Monthly Archives: April 2021

Hemu, the ephemeral Hindu Sultan of medieval India

From about 1193 A.D. onwards Delhi was ruled by Turks belonging to various dynasties till 1451 when the Afghans under Bahlul Khan Lodi captured Delhi. In 1526 Babur defeated the Afghans in the first battle of Panipat and commenced the Moghul rule in India. His son Humayun was overthrown by Sher Shah Sur in 1540 and he re-established the Afghan rule over Delhi. But within ten years of Sher Shah’s death his descendants lost their empire through family quarrels and rebellion by nobles. The last Sur ruler Adil Shah was entirely devoid of energy or capacity and devoted himself solely to the pursuit of pleasure and handed over the responsibility of governance to his prime minister, Hemu.

From Hawker to Diwan

Hemachandra or Hemu Bhargav was born in a poor family in Machheri in Alwar (Rajasthan) and later shifted to Rewari (Haryana). His father Puran Das was a man with religious bent of mind who left his home to Mathura when Hemu was still in his teens. Hence Hemu had to sell salt in the streets of Rewari to support his family. Later he went to Delhi and became a weighman and in due course a government contractor. In his new capacity he came in contact with the highest officials of the state and also Islam Shah, the successor of Sher Shah; who impressed by Hemu’s intelligence and sincerity appointed him as superintendent of markets (shahana-i bazar). It was an important post and Hemu used to inspect and examine all the important commodities. He also prepared rate lists and inspected weights, etc. Beside he got an opportunity to pay frequent visits to the king in order to apprise him of the trade and commerce situation in the country. The king sought his advice not only in matters relative to trade and commerce but also in those pertaining to diplomacy and statesmanship. Later Islam Shah appointed him as the head of the department of intelligence and post (daroga-i-dakchouki). Adil Shah, the successor of Islam Shah was a weak, indolent, pleasure seeking and sensual king. He handed over the responsibility of governance to Hemu by appointing him as Diwan (Prime Minister). Taking advantage of the incompetency of Adil Shah a number of Afghan chiefs revolted against him. Punjab became independent under Sikandar Shah, Delhi and Agra under Ibrahim Shah and Bengal under Muhammad Shah. Only the region from Agra to Bihar remained in the hands of Adil Shah. Each of these four rulers were anxious to establish his supremacy over the others. Sikandar Shah marched against Ibrahim Shah and after defeating him took control over Delhi and Agra. Hemu had to fight constantly in order to put the rebel chiefs and always won victories sometimes against heavy odds.

An efficient administrator and general

Hemu was a highly efficient civil administrator and possessed much more intelligence than the average administrators of the martial races. He was also a military genius and wielded the sword better than the Rajputs and Turks. Far sighted in his strategic plans, keen-eyed and quick in his tactical decisions, cool in holding his strength in reserve and fearless of danger in encouraging his troops by his personal example, he fought 22 battles on behalf of his master and was victorious in all of them. Among those defeated by Hemu was Ibrahim Sur who after being driven out of Delhi and Agra by Sikandar Sur challenged Adil Shah who sent Hemu to face him. Hemu defeated him twice; once near Kalpi and again near Khanua and compelled Ibrahim Sur to seek refuge in the fort of Bayana which was also besieged by Hemu. But as Muhammad Sur of Bengal marched against Adil Shah, Hemu was recalled to face the former. Hemu defeated Muhammad Sur at Chhapparghatta twenty miles from Kalpi and Muhammad Sur fled. Others defeated by Hemu include chiefs like Taj Kararani and Rukn Khan Nuhani.

Humayun returns back

The rivalry and hostility among the Afghans afforded Humayun who was living in exile a good opportunity to recover his throne. From Kabul he started his Indian expedition in November 1554 and occupied Lahore without any opposition in February 1555. He then marched towards Delhi and defeated the Afghans first at Dipalpur, then at Machiwara and finally at Sirhind and took possession of Delhi in July 1555. But in January 1556 Humayun died Akbar was formally proclaimed Padshah at Kalanaur. Tardi Beg was appointed governor of Delhi. Adil Shah sent Hemu to reconquer Delhi and retired to Chunar. Hemu advanced by way of Gwalior and Agra to old Delhi. Iskandar Khan Uzbeg, governor of Agra took fright and retired towards Delhi without fighting and losing about 3000 of his men during the retreat. Hemu occupied Agra with its treasure and equipment’s and proceeded towards Delhi. Tardi Beg Khan, governor of Delhi offered feeble resistance at Tughlaqabad five miles east of the Qutb Minar on 7th October 1556, but was defeated. He fled with Iskandar Khan towards Sarhind. Ali Quli Khan Shaibani, governor of Sambhal also abandoned his charge and joined the fugitive.

