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!
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 .