Monday, July 12, 2010

The Serpent Folk-Deity Of Bengal BY ASUTOSH BHATTACHARYYA

Respected readers we are now introducing some of the writings of those classical academician of the past.Today we are presenting one of the path breaking writing of the past Guru.

Of all the animals held in worship in different parts of
India, the serpent is the most important. Its cult is widely dis-
tributed throughout the whole of India from Kashmir in the
north to Cape Comorine in the south, though it is more popular
at the latter place. The cult as prevalent in Bengal is somewhat
different in character from what it is in the other parts of North
India. Among the common run of people both in Bengal and
in the south the cult has retained its primitive character to a
very great extent. Roughly speaking, in North India the image
of a serpent considered male in character and known as
Nagaraja or the king of the snakes is held in worship, and in
the south it is the living snakes to whom worship is often offered.
Instead of the "king of the serpents" and the living snakes, an
anthropomorphic serpent goddess known as Manasa is worshiped
in Bengal. An exclusive cult known as the Manasa-cult has
developed in this part of the country and is highly popular
among all sections of the Hindus, especially among the lower
classes in some areas. The rites as observed in connection with
the worship of the serpent-goddess Manasa differ widely in the
different districts of Bengal, but a careful analysis of these rites
shows that they have originated from a common source. The
elements of difference which have developed in the meantime
are nothing but local factors and as such have no intrinsic rela-
tionship with the fundamental factors.
Throughout Bengal the area covered by the district of
Birbhum in West Bengal has undoubtedly the largest number
of votaries of the serpent-deity Manasa. Any casual visitor to
the rural areas of this district will certainly agree with me
on this point. Even to this day the serpent-worship in Birbhum
is a very well-developed and living cult. Almost in every vil-
lage in this district a visitor will come across one or more serpent
shrines. These are but low mud-walled straw huts situated
within the house-quadrangles of some of the lower class Hindus.
Daily worship is offered in most of these shrines, where in-
variably a Hinduized aboriginal serves as priest and conducts
the worship. People of the various sections of the Hindu com-
munity ungrudgingly join the worship, though the educated
higher class Hindus generally disassociate themselves from it.
Such shrines are maintained by a class of priests known as
Deyasi or Dyasi, Sanskritized sometimes to Devamsi, meaning a
part and parcel of the gods, though the word is believed to have
been derived from Deva-vasi 'associate of a god'. But I think
the word has originated from some non-Aryan source. For in
southern India the word Deyasi is still very widely used in
rural areas to denote a headman, who may be said in a manner
to correspond to a Justice of the Peace. Due to the growing
influence of Hinduism, Brahmin priests are also requisitioned
on special occasions. Sometimes the maintenance of the serpent-
shrines is the only source of income of the Deyasis who also act
as exorcists in cases of snake-bite. It is rather strange that
the serpent-worship in the neighbouring districts of Birbhum
is neither as widespread nor as developed as it is in Birbhum
proper. The area of Murshidabad district which is contiguous
to Birbhum and falls west of the river Bhagirathi is however
an exception.
The serpent-shrines have no provision for the entry of air
and light from outside when the only door is closed after the
daily worship. Within in the darkness are installed on raised
altars the images of the serpent-deity known by various local
names at various places, e.g., Chintamani (literally meaning
a fabulous gem able to grant the possessor whatever he wishes),
Jalduburi (diver), Visahari (destroyer of poison). Padma,
Padma-kumari (lotus maiden), Budima (the old mother),
Dulaler Ma (Dulal's mother, and various others. A Bagdi. Kaot
or Mal. all Hinduized aboriginals. is entrusted with the dutv of
performing the worship, a duty which is adopted as an here-
ditary profession. On the raised altar within the shrjne are to
be seen three, five or seven earthen pitchers, with carvings of
hoods of snakes around them. The pitchers are covered with
a thick layer of vermilion which is being deposited on them
since the day of their installation some decades back. Very
rarely, however, one pitcher representing the deity is also seen,
but in all cases it must be an odd number. On the top of each
image are placed green leaves of the milky hedge plant
(Euphorbia lingularum), which are daily replaced at the time
of worship. Some times brass nails, offered by the devotees in
fulfilment of their mental vows, are stuck to the outer side of
the images. These nails are known as chik (one which glitters),
because they glitter in the dim light of the lamp which burns
within. The images are considered to be mutually related to
each other as sisters, and I have already stated that they are
also individually named. Numerous legends are in vogue in
connection with these earthen pitchers, which are worshiped as
the serpent deity.
