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6th century coiled Nagaraja in ceiling (cave 1), Badami Hindu cave temple Karnataka.jpg
6th century Naga at Badami cave temples
GroupingLegendary creature
Sub groupingWater deity, Tutelary deity, Snake deity
Other name(s)Nāgī or Nāginī
CountryIndia, Nepal
RegionSouth Asia and Southeast Asia

The Nāga (IAST: nāga; Devanāgarī: नाग) or Nagi (f. of nāga; IAST: nāgī; Devanāgarī: नागी)[1] are divine, semi-divine deities, or a semi-divine race of half-human half-serpent beings that reside in the netherworld (Patala) and can occasionally take human form. Rituals devoted to these supernatural beings have been taking place throughout south Asia for at least two thousand years.[2] They are principally depicted in three forms: wholly human with snakes on the heads and necks, common serpents, or as half-human half-snake beings in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.[3] A female naga is a "Nagi", "Nagin", or "Nagini". Nagaraja is seen as the king of nāgas and nāginis.[4] They are common and hold cultural significance in the mythological traditions of many South Asian and Southeast Asian cultures. They are the children of the Rishi Kashyapa and Kadru.


In Sanskrit, a nāgá (नाग) is a cobra, the Indian cobra (Naja naja). A synonym for nāgá is phaṇin (फणिन्). There are several words for "snake" in general, and one of the very commonly used ones is sarpá (सर्प). Sometimes the word nāgá is also used generically to mean "snake".[5] The word is cognate with English 'snake', Germanic: *snēk-a-, Proto-IE: *(s)nēg-o- (with s-mobile).[6]


The mythological serpent race that took form as cobras can often be found in Hindu iconography. The nāgas are described as the powerful, splendid, wonderful and proud semidivine race that can assume their physical form either as human, partial human-serpent or the whole serpent. Their domain is in the enchanted underworld, the underground realm filled with gems, gold and other earthly treasures called Naga-loka or Patala-loka. They are also often associated with bodies of waters — including rivers, lakes, seas, and wells — and are guardians of treasure.[7] Their power and venom made them potentially dangerous to humans. However, they often took beneficial protagonist role in Hindu mythology; in Samudra manthan folklore, Vasuki, a nāgarāja who abides on Shiva's neck, became the churning rope for churning of the Ocean of Milk.[8] Their eternal mortal enemies are the Garudas, the legendary semidivine birdlike-deities.[9]

Vishnu is originally portrayed in the form sheltered by Śeṣanāga or reclining on Śeṣa, but the iconography has been extended to other deities as well. The serpent is a common feature in Ganesha iconography and appears in many forms: around the neck,[10] use as a sacred thread (Sanskrit: yajñyopavīta)[11] wrapped around the stomach as a belt, held in a hand, coiled at the ankles, or as a throne.[12] Shiva is often shown garlanded with a snake.[13] Maehle (2006: p. 297) states that "Patanjali is thought to be a manifestation of the serpent of eternity".


The Mahabharata epic is the first text that introduces nāgas, describes them in detail and narrates their stories.[14] The cosmic snake Shesha, the nāgarajas (nāga kings) Vasuki, Takshaka, Airavata and Karkotaka and the princess Ulupi are all depicted in the Mahabharata.


As in Hinduism, the Buddhist nāga generally has sometimes portrayed as a human being with a snake or dragon extending over his head.[15] One nāga, in human form, attempted to become a monk; and when telling it that such ordination was impossible, the Buddha told it how to ensure that it would be reborn a human, and so able to become a monk.[16]

The nāgas are believed to both live on Nagaloka, among the other minor deities, and in various parts of the human-inhabited earth. Some of them are water-dwellers, living in streams or the ocean; others are earth-dwellers, living in caverns.

The nāgas are the followers of Virūpākṣa (Pāli: Virūpakkha), one of the Four Heavenly Kings who guards the western direction. They act as a guard upon Mount Sumeru, protecting the dēvas of Trāyastriṃśa from attack by the asuras.

