In ancient India, there lived a clan by the name of "NAGAS" whose culture was highly developed. The Indus Valley civilisation of 3000 B.C. gives ample proof of the popularity of snake-worship amongst the Nagas, whose culture was fairly wide-spread in India even before the Aryans came. After the Naga culture got incorporated into Hinduism, the Indo-Aryans themselves accepted many of the snake deities of the Nagas in their pantheon and some of them even enjoyed a pride of place in the Puranic Hinduism.
The prominent Cobra snakes mentioned in the Puranas are Anant, Vasuki, Shesh, Padma, Kanwal, Karkotak, Kalia, Aswatar, Takshak, Sankhpal, Dhritarashtra and Pingal. Some historians state that these were not snakes but Naga Kings of various regions with immerse power.
The thousand-headed Shesh Nag who symbolises Eternity is the couch of Lord Vishnu. It is on this couch that the Lord reclines between the time of the dissolution of one Universe and creation of another. Hindus believe in the immortality of the snake because of its habit of sloughing its skin. As such Eternity in Hinduism is often represented by a serpent eating its own tail.
In Jainism and Buddhism snake is regarded as sacred having divine qualities. It is believed that a Cobra snake saved the life of Buddha and another protected the Jain Muni Parshwanath. To-day as an evidence of this belief, we find a huge serpent carved above the head of the statue of Muni Parshwanath. In medieval India figures of snakes were carved or painted on the walls of many Hindu temples. In the carves at Ajanta images of the rituals of snake worship are found. Kautilya, in his "Arthashastra" has given detailed description of the cobra snakes.
Fascinating, frightening, sleek and virtually death-less, the cobra snake has always held a peculiar charm of its own since the time when man and snake confronted each other. As the cobra unfolded its qualities, extra-ordinary legends grew around it enveloping it in the garble of divinity. Most of these legends are in relation with Lord Vishnu, Shiv and Subramanyam.
The most popular legend is about Lord Krishna when he was just a young boy. When playing the game of throwing the ball with his cowherd friends, the legend goes to tell how the ball fell into Yamuna River and how Krishna vanquished Kalia Serpent and saved the people from drinking the poisonous water by forcing Kalia to go away.
It is an age-old religious belief that serpents are loved and blessed by Lord Shiv. May be therefore, he always wears them as ornamentation around his neck. Most of the festivals that fall in the month of Shravan are celebrated in honour of Lord Shiv, whose blessings are sought by devotees, and along with the Lord, snakes are also worshiped. Particularly on the Nag-Panchami day live cobras or their pictures are revered and religious rights are performed to seek their good will. To seek immunity from snake bites, they are bathed with milk, haldi-kumkum is sprinkled on their heads and milk and rice are offered as "naivedya". The Brahmin who is called to do the religious ritual is given "dakshina" in silver or gold coins some times, even a cow is given away as gift.
During this time, snakes often seek refuge in houses as their holes in the ground become flooded with rainwater. Due to the danger they pose to humans, snakes are worshiped during this period to protect villagers from harm.
Nag Panchami is celebrated throughout Orissa; however, more festivities are seen in the south and Coastal Orissa than in the north.
In this day the blessings of Mansa, the queen of serpents are sought by offering her all the religious adoration. Protection from the harmful influence of snakes is sought through the worship of Mansa who rules supreme over the entire clan of serpents. On this occasion snake-charmers are also requisitioned to invoke the Snake Queen by playing lilting and melodious tunes on their flutes.
There people pray to live cobras that they catch on the eve of this pre-harvest festival. About a week before this festival, dig out live snakes from holes and keep those in covered earthen pots and these snakes are fed with rats and milk. On the day of the actual festival the people accompanied by youngsters, dancing to the tune of musical band carry the pots on their heads in a long procession to the sacred-temple of goddess Amba and after the ritual worship the snakes are taken out from the pots and set free in the temple courtyard. Then every cobra is made to raise its head by swinging a white-painted bowl, filled with pebbles in front. The Pandit sprinkles haldi-kumkum and flowers on their raised heads. After the puja they are offered plenty of milk and honey.
After all the obeisance is rendered to the goddess and the ritual puja is over, the snakes are put back in the pots and carried in bullock-carts in procession through the 32 hamlets of Shirala village where women eagerly await outside their houses for "darshan" of the sacred cobras. One or two cobras are let loose in front of each house where men and women offer prayers, sprinkle puffed rice, flowers and coins over them, burn camphor and agarbattis and perform "aarti”. Girls of marriageable age regard the cobras as blessings of good luck in marriage. Some courageous girls even put their faces near the cobra's dangerous fangs. Behold the wonder the cobras do not bite them! There are snake-temples in Orissa with idols of snake-gods. In these temples cobras are also reared and live snakes are worshipped on Nag-Panchami day.