Nagas in the Sculptural Decorations of Early
West Orissan Temples, Part Three


Fire yajna of Pandava king Janmejaya, aimed at total destruction of the Nagas

Jul 12, 2013 — ORISSA, INDIA (SUN) — The last in a three-part study of the iconography of Nagas in Orissan art and architecture by Sasanka S. Panda.

The Kaliyadamana theme or the suppression of the epic Naga Kaliya is a popular story in the childhood Lilas of Krsna. A beautiful child Krsna, dancing on the raised seven hoods of the serpent Kaliya, is depicted in the sculptural art of the upper Mahanadi valley. Here Krsna is two-handed, holding the tail of the Naga Kaliya in his right hand and the tail of the wife of Kaliya, the Nagi in his left hand. While Kaliya is depicted in the complete serpentine form, the Nagi is up-waist human and below-waist snake. She is worshipping the Lord in Anjalimudra.

This image is now fitted to a Parsvadevata niche of the Bhitri Gopalji temple at Sonepur. Another Kaliyadamana image is enshrined in a small temple in the Bhitri Gopalji temple precinct, just in front of the devastated palace of the erstwhile feudetary chief (Maharaja) of the ex-Princely State of Sonepur.

A unique image of Kaliya is also kept in the Jagamohana of the Nilamadhava Visnu temple at Gandharadi (Charisambhu) in the Baudh district. In this image, serpent Kaliya is up-waist human and below-waist serpentine, looking up at Krsna (whose one foot is available on the head of Kaliya now) the main Krsna image is broken and missing worshipping Him in Anjalimudra. A seven-hooded snake-canopy is over the human head of Kaliya. This image can be dated to the first half of the 9th century A.D.

While this image of Kaliya Krsna is perhaps the most attractive and famous of all spiritual art images featuring nagas, nagas are more closely related to Saivism than to Vaisnavism. In almost all Siva temples, either stone or brass Nagas are forming umbrella over the Sivalinga. Nagas adorn the body and also Jata of Lord Siva. Such an image of a moustached Siva standing in the Samabhanga posture is fitted to one of the Parsvadevata niches of the Bhitri Gopalji temple at Sonepur. A snake is adorning the body of Lord Siva as Yajnopavita and another huge cobra with open hood is hanging from both shoulders of the Lord.

In almost all Nrtta Ganapati images, Ganesa is seen to be dancing in ecstasy by holding a long snake in two of his upper-most hands. Such dancing Ganesa images are found at Harishankar, Narsinghnath (rock-cut sculpture), Vaidyanath, Godhanesvar, Banei, Bausuni and Talgaj. Even an exquisitely carved four-handed seated Ganesa image of Lalei holds a Sarpa (snake) in his upper left hand. In all cases of the above-mentioned Ganesa images, a snake is adorning the body of the Lord as Yajnopabita.

In all Nataraja images, found at Vaidyanath, Belkhandi, Charda, Sonepur (Jagannath temple and Suvarnameru temple), the Lord is holding a long snake (as found in the images of Nrtta Ganapati), over his head. A four-handed Bhairava image sitting in the Lalitasana is enshrined in a small temple near the Suresvari temple at Sonepur. The Lord is seen holding a long snake in his lower left hand, whose raised single hood has gone above the head-portion of the Lord. The divine couple, Lord Siva and goddess Parvati, is carved in a niche of one of the Jagamohana pillars of the Kosalesvara Siva Temple at Patnagarh. Both are in the standing posture and the Lord is holding a long snake in his left hand near his chest, the raised hood of which has also gone above His head.

Even among the Chausath Yoginis of Ranipur Jharial, an image of Yogini Sarpasya is fitted to the twenty-eighth niche. (Plate-25) This serpent-headed and four-handed Yogini is holding a Trisula in her upper right hand, while rest of her hands are broken.[61]

From all these sculptures it can be strongly established that the Naga cult assimilated itself deeply in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

From the Buddhist text Vinayapitaka it is known that the serpent king Muchalinda sheltered Buddha by raising its hoods over his head, forming an umbrella during the second week following his Enlightenment, while Buddha was disturbed by rain and storm. Such an image of Buddha is familiar, seated on the coils of the serpent king Muchalinda, which has formed a hooded-canopy over the head of Buddha. The image is rightly worshipped by the local people as 'Nagamuni' (the Serpent Sage). (Plate-26) This Muchalinda Buddha image was located for the first time in contemporary history by the famous art historian Charles Fabri in 1961 during his exploration in a village named Ganiapalli, which lies at a distance of around 8 km from Melchhamunda in the Bargarh district (the undivided Sambalpur district). Fabri has rightly remarked that Muchalinda Buddha images are very rarely found in India. He has dated this image to the 5th-6th century A.D. and thinks that the name of the village Melchhamunda might have been a local distortion of Muchalinda.[62]

