Much of Nepal received a thorough overnight drenching Monday for the first time in more than nine months. It’s too early to declare the long drought over or to put aside fears of a failed monsoon, but Nepalis welcomed the rain, and many wondered whether to credit the snake gods for it.
The rain came on the evening and night following Nag Panchami, a festival devoted to serpent deities that live half of the year in an subterranean kingdom and half in our world. The Nagas, as the snake gods are called, are believed to influence rains and earthquakes and to guard treasures. Their powers are so great that astrologers divine their locations and offer prayers before a new building is erected, to ensure that they do not cause it to fall.
Celebration of Nag Panchami is especially intense in the Kathmandu Valley, which tradition and geologists both say was once a large lake and which legend holds to have been the snake gods’ earthly seat. When the lake was drained through a cleft in the south of the hills that surround the valley by a magical sword, the Buddhist saint who wielded the sword promised the snakes that all remaining water sources here would be their special domains.
And so every riverside shrine, lake and artificial pool in Kathmandu and throughout much of Nepal has images of the snake deities and is in turn sanctified by them. Wells are normally marked by snake carvings, and can be cleaned on only one day of the year, when the snakes are believed to be away worshipping their ancestors. Snakes are welcomed if they venture into Nepali homes and are given a saucer of milk to encourage them to stay. (The deep-seated prejudice of the Judeo-Christian world against snakes is absent in the east, which has no garden of eden myth.)
And so each year in late July or early August, on the fifth day of the waxing moon, Nepalis offer prayers to the snake gods in gardens and near water sources, and farmers pour milk into the sacred Bagmati River for the Nagas. Virtually every house and commercial building is blessed by cleaning the entrance with a mixture of water and cow dung and then pasting a brightly colored image of the snake deities on it. A tika, a spot of rice mixed with vermillion power adorns the snakes, and the family offers flowers, herbs and incense wicks to them.
Many legends and stories associated with water and miracles are connected with the Nagas, and the major gods of the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu and Shiva, are frequently shown wreathed in or protected by a multi-headed snake. The power to resurrect the dead is attributed to snakes, along with a vital ability in monsoon-dependent Nepal, the ability to break droughts.
Nag Panchami typically falls in the middle of monsoon, so there is ample reason for the devout here to believe that the first major rain of the year occurring on the festival night is a blessing from the snake gods. If in fact the monsoon does arrive now, even late, the harvest can be saved and famine in the region averted. That certainly would be a blessing.
John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.