For the modern ethnic group, see Naga people. For other uses, see Naga (disambiguation).
Hoysala sculpture of a naga couple in Halebidu
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Water deity, Tutelary deity, Snake deity
Similar creatures Dragon, Mermaid
Mythology Indian mythology
Other name(s) Nāgī or Nāgiṇī
Country India
Region South Asia, Southeast Asia
Habitat Lakes, Rivers, Ponds, Sacred groves and Caves
Vishnu resting on Ananta-Shesha, with consort Lakshmi
Naga stone worship at Hampi
Nag temple at Baba Dhansar, Reasi district, Jammu & Kashmir

Nāga (IAST: nāgá; Devanāgarī: नाग) is the Sanskrit and Pali word for a deity or class of entity or being, taking the form of a very great snake—specifically the king cobra, found in Indian religions, mainly Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. A female nāga is a nāgī or nāgiṇī.[1]


Wikispecies has information related to: Naja naja

In Sanskrit, a nāgá (नाग) is a cobra, the Indian cobra (Naja naja). A synonym for nāgá is phaṇin (फणिन्). There are several words for "snake" in general, and one of the very commonly used ones is sarpá (सर्प). Sometimes the word nāgá is also used generically to mean "snake".[2] The word is cognate with English 'snake', Germanic: *snēk-a-, Proto-IE: *(s)nēg-o- (with s-mobile).[3]


In the great epic Mahabharata, the depiction of nagas tends toward the negative. An epic calls them "persecutors of all creatures", and tells us "the snakes were of virulent poison, great prowess and excess of strength, and ever bent on biting other creatures" (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 20). At some points within the story, nagas are important players in many of the events narrated in the epic, frequently no more evil nor deceitful than the other protagonists, and sometimes on the side of good.

The epic frequently characterizes nagas as having a mixture of human and serpent-like traits. Sometimes it characterizes them as having human traits at one time, and as having serpent-like traits at another. For example, the story of how the naga prince Shesha came to hold the world on his head begins with a scene in which he appears as a dedicated human ascetic, "with knotted hair, clad in rags, and his flesh, skin, and sinews dried up owing to the hard penances he was practising." Brahma is pleased with Shesha, and entrusts him with the duty of carrying the world. At that point in the story, Shesha begins to exhibit the attributes of a serpent. He enters into a hole in the Earth and slithers all the way to bottom, where he then loads the Earth onto his head. (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 36.)

Enmity with Garuda

The great nemesis of the nagas in the Mahabharata is the gigantic eagle-king Garuda. Garuda and the nagas began life as cousins. The sage Kashyapa had two wives (amongst his 13 wives, all prajapati Daksha's daughters), Kadru and Vinata, the former of whom desired many offspring, and the latter of whom desired few but powerful offspring. Each got her wish. Kadru laid 1000 eggs which hatched into snakes, and Vinata laid two, which hatched into the charioteer of Surya the sun god and Garuda. Through a foolish bet, Vinata became enslaved to her sister, and as a result Vinata's son Garuda was required to do the bidding of the snakes. Though compliant, he chafed and built up a grudge that he would never relinquish. When he asked the snakes what he would have to do in order to release his mother, Vinata, from her bondage, they told him he would have to bring them amrita, the elixir of immortality. Garuda stole the elixir from the gods and brought it to the serpents in fulfillment of their requirement, but through a ruse prevented them from partaking of it and achieving immortality. From that point onward, he regarded them as enemies and as food. (Book I: Adi Parva, Sections 16ff.)


Manasa, the goddess of serpents

Kadru, the ancestral mother of snakes, made a bet with her sister Vinata, the stakes being that the loser would be enslaved to the winner. Eager to secure victory, Kadru requested the cooperation of her offspring in order to fix the bet so that Kadru would win. When her offspring balked at the request, Kadru grew angry and cursed them to die a fiery death in the snake-sacrifice of King Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, who was the son of Abhimanyu the son of Arjuna. The king of the snakes Vasuki was aware of the curse, and knew that his brethren would need a hero to rescue them from it. He approached the renowned ascetic Jaratkaru with a proposal of marriage to a snake-goddess, Manasa, Vasuki's own sister. Out of the union of the ascetic and the snake-maiden was born "a son of the splendor of a celestial child." This son was named Astika, and he was to be the savior of the snakes.