This scholar located an image of a male figure at Topigaon, seated in Yogasana under a seven-hooded snake canopy. Above this snake-canopy there is a Chhatra, which is raised up by a lady attendant standing on the left side of the seated figure. This lady attendant is wearing a long garment, which is tied around her waist and hanging to her feet-level. She has tied a three-banded waist-girdle (Katibandha) with a square buckle in the centre of it. Similarly, in the right side on the pedestal, a male figure is standing in an Alidha posture under the raised hood of a snake. This figure has a crown (Mukuta) on his head, and therefore it can be taken as the figure of a Naga king, who was a disciple of the seated Yogi. The central figure is of the height of about three feet, seated cross-legged, with soles of his feet turned upwards, both of his hands on his lap just near the naval portion, open right palm kept on the open left palm in an attitude of meditation. As cult images associated with Saivism are found at Topigaon (presently known as Biswanathpur), a Panchayat Samittee (block) head-quarters of Kalahandi district, this image was taken as that of a Saivacharya, associated with the Naga cult.[63] But close scrutiny forces this scholar to amend his views. It can be taken as the image of the 23rd Jaina Tirthankara Parsvanatha, the immediate predecessor of Mahavira Jina.[64]

According to the Jaina traditional account when Parsvanatha was deeply engaged in meditation, his enemy Kamatha or Katha tried to disturb him by causing heavy rain and thunderstorm. At that time the serpent king Dharanendra and his wife Padmavati came to protect him. Nagaraja, who is depicted on the right side of the pedestal is Dharanendra and the female with the Chhatra in hands is serpent-queen Padmavati. Here the serpent king Dharanendra is carved in the human form as well as in the Naga form, spreading his seven-hooded snake-canopy over the head of Parsvanatha, who is in deep penance. (Plate-27) This image iconographically suits that of Parsvanatha.[65]

An image of the twenty-third Tirthankara, Parsvanath, the immediate predecessor of Mahavira, of the size of 5'.6" x 3'.4" x 1" has been collected from G. Udayagiri (Ghumsar Udayagiri) of Kandhmal district and is preserved in the Sculpture Gallery of the Orissa State Museum. The image is seated in Yogasana on the Visvapadma pedestal. Both his hands are kept one on the other, both palms being open. A five-hooded snake has formed a canopy over his head, its coiled serpent body is seen behind the body of Parsvanatha. In the centre of the pedestal, the Wheel of Law (Dharmachakra) is carved, flanked by two deer. In both extreme ends of the pedestal two lions are carved. The face of the image is broken. From traditional account it is known that the cognizance of Parsvanatha is snake. Parsvanatha is said to have been born in the holy city of Banares to Queen Vamadevi and King Ashvasena in 817 B.C. Before his birth, the queen saw a black snake crawling by the side of her bed, so she named him Parsvanatha. From childhood, the prince had a soft corner for snakes.[65]

Another image of the 23rd Tirthankara Parsvanatha, now up-waist existing, is at present kept underneath a tree in the temple precinct of Harishankar in the Balangir district. The up-waist portion now existing of this image is of the height of around four feet and in its original state it might be around seven feet in height. A seven-hooded snake-canopy is over the head of this image. Some old priests of Harishankar temple told this scholar that this image of Parsvanatha was shifted from Ranipur Jharial around 80 years ago.[67]

From all the Naga sculptures discussed in this research paper, it can be strongly established that like in other parts of India, in the upper Mahanadi valley of Orissa also, the Naga Cult assimilated itself deeply with Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Learned scholar G.C. Chauley has rightly mentioned, "The Nagas depicted on the doorjamb as part of decorative motif are existing on the lintels of Rajim, Sirpur and Adhbar. The Kosala artist has left no stone unturned to inject a sense of reality of Naga couples twisted and rolling downwards from the lintel to both sides of the doorjambs. Since the Nagas are absent in early temples of Orissa, but found in plenty in the temples constructed during the early Somavamsi period, i.e. Muktesvara, Rajarani, Lingaraj, Brahmesvara etc.; so it is reasonable to believe that such motif has traveled to Orissa from the upper Mahanadi valley with the rulers, i.e. Somavamsis, as we do not get close parallels in neighbouring states like Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The two snake couples depicted on the sides of the window in the Mukhamandapa of Gandharadi in the 8th-9th century A.D. later became taken as a model in all other temples of Orissa."[68]

To conclude, the mechanism of assimilation of the Naga Cult with other major religions of India is particularly interesting. Visnu-Narayana uses the Form of the great earth-bearing cobra (Sesa) as his canopied bed to sleep upon the waters. A Cobra form is also found in Siva's garland and as a weapon of Ganesa.

