The Serpent Guardians Of Indo China

Veneration of animals as symbols of powerful cosmic forces, far predated the advent of organised religion. The worship of serpents seems the most prominent and widespread among these animist beliefs, with evidence to suggest its practice across ancient civilizations ranging from the Hopi Indian tribes and Mayans in the Americas, to those in Egypt, India, China, South East Asia and Japan.

When Eastern – Aryan – religions failed to eradicate these essentially Dravidian practices, they assimilated the myths associated with the serpent and elevated it (the serpent) to a liminal deity symbolising divine power, wisdom and protection. Many centuries later, emerging monotheistic Western and near Eastern faiths succeeded in transforming the serpent into a source of evil, a form of the devil.

The serpent was also associated with fertility and the ‘divine feminine’ across ancient civilizations, and the assimilation/transformation of these pagan beliefs marked the shift to a rigid patriarchal hegemony from the existing liberal matriarchal systems. According to some sources, `Hava‘ the Hebrew word for Eve that the bible claims to mean ‘Hay‘ or “the mother of all beings”, is supposed to have its root in the Aramaic word Hivya for serpent!

Nagas, Wat xieng Thong - Luang Prabang, Laos
Nagas at the helm of the royal funerary carriage in Wat Xieng Thong – Luang Prabang, Laos

The Mekong region already steeped in Naga lore (the legend of the founding of Kampuchea is one example) was inundated with hybrid Brahminical superstitions with the advent of Buddhism from India and Sri Lanka. Little wonder then that the Nagas – the multi hooded, semi divine beings of the netherworld, the protectors of Mount Meru, the masters of the oceans, the guardians of treasures and the keepers of consciousness – are such an intrinsic part of Indochine iconography. Their sinuous forms, quite like the mighty river coursing through these lands, never too far from sight.

The depiction of the Mucalinda legend (above centre) and the coiled serpent pedestal , borrows heavily from the Hindu iconography of Ananta Sayana or Lord Vishnu reclining on his Sesha Naga .

Naga hood, Angkor Wat - Camodia
Broken Naga hood and lion pedestal
Churning of the ocean of milk - Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Naga coiled around mount Meru to churn the ocean of milk – Angkor
Naga balustrades - Angkor Thom, Cambodia
Naga balustrades at entrance to Angkor Thom, Cambodia

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

101 thoughts on “The Serpent Guardians Of Indo China

  1. Your opening shot of Wat Xieng Thong takes me back to last year’s trip to Laos during the afternoon. Loved that golden hour light!

    Interesting to have learned so more of the symbolism through your piece here, Madhu, and glad you’re back! 🙂

  2. i have been saving this post to read when i had time to dwell on it … just superb madhu, your explanation of the Nagas is wonderful … i had noticed them over and over again but did not know their origin … and fascinating about eve deriving from serpent … in the kimberley we found rock paintings of snakes, known as Ungud snakes, representative of the divine life force … possibly related to nagas?

  3. The religious cross-referencing is fascinating. Great pics as ever Madhu and wonderful to see you back. Trust life has settled for you all, sometimes it doesn’t take much at all to throw the balance. Not forgetting the weariness from it ll!

  4. Beautiful post, Madhu! I wished I devoted more time to traveling in Asia before setting my sights on distant shores. Looking a these pictures made me realized how rich and diverse Asian culture is. 😉

    1. Thanks Malou. We always take things close to home for granted. I have yet to see much of my own country 🙂

  5. In my early years of travel I always took the pictures of every naga that I saw, for the reason that it is such a fascinating mythical creature in both Hindu and Buddhist folklore. Growing up in Indonesia, I’m quite familiar with the stories of Mahabarata, Ramayana and the Hindu deities. Nice captures on naga, Madhu!

    1. The intermingling and the adaptations of culture, even within India are so fascinating. Thanks for stopping by Bama 🙂

  6. Amiga! What a great post with amazing images and facts. It makes me curious to do much more research, though I am committed to so many other projects, I cannot allow myself to get off track. I often ponder about the wild art of ancient cultures – what inspired them; how did those ‘fantasy’ images originate… and I realize there is so much that we do not know…

    Sending you strong positive energy in your direction – wrapped around the globe and through it as well.