In accordance with Kadru's curse, Janamejaya prepared a snake sacrifice of a type described in the scriptures, the Puranas. He erected a sacrificial platform and hired priests and other professionals needed for the rites. Following the proper form, the priests lit the sacrificial fire, duly fed it with clarified butter, uttered the required mantras, and began calling the names of snakes. The power of the rite was such that the named snakes were summoned to the fire and were consumed by it. As the sacrifice took on genocidal proportions, Astika came to the rescue. He approached Janamejaya and praised the sacrifice in such eloquent terms that the king offered to grant him a boon of his choosing. Astika promptly requested that the sacrifice be terminated. Though initially regretful of his offer, Janamejaya was true to his word, and the sacrifice came to an end. (Book I: Adi Parva, Sections 13-58.)


Naag or serpent

Stories involving the nāgas are still very much a part of contemporary cultural traditions in predominantly Hindu regions of Asia (India, Nepal, and the island of Bali). In India, nāgas are considered nature spirits and the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought.

Nagas are snakes that may take human form. They tend to be very curious. According to traditions nāgas are only malevolent to humans when they have been mistreated. They are susceptible to mankind's disrespectful actions in relation to the environment. They are also associated with waters—rivers, lakes, seas, and wells—and are generally regarded as guardians of treasure.

They are objects of great reverence in some parts of South India, where it is believed that they bring fertility and prosperity to their venerators. Expensive and grand rituals like the nagamandala[4] and the Nāgārādhane are conducted in their honor.

Another example comes from South India. Women gather at Hindu temples to worship nāgas (considered snake goddesses in south Indian Hinduism). At the temples, the nāgas take the form of snakes carved into stones. Hindu women gather around the stones to make offerings to the female snake goddesses. These goddesses are believed to make women fertile, protect the women and her family, and bring prosperity. The snake goddess is represented as an anthill or a snake that lives inside an anthill or stones with snake carvings on them. In each form, women of South India honor the nāgas with offerings. Hindus believe a person who harms or kills a snake will be inflicted with a condition known as nāga dösam which causes infertility and delays in marriage. Nāga dösam can only be reversed through varying degrees of worship to nāga.[5]

A third example comes from certain communities called Nāgavanśī, including the Nairs of Kerala and the ethnically related Jain Bunts of Karnataka. These communities trace their ancestry to nāgas.

Nagas are also worshipped in the Dug Nakuri region of Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Nakuri (from Nagpuri or city of nagas) corresponds to the town of Berinag and is home to many temples devoted to Nagas namely Dhaulinag (Dhavalnag), Kalinag (Kaliyanag), Feninag (Faninag), Bashukinag (Vasukinag), Pinglenag & Harinag.[6][7]

Nagas live in Pātāla, the seventh of the nether dimensions or realms.[8] They are the children of Kashyapa and Kadru. Among the prominent nāgas of Hinduism are Manasa, the nagaraja or King of the nāgas Śeṣa and Vasuki.

Nagas also carry the elixir of life and immortality. Garuda once brought it to them and put a cup with elixir on kusha grass but it was taken away by Indra. The nāgas licked the kusha grass, but in doing so cut their tongues on the grass, and since then their tongues have been forked.[9]

Vishnu is originally portrayed in the form sheltered by a Śeṣanāga or reclining on Śeṣa, but the iconography has been extended to other deities as well. The serpent is a common feature in Ganesha iconography and appears in many forms: around the neck,[10] use as a sacred thread (Sanskrit: yajñyopavīta)[11] wrapped around the stomach as a belt, held in a hand, coiled at the ankles, or as a throne.[12] Shiva is often shown garlanded with a snake.[13] Maehle (2006: p. 297) states that "Patanjali is thought to be a manifestation of the serpent of eternity".


