Based on his own primary and secondary research, Bandaru Naresh shares his insights to understand the real essence of the festival from an unbiased scientific perspective and also to make necessary changes in the present corrupted practices of celebrating Nagula Chaviti.
The World Health Organization estimates that 81,000–138,000 people die each year from snakebites worldwide, and about three times that number survive but are left with amputations and permanent disabilities (WHO, 2019). India takes a lion’s share of the number of snakebite deaths in the world. It is estimated that India had 1.2 million snakebite deaths (representing an average of 58,000 per year) in the two-decade period 2000-2019.
In such a scenario, it is but natural to expect that the snake should be the most hated creature and should have gone extinct long back in a highly populated country like India. But fact is that Indians have little hatred for snakes, and on the contrary revere snakes. This is in stark contrast to cultures elsewhere where snakes are demonized and their existence despised upon.
Reverence of Serpents in Sanatana Dharma:
From time immemorial, snakes have been worshipped in India. Archeological evidence shows that Naga worship existed in India for atleast two thousand years. Snakes are worshipfully regarded as highly elevated celestial beings in Sanatana Dharma and high reverence is accorded to serpents in almost all the ancient spiritual texts.
Nagas are seen with awe and veneration due to their ability to bless land and people with fertility and progeny. In addition, they are also believed to have tremendous powers to guard treasures of great value and protect their loved ones. In addition to their power and benevolence, Nagas are also known for their vengeance if they are wronged. In Sanatana Dharma, leave alone killing a snake, even inadvertently injuring one, causing damage to its habitat or even insulting a dead snake is considered a grievous sin or Dosham.
The effects of such a Dosham, more popularly called Naga Dosham or Sarpa Dosham can run over generations and carry over for lifetimes. Naga Dosham is mentioned in Astrological works such as Parashara Hora and Puranas.
Naga Worship and Snake Festivals across India:
Worship of snakes is prevalent across India. In the northern parts of the country, worship of serpents is mainly done in the month of Sravan on Panchami day. In the South, it is done during Kartika masa, as it is connected with the Krittika Nakshatra of Subramanyeshwara Swamy. This apart, many other localized festivals are celebrated regionally. Almost every region in India has its own Snake festivals with as many varying methods of worship. Whatever the method and procedure of the customs, the underlying essence lies deep devotion and veneration for snakes.
Nagula Chaviti is one amongst the many Indian regional festivals to worship the Naga Devatas, or the Devatas associated with the Serpent world. Naga Chaturthi, or more popular as Nagula Chaviti in local parlance, is a very important festival celebrated on Shukla Paksha Chaturthi day in the month of Kartika Masam i.e., four days after Deepavali. This is a very important festival for Telugu families, celebrated with a lot of fervour by the people living in the Coastal regions of Andhra Pradesh. This festival is also celebrated in some parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu too.
How is it celebrated?
The Yajur Veda describes the procedures for Naga worship and the learned one’s worship in strict accordance with Vedic rites with elaborate rituals. However, the puja customs adopted at household level for Nagula Chaviti are quite simple and easy for everyone to follow. As is the case with all festivals, the tradition is handed down from one generation to the other in families, with slight differences from family to family.
Generally, in the morning, entire families or predominantly women in some households, offer simple prayers to a Naga murthi in their homes or in an temple and visit a nearby forest, in principle a Sacred grove (PavitraVanam in Telugu), an agricultural field or a nearby open area with a Putta (termite moulds, ant hills and rat borroughs which may be a likely habitat for snakes).
It is customary that each family finds a new Putta and pray with Haldi (turmeric), Kumkum (vermilion), flowers, incense, fruits, etc. Milk, Chimmili (made with sesame seeds and jaggery), Chalividi (made with rice flour and ghee) and an egg are most commonly offered as naivedyam. Nobody holds a snake and shoves down anything down its throat, all naivedyam offerings are put in small quantities inside the Putta.
If one observes, during Nagula Chaviti, nobody searches for a snake and do not even intend to see one, but people search for a Putta. Everybody knows that snakes don’t build moulds or burroughs but they are the most likely habitat for most snakes, as noted by Romulus Whitaker in his book ‘Common Indian Snakes – A field Guide’.
People do puja to a Putta, and not necessarily that a snake has to be there in it. The Putta is conceived to be a Svayambhu (self-manifest) representation of the Nagas or the entire serpent species or the Naga principle; as it is perceived as an entry point to the nether-world of the Nagas. In case a Putta is not available, then a naga deity is worshiped at a temple or home.
One common ridiculous argument that one hears from those ill-infomed about local traditions is that snakes don’t drink milk, then why is milk offered? Ancient rishis very well knew that snakes don’t drink milk. The milk offered is not for the snakes to drink, but has a deeper significance, both spiritually and ecologically. In every puja, there are sixteen steps called as ‘Shodasapochara’. And the same to accorded to this puja also.
It includes offering of water for bath, clothes, incense, food, etc. Simply put, Shodasapochara is sixteen steps to welcome an honored guest. And milk is only one part of it as Naivedyam or Abhisekham, as per the household puja custom. And only a small quantity of milk is used. The ecological reason for use of milk is explained later in this document. Another interesting fact is that Telugu people have a custom to have a ‘Vana- bhojanam’ during Kartika masam. Vana in Telugu means forest or Grove and Bhojanam is food, a sort of picnic in a forest. Many people combine their Nagula Chaviti puja with their Kartika masam Vana-bhojanam.
What needs to Change:
While the traditional rituals help in the upkeep of ecosystems, some modern day corruption in the customs definitely need a change.
1. Tradition calls for use of biodegradable puja items, but this has got corrupted by using plastics which are left at the Puja site. Such littering needs to stop.
2. Fireworks are not used in traditional Naga pujas. Use of high decibel bombs should stop as it disturbs the fragile ecosystem of the Nagas. People need to understand that such acts can attract the wrath of the Nagas, and they might even be afflicted by Naga Dosham.
Nagula Chaviti puja therefore achieves in protecting ecology in a threefold way:
1. In sustainably controlling rat population in agricultural tracts using Natural Pest Management methods without poisoning the environment.
2. Developing the spirit of Sacred Groves among local communities, thus conserving forests and groves.
3. People who worship snakes, do not have the natural tendency to kill snakes.
People need to be made aware to go back to their original traditions and derive the blessing of the Nagas, and discard modern day corruptions, lest be afflicted with Naga Dosham, stated Naresh Bandaru.
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