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The Significance Of Naga in Thai Architectural And Sculptural Ornaments

Phanum Rung Naga Thailand


  • The Naga is the revered name of the mythological snake in Indian and Southeast Asian literature. In Thailand, the figure has highly influenced features of Thai traditional arts, particularly sculpture and architecture. The reference matters pertaining to Naga are very sparse however and it appears that there are just a few books penned on it by foreign and Thai scholars.
  • The writers of these utterly confirm that the Naga in Southeast Asian traditions originate from India. Other people have also mentioned the native snake cult but didn’t provide strong scientific proof. Therefore, the issue now is whether or not there was a type of native snake cult which existed in mainland Southeast Asia and Siam peninsula. 

The Snake in the native cultures of Thailand and Southeast Asia

The Snake as a type of animism

  • The snake cults were by no way limited to India and it appears that the reverence of snakes as signs of fertility and water happened separately in several parts of the world, particularly in Southeast Asia where the water culture performed an important part in the people’s day-to-day actions. In Siam peninsula, dyed ceramic pots were found at Udonthani province, Ban Chieng, and Ban Kao, Kanchanaburi province, which displayed several wave-like snake designs embellished round the pottery body. These discoveries are proof that the snake cult was probably practised by the primeval society in Siam peninsula in the Metal Age roughly 2000–3000 years back.
  • The snake cult of Southeast Asia has been mostly found among the local communities residing alongside the banks of the Mekhong River, beginning from Yunan, China to the lower part of its river path. Here, the native ethnic groups think that the snake is the maker of life and nature and that it nurtures human beings. The snake, additionally, is also thought to have helped people in establishing citadels and cities and bequeathing prosperity to the residents. But the snake can also reprimand people by discharging an oversupply of water, producing floods that abolish the towns. A majority of the people think the incredible folklores, particularly the snake folklores pertained to construction of kingdoms, cities and citadels. Especially interesting are the tales of the origin of the matriarchy linkage and human race that are extremely common among the communities of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand.
  • A Tai Lu (Water Tai) folklore called the story of Nang Sa tells the way the Tai race was created from the water snake. Tai men in the North of Thailand, the Northwest of Vietnam, Sipsong Chu Tai the North of Laos and Sipsongpanna, Yunan province, China generally tattoo the water snake on their arm and back as a compulsory ritual when they come of age. Vietnamese and Chinese records called them “Khin-man” which means “great snake”. Up till now, a few old Thais living in the Northeast and North of Thailand still call the mythological water snake “Tua Luong” which is similar to the “Thuong Luong” in Vietnamese folklores. The two names have a similar sound and suggest that the acceptance of the snake ruler of the water world was generated by the human mind. They might also be very old names for the mythological water snake of the Southeast Asian marginal groups.

The Snake denoting water

  • Water performs an extremely important part in the day-to-day life and farming routines of the peoples of Southeast Asia. Water is at times so plentiful that it creates floods; sometimes, it's really rare. For that reason, faith in a water thing got its way into the people’s mind to assist them cope with the inexplicable when nature strikes. Ancient peoples thought that there should be a creature living in the water world that produces water as well as manages it, ultimately bestowing it to the our world. Based on conventional views, Laotians and Thais believe that the mythological snake resided inside a location of terrestrial moisture under our world known as Muang Badan, the revered citadel situated anywhere in the Mekhong river surface, the river path between Nong Khai province, Thailand and Vientiane, capital of Laos. From Muang Badan, the underworld river increased, and mythically joined itself to all the rivers and oceans throughout the world. Muang Badan is likewise thought to be a mythological empire that works as a continuous water source which keeps the Mekhong River and other rivers from drying out. Its water additionally improves the environmental balance and protects the people on the riverside areas. In conventional agricultural understanding, the word “Nak hey nam” (snake providing water) means the water volume required for rice sowing, as predicted by a Thai grower. The Thais at the same time also believe that in case there’s just one exclusive snake in the world with them all through the year, they will have sufficient water for growing rice. However, if all 7 snakes remain together in the spot, there'll be a famine since the snakes will fight with each other in offering water. As per the old belief, the Thais as well as other Southeast Asian peoples believed that the snake spirits resided only in the water world. With the impact of Indian tradition, they got to think that the snake may also reside in paradise. Therefore, in early rainy season, the Thai growers would listen very carefully for the path of the thunder since the snake will provide directions about the water supply. When it thunders in the North the snake will discharge an oversupply of water. Deluge will inundate the land. Whenever it booms from the Southeast, the snake will discharge sufficient rain and rice will be abundant. In the rain prayer celebration, Bun Bang Fai, which is held annually in Yasothon province in the mid of June, village people release snake-shaped bamboo rockets in the sky. The rockets deliver a human information to the God of Thunder, Phra In (Indra in Hindu), to request him to get in his snake cloud to make rain. When viewing a rainbow extended over the sky, a Thai would look at the “Nak kin nam” (the snake sipping water). The rainbow signifies the large multi colored snake raising its head from the sea and sipping water. These philosophies may have originated from Indian tradition, following merger into Thai tradition, particularly into those of the E-San area that is suffering from insufficient water throughout the year.