I have now to give here an account of serpent worship as
it is practised in North Bengal, where the serpent cult is also
very widely prevalent. From the archaeological discoveries of
Paharpur in Dinajpur district, which adjoins Maldah on the east
and northeast, it is evident that serpent worship was a highlv
popular cult in this area from as early as the eleventh century
A.D. Both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic serpent-images
have been discovered from there. In this area there is no perma-
nent serpent shrine anywhere. The worship is held once in the
whole year with great pomp. The orthodox Hindu serpent
festival known as Naga-Panchami is unknown here even among
tbe higher class Hindus. The last day of the Bengali month of
Sravana (July-August) , instead of the Naga-Panchami day, is
the day for ritual worship. The rites are conducted either at the
public places of such worship or in the houses of the individual
worshipers. Usually no image of the deity is generally made.
but on this occasion the earthen images of the eight principal
serpents of the Mahabharata legend (or sometimes of one
serpent, probably of Astika of the same leqend) are worshiped.
In most cases instead of any image the milky hedge plant is
worshiped as the seat of the serpent-deity. Special offerings,
consisting of milk and fried rice and sometimes of milk with
banana kept in big-sized arum leaves, are offered to the deity.
In East Maldah the floors of rooms, verandah and the courtvards
are beautifully decorated with special designs of rice-paste draw-
ings resembling the winding gait of the serpent. In some places
the womenfolk abstain from taking food on that occasion. In
most of the Hindu families no food is cooked on that day. This
ceremonial or ritual abstinence of cooking is known as arandhan,
and is observed on other occasions also.
The Rajvamsi constitute the main population of Rangpur,
Cooch Bihar and Jalpaiguri districts. Serpent worship is also
practised among them with due pomp and grandeur. In the Raj
family of Jalpaiguri, which also belongs to the Rajvamsi clan,
idols illustrating the principal serpent legend are displayed on
this occasion when a large fair is also held. Sometimes the
festival continues when a large fair is also held. Sometimes
the festival continues for the whole month during which various
folk-entertainments are offered.
The Rajvamsi constitute the main population of Rangpur.
Cooch Bihar and Jalpaiguri districts. Serpent worship is also
practised among them with due pomp and grandeur. In the
Raj family of Jalpaiguri, which also belongs to the Rajvamsi
clan. idols illustrating the principal serpent legend are displayed
on this occasion when a large fair is also held. Sometimes the
festival continues for the whole month during which various
folk-entertainments are offered.
Barring a few minor exceptions, on the whole there is unity
in the rituals of serpent-worship in the districts along the
Ganges. Among them the western part of the district of
Murshidabad is naturally influenced by the district of Birbhum.
Elsewhere such as in East Burdwan, Hooghly, Howrah, Nadia
and 24 Parganas there is very little or no difference in ritualistic
observations of serpent-worship. In this part of Bengal there
are public places of worship of the serpent-deity in almost every
village where worship is held on the prescribed date, invariably
before a milky hedge plant which grows in size as years roll by.
People assemble there irrespective of caste and creed and offer
their worship without, however, making any animal sacrifices.
