Monday, July 31, 2006

Snake dance

Song of the Serpent
Kathmandu, Nepal

I woke up this morning to the sound of the usual bicycle bells, newspaper hawkers, metal shop gates rattling open and something special - the foghorn-sound of a conch shell and accompanying twinkle of a brass puja bell. I stuck my head outside the window to see two men moving down the street, ringing the bell and blowing the shell in front of each store. (Of course, they then wanted an "offering" for this service.)

Today is Naag Panchami, the Nepali day to honour the Nagas or Snake Deities. Nagas represent the earth-spirits, spirits of the land of Nepal. Legend has it that long before the Hindu gods, the Buddha, or any mortal beings set foot here, this was the Nagas' land. Kathmandu Valley was a big lake of water-dwelling amphibious serpents.

Naag Panchami is mostly celebrated by Hindus, but there is a Buddhist legend about the Nagas as well. When the Buddhist saint Manjushree stood atop Swayambhu hill that emerged from the water like a lighthouse, he struck his mighty sword and cleaved the lake in two, draining it and forming what's now the Valley. But he had to promise the Nagas we would always honour and worship them, because we took their land.

So even at the Hindu and Buddhist shrines here, and in front of every hotel or business (however modern, air-conditioned and slick it may appear), there is an icon of entwined serpents emerging from the water. At the temples it is carved in stone. On modern buildings, it's just a mass-produced colour linotype of the serpents dancing above the water, or sometimes a Naga (snake maiden) holding one serpent in each hand. A Hindu version shows Lord Krishna's conquest of the snake-demon Kalinga (has nothing to do with the legend, but whatever).

So people blow conch shells, rang handbells, waved oil lamps and offered special rice and red powder to the snakes. Then they tack up a fresh new snake-picture over every door. Gotta keep the earth spirits happy.

At Naag Pokhari, a sort of ancient pond in the middle of the city, there is an ornate brass column topped by Nagas, arising from the murky green water. For the past three days there has been a special Naag Panchami street fair. Nothing particularly snakey about it, but it's the thought that counts.

It reminds me of that great Simpsons episode in which Lisa, ever the animal rights activist, manages to convert Snake-Bashing Day into the Be Nice to Snakes Day, with Barry White singing "Leave the snakes alooonnneee, babyyyyy..... leave allllllll...the snaaakessssssssssss...alone..."


Shinu Mathew said...

A query on a different subject. There were reports in INdian Media that Indians in Nepal are forced to leave and threatened to leave the country. Is it true? They said the Maoists are threatening Indian businessmen and workers and forcing them to leave.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Well, if it is true, I haven't heard about it here in the capital or read it in the papers. Thanks for the heads-up, I can ask around...I doubt they would target Indian tourist, of which there are many. Indian businesses, maybe, in the rural areas but I haven't heard....