At one time the Nagas were the predominant tribe in India. The Aryan penetration resulted in a clash of the Aryans with this civilised non-Aryans, the Nagas, who were totemistic in their origin. The Mahabharata mentions the Yajna (sacrifice) performed by the Pandava king Janmejaya, son of Parikshita, with the purpose of total destruction of the Nagas, which almost succeeded. This event occurred around 1500 B.C. During the time of Buddha. In around 600 B.C., the term 'Naga' was known to mean 'noble in character' in the Buddhist tradition.

The stabilisation of the Kusana and the Satavahana powers in the northern and the southern regions of India in the early Christian era, around 1st-2nd century A.D. also gave a stimulus to trade and commerce which sprang up in portions that were previously in wilderness or under-developed territory, and numerous local dynasties, four among which were Naga, established their power. Even some Naga kings ruling in the Vindhya region in around 150 A.D. issued coins for a brief period. As known from the Asanpat Stone Inscription, now preserved in the Orissa State Museum, a Naga king named Satrubhanja was ruling Vindhyatavi, which comprised the present Keonjhar and adjacent area. We even get Naga cult images in large number in the Ghudar area near Titilagarh in Balangir district.

There are mentions of names of many officers of the Naga clan in the copper-plate charters who were serving the Panduvamsi, Bhanja and Somavamsi kings of the upper Mahanadi valley in between 6th-11th century A.D. Some Brahmin donees of the copperplate land grants were even having the name 'Naga' in the upper Mahanadi valley. The Brahmin donee Bhavaswami of the Malga Plates of Samanta Indraraja (circa 6th century A.D.) was the son of Naga Swami. Similarly one of the twenty-five donees of the Bonda Plates of the Panduvamsi king Mahasiva Tivaradeva (circa. 6th century A.D.) was Naga Sarma. The Baloda Plates and Bonda Plates of Tivaradeva were engraved by Aksasalin (engraver) Voppa Naga, son of Sottra Naga. Donee of the Deogaon (Tarbha) Plates of Mugdhagondala Deva, a Mahamandalika (Governor) of the Somavamsi king Mahabhavagupta Janmejaya (Reigning Period : 850-885 A.D.) was a Brahmana named Bhuva Naga, son of one Bhava Naga.

The royal engraver of the copper-plate charters (Land Grants) of king Satrubhanja, the Bhanja king of Khinjali Mandala, (who ruled in the last quarter of the 8th century A.D.) was Siva Naga, son of Pandi. This Siva Naga engraved copper-plate charters of Ranabhanja, son and successor of Satrubhanja, issued in his 16th, 24th and 26th regnal years also. Siva Naga has been mentioned as Vanika Suvarnakara (Merchant and Goldsmith) in these royal charters. Another man, Jaya Naga has engraved the Phulbani Plates of Ranabhanja. It seems that Siva Naga was enjoying considerable respect as the 'Royal Engraver' during the rule of the Bhanja kings Satrubhanja and Ranabhanja.

As mentioned earlier, these were many officers in the royal courts of the Panduvamsi kings of Sripura and Somavamsi kings of Suvarnapura / Yayati Nagara who were having the surname Naga. In the 11th line of the Sirpur Stone Inscription of Sivagupta (Mahasivagupta Balarjuna), one Brahmin officer named Naga Deva has been mentioned as Dvijottamah. This Brahmin officer Naga Deva might be having much importance in the Royal Court of Balarjuna. (Reigning Period: Second half of 8th century A.D.)

An officer named Sri Santi Naga was the Mahaksapatala in the Royal Court of the Somavamsi king Mahasivagupta Yayati I as recorded in the Orissa State Museum Plates, issued in his 4th regnal year (circa 888 A.D.) The Patna Museum Plates of Mahasivagupta Yayati I, issued from Vinitapura (modern Binka town in Sonepur district) in his 8th regnal year (circa 892 A.D.) has recorded the name of one officer named Uchhava Naga.

Besides this, in many copper-plate charters of the Panduvamsi and Somavamsi kings, there are mentions of the fighting going on between the kings with the Nagas (perhaps Naga kings or tribe), in which the latter were defeated and suppressed.

In the Rajim Plates of Tivaradeva, the founder of the Panduvamsi rule in Sripura, (Second half of 6th century A.D.), which was issued in his 7th regnal year, it has been mentioned that, "he (Tivaradeva), like Garutmat (Garuda), is skillful in eradicating the serpents (probably some Naga kings or people of Naga tribe)."