Traditions about nāgas are also very common in all the Buddhist countries of Asia. In many countries, the nāga concept has been merged with local traditions of great and wise serpents or dragons such as the Burmese nat (Burmese: နတ်‌; MLCTS: IPA: [naʔ]). In Tibetan religion, the nāga was equated with the klu (Tibetan: ཀླུ་ ) that dwell in lakes or underground streams and guard treasure. In China, the nāga was equated with the Chinese dragon (Chinese: ; pinyin: lóng).

The Buddhist nāga generally has the form of a great cobra, usually with a single head but sometimes with many. At least some of the nāgas are capable of using magic powers to transform themselves into a human semblance. In Buddhist painting, the nāga is sometimes portrayed as a human being with a snake or dragon extending over his head.[14] One nāga, in human form, attempted to become a monk; when telling it that such ordination was impossible, the Buddha told it how to ensure that it would be reborn a human, able to become a monk.[15]

Nagas on copper pillar in Kullu, H.P., India

In the "Devadatta" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the daughter of the dragon king, an eight-year-old longnü (nāga), after listening to Mañjuśrī preach the Lotus Sutra, transforms into a male Bodhisattva and immediately reaches full enlightenment.[16][17][18] This tale appears to reinforce the viewpoint prevalent in Mahayana scriptures that a male body is required for Buddhahood, even if a being is so advanced in realization that they can magically transform their body at will and demonstrate the emptiness of the physical form itself.[19]

Nagas are believed to both live on Mount Meru, among the other minor deities, and in various parts of the human-inhabited earth. Some of them are water-dwellers, living in streams or the ocean; others are earth-dwellers, living in underground caverns.

The nāgas are the servants of Virūpākṣa (Pāli: Virūpakkha), one of the Four Heavenly Kings who guards the western direction. They act as a guard upon Mount Sumeru, protecting the dēvas of Trāyastriṃśa from attack by the asūras.

Among the notable nāgas of Buddhist tradition is Mucalinda, Nāgarāja and protector of the Buddha. In the Vinaya Sutra (I, 3), shortly after his enlightenment, the Buddha is meditating in a forest when a great storm arises, but graciously, King Mucalinda gives shelter to the Buddha from the storm by covering the Buddha's head with his seven snake heads.[20] Then the king takes the form of a young Brahmin and renders the Buddha homage.[20]

It is noteworthy that the two chief disciples of the Buddha, Sariputta and Moggallāna are both referred to as Mahānāga or "Great Nāga".[21] Some of the most important figures in Buddhist history symbolize nagas in their names such as Dignāga, Nāgārsēna, and, although other etymons are assigned to his name, Nāgārjuna.

In the Vajrayāna and Mahāsiddha traditions,[22] nagas in their half-human form are depicted holding a naga-jewel, kumbhas of amrita, or a terma that had been elementally encoded by adepts.

Norbu (1999: p.?) states that according to tradition, the Prajñapāramita terma are held to have been conferred upon Nāgārjuna by the Nagaraja, who had been guarding them at the bottom of a lake.

Other traditions

See also: Phaya Naga
Naga at the steps of a building in the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok

For Malay sailors, nāgas are a type of dragon with many heads; in Thailand and Java, the nāga is a wealthy underworld deity. In Laos they are beaked water serpents.


In Thailand, nagas figure in some stories of the Thai folklore and are represented as well in wats as architectural elements. Phaya Naga is a well-known naga said to live in the Mekong. The Thai television soap opera Manisawat (Thai: มณีสวาท) is based on a naga legend.[23]

Lake Chini

In Malay and Orang Asli traditions, the lake Chini, located in Pahang is home to a naga called Sri Gumum. Depending on legend versions, her predecessor Sri Pahang or her son left the lake and later fought a naga called Sri Kemboja. Kemboja is the former name of what is Cambodia. Like the naga legends there, there are stories about an ancient empire in lake Chini, although the stories are not linked to the naga legends.[24][25]


Cambodian seven-headed naga at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

In a Cambodian legend, the nāga were a reptilian race of beings under the King Kaliya who possessed a large empire or kingdom in the Pacific Ocean region until they were chased away by the Garuda and sought refuge in India. It was here Kaliya's daughter married an Indian Brahmana named Kaundinya, and from their union sprang the Cambodian people. Therefore, Cambodians possess a slogan "Born from the naga". As a dowry, Kaliya drank up the water that covered the country and exposed the land for his daughter and son-in-law to inhabit and thus, Cambodia was created.

