On the fifth day of the bright half of Shravan, Nagapanchami or the festival of snakes is celebrated. Snake worship is more common in peninsular India than in the north. In Maharashtra, snake charmers go from house to house with dormant cobras ensconced in cane baskets, asking for alms and clothing. Women offer milk and cooked rice to the snakes and gather around to seethe snakes spread their hoods to the tune of the pungi, a peculiar droning wind instrument, played by professional snake catchers. Clay snakes are brought home to be worshipped by day and immersed in the sea in the evening. In Maharashtra, this festival heralds the arrival of Ganesha, almost exactly one month later. Tourists from around the world converge on a little village in south Maharashtra - Battis Shirala - for this festival. Here the world's largest collection of snakes can be seen.
Serpent lore is a part of Indian festivals. Snakes are considered to be symbols of virility, energy and properity.
A week before the festival, young men from this village venture out into nearby forests and persuade snakes and cobras to come out from the snake hills. They capture them and keep them in their homes till Nagapanchami. Men from families who are trained over generations to control snakes, perform before visitors, creating hypnotic sounds with earthen pots. The cobras stand erect and sway to these sounds. Awed tourists and visitors plod around in the rain-splashed lanes to seethe snakes. A feast of local sweets is eaten by all visitors.
As the sun sets, decorated bullock carts take the hooded snakes in a mammoth procession to the nearby lakeside Shiva temple. Till late in the night, there is a fair with games and stalls selling toys and novelties. The next day, the men take the snakes back to the forest to release them into their holes.
Snakes are caught in the forests & housed in earthen pots for the festival of Nagapanchami
In southern India, particularly in Kerala, snake temples are crowded on this day and worship is offered to stone or metal icons of the cosmic serpent Ananta or Shesha. In these regions, pujaghars or alters in every home have a silver or copper cobra which is venerated and offered milk and sweets as families pray for the welfare of their children and prosperity. Snakes are believed to have power over secret treasures and sexual virility.
Legends of Nagapanchami
There are many legends in relation to this festival prevalent in different parts of India. It is said a snake name Kaliya lived in Yamuna river waters. The venom of this snake poisoned the water and damged the vegetation in the region. Lord Krishna killed it and since then Naga Panchami worship commenced.
Another legend states that a snake was trampled by a woman at night. The snake followed her to bite. There it saw that the same woman was giving milk to offsprings of a snake. The snake changed its mind and went off. It was the day of Naga Panchami.
These legends prove the love and safety of the living ones. Therefore on this day no digging of earth is done. Nagas (snakes) are offered milk because Naga is the form of death. The milk taken by snakes and Nagas soothes their anguish.
This belief is supported by Gautam Buddha (founder of Buddhism).
The story states that in a certain village, there was the horror of a snake. When Buddha heard that, he went in front of the snake with a vessel full of milk. That day was Naga Panchami day. He said, "0' lord, accept this and save the villagers from your bites." The snake drank the milk and went away. Since then no snake ever bites anyone in that village. This is why Naga Panchami festival is celebrated and milk is fed to the snakes.
A legend related to this festival is that once, while ploughing his field, a farmer incidentally killed three offspring's of a snake. The snake mother took revenge and in the darkness bit the farmer, his wife and his two sons. The only one left in the family was a daughter.
Next morning the mother snake came out to bite the daughter. The daughter put a vessel of milk before her and asking her pardon, stood m prayer. The snake mother was pleased and restored life to her parents and brothers. Since then this festival of Naga Panchami is celebrated in veneration of the snakes.
Hardevji temple in Jaipur, is a special attraction on this day of the Naga Panc'ami festival.