Sometimes the higher class Hindu women, instead of going over
to such places of public worship, perform the ceremonies at their
own houses with the assistance of the Brahmin priests. In that
case also a branch of the milky hedge plant will be invariably
kept upon a conventional type of earthen pitcher which will
form the chief object of worship. No image is built nor any
animal is sacrificed in this connection. Dasahara (the day on
which the river Ganges is ceremonially worshiped), Naga-
Panchami (the day on which the serpent is worshiped all over
the India by the orthodox Hindus), the last day of the Bengali
month of Ashadha (June-July) , of Sravana (July-August) , and
of Bhadra (August-September) , roughly speaking the four
months of rains, are the occasions when the serpent-deity is
In some villages small brick-built shrines are also raised
permanently at such places of public worship by some munifi-
cent devotee. Permanent images built of metals or stones are
also sometimes installez inside the shrines. At Khidderpore
near Calcutta, within a shrine there is a big image of the serpent
deity made of brass which must have attracted the notice of
many passers-by. Daily worship of the goddess is held at this
place throughout the year. Only in a very few places in East
Bengal are there permanent shrines of the serpent-goddess. I
know of only two such places; one is known as Manasa-Bari
(house of Manasa) of Vikrampur in Dacca and. the other is
known as Jalkumari's Bari (house of Jalkumari) of Sucha-
kradandi in Chittagong. I have also heard that there are a
few such places in the district of Sylhet, but I have no personal
knowledge of them. Animal sacrifice is an indispensable adjunct
to the rituals in East Bengal.
Owing to wide prevalence of the cult among all classes of
people in East Bengal, a very elaborate and complicated ritual
has developed in this area with regard to its observance.
Though the modes of worship are fundamentally the same, yet
they differ in detail to a considerable extent. There is little
difference in ritualistic observances of this cult in the area
covered by East Mymensing, West Sylhet and North Tippera.
This area can be accepted as a social and cultural unit. The
annual celebration of serpent-worship is held here on the last
day of the Bengali month of Sravana when the whole of the
above area is practically covered by a vast sheet of water over-
flowing from the Assam and Surma Valleys. People irrespective
of caste and creed build clay images of the snake-deity and
worship her at their own houses individually with sacrifices
either of goat or of pigeon. The Vaisnavas (the worshipers of
Visnu) who do not take meat, offer the goddess sacrifices of
sugar-cane, pumpkin and other vegetables. The image has two
or sometimes four arms; two clay snakes spread their hoods on
either side of her shoulder. On the following day, before the
image is immersed in the river, the earthen snakes are taken
out of the image and placed in the house. People believe that
the dried earth of these clay snakes is an infallible remedy of
many incurable diseases, especially children's diseases. There
is one very interesting item among the objects of worship here,
which is nowhere met with now-a-days. This is known as
Karandi, which is worshiped along with the image and some-
times in lieu of it. It is made of Indian cork (shola) in the
shape of a small house, generally not more than two feet in
height. Coloured drawings of serpents, the serpent-goddess and
some characters with some incidents of the serpent-legend are
made on the conical outer roof and the flat outer walls. These
drawings are undoubtedly among the remarkable specimens of
folk-art in Bengal. After the animal is sacrificed its blood is
sprinkled on the Karandi which is sometimes preserved in the
house with the stains of blood on it, though more frequently
floated down the river on the immersion day. Besides the
Karandi there is another essential ingredient necessary for the
worship of the serpent deity. These are the tiny pictures (ghat)
made of clay and shaped in a peculiar fashion, like a thin pipe
with two snakes spreading their hoods on either side of it.
Sometimes a human face, obviously that of the serpent-deity,
is carved out of the upper part of the pipe. These pictures are
known as Kaitari Ghat. Though the word Kaitar in East Bengal
means pigeon, I failed to understand how this particular bird
could be associated with an object of serpent worship. These
pitchers are filled with corn and kept beside the image during
the ceremonies. Milk and bananas in vessels made of plantain
bark are placed in the Karandi as the special offerings to the
serpents. Eight kinds of fried foods such as pea, oil-seed and
other pulses form the special offerings for the eight principal
serpents of the Mahabharata legend.