    Lisa/Z

    1. Yes the research takes time and that is becoming even more of a precious commodity than ever before. Receiving the positive energy with warmth and gratitude 🙂

  7. Beautiful picture and the information – reminds me of Lord Shiva with Vasuki the snake coiled around his neck.

    Madhu good wishes and keep very well.

    Cheers 🙂

  8. I stopped by to see what the world looks like through your knowledgeable eyes… I can hardly wait for your WPC entry 😀

  9. Fascinating. Wish I would have read this and some other related things before traveling to Laos and Cambodia. They were added on without a plan when I suddenly had an extra few weeks, so… Walking around Vientiane, Luang and other places would have been more interesting if I had.

    1. Being Indian helped me understand these essentially Hindu legends better, or I would have been just as clueless. Felt good to know every story depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat! I think our guide felt a bit cheated though 🙂 Appreciate your stopping by to comment Mflaherty.

  10. Wonderful light on the serpent heads. Good to see you back. Life intervenes frequently and can be overwhelming. I always enjoy our fabulous images and words.

  11. These serpents are just incredibly beautiful, Madhu. Thank you for compiling them and bringing them to us.
    Funny how life takes over sometimes. It is the same with me. all the best, and take your time.

  12. Hi Madhu. Just stumbled into your site today and I’m already impressed with your writing style. I love historic places. Your way of narrating the importance of serpentine symbols via a vis religion is very informative.

    1. Thank you Dennis. Delighted to ‘meet’ a fellow traveler. Hope to see you around 🙂

  13. The Western cultures and religion turning the serpent into a symbol of evil dates back to the Garden of Eden, Madhu. There are other allusions to the serpent symbolizing evil or appearing as a manifestation of evil.
    I was wondering how you remembered facts from your travels. Do you maintain a travelogue, taking furious notes as you go along?
    Admirable!

    1. I research a destination to death before I go Ashu, so I am pretty familiar with the sites even before I visit. And a good local guide can bring a place alive. Thanks for reading 🙂

  14. I have missed you, Madhu, but I guessed you would be back as soon as life admitted it. Welcome! This is a beautiful post, as usual, and we learn many new things from you. I love the details.

  15. This is a phenominal post – thank you for all of the wonderful info. I couldn’t pick a favorite if I wanted to. Love the slides it helps to enjoy them for a longer period of time.
    Issy
    I will have to return after the down pours stop. My computer is freezing from lack of connection. Darn ….!!!!

    1. Thanks isadora. Do you prefer a slideshow to a tiled gallery? It certainly looks neater, but you can’t click on the images for a larger view. Hope you are enjoying a respite from the rain by now 🙂

      1. I like the slideshow because I can sit and watch it continuously. It feels like a movie. Of course, seeing them larger with titles is enjoyable too. I imagine it’s because we’ve become so involved in the quickness of things that the slideshow give that impression. Regardless, your poss are out of this world. Thanks for always making them so very intersting to view.
        xoxo ~~~~ : – )

  16. Dear Madhu, I was starting to wonder, but I know all about the interventions of life. 🙂

    So good to have a post from you – and what a post! The ancient history of the serpent in divine lore is not new, but the details you give here are new enriching facets – that nugget about Eve in the Bible. amazing!
    I also love the way you tie sights, sounds, colors, ideas… in geographically diverse places into a single unifying thread.

    Fly away again… !!
    Stay well and happy!

    1. Thanks Meenakshi. You too 🙂
      You must have your hands full now too, with college admissions and all that stuff.

      1. Yup! My son has got admission in Physics (hons) in DU as he wanted. That’s another beginning… of a new road… :))

        How’s the weather in Chennai? Delhi is sultry and quite unbearable.

  17. I did wonder ! Glad you are okay and hopefully re-energized ! Love the Dragons!

  18. Bentornata Madhu, molto interessante quest’articolo, non sapevo nulla della cultura Naga, con i link che hai messo ora sono un poco meno ignorante. Ciao 🙂

    1. Life isn’t as unkind as overwhelming at the moment Dallas. Glad you didn’t find the history lesson boring 🙂

  19. Welcome back Madhu and I do understand life intervening. Thanks for sharing the history behind the deification of serpents.