Among the notable nāgas of Buddhist tradition is Mucalinda, Nāgarāja and protector of the Buddha. In the Vinaya Sutra (I, 3), shortly after his enlightenment, the Buddha is meditating in a forest when a great storm arises, but graciously, King Mucalinda gives shelter to the Buddha from the storm by covering the Buddha's head with his seven snake heads.[17] Then the king takes the form of a young Brahmin and renders the Buddha homage.[17]

In the Vajrayāna and Mahāsiddha traditions,[18] nāgas in their half-human form are depicted holding a nāgas-jewel, kumbhas of amrita, or a terma that had been elementally encoded by adepts.

The two chief disciples of the Buddha, Sariputta and Moggallāna are both referred to as Mahānāga or "Great nāga".[19] Some of the most important figures in Buddhist history symbolize nāgas in their names such as Dignāga, Nāgāsēna, and, although other etymons are assigned to his name, Nāgārjuna.


File:Wat Phra Kaew Naga.JPG
Nāga at the steps of a building in the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok

The Nāga Saṃyutta of the Pali Canon consists of suttas specifically devoted to explaining nature of the nāgas.

In the "Devadatta" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the daughter of the dragon king, an eight year old longnü (龍女, nāgakanyā), after listening to Mañjuśrī preach the Lotus Sutra, transforms into a male Bodhisattva and immediately reaches full enlightenment.[20][21][22] Some say this tale appears to reinforce the viewpoint prevalent in Mahayana scriptures that a male body is required for Buddhahood, even if a being is so advanced in realization that they can magically transform their body at will and demonstrate the emptiness of the physical form itself.[23] However many schools of Buddhism and classical, seminal Chinese exegeses interpret the story to repudiate this viewpoint, stating the story demonstrates that women can attain Buddhahood in their current form.[20]

According to tradition, the Prajñapāramita sutras had been given by the Buddha to a great nāga who guarded them in the sea, and were conferred upon Nāgārjuna later.[24][25]

Other traditions

In Thailand and Java, the nāga is a wealthy underworld deity. For Malay sailors, nāgas are a type of dragon with many heads. In Laos they are beaked water serpents.[citation needed]

Sri Lanka

A granite nagaraja guardstone from Sri Lanka

The Naga people were believed to be an ancient tribe and origins of Sri Lanka. There are references to them in several ancient text such as Mahavamsa, Manimekalai and also in other Sanskrit and Pali literature. They are generally being represented as a class of superhumans taking the form of serpents who inhabit a subterranean world. Texts such as Manimekalai represent them as persons in human form.


Cambodian seven-headed naga at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Stories of Nāgas (Khmer:នាគ) have existed for thousands of years in the Khmer society since the Funan era (នគរវ្)នំ. According to reports by two Chinese envoys, Kang Tai and Zhu Ying, the state of Funan was established in the 1st century CE by an Indian prince named Kaundinya I (កៅណ្ឌិន្យ ១), who married a Nāga princess named Soma (សោមា) (Chinese: Liuye, "Willow Leaf"). They are symbolized in the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak. Kaundinya was given instruction in a dream to take a magic bow from a temple and defeat a Nāga princess named Soma, the daughter of the Nāga king. They fell in love during the battle and later married, their lineage becoming the royal dynasty of Funan. Kaundinya later built a capital, Vyadhapura, and the kingdom came to be known as Kambojadeśa or Cambodia (កម្ពុជា).[26][27][28] The love story is the source of many standard practices in modern-day Khmer culture, including wedding ceremonies and other rituals.[29][30] The Khmer people believe they are the descendants of the Nāgas. Many Khmer people still believe they exist, and will one day reappear, coming back home bringing prosperity for their people.[citation needed]

Although many temples from the Funan Era had been destroyed through wars, nature and time, Nāgas can still be seen in ancient temples from the Chenla Era and the Angkor Era. For example, like the temple modern day named "The Coiled Nāgas Temple" ប្រាសាទនាគព័ន្ធ (Prasat Neak Pean) was once called, "Emperor's Wealth Temple" ប្រាសាទរាជ្យស្រី (Prasat Reakcha Srey).[31]

