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July 20, 2007
Traditional earrings in the villages and tribal areas of India are manifestations of symbolism, religious meaning and social significance. A woman wears a particular type of earring as a sign of identity, of membership in the defined social group into which she was born. Wearing the specific earrings of her community, she continues the tradition of her ancestors.
In a field work of ten years, I could locate and describe in detail 170 specific types of earrings, of which a majority are worn until the present day. Many more are extinct or neglected, others will follow this fate in the future under the present fast economic growth and impact from the west, which erodes values of tradition and heritage.
One of the most interesting and conspicuous traditional Indian earring types is the snake earring which can be found in three far-apart areas of the continent: Orissa in the East, Tamil Nadu in the South and Gujarat/Rajasthan in the West.
Snake worship in history
In the tree of evolution, snakes appeared for the first time around 130-100 million years ago. Except in the arctic, snakes are found everywhere in the world; they are able to survive heights over 4000 m and can dive to a depth of 100 m. Since ancient times, snakes have been of special significance for the human race. They have been feared and venerated, associated with gods and have been deified.
The origin of ophiolatry or serpent worship (in India referred to as the naga cult) has its roots in the unusual manners of living and behaviour of snakes: its swift yet graceful and mysterious gliding motion; its unexpected appearance from the void without any sound; its beauty and strength; the sudden fatal consequences of its bite; the moulting and reappearance with immaculate new skin suggesting longevity or even immortality. All these attributes gave rise to feelings of wonder, respect and fear and led to worship and mythology.
The earliest snake images are known from Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in Turkey which dates back to 9000 BC.
In ancient Babylon, Ninazu was the patron god of Eschnunna
(Eshnunna - modern Tall al-Asmar in eastern Iraq) and the king of the
snakes, related to the realm of the dead, but also to the annual vegetation
The winged serpent Python, who lived in Delphi, was killed by Apollon. By the spilling of her blood, her prophetic abilities were transferred to the place, and the oracle of Delphi emerged from this event.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the snake symbolises the evil and the devil, who tries to lead man into temptation. Adam and Eve were driven from the Paradise because they committed the original sin of mankind by their disobedience. The Blessed Virgin Mary is in Christian art often depicted stepping on the head of a snake, thus crushing the evil under her feet.
The Midgardschlange of Germanic mythology was the world snake, lying in the sea and encircling the whole earth.
In China the snake is known as a symbol for shrewdness,
malice and deceit.
In the beliefs of humans, snakes are generally connected with rain, with the ancestors, with fertility of the earth and of women. They are venerated as protectors of the house and the family wealth and believed to be the guardians of the nether world and its immeasurable treasures. Because of their cyclical moulting, serpents are believed to be immortal; eternity is often illustrated in the form of a serpent eating its tail.
Some examples of snake-related mythology and rites from different cultures shall illustrate the above:
For the Aborigines in Australia the snake had the task to bring culture to people and to divide them into marriage groups. It was esteemed as the ancestor of mankind and played an important role in initiation rites.
In Oceania, a mythological father sky and mother earth were separated by a god disguised as a snake, in order to bring light and air to mankind.
In the Andes the earth mother Pachamama is worshipped and often depicted with a double headed snake headdress.
In Bolivia two snake gods are held responsible for hurricanes and rain, while earth quakes are caused by each movement of the sea-dwelling monster-snake Yaurinkha.
By their snake dance, the Hopi Indians of North America pray for rain.
Many black Africans believe in the rainbow snake which is described as a monster serpent. It keeps watch over water holes and controls the rain. Offerings for the snakes are essential to assure fruitful rains.
According to the epics, a tribe called the Nagas was spread throughout India during the period of the Mahabharata. It seems likely that the Naga people were a serpent-worshipping group who were later described as serpents themselves in ancient Indian literature.
