Nag Pancahmi is marked as worship of snakes. In Hindu
mythology, the cobra has a special significance and the earth, it is
believed, rests on the head of 'Shesha' - the thousand-hooded cobra. It is
a festival in the honour of the Snake God, Shesha Nag.
On this day Indians worship the snake by offering milk and doing Puja. It was thought that snakes are worshipped as they are harmful and dangerous, but that is not true. During the Vedic era the Aryans wanted to spread the message of Vedas so that they are accepted universally. In doing so they adopted diverse ways of worshipping, like doing Pujas of many gods and goddesses. One of them is Nagpuja.
According to the Hindu calendar Nag Panchami is celebrated in the month of Shravan (July-August). During the monsoon when the snakes come out of the pit they are worshipped as they protect crops from getting damaged by rats and other rodents. Snakes have also been a part of the Puranas and took part in "Sagar Manthan" and is also worn by Lord Shiva around his neck.
Legend has it that the serpents are believed to have the
capability to change their shape at will. When in human form, they are
depicted as beautiful women and handsome men. The victory of Krishna over
the Kaliya snake is commemorated on this day. For this reason Krishna is
known as "Kaliya Mardan". The legend is as follows:
Young Krishna was playing with the other cowboys, when suddenly the ball got entangled in the high branch of a tree. Krishna volunteered to climb the tree and fetch the ball. But below the tree there was a deep part of the river Yamuna, in which the terrible snake Kaliya was living.
Everybody was afraid of that part of the river. Suddenly Krishna fell from the tree into the water. Then that terrible snake came up. But Krishna was ready and jumping on the snake's head he caught it by the neck. Kaliya understood that Krishna was not an ordinary boy, and that it would not be easy to overcome him. So Kaliya pleaded with Krishna: "Please, do not kill me." Krishna full of compassion asked the snake to promise that henceforth he would not harass anybody. Then he let the snake go free into the river again.
The festival falls during the rainy months and is believed
to counter the increased possibility of a snakebite during this time.
People visit temples specially dedicated to snakes and worship them. Shiva
temples are also favoured places for veneration, as snakes are considered
dear to him.
In South India, people craft images of snakes using cow dung on either side of the entrance to the house to welcome the snake god. Some go to worship the snake, which is believed to be hiding in the holes of anthills. Or else a five-hood snake is made by mixing "Gandh" (a fragrant pigment), "Halad-Kumkum" (turmeric powder), "Chandan" (sandal) and "Keshar" (saffron) and placed on a metal plate and worshipped.
People offer sweets and milk to the snake deity and the day is celebrated with folk dances and songs, especially in the countryside. On this day devotees pour milk into all the holes in the ground around the house or near the temple so that the snakes may drink it.
Sometimes, a small pot of milk with some flowers is placed near the holes and if a snake actually drinks the milk, it is considered to be extremely lucky for the devotee. The festival is celebrated with much enthusiasm by all, especially women.
Snake charmers carry cobras in baskets and collect offerings from the public in the streets. Usually, wandering snake charmers visit homes with their pet cobras. Each household offers milk to the reptile and haldi-kumkum. A small village near Sangli, Battis Shirala, is famous for its snake catchers, and people throng the streets to watch the thrilling performances of expert snake charmers. A snake show is organized here that attracts thousands of tourists.