake. Vatsyayan writes that one should not dig or plow for the whole month of Shravan. But she adds that this is somewhat extreme and may not be followed strictly (1985: 66).
On Nag Panchami many people decorate their doorways and walls with pictures of snakes (cf. Fuller 1944; Vogel 1926: 277–280). They either draw these themselves, or purchase them from vendors who sell posters at streetside stalls. A typical poster shows a coiled snake surrounded by other snakes in wriggling configuration. Auspicious mantras caption these posters which, in addition to being decorative, are designed to ward off dangerous snakes.
An important dimension of Nag Panchami has to do with the telling of folktales and myths about snakes. One of the most common is recorded by Vatsyayan:
Many other tales are also told. Vogel’s collection (1926), though dated, is the most complete and includes most of those catalogued by Thompson and Balys (1951). Though none of these folktales make an explicit reference to wrestling, they do express symbolic themes of continence and contained sexuality, themes of general importance to wrestling. “The Maiden Who Wedded a Snake” (Vogel 1926: 174–175), offers a clear example of the snake as a symbol of erotic sexuality. “The Story of the Jealous Nag” (ibid: 177) illustrates the danger of a woman’s insatiable passion. In this tale the female snake and her human lover are burnt to death by the jealous snake husband. In another tale (Vatsyayan 1985: 67), a man and his wife are made to promise their firstborn daughter to a snake. When they do not fulfill their promise the snake kidnaps the daughter by enticing her into a lake and pulling her down into the depths.
In a kingdom lived a farmer and his family. The farmer had two sons and a daughter. One day while plowing, the farmer accidentally killed three young snakes. At first the mother of the three dead snakes raged in anger but then vowed to avenge her children’s murder. That night the snake entered the farmer’s house and bit the farmer, his wife and their two sons. They all died. Early the next day, having seen what happened, the farmer’s daughter offered a bowl of milk to the mother snake and folded her hands asking forgiveness for what her father had done. She asked that the snake restore her parents and brothers to life. Pleased with the milk offering the snake did as the farmer’s daughter asked (1985: 67).
While most of the stories told on Nag Panchami are folktales, passing reference is made to snake myths in the epics. Krishna’s defeat of the Nag King, Kaliya (Harivamsa, chap. 68), is the most popular. In this story Krishna falls into a part of the Yamuna river where Kaliya lives. After being overcome by poison, Krishna rallies and ends up beating the snake king into submission, thereby purifying the waters of the holy river. Kaliya is relegated to live in the ocean, and the Yamuna river—likened in the text to the beautiful body of a maiden—is made safe for the cowherds among whom Krishna lives. One wrestler told a version of this story in which Krishna dives into the still waters of the Yamuna and defeats Kaliya by sticking his flute through the snake king’s nose. As H. Zimmer points out (1946: 87), it is significant that Krishna does not kill Kaliya. In the myth, passion is symbolically controlled but not neutralized. Nag’s power to ravish—which he does to the river maiden Yamuna—is harnessed by the cooling agency of the ocean. The energy of sexuality is not smothered; it is simply put in its proper place. This, as we shall see, is an important theme in the akhara celebration of Nag Panchami.
The folktales and myths about snakes that are told on Nag Panchami generally reinforce a notion that snakes represent sex as dangerous. The ritual of Nag Panchami, as will be seen, is designed to address the problem of sexual danger.
Nag Panchami is celebrated in various ways throughout India (cf. Banerjea 1956; Crooke 1926: 381–399; Fuller 1944; Mandlik 1868; Panda 1986: 105–113; Vogel 1926; Wadley 1975). However, the basic practice of propitiating snakes by offering them milk is almost certainly a universal aspect of the festival throughout India.