Nag Panchami – Respecting the snakes

Sanjeev V Sardesai

Reptiles have been part of many of the world’s most famous stories. The snake Vasuki, who volunteered to be the rope in the ‘Samudra Manthan’ (mythological ‘churning of the sea’) by being wound around the Mount Mandara; or the dreaded cobra Kaliya who was subdued by Lord Krishna, or the famous snake that offered the apple to Eve in the Garden of Eden are but a few examples.

In the Hindu pantheon, Lord Shiv, the Destroyer in the Hindu Holy Trinity, is seen wearing a cobra around his neck. The legend is that he drank the highly potent poison ‘Hallahal’, thrown up during the mythological churning of the sea by the gods and the asuras (demons), to save the world from being scorched. This, drinking of the poison, led to Lord Shiva being put to immense pain as his throat was scorched by this potent poison. To cool this burning sensation, it is said that he wrapped the cold blooded snake around his throat. From then on Lord Shiv is depicted as having a cobra wound around his throat or the cobra is associated with Lord Shiv. Possibly from then on, the cobra has been part of the Hindu religious rituals and reverence.

Having said that, Goa being primarily an agrarian land defined aptly in history, by its earlier identity of ‘Gomantak’ or ‘land of the cows’, always involved its populace with making use of vast agricultural lands for its produce. This involved pests such as locusts, worms and most of all rats and mouse. These range of pests created havoc by destroying the upcoming crops. The most effective solution to this problem was granted by the snakes that feasted on these pests and rodents and gave solace to the farmers. Hence the snake is called as the ‘friend of the farmers’ and is treated so by that community.

In Goa, on the fifth day (Panchami) of the holy month of Shravan (July – August) of the Hindu lunar calendar, this reptile is granted special rituals and veneration. This day is known more popularly as Nag Panchami. On this day (this year on July 25), a beautifully and realistically painted clay image of the cobra is revered in certain Shaivaite Hindu homes and after completion of the rituals, is taken out solemnly and kept at the base of the allotted sacred banyan

(Ficus bengalensis) tree.

The commencement of this ritual has a beautiful story. It is recounted that a long time ago there lived a humble farmer in a village, who worked very hard to grow his crops. He had a grownup pious daughter, whom he had married into the neighbouring village. One day, when he was ploughing his fields, he unintentionally destroyed a nest of hatching eggs of the cobra with his sharp plough, thereby killing the baby cobras. This infuriated the parent cobra, who wanted to seek revenge. It is said that the cobra identified the farmer’s family and bit them to death as they slept. The cobra also wanting to avenge the death of his entire family started towards the neighbouring village to poison the daughter.

At the same time, the farmer’s married daughter was harshly awoken, with a very frightening nightmare that her parents and family members were being annihilated by a cobra. Being very pious, she immediately got up and went to her altar, made an effigy of a king cobra and started fervently praying and seeking forgiveness for any unintentional act of her family, in hurting the cobra. When the parent cobra, filled with revenge, reached the house of the daughter, he saw that she was praying to a king cobra and seeking forgiveness. Being a parent itself, the cobra realised that revenge would not serve any purpose and returned to extract the poison it had injected into the farmer’s family members. It is said that from this day onwards, the ritual of carrying out the Nag Puja started. Please note that snakes do not drink milk, as is being portrayed during this day.

Looking at the dates and climatic conditions closely, there is every possibility that it is on or during this time that the monsoon conditions are favourable for the eggs of the cobra to hatch.

On this day a special sweet dish is prepared called as ‘patolio’ (also spelled as ‘patolyeo’). This is a much looked forward dish, especially among the young generation. It is made of well-kneaded rice flour, spread out on a fresh elliptical turmeric leaf, stuffed with a mixture of sugarcane jaggery, grated coconut and other flavouring spices, and then well-steamed in a ‘sanan-dhakno’ or ‘konfro’ (closed steaming pot), after folding the leaf and enveloping the sweet ingredients in it. The end product, the ‘patolio’, is amazing in taste, and is part of the intangible culinary heritage of Goa.

On Nag Panchami day, an unwritten rule is mandatorily followed by Hindu families, if they are aware. On this day, no farmer/ person punctures the ground, plants a tree, breaks a branch or for that matter, even removes leaves of a plant. This is to express an act of not hurting the cobra or any reptile, through any act by humans. The preservation of these reptiles, though they turn hostile during self protection, is the need of the hour. The cobra has a high-placed respect in the Hindu rituals.

Next time you hear a ‘hissss’, don’t panic! But don’t act heroic either! Call the Forest Department or a snake catcher and save this rich asset of our land! And by the way, the snake does not have a photographic memory, to capture your image and seek revenge!

That is a myth.