The Snake in Theravada Buddhism and Brahmanism in Thailand and Southeast Asia

The Snake and Brahmanism

  • Brahmanism is thought as the Arians’ main religion, established during the Vedic era approximately 3000 years back. Buddhism emerged later on during the 5th century BC. Both however spread out to Southeast Asia during the same era, in the 1st centuries AD. The lord snake was known as Naga in Sanskrit and Nag in Pali. These phrases are used to specify both the elephant and the king cobra. It seems that the worship of the Naga like a sort of totem came from the Dravidian tradition. Later on it evolved into the sacred creature of Brahmanism in the post-Vedic period, when the Arians absorbed the Dravidian’s native cults. The Naga was named Nak, Phaya Nak or Tua Nak in Thai. The phrase of Naga is used to relate to the nude people, for example the Naga people residing in Naga Hill, Assam state, India. The Tam Nan Urangkathat, a Thai old chronicle, claims that Naga was the phrase used to specify the tribal people originally living in Nong Sae, south of Yunan province, who moved by small groups for village on the shores of the Mekhong River. Therefore, Naga unquestionably called the Tai race who moved southward in the growth process of their tribal background. As per Indian chronicle, Suvarnnabhumi or Suvannaphum means “the Golden Land” that is thought to be Siam peninsula or landmass Southeast Asia. There, the native people were nude people as mentioned in Funan Ki by Khang Tai, the ambassador who was sent to the Funan royal court as the Chinese emperor’s envoy in the Three Kingdom era. To put it differently, the Thai Tam Nan Urangkathat’s name of the native people as Nagas should have originated from Indian impact.
  • In a nutshell, Naga is also the popular word used (by Indians) to relate to the native groups of Southeast Asia who practised snake worship or regarded the snake as a type of animal totem. Since the time they accepted Indian tradition, the Southeast Asians have just borrowed the word “Naga” from India for fortifying the holy character of the mythical native snake. Initially, when Brahmanism showed up in Southeast Asia, it was thought to be a new faith, it was facing the old faith system of snake worship. The conflict is shown in Thai stories which inform the tale of Phra Isuan (Shiva in Hindu) and Phra Narai (Vishnu in Hindu) who battled fiercely with the Naga kings in a mythological fight. Ultimately success went to the Brahmanist gods, who announced the superiority of the new faith over the ancient faith system. The earlier faith, nevertheless, didn't vanish but evolved into part of the new faith with a more revered role. The Naga cult was merged into the native snake cult and changed the snake into a lord which protects the nation, defender of the new faith and the king’s sacred lineage. This is shown in the story of a Brahmin, Kaudinya, who wedded a Soma princess, the daughter of the Naga king, after that giving birth to the kings’ descendants. A similar tale was created in the Champa stone inscription in My Son, the sacred territory in central Vietnam. This was particularly narrated in the story of the Funan Kingdom founded by Ambassador Khang Tai during the 3rd century AD. The Khmer additionally have a similar tale which tells of Prince Preah Thong getting married to Princess Nang Neak, daughter of King Naga. This was adapted into the “Phra Ruong” tale by the Thais, in 13th century AD, describing the snake princess lineage (Nang Nak in Thai) of the 1st king of Sukhothai Kingdom. Together with the inclusion of Indian tradition into native traditions, all the tales also carry the stamp of famous stories told in the Southeast or South of India (like the Indian Kings’ tales in the Manipur and Pavallas dynasties). The Mahabharata , the Indian epic in verse, additionally, told the tale of the hero Arjuna getting married to Princess Naga Ulupi, the daughter of King Naga Nila who controlled Potala, the water world. Nonetheless, there are variations in the story details. The Southeast Asian tales always highlight the significant status of the snake princess Soma or the empress Lieu Diep in the native communities. She is both a great leader of a powerful empire and an army chief however didn't worry about being dressed until her wedding to a Brahmin spouse. These specifics are excellent instances of the social and cultural circumstances of Southeast Asia in the Pre-Indian era. The native people are almost naked and resided in a matriarchal culture, with the women respected in the community and family circles.
  • With Brahmanism transforming into a predominant faith in the regal courts, the king-god (Deva raja) method found a reason for the king getting a holy role. The Naga was a necessary indication of matriarchy connected to the kings’ noble lineage. In his description titled The Customs of Cambodia, Chou Ta Koun, a diplomatic attaché of the Chinese Yuan empire who was visiting the royal court of Angkor in 13th century AD, told the story of the Khmer king who was expected to mate each night with a 9 headed serpent princess to carry on the royal lineage and make sure the prosperity of the kingdom. In the other Thai tales, the Naga is solemnly narrated like the state defender of sincere kings; the Naga helps people to excavate rivers for irrigation, safeguards water dams and builds towns for people. However if the kings or their subjects are bad and anti-religious, the Naga will reprimand them by sinking the towns, harming the land and tearing communities down. Such examples are provided as reasons regarding what occurred to the old towns of Nong Han Luong, Vieng Nong Lom and Yonoknagaphan in Northern Thailand, Nakhon Suvankhomkham in Laos. The Phadeng Nang Ay, the E-San Thai epic in verse also explains the tale of King Naga Suttho who led Muang Badan and guided his snake soldiers to inundate the mainland and eliminate the whole community who ate his son, Prince Naga Phangkhi.


