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.


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