The special feature of the serpent festival in this part of the
province is the rice-paste drawings (alipana) . The entire venue
of worship is decorated, with these drawings representing
serpents in various designs. Around these drawings other paint-
ings illustrating the chief incidents of the principal Bengali
snake-story are also drawn. Coloured powders are used in such
drawings. The entire floor of the room appears to be a picture-
gallery. From the first day of the Bengali month of Sravana
until the day of the worship, which falls on the last day of the
month, the principal snake story is recited in part every day
after nightfall before the assembly of villagers. The immersion
ceremony of the deity takes place on the day following her
worship. This occasion is marked by a national festival, namely
the boat-race. It is very difficult to say how the boat-race has
come to be associated with the immersion ceremony of the
serpent-deity. I have already stated that this area is covered
by a vast sheet of water during the rainy season. These marshy
lands are known as haor-the word seems to have been derived
from the Sanskrit word 'Sagara' meaning the sea. There are
certain regular places where the racing boats of the neighbour-
ing villages assemble and compete; the winning boat ties a new
piece of cloth on its prow as a symbol of victory.
The districts of Dacca, Faridpur and Bakherganj form
another distinct socio-cultural unit. The area known as Vikram-
pur, included within it, is the section most effectively influenced
by Hinduism in the whole of East Bengal, and has developed
certain rituals in the line more of Hinduism proper than of the
popular faiths. Serpent-worship is also a very well-developed
cult here, its rituals being more complicated than in any other
part of Bengal.
The Naga-Panchami, mentioned above, is very widely
prevalent here among all classes of Hindus. On this occasion,
worship is conducted of the eight principal serpents of the
Mahabharata legend, or nine or forty-two serpents according
to the family tradition of each worshiper. Earthen images of
serpents with raised hoods, the number of which is determined
according to the tradition prevailing in each family, are made
and worshiped on this occasion. Worship in all cases is minister-
ed by the Brahmin priests without any scruple whatsoever. The
serpent-deity is also worshiped on the last day of the Bengali
month of Sravana as in other places of East Bengal; the worship
of the serpent-deity on this particular day is known as the
worship of Pat Visahari. In most houses, a pitcher representing
the serpent-deity is installed on the first day of the Bengali
month qf Sravana and worshiped up to the last day of the same
month, when it is ceremonially immersed. The house-wives,
young or old, are not allowed to go to their fathers' houses on
any account after the pitcher has been ceremonially installed
within the house. Though there is no dearth of watery
stretches in the above area, yet the boat-festival is seldom
celebrated here on such or any other occasions now-a-days.
Neither Nag-Panchami nor the worship of Pat-Visahari is
a matter of importance so far as serpent-worship is concerned
among the people of the above area. The most important
serpent-festival is known here as Rayani, a word of doubtful
origin. Rayani can be celebrated at any time of the year. It
is indeed a very important social festival among the Hindus of
the above area though it is unknown elsewhere in Bengal. When
a child is born in a family a mental vow is taken by its head
to the effect that the snake-festival known as Rayani would be
performed on the occasion of its marriage or sacred-thread cere-
mony, if the child is a male and Brahmin or Vaisya by caste.
It is indeed a very costly affair. Therefore due to economic
reasons a greater part of its rituals is now being sacrificed though
only a couple of decades back the festival used to be celebrated
with all its complicated details. The worship is arranged to
be held two or three days before the actual sacred thread or
the marriage ceremony as the case may be. The celebration
of Rayani extends over a period either of five or two and a half
days according to the custom prevailing in each family, or, in
the absence of such a custom, according to the mental vow taken
for either of the above periods at the time of the child's birth.
In this connection, clay images of the serpent-goddess as big as
the image of the goddess Durga (three to four feet in height)
are sometimes built. On either side of the image are placed
three or four images of her associates. In front of these images
a row of idols representing the chief character of the principal
Bengali serpent-story are placed side by side, each on his or her
distinct seat. The snake-story is recited musically through the
night. Nobody dares to hold the marriage of his son or daughter
without performing this ceremony, because of the strong belief
that on failure to do so snakes will create trouble for the mar-
ried couple.
