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Nagaradhane (Tulu:പാമ്പ് ആരാധന) is a form of snake worship which, along with Bhuta Kola, is one of the unique traditions prevalent in coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Kasaragod alternatively known as Tulu Nadu. Snakes are not seen as deities, but as an animal species which should be respected, appeased and protected for multiple social, religious and ecological regions.
Origin of Nagaradhane
Snakes have been associated with power, awe and respect in India. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu takes rest under the shade of the giant snake, Adisesha. Lord Shiva wears a snake Vasuki around his neck.
It is difficult to trace the origin of Nagaradhane, though the Nairs of Kerala and Bunts of Tulu Nadu claim to be kshatriyas of Nagavanshi descent, thus maybe snake worship was popularised by them. Though most rituals of snake worship are done by Brahmins, there is not a single Bunt house that does not have a nagabana. Snakes are offered sweets and milk to appease them.
The snake worship rituals practiced in Tulu Nadu are quite unique and different from the other rituals. Snakes have their own snake shrines in a sacred grove known as Nagabana. The shrines have images of cobras carved of stones. Accordingly, nobody is allowed to chop the tree near the Nagabana. It is also believed that snakes, specifically the cobras, are not be harmed or killed by anyone. If harmed, the individual has to perform a ritual to cleanse the sin of killing or harming the snake. The belief is that the individual who refuses to perform the ritual will be cursed by the snake for eternity.
It can also be noted that in Tulu Nadu or the South Canara region in Karnataka, agriculture is predominant that too paddy is the main crop. In these fields snakes help in saving the crop from rodents. This can be a plausible reason for worship of snakes.
There are two distinct rituals performed in reverence to the snake; Aashleshabali and Nagamandala. Of these, Nagamandala is the longer and more colourful of the two. Nagamandala depicts the divine union of male and female snakes. It is generally performed by two priests. The first priest, called patri, inhales the areca flower and becomes the male snake. The second priest, called Nagakannika or the female snake dances and swings around an elaborate serpent design drawn with natural colours on the sacred ground. The ritual is supplemented by playing an hour glass shaped instrument called as Dakke. The drawings in five different colours on the sacred ground are white (white mud), red (mix of lime powder and turmeric powder), green (green leaves powder), yellow (turmeric powder) and black (roasted and powdered paddy husk). Aashleshabali is similar nature to the after death rituals performed for the humans as per the Hindu tradition.
The ritual, centered on the serpent design, continues till early in the morning. A similar ritual is found in Kerala and is known as Sarpam Thullal and Sarpam Kali. All communities of Tulu Nadu revere snakes.
Significance of Nagabanas
Nagabanas or the sacred groves are deemed to be the resting place of snakes. Cutting of trees or defacing the grove is considered as sacrilege. People are wary of the snake-bites and also wanted ecological preservation.