Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sacrosanct snakes

Thousands descend on Battis Shirala every year to worship live snakes on Nag Panchami commemorating the slaying of Kalia, the evil serpent by Lord Krishna. Shruti Murkutkar looks at the spectacle 

In common parlance, a snake usually has negative connotations: it is a deadly creature not to be trusted. But in the small town of Battis Shirala, 60 km from Sangli, people not only live in harmony with poisonous snakes but also worship these objects of dread.
Thousands of devotees descend on the town – it got its name because it is located amid a cluster of 32 big and small villages – on Nag Panchami day every year.

The day commemorates the legend of Lord Krishna’s slaying of Kalia the evil serpent. 

In Maharashtra and elsewhere in India, the usual practice is to worship snakes in the form of clay and mud idols installed in temples and homes. But the residents of Shirala do not believe in paying obeisance to inanimate snakes. They catch live snakes, often poisonous ones, and then shower their faith on the serpents.

A hilly town nestled in thick forests, Battis Shirala has no less than 75 snake mandals (clubs). It is not without reason that it is referred to as a land of snakes.
The villages around the densely-populated Battis Shirala are infested by snakes because, as the locals point out, the land here is soft and the climate is humid round the year.

The sarpanch of Battis Shirala, Devendra Patil, says Nag Panchami has been a huge religious occasion for these villages for over a hundred years.

But it is believed that the tradition began much earlier than only a hundred years ago. There are references to the snakes of Shirala in the songs of renowned 17th century Marathi saint-poet Samarth Ramdas.

Ramdas had travelled from Kolhapur to Shahapur in the year 1645 and was believed to have passed through Shirala.

RC Dhere, an authority on the literature of the Marathi saints, has also cited the Nag Panchami festival of Shirala in one of his books.
Snakes are such an integral part of the existence of these villagers that many residents of Shirala sport cobra tattoos. Shirala also has a town square called Nag Katta.

A sea of devout humanity converges on the town on the fifth day of amavasya (no moon day) in the month of Shravan to worship the snake god. On this day, people offer milk, bananas and coconut to snakes.

In run-up to the Nag Panchami festivities, after Ashadi Purnima, the villagers of Shirala fan out in different directions and start hunting for live snakes and poisonous cobras in nearby forests. The snakes are traced with the help of the trail thet they leave behind on the soil as they slither around.

The villagers are expert snake catchers and employ the usual methods of trapping a serpent. A stick is placed on the snake’s tail to prevent it from getting away and then the serpent is grabbed just below its hood and stuffed into a gunny bag or a mud pot.
On Nag Panchami day, the mandals (snake clubs) carry these snakes in a procession to a temple, where they seek the blessings of the goddess Amba Bai.

The captured snakes are then taken to Gorakhnath Temple for further rituals. People feed milk to snakes and perform special pujas.

The villagers take special care to ensure that the snakes are not injured during the annual festival. Once the rituals are over, the reptiles are released into their natural surroundings and allowed to return to the spots from where they were originally caught.
Shirala has followed this custom since well before the cobra was put on the list of protected animals under the Indian Wildlife Act 1972.

Legend has it that on the day of Nag Panchami, saint Gorakhnath once visited the town and stopped by for alms at the residence of a ‘Mahajan’ family, and demanded alms.

There he saw some women worshiping images of large snakes drawn on a wall. Touched by this gesture and impressed with their love for animals, the saint presented them with a live snake and instructed them to worship a live snake every year.

Since then snakes are worshipped in every village of Battis Shirala. Nag Panchami is today as much a social event as it is a religious occasion with entertainment and competition thrown in.

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