Hemu ascend the throne of Delhi

The entire country from Gwalior to river Sutluj passed under the control of Hemu. He distributed the spoils of war among the Afghans and with their concurrence, declared his independent status in a practical manner by ascending the throne, with the imperial canopy raised over his head, issued coins in his name and assumed the historic name Vikramaditya. Hemu became the first and the only Hindu to occupy the throne of Delhi during the medieval period of our history.

According to A.L.Srivastava, European scholars along with medieval Muslim chroniclers find fault with Hemu for usurping power. But Hemu only repudiated Adil Shah’s authority, though rebellion and even use of force is legitimate against foreign rule. If foreigners like Humayun and the descendants of Sher Shah could advance claims to the sovereignty of India, Hemu who was a real native of the soil, had an equally legitimate if not better claim to rule over his ancestral land. No praise can be too great for Hemu’s bold endeavour to re-establish indigenous rule at Delhi after more than 350 years of foreign domination.

Second Battle of Panipat

The news of the fall of Delhi and Agra alarmed the Mughuls and they advised their sovereign then encamped at Jalandhar to retire immediately to Kabul as their number was not more than 20,000 while Hemu’s army was reputed to be one lakh strong and was flushed with its recent success. But Bairam Khan decided in favour of recovering Delhi and Akbar agreed. Akbar left Jalandhar on October 13th to face Hemu. At Sarhind the governor of Agra, Delhi and Sambhal joined Akbar and counselled him to retreat to Kabul. Bairam Khan however took prompt steps to silence them by putting Tardi Beg Khan to death.

Hemu sent forward his advance guard with a pack of his artillery to encounter that of Akbar’s which was proceeding rapidly under the command of Ali Quli Khan Shaibani. But Hemu’s advance guard was defeated and his artillery captured.

Within a week or so the two armies met on the historic field at Panipat on November 5th 1556. Bairam Khan commanded 10,000 strong Moghul army from a long distance in the rear and placed Ali Khan Quli in charge of the centre, Sikandar Khan Uzbeg in charge of the right wing and Abdulla Khan Uzbeg in charge of the left wing and Akbar was kept at a safe distance behind the army. Hemu’s fighting force consisted of 30,000 Rajput and Afghan cavalry and 500 war elephants which was protected by the plate armour and had musketeers and cross bowmen mounted on their back. However, he had no guns. Hemu took his position in the centre and gave charge of his right wing to Shadi Khan kakkar and left wing to Ramyya, his own sister’s son. In spite of the loss of his artillery in the preliminary engagement, Hemu boldly charged the Moghuls and overthrew their right and left wings. He then launched an attack on their centre and hurled his war elephants against them. But the defeated Moghul wings collected themselves and moving to Hemu’s flanks attacked them. Hemu’s advance was also barred by a deep ravine in front of it. Ali Quli Khan made a detour and attacked Hemu’s centre from behind. Hemu continued fighting fiercely when a stray arrow struck his eye and blood started oozing out. But Hemu pulled the arrow out, bandaged the eye with a scarf and ordered the fight to go no but later fell down into the houda unconscious. His army presuming that its leader was dead was seized with panic. An Indian army never could survive the loss of its leader on whose life its pay depended. Hence Hemu’s soldiers at once scattered in various direction and made no further attempt at resistance. Hemu’s elephant driver tried to take his unconscious master beyond the reach of the danger but was overtaken by a Moghul officer named Shah Quli Mahram who conducted Hemu to Akbar.