The seven-headed nagas depicted as statues on Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat, apparently represent the seven races within naga society, which has a mythological, or symbolic, association with "the seven colors of the rainbow". Furthermore, Cambodian naga possess numerological symbolism in the number of their heads. Odd-headed naga symbolise the Male Energy, Infinity, Timelessness, and Immortality. This is because, numerologically, all odd numbers come from One (1). Even-headed naga are said to be "Female, representing Physicality, Mortality, Temporality, and the Earth."

Naga guarding Anouvong's Wat Sisaket in Vientiane


Naga are believed to live in the Laotian stretch of the Mekong or its estuaries. Lao mythology maintains that the naga are the protectors of Vientiane, and by extension, the Lao state. The naga association was most clearly articulated during and immediately after the reign of Anouvong. An important poem from this period San Leupphasun (Lao: ສານລຶພສູນ) discusses relations between Laos and Thailand in a veiled manner, using the naga and the garuda to represent the Lao and the Thai, respectively.[26] The naga is incorporated extensively into Lao iconography, and features prominently in Lao culture throughout the length of the country, not only in Vientiane.


Crowned golden Naga woodcarving at Keraton Yogyakarta, Java

In Javanese and Balinese culture, Indonesia, a Naga is depicted as a crowned giant magical serpent, sometimes winged. It is similarly derived from the Shiva-Hinduism tradition, merged with Javanese animism. Naga in Indonesia mainly derived and influenced by Indic tradition of Naga serpent, combined with native animism tradition of sacred serpent.

The early depiction circa 9th century Central Java closely resembled Indic Naga which was based on cobra imagery. The later depiction since the 15th century however, was slightly influenced by Chinese dragon imagery, although unlike its Chinese counterparts, Javanese and Balinese nagas do not have legs. The concept of Naga is prevalent in the Hindu period of Indonesia, before the introduction of Islam. It is usualy linked as the lesser deity of earth and water. In a wayang theater story a snake (naga) god named Sanghyang Anantaboga or Antaboga is a guardian deity in the bowels of the earth.[27][28] Naga symbolize the nether realm of earth or underworld.


In many parts of pre-Hispanic Philippines, the naga is used as an ornament in the hilt ends of longswords locally known as kampilans.

Naga other names are Marindaga, Marinaga, Maginaga are type of fresh water mermaids but instead of having fish tails they have eels and/or water snakes for tails and the upper body of a human female having alluring face, curvaceous body and long flowing hair.

Vicious to adults but gentle to children are considered the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought.

Nagas are snake-like mermaids that may take human form. They tend to be very curious. According to traditions nāgas are only malevolent to humans when they have been mistreated. They are susceptible to mankind's disrespectful actions in relation to the environment. They are also associated with waters—rivers, lakes, seas, and wells—and are generally regarded as guardians of treasure.

In other beliefs the most powerful of the Nagas became a goddess named Bakunawa. She is captivated by the beauty of the seven moons and turned herself into a giant dragon-serpent in order to reach them, but the deity Bathala punished her so she remained in her dragon state for all eternity

Notable nāgas

Lord Krishna dancing on the serpent Kaliya; while the serpent's wives pray to Krishna

