Of Serpents, Sacredness and Stories

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My recent backpacking trip to Kerala turned out to be a religious, temple-visiting endeavor, mostly. The roving mind, story-seeking freak in yours truly noticed a very peculiar commonness in all the temples visited. Be it the temple of Krishna, Shiva, Ganesha, Kartikeya or Devi, two five (or sometimes less) hooded snake figurines in stone representing the male and female deities – The Nagaraja and Nagayakshi are omnipresent is all the shrines. Snake worship! The question was why and this story seeker found an answer, infact two! 

A familiar sight at any temple in Kerala

Back in the puranic ages when Parashurama threw his parashu into the Arabian Sea, the sea bowing to the power of Shiva’s axe receded and thus was born the land of Kera’s (coconut) – Kerala. Parashurama donated the land to the Brahmins as a penance for all the kshatriya killings he had done. The Brahmins happily accepted his dakshina but to their dismay found the land completely infertile, it had retained the salinity of its source. They approached Parashurama explaining the futility of his gift. Being the brahmashatriya that he was, he was determined to put things right and prays to his favorite god – Lord Shiva. The blue throated god is pleased but asks Parashurama to pray to the one ornamenting his blue throat, the King of Snakes – Vasuki, to inject his and his subject’s venom into the newly formed land to counteract on the salinity of the land. Parashurama prays to Vasuki with the vigor of a man on mission and is blessed in return by the king of snakes, who appeared before him in full splendor granting his request. Hordes and hordes of poisonous snakes came over on orders from their king and injected their venom into the land. The venom-injected land was desalinated and Parashurama’s penance was complete. As a thanking and remembrance acknowledgement to the serpents who blessed Kerala with its lush and world famous greenery, Parashurama had, on desalination of the land, instructed the Brahmins that each household in the land will spare some space on their property for these demi-gods and will worship them as protectors. Thus started snake worship in Kerala and from individual family grooves the Nagaraja and Nagayakshi are now settled in temple grooves with turmeric, milk and water puja’s offered feverishly by the believers.

The other story that surrounds the birth of snake worship in Kerala too is connected to the birth of Kerala. When Parashurama demanded the land out of the sea and later gifted it to the Brahmins, it was infested with snakes – big, small, harmless as well as poisonous ones. The land was completely inhabitable and the vainness of his dakshina was conveyed to Parashurama, by the Brahmins. On his part the penance seeking Parashurama could not see a blot on his reputation by being called a symbolic donator, that he would become if his dakshina did not turn up useful to the donated. The brahmashatriya prayed with his entire ascetic will and power to the King of Snakes – Vasuki. Only the king could ask his subjects to behave and could make them withdraw into their original homes in the Patal lok, under the earth. Vishnu incarnate Parashurama prayed hard and Vasuki yielded. He appeared and granted Parashurama’s wish. The surface land of Kerala was rid of snakes and was made habitable as they retreated to their abodes as guardians of the earth leaving behind the lush greenery and a very fertile land. Parashurama on his part requested Vasuki to keep his blessings flowing for the land and requested him to make this new land his abode. Vasuki being the staunch Shiva devotee could not say no to his lords favorite god’s incarnation and agreed, following which Parashurama instructed the Brahmins to worship the Nagaraja Vasuki and his better half Nagayakshi as the protectors of the land and each household should spare some land on their property for the serpents to co-exist with the humans. Multiplication of population and non-yielding of any more land by the sea has led most families to worship the deities of the land in temples now but the sarpa kavu (snake groove), nagaraja, nagayakshi amma, sarpa bali remain an inseparable, unshakable part of the faith in God’s own country till today.

Featured as part of Tulika Publisher’s celebration of our myths.

Photo credit: vaikhari.org