Akbar the ‘Ghazi’

Bairam Khan desired Akbar to earn the title of Ghazi or slayer of the infidel by flashing his sword on the captive. Akbar obeyed his guardian and struck Hemu on the neck with a short sword. The bystanders also plunged their swords into the bleeding corpse. Hemu’s head was sent to Kabul to be exposed and his trunk was hung at one of the gates of Delhi. The official story of magnanimous sentiment of unwillingness of Akbars part to strike a helpless prisoner seem to be a late invention of court flatterers. This view is also reiterated by V.A.Smith who writes that at the time of the second battle of Panipat, Akbar was a boy merely 14 years of age and that since his birth he had been reared among scenes of violence and bloodshed by Muhammadans who regarded the killing of a Hindu infidel as a highly meritorious act whether the killing took place in the heat of a battle or in cold blood. Is it possible that the boy Akbar in such a position would have felt any scruples, doubts V.A.Smith. Bairam Khan was the young prince command-in-chief, his personal guardian and the only man who could convert his potential kingdom into a reality. Is it likely that in the circumstances a boy of 14 would set up his private opinion against that of his guardian and all the bystanders, questions V.A.Smith

Hemu’s father refuse to convert to Islam

After Hemu’s death an unsuccessful attempt was made to capture his wife and she escaped to the jungle of Bejawada. Hemu’s aged father was captured and brought before Nasir-al-Mulk who asked him to convert to Islam. Hemu’s father answered that for eighty years he has been worshipping his god and why should he change it now that too merely from fear of losing life. He was immediately killed.

Greatest of the Great

Rana Pratap and Shivaji defied the Moghuls and won an everlasting fame. No doubt they were great, but Hemu was greater still as he occupied the throne of Delhi; the choicest treasure of India which is considered a rare thing achieved by a Hindu during medieval times. Also, unlike Rana Pratap and Shivaji, Hemu did not had a martial background or like Rana Pratap inherited a kingdom nor like Shivaji had a father who was a high-ranking military officer in the court of Bijapur. Hemu by sheer merit and personality without any advantage of birth or fortune dominated the political stage of north India during the heydays of Muslim rule in India. Hence Raoji Nemchand Shah opines that Hemu deserves to be remembered for all times not because he was a monarch of Delhi but because he had the courage and nobility and had set an example that Hindus are not easily threatened and that they too can conquer and defeat the Moghuls. In the words of K.R.Qanungo, no Hindu had ever been covered with so many glorious wounds on the field of battle except Maharana Sanga and no Rajput wielded the sword so bravely against foreign invaders as this humble Hindu of Rewari did on the field of Panipat. It was not easy to command the Afghans and the Turks who were religious fanatics. Moreover, the Afghan nobles were highly individualistic and fiercely loyal towards their respective tribes. If at all they worked under Hemu, it was because he was sagacious, courageous, confident and possessed administrative skills and leadership qualities. Despaired due to continuous brutal subjugation by successive Muslim rulers of Delhi, Hindus saw a silver lining in Hemu. If not for an accident in the battle which turned victory into defeat, Hemu might have founded a Hindu ruling dynasty instead of the Moghuls in Delhi. If he had succeeded, the history of India would have been different but destiny proved otherwise.

A forgotten Hero

Hemu who was born in humble life, made his way to the throne of Delhi by dint of sheer ability and military skill- a unique episode in the history of India during Muslim rule. Unfortunately, Hemu’s history has been written almost wholly by his enemies who dreaded him most and far from doing justice to his greatness, they have tarnished his name. According to Jadunath Sarkar Hemu’s honesty and devotion to the interests of the state and his strictness in putting down slack and corrupt public servants antagonised the degenerate old official nobility and his memory has been blackened by their false aspersion and the partisan writings of Akbar’s court flatterers. Hence R.C.Majumdar opines that it is time to resuscitate the memory and give a true account of the life of Hemu, really a great hero, whose dreams and achievements have been forgotten by his countrymen.

Reference

  • R.C.Majumdar- Himu: A Forgotten Hindu Hero in The History and Culture of the Indian People, The Mughul Empire, vol vii, Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan
  • Jadunath Sarkar – Military History of India, Calcutta, 1960
  • K.R. Qanungo – Sher Shah and his Times, Orient Longmans Limited, 1965
  • Kripal Chandra Yadav – Maharaja Hema Chandra, A Profile in Haryana: Studies in History and Culture, Kurukshetra University, 1968
  • Vincent A Smith – The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the battle of Panipat, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, July, 1916
  • Raoji Nemchand Shah – Shah Hemu Vikramaditya, the Emperor of India, Bharatiya Vidya vol x, 1949
  • A.L.Srivatsava – The Mughul Empire, Shivlal Agarwal & Co, Agra, 1959
  • H.A.Phadke – Haryana: Ancient and Medieval, Harman Publishing House, New Delhi, 1990

A brief account of the Naga tribe, Naga royal families and the Naga cult

The Nagas were a powerful and wide-spread people who appear to have been living in different parts of India from very early times. From Kashmir, Tibet or Nepal to the Malabar and Konkan coast in the south; from Gujrat to Bengal and Assam; from Ceylon to Java, Sumatra and Cambodia, there are very few places indeed where we do not meet frequently with individual or local names of which the word Naga forms a part, or where the ruling dynasty is not believed sometimes to have been associated with a Naga clan.