Nāga in the Khmer culture represent rain, or a bridge between the mortal realm ឋានមនុស្ស and the realm of Devas (Heaven) ឋានទេវតា/ឋានសួគ៌, and they can transform into half human or fully human. They act as protectors from invisible forces, deities, or other humans with malicious intention. Furthermore, Cambodian Nāga possess numerological symbolism in the middle of their heads. Odd-headed Nāga symbolize masculinity, infinity, timelessness, and immortality. This is because, numerologically, all odd numbers come from the number one (១). Even-headed Nāga are said to be representing femininity, physicality, mortality, temporality, and the Earth. Odd headed Nāgas are believed to represent immortality and are carved and used throughout Cambodia.[32][33]

Odd-Headed Nāga (Name, Origin & Connotations):

-1 Headed Nāga: mostly seen in modern days; carved on objects as protection, temples, monastery, King’s residence, residence of a deity (អទីទេព)

Symbolizes, that even if everything in this world is gone, there’s still this Nāga left bringing victory and happiness to all

-3 Kalyak: born between the mortal realm and Devas realm, they live at the bottom of the ocean and is the guardian of wealth, often depicted as evil (nothing to do with the symbolism)

Symbolizes the Trimurti; (left Vishnu, middle Shiva and right Brahma) but also the three realm [heaven (devas realm), earth (mortal realm) and hell (norok realm)]. In Buddhism, the central head represents Buddha, the right head represents Dharma and the left one represents the monks.

-5 Anontak/Sesak: born out of the elemental elements on Earth, they're immortals

Symbolizes the directions; East, West, North, South and Middle (Ganges river, Indus river, Yamuna river, Brahmaputra river (Brahma's Son River), Sarasvati river). In Buddhism, the dragon heads represent the 5 Buddhas: Kadabak, Kunsontho, Koneakumno, Samnak Koudom Gautama Buddha and Seare Metrey.

-7 Muchlentak: originated from the bottom of the Himalayas, they bring peace and prosperity to humans, they're deities who control the seven oceans and seven mountains called ‘Seytontaraksatakboriphorn.' They are also the Nāga that sheltered Gautama Buddha for 7 days and 7 nights (Mucalinda). Often depicted as guardian statues, carved as balustrades on causeways leading to main Khmer temples, such as those found in Angkor Wat. [34] They also represent the seven races within Naga society, which has a mythological, or symbolic, association with “the seven colors of the rainbow.”

Symbolizes the Sun, the moon and five other planets; ចន្ទ (Moon)[also Monday] អង្គារ (Mars)[Tuesday] ពុធ (Mercury)[Wednesday] ព្រហស្បតិ៍ (Jupiter)[Thursday] សុក្រ (Venus)[Friday] សៅរ៍ (Saturn)[Saturday] អាទិត្យ (Sun)[Sunday]

-9 Vasukak: Is the king who rules the Earth (Vasuki). For this Nāga, when carved on both sides, the front heads represent reincarnation and the behind represent death.

Symbolizes power of the nine immortals of the universe; power of the lighting and thunder of the East (ទិសបូព៌ា), power of the fire of the Southeast (ទិសអាគ្នេយ៍), power of the law and order of the South (ទិសខាងត្បូង), power of the spirits and demonic creatures of the Southwest (ទិសនារតី), power of the rain of the West (ទិសខាងលិច), power of the wind of the Northwest (ទិសពាយព្យ), power of the wealth and aesthetic of the North (ទិសឧត្តរ), power of destruction of the Northeast (ទិសឥសាន្ត), power of Brahma (creation and preservation) in the middle (កណ្តាល).

In Brahmanism & Buddhism, there are 4 different Nāga race:

1) Primitive Dragons such as the European dragon who can spit fire.

2) The Spiritual Dragons who are the guardians of wealth, they protect treasure in the ocean. They can take on a half human form.

3) The Divine Nāgas, who can travel to heaven, they came from Lord Indra’s realm (the divine realm), they can take on a full human form.

4) The Supreme and Divine Nāgas, like Vasuki the guardian of Lord Vishnu, who alone can fight all the Garuda race.

