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Posts Tagged ‘Indian Folklore’

Hindu lore brings us these water-monsters, which are hybrids combining the heads of land animals with the tails of sea creatures. Within this general type, each makara is unique. Some have heads of powerful beasts like crocodiles and elephants. Some have tails of seals or fish. Individual artists seem free to create the combinations they like best.

Although makaras seem like fanciful hybids, some scholars have tried to guess whether they are based on some animal from the real world. Suggestions include river dolphins, dugongs, and two types of crocodile, the mugger and gharial. Mugger crocodiles are the most common kind in India.

As mythical beings, makaras have two primary functions. They act as guardian beasts for temples, gates and doors, and the thrones of rulers. They also serve as steeds for various deities, including the sea god Varuna and Ganga, goddess of the Ganges River. It doesn’t seem that makaras themselves are the prime actors in many tales, but rather serve as fierce protectors for the gods and goddesses.

As time went on, makaras became associated with Buddhist lore as well as Hindu. They are now widespread in art and architecture as far away as Japan and Indonesia. Many temples, especially, have makaras carved as decorative finials, railings, lintels, and so on. They’re a common design for the spouts on fountains and springs, and for vessels such as pitchers. Makaras can also appear in jewelry such as earrings and bracelets.


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It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and I’m deep in the ritual of Madly Cleaning House For Guests. Not to be confused with the ritual of Madly Cleaning Up After Guests, which happens on Friday. But part of me lingers in the warm and wonderful land of India.

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The Indian Naga, Part 2

Much of the naga lore that comes down to us is from the Mahabharata, an epic story cycle of Vedic and Hindu culture. In particular, the Mahabharata contains origin story for the naga race.

The great sage Kasyapa had thirteen wives, who were all daughters of Daksha, a prajapati or creation god. Two of these wives were named Kadru and Vinata. Kadru wished to have many children, while Vinata wanted only a few but powerful children. Kasyapa gave each one her wish. Kadru laid 1,000 eggs, which hatched into serpents, the ancestors of the nagas. Vinata laid two eggs, which hatched the deities Garuda and Aruna. Garuda had the wings and beak of an eagle.

Although they were kinfolk, Garuda and the nagas were destined to become mortal foes. Kadru and Vinata made a bet, and they agreed that whoever lost would become a slave to the winner. Kadru enlisted her many children to help her win, but they wouldn’t do it. Furious, Kadru cursed them. Nevertheless, Kadru won the bet. Vinata, Garuda and Aruna became slaves of Kadru and the nagas.

Garuda was obedient, but his anger grew into an eternal grudge. When he asked Kadru’s children what he must do to release his mother and brother from servitude, they said he had to bring them amrita, the elixir of immortality. Garuda set off, although the odds were long. The gods guarded their previous elixir with warrior deities, a ring of fire, a machine with whirling blades, and two gigantic poisonous serpents. Somehow Garuda made it through and seized the amrita in his beak but did not swallow it.

On his way back to his mother, Garuda encountered the gods Vishnu and Indra. Vishnu promised to make Garuda immortal if he would serve as Vishnu’s flying steed, while Indra said if Garuda tricked the serpents and gave back the amrita, he would have snakes for his food ever after. Garuda agreed to both proposals.

When Garuda got back, he laid the amrita on open grass. Vinata and her sons were freed! But he told the nagas the elixir would only work if they purified themselves at a temple before they drank. While the nagas were in the temple, Indra swooped down and snatched the amrita away. Only a few drops were left.

The nagas must have been furious, but Garuda had plausible deniability, and so he remained free. The nagas tried to lick up what was left. They gained magical powers and long life, though not true immortality. Also, this split their tongues, so that all snakes now have forked tongues. From that time on, Garuda attacked and devoured any snakes he could find. Perhaps this is why the nagas eventually retreated to underground domains.

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I’m preparing for an appearance tonight, but I’ve been recounting the legend of a nagini, Zathi, so here’s a reblog from April 2013 about the mythical race of nagas.

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The Indian Naga, Part 1
If you are like me, the first you knew of Indian myth was an exotic creature in the D&D monster manual, called a naga. It had a serpent’s body and the head of a human. (I know, nagas aren’t dragons! But they’re pretty cool, and I’m going to cover them anyway. So there.)

Nagas are a kind of creature like elves and dwarves, that have a long history in folklore. They appear in lots of stories, where they sometimes behave in contradictory ways. Also like elves and dwarves, nagas are not individual monsters but an entire race, separate from humans but intellectually equal.

Nagas, generally, are snakes that can take human form. They seem able to choose what parts are human and what are serpent, so sometimes they are entirely snake, sometimes they are snakes with multiple heads, and sometimes they are humans with serpent coils from the waist down. Naga are immortal, demi-gods in Western terms, and many are skilled sorcerers.

A naga man is called naga, and a woman is nagini. (If you were wondering, yes, this is where J. K. Rowling got the name for Voldemort’s serpent companion.) They dwell in a nether realm called Patala, and have been ruled by various kings and princes. Nagas practice multiple marriage, with powerful naga men having several wives. There aren’t any stories that I’ve found where nagini act as leaders.*

In part, nagas are nature spirits associated with rivers or underground caverns. As such, they are vulnerable when humans alter or damage the environment. In most tales, nagas are only malevolent when reacting to such depredations. Some also are treasure guardians, so perhaps they strike back to defend what is theirs.

*Update: Technically, the nagini Zathi does not hold a position of power. Yet she is a spiritual leader whose philosophy is highly influential in the world around her.

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Of late I’ve been focusing on Chinese dragon lore, since Chinese New Year will be on the 19th. I’ve also spent time with Japanese folklore in the past. Now I’d like to take a break and acknowledge that the Chinese and Japanese, while amazing and beautiful, are not the sum of Asian culture. Most Asian cultures, from India to Korea and throughout the archipelagos, have dragon legends passed down from antiquity. Here are a few of them.

Vietnamese dragons are known are Rong, and are very similar to China’s Long or Lung dragons. They are symbols of life and growth.

In Korea, dragons begin as lesser water spirits known as Imugi. These benevolent serpents aspire to become true dragons, or Yong. Some legends state they must live for 1,000 years and do good works to reach this goal. Other tales claim they have been cursed and can never realize their dream. Still others say an Imugi must capture a yeouiju, the celestial pearl, in order to ascend.

The Naga of India are great serpents with human torso, arms and head whose mythic civilization played a vital role in Indian legend. I’ve written about them in the past, if you’d like to check it out. Hindu lore also includes Makara, a semi-draconic goddess of the Ganges River.

The Khmer people of Cambodia tell of the Neak, benevolent spirits that appear as giant cobras with multiple heads. Some can have as many as nine cobra heads! Male Neak have odd numbers of heads, while females have even numbers.

I know there are more. If you’ve heard of any other Asian dragons, please share!.

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