Origin of the Naga tribe

In the early period of Indian civilization people were divided into totem-groups. In Sanskrit literature we find such totem-names as the Vanaras – the monkey tribe, the Ajas – the goat tribe, the Vrshnis – the ram tribe, the Matsyas – the fish tribe, the Garudas – the kite tribe and the Nagas – the serpent tribe, etc. Of these, the Nagas seems to have been widely prevalent as we find them in historic times occupying the north-east, the north-west, the central and the south Indian provinces.

The Sanskrit word Naga means a snake. In post-Vedic early Sanskrit literature the Nagas are referred to as a class of semi divine being with their bodies half-man and half-snake and classed along with other semi divine being like Kinnaras, Gandharvas and Yakshas. They are described as possessing immense wealth, living in luxurious and magnificent cities in the neither region and their women noted for their enrapturing beauty and charm. The Nagas were martial, matriarchal and seafaring people. Holding both banks of the great river Sindhu, the Nagas along with Asuras must have access to the sea from a very early period. The churning of ocean is an allegorical description of sea borne commerce in its early days and Mandara mountain, said to have been used in the churning process represented a ship.

Children of Kashyapa and Kadru

According to the Puranas the race of the Nagas is said to have sprung from Kadru, the wife of sage Kashyapa. They inhabited Patala (the regions below the earth) or a portion of it called Nagaloka of which the capital is Bhogavati. The Nagas supported both the Devas (Manavas) and the Asuras depending upon their relations with them. Sesha and Vasuki Nagas were the allies of Vishnu. In Rigveda there is reference to Naga rishis like Arbudkadraveya Naga (Rig Veda 10/94), Jatakarna Erwata (Rig Veda 10/76) and Sarprajni (Rig Veda 10/183) who composed hymns.

In Buddhist scriptures the Nagas are depicted as a highly civilized race and many of them converted by the Buddha to his faith. The erection of ancient monuments is attributed to them for they were regarded as clever architects and artificers. They are spoken as the custodians of the relics of the Buddha.

Patala or Rasatala, the abode of Nagas

The abode of the Nagas is said to be Rasatala and its capital was Bhogavati. According to Nundolal Dey, the Nagas were Huns living in Rasatala, which is the Sanskritised form of Rasa – tele, the valley of the Rasa or the Jaxartes. Hence Rasatala is a place situated on the north and west of the Hindukush mountains and it comprised the valley of Oxus and Jaxartes. The capital of the Nagas, Bhogavati is a Sanskritised form of Bakhadhi mentioned in the Avesta which was the ancient name of Balkh.

Original inhabitants of Kashmir

According to Nilamata Purana, the first occupants of Kashmir were the Nagas who were living in the mountains surrounding the lake Satisar (lake of Sati) and their king was Nila. The valley of Kashmir was once a big lake and was drained by Lord Shiva and Kashyapa was asked to people the land thus claimed and Kashyapa is said to have settled the Nagas in Kashmir valley. A demon Jaladbhava (born of water) was living inside a vast lake Satisar and killing the Nagas living in the mountains. The Nagas appealed to sage Kashyapa who drained the lake and Vishnu killed the demon. Hence the valley that emerged from under the water was Kashmir, a name said to be the corrupt form of Kashyappur or Kashyap Mar.

Matrimonial alliance with other tribes

The Nagas were living in the Vindhya region and were constantly at war with their traditional enemy, the Gandharvas. Later Ikshavaku king, Purukutsa, son of Mandhata sided with the Nagas and defeated the Gandharvas and married a Naga princess, Narmada.

