(August, 2012 with Lathashree Kolla)
Worshiping animals and idolizing the most ‘docile’ ones as ‘benevolent’ is not unusual in many world religions. South Asian folklore and oral histories abound serpent myths and fables. They are immortalized through the ‘snake-stones;, which are a happy addition to rural cultural landscape and religious edifices in India, specially the southern part of the country.
Snakes are worshiped in order to appease them in the hope of averting their malevolent actions. Venomous cobra (the ‘King cobra’) in India is feared since ancient times, gradually emerging as symbolic icon for malevolent deities and planetary spirits. Tantrism popularized the snake as ‘kundalini’, circling the nervous centers of the body, channelizing bodily energies.
Snake-stones or ‘Nagakallu’ (lit. nag=snake, kallu=stone) in Bangalore city in Karnataka present a complex cultural imagery. Two-intertwining snakes are worshiped for fertility, prosperity and for begetting a child on auspicious days. The snake stones are associated with Murugan (son of Shiva according to Puranic stories). The snake symbolism also holds good for an inauspicious constellation: hydra (Ashlesha), are these stones are worshiped to avert crisis caused by the planetary arrangements and the constellation.
Singular snakes are generally worshiped as planetary spirits or guardian deities. Snake stones of medieval period on-wards are seen with some anthropomorphic features such as half human body with snake’s hood or tail. Such representation is often attributed to be ‘Naga’, popular in the iconography of early Buddhist caves in Western India. The Nagas were considered to be the guardians of sites and cave complexes, which is resonated through the worship of snake stones as being the protectors of settlements.
An offering of rice and lamps lit in coconut shells are given to appease the snake spirits. An element of ancestor worship is also discussed in this connection. Full moon and new moon nights attract special offerings.
A straight-forward interpretation afforded by a local farmer in Bangalore holds some value: ‘these snake stones symbolize protection of standing crops from vermin and hence are worshiped. ‘
Continued to be worshiped in modern day, these snake stones offer a glimpse cultural repertoire of medieval and ancient times in Indian history.