Nag Panchami at the Akhara
Although I have never seen wrestlers offer milk to snakes, the general motif is nevertheless common in the wrestling milieu. Akharas are often decorated with figures of snakes, many of which are depicted drinking from bowls of milk. I was told that if a snake were to appear in an akhara on Nag Panchami or any other day, it would be offered milk. At Narsingh Akhara there is a special shrine dedicated to Nag Raja. A bowl is suspended in the middle of this shrine as a permanent symbol of the annual milk offerings made on Nag Panchami.
Most of what occurs in the Banaras akharas on Nag Panchami does not relate to snakes explicitly. To the best of my knowledge no snake charmers are called, no posters of snakes put up, and no folktales or myths recounted. The akhara festivities simply do not make reference to what is generally regarded as the most common and popular dimension of the Nag Panchami celebration. At first this appeared paradoxical. It soon became clear, however, that while snakes are not formally manifest in akhara celebrations, the symbolic meanings associated with snakes are, nevertheless, invoked in various other ways. There are clear symbolic parallels between wrestling as it is ritualized in akharas on Nag Panchami and the more general significance of the festival as it relates to snakes. Much of the sexual meanings encoded in Nag Panchami ritual are also found encoded in the symbolic life of the wrestler. The wrestler embodies the cosmic structure of Nag Panchami ritual and folklore.
On Nag Panchami akharas are cleaned, repaired, and repainted. Temples are refurbished and colored flags and mango leaves are hung on strings around the pit. Special earth is brought in from rural areas, usually from the bottom of dried-out ponds, river banks, or other places where the soil is fine-grained and soft. Oil and turmeric, and occasionally perfumes and nim leaves, are mixed with the earth as it is added to the pit. Chairs are set up and rugs laid out for guests who are invited to watch the day’s events. Everyone tries to wear new or clean clothes. Devotional hymns and popular film tunes are played over rented public-address systems.
Priests are hired to perform a special puja at the akhara. The ritual puja is not directed at any deity in particular but at the pit. The names of Hanuman, Ram, and Shiva (but not Nag) are invoked, but the object of devotion is not these deities but the earth. There are two primary parts to the pujas I have seen. First, the priest and his assistant prepare a large brass plate of soaked chickpea chana and batasa (crystallized sugar). Water is sprinkled on this prasad offering. The priest chants a prayer over the plate as it is placed in front of Hanuman. A fire is lit in front of Hanuman’s image and he is anointed with sandalwood or turmeric paste.
The second part of the ritual begins when the priest lights a bunch of incense sticks and walks with these around the periphery of the pit. As he walks in a clockwise direction, the priest takes handfuls of earth and allows the smoke from the incense to mingle with the new soil. This stage of the ritual is identical with the blessing/invocation done every morning before practice. The smoke from the incense transfers Hanuman’s blessing into the pit. The incense is planted in the middle of the pit and everyone gathers around and chants some version of the following common invocation: “Speak the praises of King Ram Chandar! Praise be to Ram’s devout disciple Hanuman! Praise be to the great God Shiva!” The priest then takes the incense around to each member, who cups the smoke in his hand and draws it to his chest or face in an act of communion with the pit.
The priest carries the plate of prasad around the akhara and offers a handful to each member. As the wrestlers eat the prasad the priest puts a tika of vermilion paste on each person’s forehead.
While the priest and his assistant prepare the prasad and incense, the members of the akhara undress and put on their langots. By the time the invocation is chanted, the pit is encircled by a large number of wrestlers clad only in their g-strings. Those who are not wrestlers and have come only to watch stand out distinctly as a crowd of clothed people on the periphery of the akhara. Attention is clearly drawn to the wrestlers’ bodies. While wrestlers feel comfortable in their langots and there is usually no self-consciousness about one’s body in the akhara, Nag Panchami tends to force the wrestler’s subjective awareness of his physique into an objective projection of what it means to be a wrestler. The wrestler is always aware of his body as a meaningful and significant part of his identity. On Nag Panchami, however, his body takes on special significance by becoming an objective and somewhat depersonalized representation of a whole way of life. During the ritual the wrestler is on stage and his body becomes emblematic of what he does.
Once the puja is completed, wrestlers pair up and put on brief demonstration bouts. At some point during the festivities each wrestler makes a cash offering to the guru of the akhara. In 1987 Jaddu Singh, the acting guru, sat on a chair in the corner of the pit holding a framed portrait of his elder brother Ram Singh. The members came by and placed garlands on the portrait as they touched Jaddu’s feet.
While the blessing of the pit and the formal recognition of the guru are important parts of the festivities, Nag Panchami is primarily an occasion for many akharas to sponsor dangals (wrestling tournaments). Nag Panchami dangals are unique and must be distinguished from more common, “secular” tournaments. Nag Panchami dangals take place within akhara precincts, while most other dangals are held in larger, secular public arenas. As distinct from regular wrestling bouts, Nag Panchami dangals should be seen as the extension of more general religious themes of propitiation. On Nag Panchami wrestling is an act of obeisance to Ram, Hanuman, Shiva, and the earth of the pit. Just as the body of the wrestler becomes an emblematic object of celibacy, moral virtue, and strength, so are the religious and symbolic aspects of wrestling writ large on the occasion of Nag Panchami. While all dangals are dramatic, Nag Panchami dangals dramatize a particular code of symbolic meaning associated with the power and danger of sexual energy as it relates to physical strength.
Nag Panchami is an occasion for everyone to see how much a wrestler has developed and improved over the previous year. As one person put it, a wrestler eats, exercises, and practices for a full year and then puts himself on display to bear witness to the virtue of his endeavor. One wrestler compared the public presentation of self on Nag Panchami to a farmer’s proud perusal of his carefully nurtured crops. Like a well-rooted and irrigated plant, a wrestler grows and develops out of the akhara earth. On Nag Panchami the wrestler’s body takes on the symbolic properties of nurtured growth which is associated with fertility and the agricultural cycle.
The significance of contained sexuality will be analyzed through an examination of eight motifs: rain and water, snakes, milk, ghi, almonds, earth, trees, and exercise. On Nag Panchami the wrestler’s body—situated, significantly, at the locus of these eight motifs—represents a powerful scheme of contained sexuality manifest as growth and increasing physical prowess.