Later the Haihaya king Kartavirya Arjuna captured Mahishamati from the Karkotaka Nagas and made it his capital. During the Mahabharata period we have reference to Aryaka, a Naga chief who was the grand-father of Sura, the king of Surasenas. Sura was the father of Kunti and Vasudeva, the latter being the father of Sri Krishna. Arjuna had married Ulupi the daughter of a Naga king at the foot of the Himalayas near Haridwar and had a son Iravan. Later he married Chitrangada, daughter of Chitravahana, the Naga king of Manipur by whom he had a son Bhabruvahana.

Nagas invade Hastinapura

Taking advantage of the weakened condition of the Pauravas as the result of the Mahabharata war, Takshaka king of Nagas marched against Hastinapura and king Parikshit died in an attempt to check their advance. However, M.S.Mate give a different version for the conflict between the Nagas and the Pauravas. The region of Khandavprastha was the home of the Nagas and Dhritarashtra allotted the land between Yamuna and Khandavprastha to Pandavas and in order to acquire space for their capital, Arjuna and Krishna set fire to the forest and it destroyed not only trees but also numerous Naga inhabitants. Parikshit also attempted to acquire some forest land for expansion of the capital and this led to a dispute with the Nagas and Parikshit lost his life. Parikshit son Janamejaya to avenge his father’s death invaded Takshashila and slaughtered countless Nagas. It was through intercession of Astika (Astika was the son of Janatkaru, (sister of Vasuki, the king of Nagas) and sage Jaratkaru) that Janamejaya stopped this slaughter. Takshaka appears to have escaped safely. This slaughter of innumerable Nagas has been mythologized into the sarpasatra (snake sacrifice) of Janamejaya.

Naga Royal families in historic period

The existence of the Nagas in different parts of India in the earliest and medieval period is evidenced not only by epigraphic, numismatic and literary records but also by numerous localities named after the Nagas and a large number of families including many royal houses with the cognomen Naga. According to scholars one of the earliest historical Naga royal lines was the dynasties represented by Shishunaga and Naga Darshaka kings of Magadha.

The Bharasiva Nagas of Padmavati

The Nagas began their political career sometime the close of the 2nd century A.D. and emerging into prominence when the foreign Kushana power was disintegrating, succeeded in driving them out from the Gangetic valley. The Naga house probably originated at Vidisha in east Malwa from where they moved to the north up to Padmavati, Kantipuri and Mathura and were on of the leading powers in ousting the Kushanas from the Gangetic valley. Vrisha was the first prominent Naga ruler of Padmavati and was followed by some eleven rulers, the last being Ganapati Naga exterminated by Samudra Gupta. The Vakataka record mention Maharaja Bhavanaga as the maternal grand-father of Rudrasena I, whose grand-son was a contemporary of Chandragupta. According to A.S.Altekar, this Bhavanaga belonged to the Bharasivas Naga family of Padmavati and must have flourished from 310-345 A.D. The Bharasiva Nagas were one of the most important powers that flourished on the ruins of the Kushana empire. According to K.P. Jayaswal, the Naga rulers became the leaders of a movement for freedom from the Kushan rule and revival of Hinduism. They revived Ashvamedha sacrifice after a lapse of some four centuries, popularised the nagara style of architecture and restored the sanctity of river Ganga and made worthy to be sculptured at the doors of the temples of the Vakatakas and the Guptas as a symbol of purity.

The rise of the Guptas saw the end of Naga dynasties and the Allahabad Pillar Inscription mention that Samudra Gupta exterminated Naga rulers like Ganapatinaga and Nagasena.

Nagas in Central India

The next important revival of the Nagas particularly in central India seems to date about 9th century A.D. In 800 A.D., Maharaja Tivaradeva of Sripura in Kosala most probably defeated a Naga tribe. Sometimes after this period we also note two references to Nagas in the inscriptions of Bengal. The Ramganj record of Mahamandalika Ishvara Ghosha introduces us to a Ghosha Naga family of Dekkari which was to be assigned to 11th century A.D. The Bhuvaneshvara Prashasti of Bhatta Bhavadeva, the minister of Harivarmadeva in 12th century A.D. also refers to destruction of Naga kings by him. It was in the period 10th to 12th century A.D. that the different branches of the Sendraka, Sinda or Chindaka family which called themselves Lords of Bhogavati and Nagavamshi gradually spread themselves over different portions of central India particularly Bastar.