The rituals of the serpent-worship in some parts of Bengal
have merged into the popular Saivism of those areas. As the
serpent is the ornament of Siva according to the Puranic tradition,
it has been found convenient to absorb the serpent-cult within
Saivism from an early period of time. In many popular Saiva
shrines live snakes are found to be preserved. I have myself
seen some living snakes in a village shrine of Siva in the district
of Burdwan. They live inside holes made on the walls and floor
of the shrine and generally feed on milk and other offerings
given before the deity at the time of worship. Gradually they
increase in number, but nobody coming to the temple is afraid
of them nor do these 'domesticated' serpents cause any harm
to anybody. At the time of worship these snakes come out of
their holes where they hide themselves during the day and night.
After the worship is over they take food and drink offered by
the priest and then quietly retire to their holes. In some places
serpents live in the hollow of big peepul trees which shade the
shrines below. At the time of the annual worship of Siva offer-
ings are also made to them by the devotees. None ever think
of causing any harm to them. Snake charmers are also not
allowed to catch these snakes which are considered absolutely
harmless due to their supposed divine association. In places
where the serpent-worship has practically merged into the local
Siva-cult no rituals exclusively of the serpent-goddess are found
to exist. They have been inseparably connected with the rituals
of Siva.
In some places of West Bengal even today a special serpent-
festival, secular in character, is observed. This is known as
Jhampan which really means a stage erected to exhibit tricks
with snakes. It is held on the last day of the Bengali month
of Sravana (August-September) when the annual serpent-
worship is held throughout the whole of Bengal. Though due
to the influence of present urban culture it is fast becoming
obsolete, yet it was a very common affair during the last cen-
tury. Jhampan is really the annual conference of the snake-
charmers or exorcists of a particular area. The exorcists of a
particular area, or disciples of a particular preceptor in snake-
charming assemble at an appointed spot on this occasion and
show various tricks and feats with live snakes, claimed to be
venomous, as they proceed with music along the public road.
Sometimes the disciples of a particular preceptor carry him on
their shoulders along the road on a mobile platform on which
the preceptor rides, showing various tricks with live snakes.
Sometimes a bullock-cart is also used as the mobile platform
for this purpose. The eager crowd on either side of the road,
with a mixed feeling of horror and delight, witness the per-
formance. The chief among the dexterities of the exorcists
is to show h0.w they remove the poisonous fangs of the serpents.
Sometimes the exorcists coil the snakes around their necke and
arms. Fatal cases of snake-bite among over-exuberant partici-
pants sometimes occur in the course of their display of feats
made with snakes with their poisonous fangs unextracted. I
have been told that due to fatal consequences the practice has
long been abandoned in many places, with little prospect of
future revival. The practice is confined among the Kayat or
Kaivarta (fisherman class) in particular, though as a rule every
exorcist, to whatever caste he belongs, is allowed to participate
in it.
A very rich folk-literature flourished in Bengal about the
local legends of the serpent-goddess Manasa, probably as early
as the thirteenth century A.D. One of these legends, written
in the form of narrative poetry, gained the widest popularity of
all the classes of folk-literature in Bengal, throughout not only
this state but also the neighbouring states of Assam and Bihar.
Hundreds of poets composed verses with the same theme which
is being carried down the generations for centuries even to this
day. This is known as the legend of the merchant Chand ar.d
Behula. It is not however the only story extant in Bengal that
sings the glory of the serpent-deity Manasa. There is yet another
which is recited in the course of the ceremonial worship of the
deity held by the Bengali women during the months of rain.
Besides the above there are innumerable snake-stories of a
secular character in the folk-literature of Bengal.
The principal Bengali snake-story or the narrative of Chand
Sadagar in its various forms has been contributing to'Bengali
secular folk amusement from very ancient times. These are
the four principal forms in which the narrative has been adopted
for folk-amusement: viz, Bhasan Yatra, a popular drama;
Rayani, a kind of musical entertainment; Jagaran, a musical
recitation of the narrative; and Putul Natch, a puppet dance.
In addition to these principal forms there are a few others of
minor importance. All the above forms are still prevalent in
different parts of Bengal though they are already decaying due
to the impact of urban culture.
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