All of them have great powers and can set off storms, rain, tempest and create lands from the sea.


Crowned golden Naga woodcarving at Keraton Yogyakarta, Java

In Javanese and Balinese culture, Indonesia, a naga is depicted as a crowned, giant, magical serpent, sometimes winged. It is similarly derived from the Shiva-Hinduism tradition, merged with Javanese animism. Naga in Indonesia mainly derived and influenced by Indic tradition, combined with the native animism tradition of sacred serpents. In Sanskrit the term naga literally means snake, but in Java it normally refer to serpent deity, associated with water and fertility. In Borobudur, the nagas are depicted in their human form, but elsewhere they are depicted in animal shape.[35]

Early depictions of circa-9th-century Central Java closely resembled Indic Naga which was based on cobra imagery. During this period, naga serpents were depicted as giant cobras supporting the waterspout of yoni-lingam. The examples of naga sculpture can be found in several Javanese candis, including Prambanan, Sambisari, Ijo, and Jawi. In East Java, the Penataran temple complex contain a Candi Naga, an unusual naga temple with its Hindu-Javanese caryatids holding corpulent nagas aloft.[36]

Crowned Naga flanked the stairs entrance of Pura Jagatkarta

The later depiction since the 15th century, however, was slightly influenced by Chinese dragon imagery—although unlike its Chinese counterparts, Javanese and Balinese nagas do not have legs. Naga as the lesser deity of earth and water is prevalent in the Hindu period of Indonesia, before the introduction of Islam.

In Balinese tradition, nagas are often depicted battling Garuda. Intricately carved naga are found as stairs railings in bridges or stairs, such as those found in Balinese temples, Ubud monkey forest, and Taman Sari in Yogyakarta.

In a wayang theater story, a snake (naga) god named Sanghyang Anantaboga or Antaboga is a guardian deity in the bowels of the earth.[37][38] Naga symbolize the nether realm of earth or underworld.


Naga (Template:Lang-lo) are believed to live in the Laotian stretch of the Mekong or its estuaries. Lao mythology maintains that the naga are the protectors of Vientiane, and by extension, the Lao state. The naga association was most clearly articulated during and immediately after the reign of Anouvong. An important poem from this period San Leupphasun (Template:Lang-lo) discusses relations between Laos and Thailand in a veiled manner, using the naga and the garuda to represent the Lao and the Thai, respectively.[39] The naga is incorporated extensively into Lao iconography, and features prominently in Lao culture throughout the length of the country, not only in Vientiane.

Lao mythology maintains that the Naga are the protectors of Vientiane, and by extension, the Lao state. The Naga association was most clearly articulated during and immediately after the reign of Anouvong. An important poem from this period San Lup Bo Sun (or San Leupphasun Lao: ສານລຶພສູນ) discusses relations between Laos and Siam in a veiled manner, using the Naga and the Garuda, to represent Laos and Siam, respectively.[40] The Naga is incorporated extensively into Lao iconography and features prominently in Lao culture throughout the length of the country, not only in Vientiane.


Phaya Nak or Phaya Naga (Thai: พญานาค; Template:Rtgs; lit. 'lord of nāga' phaya derived from Mon which mean high nobility) or Nakkharat (Thai: นาคราช; lit. 'king of nāga') in Thai beliefs, Nāgas are considered the patronage of water. Nāgas are believed to live in either water bodies or in caves. According to a popular legend, the Mekong River in northeastern Thailand and Laos was said to be created by two nāga kings slithering through the area, thus creating the Mekong and the nearby Nan River. The Mekong is synonymous with the unexplained fireballs phenomenon which has long been believed to be created by the nāgas that dwell in the river.[41][42] Common explanations of their sightings have been attributed to oarfish, elongated fish with red crests; however, these are exclusively marine and usually live at great depths.