The Snake and Theravada Buddhism

  • The clash between Theravada Buddhism and snake worship is mirrored in Thai tradition. Bang Fai Phya Nak , the E-San Thai tale has the story of the Naga residing in the Mekhong River prior to the era when the crown prince Sakya-Muni established the faith in India. Other stories declare that as the Buddha arrived to preach his faith in the E-San region, he met a number of powerful Naga kings who controlled the area. These tales demonstrate that the snake worship cult was strongly established and had permeated the peoples' religious activities in Siam peninsula in the Pre- Buddhist era. Here, the problem must be understood in the perspective of 2 main parts of Theravada Buddhism, namely, mythology and history. In case the Lord Buddha had preached his faith in the E-San area, this means that Buddhism has extended into this region, however it can't be correct historically since the Buddha never has set foot on Southeast Asia. Urang Kathat informs a number of contradictory tales regarding the Nagas and the Lord Buddha. All, however, have the identical idea: the Lord Buddha was meditating in a specific holy peak, situated near the Naga kings’ fief. The aureole behind his head shines so intensely that it reached the Naga world, annoying the Naga kings. Therefore, the Naga kings directed their snake soldiers into the Lord Buddha’s meditation seat and prepared to assault him by using their mysterious power. However the Lord Buddha couldn't be hurt and the Nagas were ultimately weak and tired. The Lord Buddha presented his tenets and calmly described them to the Nagas. The Nagas, henceforth, were convinced and accepted Buddhism. When the Lord Buddha moved to Laos, the Nagas requested him to put his footprint (Buddhapad) like a relic for the next generations to worship. The Lord Buddha performed as the Nagas wanted, then he continued preaching the faith in Laos whereas the Nagas remained to safeguard his relics.
  • One of the tales relevant to the Buddha and the native animist snake cult, there is certainly hardly any which shows the Buddha battling the Nagas such as in the tales in Brahmanist mythology. It's important that Buddhism selects a tranquil relational course harmoniously with the animist snake cult instead of enforce its glory on the native belief system. Another similar scenario has happened between Buddhism and Naga belief in India earlier. Therefore, the philosophies of the Nagas and the native snake cult are a vital part of Buddhist tradition in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Together with the animist viewpoints, Buddhism followed Vedic philosophical features as well as acknowledged the Brahmanist gods’ existence in its holy temples. 