In the Orissa State Museum Plates of Mahasivagupta Yayati I issued in his 4th regnal year (circa 888 A.D.) from Vinitapura (modern Binka town), it has been mentioned in the Verse-2 about his ancestors that "those kings (in his glorious royal family), being born from Soma (Moon), who have (already) attained spiritual figures (after death) in the celestial world (and from whom) several enemy kings had became recipients of wealth and charities in accordance to their desires; (for instance) the Nagas (or the kings of the Naga family) received their (the former monarchs of the Somavamsa) immediate support (and) help (at the time of need) which they (the Somavamsi kings) had taken as matters of great Jubilation (Uchhaba) and which (action of those kings) had been deemed by people as a reward to the mankind for sustenance of their happiness in all the three worlds."70

The Naga cult also currently has a great hold over the Hindu religions order, and especially among the people of the South and North-Eastern States of India. As the Nagas are believed to have taken their births on the Pancami tithi of the bright half of the month of Sravana, people all over India offer prayers to the Naga Devatas on that day, which is known as the Naga Pancami. Even during the present days people of some of the tribes and low-caste Hindus of western Orissa worship the Naga Devata after being initiated into a religious order called the Nagbacca. This initiation to Nagbacca order has centered around Saivism and Nagapuja, as Lord Siva is the Lord of the Nagas. The persons initiated into this religious order have a special place among the rural folk of Western Orissa, as they act as Gunia to cure the snake-bite and to drive out the evil spirits from the villages.[71]

Writers like Gobind Chandra Tripathy of Jharsuguda town thinks that Ulapgad, the natural hill fort situated near Belpahad town is a local variation of the name 'Ulupi' Gad (Fort of Ulupi), which has got some connection with Ulupi, the Naga princess (daughter of the Naga king Kauravya of the Airavata Dynasty) whom the Pandava middle brother Arjuna married during their Vanavasa in the Mahabharata days. Peculiarly enough at Ulap village (situated on the foot-hill of Ulapgad), in the nearby village Kanika and at Himgir, the erstwhile head-quarters of a former Zamindari goddess Manikesvari is worshipped as the Supreme Deity. As we know from the pages of history, goddess Manikya Devi was the titulary deity of the Naga kings of Chakrakotta Mandala (present day Bastar region of Chhatisgarh State) who ruled in around 10th-11th century A.D. Now also goddess Manikesvari is worshipped as the titulary deity of the Nagavamsi kings of the former princely state of Kalahandi. Around 30 km from Himgir, there is a place called Sarapgad (Sarpagad or the Fort of Snakes) in Sundargarh district. Another place called Nages Pahad (the Hill of the Lord of Snakes) is situated near Khariar town of Nuapada district. There are innumerable places, hills, mountains and villages with the appellation of 'Naga' in Western Orissa. Even among many Dalits as well as in castes like Gaud (milk-man) the surname Nag is found, which proves the prevelant of the Naga cult in Western Orissa.

The rich and glorious civilisation which flourished in Western Orissa in around 8th-12th century A.D. for more than 500 years brought the synthesis of all major religions with other minor religious sects of the local natives, tribals as well as non-tribals, thereby establishing a very healthy and tolerant socio-cultural foundation of the society as a whole.


61. Panda, Sasanka Sekhar; The Hypaethral Chausathi Yogini Temple of Ranipur Jharial, The Orissa Historical Research Journal, 1998, Vol.XLII, Nos.1-4, p.141.
62. Fabri, Charles Louis; History of the Art of Orissa, Orient Longman Ltd., New Delhi, 1974, pp.31-36. Panda, Sasanka Sekhar; Some Temple Ruins of Kalahandi District, The Orissa Historical Research Journal, 1993, Vol.XXXVIII, Nos.1-4, p.51.
64. Nawab, S.M.; Jaina Tirthas in India and Their Architecture, Allahabad, 1944, p.139; J.G. Buhler, On the Sect of Jainas, tr. by J.Burgess,London, 1903, p.63.
65. Bloomfield, M.; The Life and Stories of Parsvanatha, Baltimore, 1919, p.118.
66. Gupte, R.S.; Iconography of the Hindus, Buddhists and Jainas, Bombay, 1972, p.175.
67. Panda, Sasanka Sekhar; Harishankar Temple of Balangir District, Orissa Review, August 1994, Vol.LI, No.1, p.21.
68. Chauley, G.C.; Saivite Deities and Connected Problems in Orissan Art and Architecture, article published in "An Interdisciplinary Approach to Saivism," ed. by Dr. K.C. Mishra and R.K. Mishra, Pub. by Institute of Orissan Culture, Bhubaneswar, 1993, p.126.
69. Kosambi, D.D.; The Culture & Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, Fifth Impression, 1977, p.170.
70. Rajaguru, S.N., op.cit., pp.164-165.
71. Panda, S.C.; Op. Cit, pp.39-43.


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