Due to the strong relation with everything water, nāgas in Thai belief also plays a role in rain control. The Nak hai nam (Thai: นาคให้น้ำ; lit. nāga granting water) concept is used for annual rainfall prediction. It is still practiced nowadays, most notably during the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. The oracle ranges from 1 nak hai nam (1 naga granted water); meaning the abundant rainfall should be observed that year, to maximum 7 nak hai nam (7 nagas granted water); meaning there might not be adequate rainfall that year.[43]

In northern Thailand, the Singhanavati Kingdom had a strong connection with nāgas. The kingdom was believed to be built with aids of nāgas and thus nagas were highly reverend by the royal family. The kingdom, for a period of time, was renamed Yonok Nāga Rāj (lit. Yonok the Nagaraja)[44]

The nagas are also highly revered. The Buddhist temples and palaces are often adorned with various nagas. The term naga is also present in various Thai architecture terms including the nak sadung (นาคสะดุ้ง, the outer roof finial component featuring naga-like structure), and the nak than (นาคทันต์, the corbel with naga shape). [45]Moreover, nagas are sometimes linked to medicine. Owing to the naga Shesha's presence in Hindu legend's Samudra manthan of which Dhanvantari (god of Indic medicine) and Amrit (healing potion) were created alongside the universe, the nagas are thus linked to medicine in some extents. The nagas can also be founded substituting the snakes in either Rod of Asclepius or mistakenly Caduceus of several medical institutions' symbols. The former seal of Faculty of Medicine, Srinakharinwirot University, and the seal of Society of Medical Student Thailand are some notable examples using the Caduceus with nagas presence instead of snakes.[46]


Thai folklore holds the Phaya Naga to be semi-divine, demi-creatures, which possess supernatural powers as has been described in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.[47] The "Kamchanod Forest" (ป่าคำชะโนด; Template:Rtgs) Ban Dung District, Udon Thani province, which is held in high reverence and fear across Thailand, is believed to be the border between the human world and the netherworld, and is frequently depicted in Thai folklore as the site of many hauntings, but more frequently is considered to be the home of the Naga.[48]

In Shan folklore of Nanzhao Kingdom (now southern China and Southeast Asia during the 8th and 9th centuries, which was centered on present-day Yunnan in China.) believed Erhai lake is inhabited of Naga and is the creator of the Mekong.[47]


Many people, particularly in Isan (the northeastern region of Thailand), believe that the Naga are responsible for unnatural wave phenomena occurring in the rivers or lakes in the vicinity. It is also frequently claimed that the serpent-like demigods are responsible for marks on common objects, such as car hoods or house walls.[42]

A police office has also claimed to be in contact with the Naga, although the implications of this contact is not thoroughly explained.[49]

In attempts to explain these phenomena scientists and researchers at the Faculty of Science of Chulalongkorn University have attributed these seemingly preternatural phenomena to standing waves in water, and posit that the existence of Phaya Naga is similar to belief in Loch Ness Monster in Scotland or Ogopogo in Canada, and further maintain that the serpent-like tracks of the Phaya Naga are very possibly forged by humans.[50]


In Malay and Orang Asli traditions, the lake Chini, located in Pahang is home to a naga called Sri Gumum. Depending on legend versions, her predecessor Sri Pahang or her son left the lake and later fought a naga called Sri Kemboja. Kemboja is the Malay name for Cambodia. Like the naga legends there, there are stories about an ancient empire in lake Chini, although the stories are not linked to the naga legends.[51][52]


Bakunawa hilt from a Visayan (Panay) tenegre sword.

The indigenous Bakunawa, a serpent-like moon-eating creature in Philippine mythology, was syncretized with the Nāga. It is believed to be the cause of eclipses, earthquakes, rains, and wind.[53] The movements of the bakunawa served as a geomantic calendar system for ancient Filipinos and were part of the shamanistic rituals of the babaylan. It is usually depicted with a characteristically looped tail and was variously believed to inhabit either the sea, the sky, or the underworld.[54] However, the bakunawa may have also syncretized with the Hindu deities, Rahu and Ketu, the navagraha of eclipses.[55]


Naga couple from Hoysala era relief.