    1. My pleasure Luann. Hoping you find the balance between your care giving commitments and your writing.

  20. Such stunning statues and post once again Madhu and I am glad you are back and that all is well hon. Thanks for sharing. 😀 *big hugs*

    1. Thanks Uday. I always worry about boring my readers with my ‘history lessons’, glad to know you enjoyed this 🙂

  21. Great post, Madhu. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing it. -Max-

  22. Beautiful post, Madhu. You were missed, but life does intervene and we don’t always have control. Seems to be my story, too. Great illustrations and background of these ancient nagas which are such a part of the visual, cultural, historical and religious landscape in SE Asia . I was fascinated by the Churning of the Sea of Milk epic story depicted as bas reliefs. The detail is incredible.

    1. Thank you Lynne. Yes those reliefs are indeed stunning. I find the whole export and mingling of religions fascinating. Hope you, and I, find our balance soon 🙂

  23. You never disappoint. You are always in our prayers when we don’t hear from you. Always here for you and excited to see whatever you present. The photos are amazing and the knowledge we gain, priceless.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

    1. I find ancient legends and iconography fascinating. Wish I had the time to research them more. Appreciate your stopping by Ron.

  24. I thought you were doing your urge to wander… So glad you are back, Mudhu! The the royal funerary carriage was an awesome image!

  25. Intriguing that so many ancient cultures shared similar beliefs without even knowing one another.
    Glad to see you back, Madhu. I was away for awhile as well – post to follow.

    1. True. The continents were possibly one contiguous landmass at that time, so that could be an explanation. Look forward to your catching up woth your posts Judy 🙂

    1. Thanks Juliann. These are all from the Mekong region, loosely refereed to as ‘Indochina’. You will likely find dragons representing serpents in China. When are you going?

  26. A very interesting read Madhu, and fabulous testimony in pictures.. is everything back to normal now?

  27. …”guardians of treasures and the keepers of consciousness” indeed!
    Beautiful shots, Madhu, and don’t worry – we’re all here!
    All the best! and a happy new week.
    🙂

  28. Wonderful images, Madhu, and I love all the history you give us. I hope all is well with you–have missed your posts!

    1. Thank you Sandra. Is naga worship as prevalent in Goa as it is in South Canara i wonder?

      1. havent noticed much but then again i live in the catholic section of the state…not many temples around..but i must ask the scholars of goa about this will keep you posted…

  29. Madhu, you’ve got the most incredible naga library – they’re so varied in style and purpose and yet link these cultures historically and artistically in such an interesting way. So glad to see you here today – was beginning to worry a little. Hope everything’s ok and just about back to normal. 🙂

    1. Just about back to normal would be right Meredith, thank you for the concern 🙂
      I was fascinated by the Nagas in Laos and Cambodia. But writing this got me thinking about Naga worship back home. Every single ancestral home in Mangalore has a Naga shrine, and any eye and skin condition is attributed to the Naga’s displeasure that demands appeasement!!

  30. What a wonderful post to come back with, Madhu! I, for one, always know you’ll be back 🙂 This is fascinating history. I have a fear of serpents and don’t usually don’t even like to look at photos of them. The narrative here was so interesting that I can see these photos as beautiful. I recently walked through a pottery garden store and took a quick photo of a statue, not until I got home and put it up on the screen did I realize it is a serpent 🙂

    1. Appreciate your faith in me Angeline 🙂
      I am scared of snakes too. But I find the subject fascinating. It occurred to me while writing this that the Naga worship/ matriarchal society connection might have something to do with why the practice is still prevalent in my hometown! Fodder for another post 🙂

  31. This is so unbelievable beautiful and … the royal funerary carriage, is stunning … and all the details in the building, sometimes when I see things like this .. I wonder how many life it has cost to finish it. Same with all the the castles in France … and the Pyramids. So there is a sadness to the beauty too.
    Take you time with catching up *smile

    1. Thank you Viveka. The building of these monuments did ensure employment, but yes, the hardship suffered by the artisans was usually glossed over.

  32. “…it was just a case of life intervening…”
    – I hope you’ll have the balance between life and blogging soon again…

    1. Great to see you back, and I concur with Pat’s thoughts above….life is getting in the way for me, too!

    2. Balance seems a bit elusive at the moment Frizz, but I’ll get there soon enough 🙂

  33. Beautiful pictures. Good to see you around again, but I understand how life intervenes. I wish I could follow my urge to wander more too. 🙂

  34. Very nice to see you back with this very interesting post. I do understand how life gets in the way of living. Translation: the needs of others gets in the way of us doing what we really want to do. 🙂

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