Naga Royal families in the South

After their fight with the Haihayas, one set of Nagas went to Assam and the rest to Kerala. Later they assisted Parashurama in his fight against Kartavirya Arjuna. The Keralotpatti says that Brahmanas settled by Parashurama in Kerala were driven out by the Nagas and Parashurama resettled the Brahmanas after conciliating with the Nagas by giving some lands to them and by making Brahmanas take to their system of serpent worship. In south India Kerala was the headquarters of the Nagas and Naga worship still prevails here and, in the garden, attached to the houses of the Nayar community a sarpa kavu that is a Naga shrine is invariably found.

According to Kanakasabhai Pillai, the earliest inhabitants of south India were the Villavar (bowmen) and Minavar (fishermen) and they were conquered by the Nagas and only later south India was occupied by the Dravidians. It is also said that in the course of time the Nagas were subdued in course of time by the powerful kings from the north and eventually lost their individuality by intermarriage with the foreigners. The Pallava king Vira Kurcha married a Naga princess. Killi Chola married the Naga maiden Pilivalai, the daughter of Valaivanan. From the evidence of early Tamil works it appears that Puhar, the Chola capital at the mouth of river Kaveri was in more ancient times the capital of the Nagas.

It is believed that the Shatavahanas were Brahmanas with a admixture of Naga blood. The Naga connection is suggested by names like Naganika and Skanda Naga Shataka.

However, Karunakana Gupta says that the mere use of Naga symbols or the use of the appellation Naga in their nomenclature does not justify our identification of any particular dynasty with the Naga kula (tribe). This is because many dynasties which described themselves as Naga kulas did not necessarily use the word Naga as part of their names, for instance the Ghosha dynasty of Bengal. Also, those dynasties not belonging to the Naga kula issued coins with Naga symbols.

Assimilation of the Nagas

From the end of the first millennium references to Nagas, Naga ruling families and Naga rulers become extremely rare. In the early part of 20th century scholars who showed interest in documenting the various tribes/races of India or census reports failed to mention the Nagas except those living in the North-East. (The Nagas of North-East are of Mongolian origin and their beliefs, customs shows that they are in no way even remotely connected to the Nagas mentioned in ancient Indian literature). This shows that the original Nagas were assimilated into the Hindu fold and they were probably given the status of Kshatriya caste. The Nagas were assigned important roles into Hindu iconography via Hindu mythology. Shesha Nag became the bed of Vishnu while Vasuki was coiled around Shiva’s neck.

The Naga cult

Snake worship was the earliest form of religion prevalent among men in all parts of the globe as serpents are indigenous almost everywhere. The chief factor in the universality of this phase of superstition is the dread inspired by a mysterious creeping creature; silent and stealthy in its movements and able to cause almost instantaneous death by merely pricking the skin of its adversary. Thus, the Naga cult originated due to the fear of snake bite. Buddha also figures as advising the Bhikshus to worship the royal families of the Nagas to get protection against snake bite. The Naga cult probably arose among the cave-dwellers of the hill country and later in south India was coalesced with that of Murugan who was identified with Subramanya of the Vedic people.

Archaeological evidence of Naga cult

The earliest evidence of the serpent cult in India has been reported from the archaeological excavation at Chirand, a Neolithic site in Bihar. Among the host of terracotta figurines of animals and birds found at Chirand the discovery of the terracotta figurine of a snake is very significant. This terracotta figurine has been identified as the earliest representation of the serpent cult dating back to the early part of the third millennium B.C. Some form of Naga worship was also practised at Harappa as among the finds there we find a clay amulet which depicts a snake before a low stool on which some offering perhaps milk is placed. A faience tablet shows a seated deity, worshipped on either side by a kneeling man. Over the head of the deity a cobra with head raised and hood expanded is shown. A snake appears on painted pottery. These representations indicate that the cult of snake veneration was prevalent in Harappa.

Ahi Budhnya acquires divine status

In the Rig Veda Vritra is represented as one of the most powerful enemies of Indra and the Devas and identified with Ahi or the serpent. Towards the end of the Rigvedic period the snake god is absorbed in the Vedic pantheon in the form of Ahi Budhnya. Hence U.N.Mukerjee argues that Naga worship as we know it today originated in the Vedic period and reference to Ahi Budhnya the serpent of the deep has been made twelve times in the Rigveda itself. This Ahi Budhnya is a divine being and is invoked to rejoice and gladden the hearts of his worshippers. His blessing is desired as a boon for suppliants.