In popular culture


See also


  1. "Sanskrit Dictionary". sanskritdictionary.com. Retrieved 27 September 2018.
  2. "Nāgas". Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism Online. doi:10.1163/2212-5019_beh_com_000337. Retrieved 9 December 2020.
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  4. Elgood, Heather (2000). Hinduism and the Religious Arts. London: Cassell. p. 234. ISBN 0-304-70739-2.
  5. Apte, Vaman Shivram (1997). The student's English-Sanskrit dictionary (3rd rev. & enl. ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0299-3., p. 423. The first definition of nāgaḥ given reads "A snake in general, particularly the cobra." p.539
  6. Proto-IE: *(s)nēg-o-, Meaning: snake, Old Indian: nāgá- m. 'snake', Germanic: *snēk-a- m., *snak-an- m., *snak-ō f.; *snak-a- vb.: "Indo-European etymology".
  7. "Naga | Hindu mythology". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  8. "Why was vasuki used in Samudra Manthan great ocean Churning". Hinduism Stack Exchange. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  9. "Garuda | Hindu mythology". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  10. For the story of wrapping Vāsuki around the neck and Śeṣa around the belly and for the name in his sahasranama as Sarpagraiveyakāṅgādaḥ ("Who has a serpent around his neck"), which refers to this standard iconographic element, see: Krishan, Yuvraj (1999), Gaņeśa: Unravelling An Enigma, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, ISBN 81-208-1413-4, pp=51-52.
  11. For text of a stone inscription dated 1470 identifying Ganesha's sacred thread as the serpent Śeṣa, see: Martin-Dubost, p. 202.
  12. For an overview of snake images in Ganesha iconography, see: Martin-Dubost, Paul (1997). Gaņeśa: The Enchanter of the Three Worlds. Mumbai: Project for Indian Cultural Studies. ISBN 81-900184-3-4, p. 202.
  13. Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.; p. 151
  14. Lange, Gerrit (26 July 2019). "Cobra Deities and Divine Cobras: The Ambiguous Animality of Nāgas". Religions. 10 (8): 454. doi:10.3390/rel10080454. ISSN 2077-1444.
  15. Forbes, Andrew; Henley, Daniel; Ingersoll, Ernest; Henley, David. "Indian Nagas and Draconic Prototypes". The Illustrated Book of Dragons and Dragon Lore. Cognoscenti Books. ASIN B00D959PJ0.
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  18. Béer 1999, p. 71.
  19. P. 74 How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings By Richard Francis Gombrich
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  21. Kubo Tsugunari, Yuyama Akira (tr.). The Lotus Sutra. Revised 2nd ed. Berkeley, Calif. : Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2007. ISBN 978-1-886439-39-9, pp. 191-192
  22. Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, "Devadatta Chapter"
  23. Peach, Lucinda Joy (2002). "Social Responsibility, Sex Change, and Salvation: Gender Justice in the Lotus Sūtra". Philosophy East and West. 52 (1): 50–74. CiteSeerX doi:10.1353/pew.2002.0003. JSTOR 1400133. S2CID 146337273. ProQuest 216882403.
  24. Thomas E. Donaldson (2001). Iconography of the Buddhist Sculpture of Orissa: Text. Abhinav Publications. p. 276. ISBN 978-81-7017-406-6.
  25. Tāranātha (Jo-nang-pa) (1990). Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 384. ISBN 978-81-208-0696-2.
  26. Chad, Raymond (1 April 2005). "Regional Geographic Influence on Two Khmer Polities". Salve Regina University, Faculty and Staff: Articles and Papers: 137. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  27. The Asia-Pacific World [1][permanent dead link]. Retrieved March 5, 2013.
  28. Sanyal, Sanjeev (10 August 2016). The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History. Penguin UK. p. 82-84. ISBN 978-93-86057-61-7.
  29. "C. 87 Stela from Mỹ Sơn B6". isaw.nyu.edu.
  30. "Monk traditional ceremony Cambodia".
  31. "Neak Pean temple Angkor - "The entwined snakes"". www.renown-travel.com.
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  33. Rosen, Brenda (2009). The Mythical Creatures Bible: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Beings. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 9781402765360.
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Further reading

External links