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Ganga Devi (1928 – 1991), “Serpent (Naga) Festival,” 1977, Bihar, Ink and Colors on Paper, Asian Art Museum

Last NonStop we resurrected “Addi Maare,” a spirited piece choreographed by Nina and Vicki. It was so much fun to revisit that I decided to examine the dance as well as uncover some of the imagery mentioned in the lyrics. The song is about a dancing woman who makes the earth shake when her heels hit the ground. “Beautiful earthquakes,” as opposed to dangerous ones, are the kind we like here in San Francisco, and as she spins the words move with the braid kissing her ankles, her jingling jhanjar, and the flush in her rosy cheeks. The song also mentions “lakh lachkila jaave naag val kanda ni” or “her waist is like a snake slithering.” It was a surprising image to encounter, but because Nina came up with a nifty bit of snakey choreography to match it, I decided to dig a little deeper. Snakes often carry a negative resonance in the west (ever since Genesis and Eve we’ve never seen them in quite the same way), but in South and Southeast Asia snakes or nagas are generally venerated. Above is a representation of a naga festival from Ganga Devi, signaling the importance of serpents in not only Hindu culture, but also their resonance in Buddhist, Jain, and  Sikh traditions as well.

“Nagas are a part of the Hindu pantheon that probably connect to pre-Vedic times. They guard the cardinal directions and are often associated with Vishnu, who rests upon the coils of Shesha in the cosmic ocean, and Shiva, who generally appears with a cobra around his neck. Nagas worked their way into Buddhist tradition as serpent spirits that inhabit the underworld and watery realms while guarding treasure and terma, or concealed teachings. Garuda shares a common father with nagas, although birds and snakes ended up as mortal enemies in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Nagas can influence the weather and are often portrayed protecting the Buddha. Interestingly, they also show up in Sikh teachings. Below is a representation from the Janam Sakhi, or life stories of Guru Nanak.

 

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“Guru Nanak and the Cobra’s Shade, From a Manuscript of the Janam Sakhi (Life Stories),” 1800-1900, Lahore, Opaque Watercolors on Paper, Asian Art Museum

 

A local ruler and his men pass by a young, sleeping Guru Nanak and notice that the shade cast by the tree above him doesn’t move in relation to the sun. Upon closer examination, they find the tree is actually a cobra who has spread his hood to protect Guru Nanak. The calm herd of cows looking on underscores the miraculous nature of the scene as well as the ruler’s quick choice to become a devotee. When I asked Vicki about nagas and Sikhism, she immediately connected to this story along with her own family tradition. In India her relatives would regularly put a bowl of milk out under a picture of Guru Nanak. The bowl would be visited by a snake who frequented their house. In this case serpents were respected for their ability to provide physical and spiritual protection, but nagas are also symbols of rain, fertility, and prosperity. And because they regularly shed their skins, they can also be seen as symbols of transformation and rebirth.