In the Atharva Veda and the later Samhitas, serpents appear as semi-divine beings and in the Asvalayana Grihya Sutras the divine serpents have been for the first time termed as Nagas. Sarpabali or sacrifice to the serpents is distinctly laid down here and the ritual has been described in detail in this sutra. The Naga was regarded sometimes as the spirit of the departed ancestor and sometimes as the guardian of treasures in later times. Probably the serpent worship was so popular that not only Shaivism, but also Vaishnavism, Buddhism and even Jainism had to admit the serpent in a subordinate capacity in their own religious system. Many Naga images have been found in Mathura, Rajagriha and other places. Most of the Naga images found at Mathura belong to the Kushana period. The Nagas were propitiated for progeny and for healing diseases particularly loathsome one like leprosy, sores, etc.

The important Nagarajas

Eight lords of the Nagas are mentioned in the Agamas, the chief of those is Ananta or Shesha or Adisesha on whose fold Lord Vishnu is supposed to sleep. In an inscription of the 12th century A.D. (Madras Epigraphical Report for 1910, page 117, para 60) the eight Nagas, Sesha, Vasuki, Takshaka, Karkotaka, Abja (Padma), Mahambuja (Maha Padma) Sankhadhara and Kulika are invoked to decide about the auspicious or inauspicious nature of the grant.

Among the Nagarajas, Shesha or Ananta figures first. Eldest among the children of Kadru he is the chief of the Nagas. He became an ascetic and sought refuge in penance. He is also associated with Varaha or Adivaraha, an incarnation of Vishnu. Next to Shesha is Vasuki who is associated with Lord Shiva and is represented as hanging freely around his neck. The cult of Vasuki is very popular in regions like Gujarat, the Delhi area and in the valley of western Himalayas. Similarly, the worship of Naga Karkotaka is popular in Nepal, Kashmir and parts of Uttar Pradesh. A dynasty of kings who ruled over Kashmir for about two centuries from 7th to 9th trace their descent from Naga Karkotaka. Another popular Nagaraja is Takshaka who has a shrine near Naoli in Madhya Pradesh and is worshipped along with Dhanvantri, the tutelary deity of Hindu medicine.

Naga Pratishtana

In south India the Naga Pratishtana rites are performed wherein a cobra (Naga) is engraved on a granite stone and consecrated in temples and other places on a specially prepared platform (Naga Katte) under the shade of the pipal and the margosa trees. A ceremony called ‘the marriage of the pipal tree’ is performed amidst great rejoicing. The connection of the Nagas with the pipal and margosa trees is evidently a relic of the ancient tree and serpent worship.

Naga Panchami, the festival of Nagas

Naga Panchami the great festival of snakes is celebrated all over India on the fifth day of the Hindu month of Shravana (July-August) in honour of the sons of Kadru who were believed to be born on the fifth day of the Shravana. On that day women offer flowers and fix incense sticks at snake holes (ant hills) and pour milk into them.

The famous serpent temple of India

Kumara, Muruga or Subramanya has close association with the snake and the most famous serpent temple of India situated in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka is itself called Subramanya. Subramanya is an appellant of the serpent king Sesha in south India. In the Hindu month of Margashira (November-December) an annual festival called Subramanya Shashti or Kukka Shashti takes place where people of all caste participate. Here a dance ritual called Nagamandala takes place in honour of the snake god. This dance accompanied by music takes place round about a huge mandala which is a design drawn on floor in coloured rangoli depicting an enormous snake coiled and entwined.

The names – Nagaraja, Nagamani which Hindus of present day keep, place names like Nagpur, Nagapattanam which exists even today in India and the celebration of festival like Naga Panchami all over India shows the strong legacy left by the once Naga community, one among the inhabitants of ancient India.

Reference

  • P.T.Srinivasa Iyengar – History of Tamils, from the earliest times to 600 A.D., Madras, 1929
  • H.Krishna Sastri – South Indian images of Gods and Goddesses, Madras Government Press, 1916
  • The Nagas in Indian History and Culture, a monograph by T.V.Mahalingam, Journal of Indian History, Trivandrum, 1965
  • Karunakana Gupta – The Nagas and the Naga cult in ancient Indian history, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 3rd session, Calcutta, 1939
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