Three Naga

The Importance of the Naga in Thai architectural decorations

  • As per Thai myth, the Nagas had so religiously served the Buddhist fact that their signs got important locations in Buddhist temples in different shapes. Naga signs typically are visible on the finial, gable board, arch, balustrade, on the layers of the temple ceiling, and particularly on smartly created stairways leading to the main shrine (Viharn in Thai). The majority of the Naga significations in Thai buildings, nevertheless, probably find their beginnings in Brahmanism that Theravada Buddhism had assimilated. According to Thai Buddhist perception, Buddhist temples signify the sacred mount, Phra Sumen, also known as Mount Meru in Vedic cosmology, that represent Tavatimsa Heaven in which Queen Siri Mahamaya (Buddha’s mom) and the Hindu Gods live. Naga embellishment alongside layers of temple roofs signifies the cosmic river of life that springs from Mount Phra Sumen as well as streams down to our world. This emanates from a Vedic faith that narrates a tale set throughout the Ice Age when a Naga consumed all of the waters of the world and after that coiled its serpentine body in order to hibernate on the top of Mount Meru. Our planet suffered from a major drought; living beings were perishing. To regenerate life to the earth, God Indra (Phra In in Thai) hurled his thunderbolt at the lethal snake. The swollen Naga broke, causing water to flow down the mountainside, moving like rivers all over the dry earth.
  • In Theravada Buddhist buildings, the Naga-shaped carved staircases always have a very important location in the temples; they signify the 3 ladders mythically connecting earth to heaven. The pious believers’ spirits are said to be guided up to Nirvana (paradise in Buddhism) on the magical step ladder by the Naga. The gods, subsequently, use them to come down in the world. Theravada Buddhist myth also states that the Buddha uses the Naga ladder annually to come down to earth on a holy day, sometime in the mid of November, after having preached to his mom and the gods in Tavatimsa Paradise. In addition to the importance in Buddhist myth, a Thai folk tale also says of Nagas carrying earth from the base of rivers to construct the bottom of temples. Therefore, the Naga-shaped carved stairs are ubiquitously found in Buddhist temples in Thailand. The most amazing ones are in Wat Phumin, Wat Supat Thanaram , Wat Doi Suthep in Chieng Mai province, Chedi Phra That Chomkitti in Chieng Saen district, Chieng Rai province. Wat stands for temple in Thai, Chedi stands for stupa in which the wave-like long serpentine stairs known as Nak Sadung in Thai are expertly carved. It signifies mainly the cosmic water origin flowing down to the dry world such as in the explanation in Vedic myth.
  • Additionally, the Naga is also identified with the spectrum shaped lintels. In the folkloric idea of the Thais as well as other Southeast Asians, the spectrum signifies both the link from this planet to paradise and the huge water snake raising its head from the ocean to consume water. The mythological Naga is regarded as a protector (Dravapala) in Theravada Buddhist temples. It scares enemies away; for that reason it might appear on Buddhist buildings as nothing but this. There are, to conclude, many forms of the Naga seen in Thai architectural art, however all are shown in harmonious relationships with cosmology, faith and the water culture.

The Meaning of Naga in Thai sculptural ornaments 

  • In Buddhist myth, the Naga images have religiously accompanied the Buddha from the moment of his achievement of Nirvana. Nagas even live in the realm of people to help the Buddhist Trinity or the Triple Gem, which consist of the Buddha, Dharma (Law), and Sangha (spiritual community). They protect the Buddhist artifacts for generations to come. Buddhist myth also claims that when crown prince Siddhartha was newly born in Lumpini, a regal garden (in Nepal), the multi-headed Naga created warm waters to gush forth for the baby prince’s 1st bath. The Jataka (called Chadok in Thai), a Buddhist literary work produced by the Ceylonese (Sri Lankans) in 5th century AD informing of the Buddha’s 547 reincarnations, states in the Bhuridatta Jataka episode the way the Buddha was once born in a Naga shape prior to being reincarnated into the crown prince Siddhartha. The Naga concept is shown in Thai Buddhist statue in the following ways: 

Three Dragon Naga