See also


  1. Elgood, Heather (2000). Hinduism and the Religious Arts. London: Cassell. p. 234. ISBN 0-304-70739-2.
  2. Apte, Vaman Shivram (1997). The student's English-Sanskrit dictionary (3rd rev. & enl. ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0299-3., p. 423. The first definition of nāgaḥ given reads "A snake in general, particularly the cobra." p.539
  3. Proto-IE: *(s)nēg-o-, Meaning: snake, Old Indian: nāgá- m. 'snake', Germanic: *snēk-a- m., *snak-an- m., *snak-ō f.; *snak-a- vb.: "Indo-European etymology".
  4. Archived 16 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. Allocco, Amy Leigh. "Fear, Reverence And Ambivalence: Divine Snakes In Contemporary South India." Religions Of South Asia 7.(2013): 230-248. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.
  6. "Mystic Mountain".
  7. "Nag Temples Tour, Nag Temples in Uttaranchal, Nag Temples Tour in India, Famous Nag Temples in India, Berinag Temple Tour". chardhamyatra-tour.com. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  8. "Patala". mythfolklore.net.
  9. Mahābhārata 1.30.20, Sanskrit, English
  10. For the story of wrapping Vāsuki around the neck and Śeṣa around the belly and for the name in his sahasranama as Sarpagraiveyakāṅgādaḥ ("Who has a serpent around his neck"), which refers to this standard iconographic element, see: Krishan, Yuvraj (1999), Gaņeśa: Unravelling An Enigma, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, ISBN 81-208-1413-4, pp=51-52.
  11. For text of a stone inscription dated 1470 identifying Ganesha's sacred thread as the serpent Śeṣa, see: Martin-Dubost, p. 202.
  12. For an overview of snake images in Ganesha iconography, see: Martin-Dubost, Paul (1997). Gaņeśa: The Enchanter of the Three Worlds. Mumbai: Project for Indian Cultural Studies. ISBN 81-900184-3-4. , p. 202.
  13. Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.; p. 151
  14. "Indian Nagas and Draconic Prototypes" in: Ingersoll, Ernest, et al., (2013). The Illustrated Book of Dragons and Dragon Lore. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books. ASIN B00D959PJ0
  15. Brahmavamso, Ajahn. "VINAYA The Ordination Ceremony of a Monk".
  16. Schuster,Nancy (1981). Changing the Female Body: Wise Women and the Bodhisattva Career in Some Mahāratnakūṭasūtras, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4 (1), 42-43
  17. Kubo Tsugunari, Yuyama Akira (tr.). The Lotus Sutra. Revised 2nd ed. Berkeley, Calif. : Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2007. ISBN 978-1-886439-39-9, pp. 191-192
  18. Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, "Devadatta Chapter"
  19. Peach, Lucinda Joy (2002). Social responsibility, sex change, and salvation: Gender justice in the Lotus Sūtra, Philosophy East and West 52,55-56
  20. 1 2 P. 72 How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings By Richard Francis Gombrich
  21. P. 74 How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings By Richard Francis Gombrich
  22. Béer 1999, p. 71.
  23. สีสันบันเทิง 17-12-11#ฟิตติ้ง มณีสวาท. Channel 3 (in Thai). YouTube. 17 December 2011.
  24. Legends Archived 24 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  25. "Journey Malaysia » Tasik Chini". journeymalaysia.com.
  26. Ngaosīvat, Mayurī; Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn (1998). Paths to conflagration : fifty years of diplomacy and warfare in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, 1778-1828. Studies on Southeast Asia. 24. Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University. p. 80. ISBN 0-87727-723-0. OCLC 38909607.
  27. Susanne Rodemeier: Lego-lego Platz und naga-Darstellung. Jenseitige Kräfte im Zentrum einer Quellenstudie über die ostindonesische Insel Alor. (Magisterarbeit 1993) Universität Passau 2007
  28. Heinrich Zimmer: Indische Mythen und Symbole. Diederichs, Düsseldorf 1981, ISBN 3-424-00693-9
  29. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 3.26.25
  30. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.1.24
  31. Rowling, J.K. (2001) Harry Potter. London: Bloomsburg Children's.
  32. "Planeswalker's Guide to Khans of Tarkir, Part 1". MAGIC: THE GATHERING. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  33. "Planeswalker's Guide to Fate Reforged". MAGIC: THE GATHERING. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  34. "Planeswalker's Guide to Dragons of Tarkir, Part 1". MAGIC: THE GATHERING. Retrieved 27 July 2015.

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