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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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

101 thoughts on “The Serpent Guardians Of Indo China

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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 🙂

  4. 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 🙂

  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. 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. 😉

  7. 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!

  8. 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?

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