The great importance of the Nagas in Buddhist and Hindu religion is reflected in plastic and pictorial art, as well as in extensive descriptions in the old Hindu texts, which report dynasties of Naga kingdoms of which Nagaland is the last relic. The Naga (skt. naga – snake) of Indian and Buddhist mythology is usually not the snake in general but the cobra, raised to the rank of a divine being.
Images, sculptures and the narratives of literature present the serpent in two forms:
i.e. in his animal shape, usually many-headed and represented erect, spreading
its hood (fig. 1, below)
Nagas in Hindu mythology are the sons of Kadru, the personification of the Earth. Many of them are known by their individual names and have a history of their own. The longest list of Naga names – well over 500 – is given in the Nilamata Purana of Kashmir which dates back to the eighth century.
In the list of the divine serpents of the epic literature Shesha (or Ananta) usually figures first. He is the Endless, the cosmic serpent on which Vishnu sleeps, (fig. 4, left) as he dreams the universe into existence. Shesha embodies the primordial substance of which the universe is formed, which remains when the universe ends and initiates the start of the next cosmic cycle. Shesha is also the king of all Nagas who holds the planets on his hoods and constantly sings the glories of Vishnu from all his mouths. Vishnu resting on Shesha is a favorite theme of plastic art. He is shown reclining on the couch formed by the coils of the Naga whose polycephalic head with wide spread hoods forms a canopy over the god. One of the most famous depictions is a seventh century sculpture in the cave temples of Mahabalipuram. (fig. 5, below)
Vasuki, another prominent king of the Nagas, usually figures second and immediately after Shesha. The most famous legend in Hinduism narrates how Vasuki allowed the gods to use him as a rope, bound with Mount Meru, when gods and demons together churned the ocean of milk for the ambrosia of immortality. Vasuki is mainly associated with Shiva; he is represented slung around his neck and often venerated in form of a brass image.
Muchilinda, another mighty king of serpents, during a heavy rain came from his abode beneath the earth to protect the meditating Buddha by coiling around his body and spreading his hood over his head. When the storm had cleared, the serpent king assumed his human form, paid reverence to the Buddha and returned in joy to his palace.
Karkotaka is said to control the weather. In mythology he was a Naga king, who bit the sage Nala at the request of Indra, transforming him into a misshapen dwarf with short arms.
Paravataksha is a
Naga whose sword causes earthquakes and whose roar brings thunder.
Ulupi, a Naga princess in the epic Mahabharata, abducted the prince Arjuna to her realm in the netherworld and had with him a son Iravat, who later assisted his father in the battle of Kurukshetra.
Snakes in Indian daily life
Animistic snake worship was known in India long before the advent of the Aryans. As in present time, the early inhabitants had to face continuous encounters with deadly snakes infesting forests and marshy grounds. They were overwhelmed with the incomprehensible terror of sudden death and could think of no better way to relieve themselves from that fear than appeasement and veneration. On the other hand, snakes seeking shelter from the rains in houses and stables indicated the beginning of the monsoons and thus of the fertile season and fertility in general, hence they were worshipped mainly by women. Their habit to live under the earth related them to the underworld ancestors who were accordingly venerated in the form of snakes.
The ancient animistic cult was eventually adopted and integrated into orthodox Hinduism. Especially the emblem of the cobra was transformed into a religious and mythological symbol and is often represented in combination with a lingam as symbol for Shiva. (fig. 6, left) The snake symbol was also taken over by Buddhism and Tantrism, from where it passed into contemporary esoteric circles. This topic is however not in the field of the present article.
Snake worship in a kind of combined animistic-Hindu form is alive to the present day almost everywhere in India, and is particularly pronounced in South India. Votive steles with snake images are often erected below trees because people believe that the dwellings of the snakes are situated underneath the roots. Many mythological tales mention the immeasurable treasures which the snakes are hiding in their underground realms.
A favourite object of animistic snake-veneration was the deadly cobra (skt. naga). Every one of these serpents was regarded as the living incarnation or representative of a large crowd of mythological Nagas, who were believed to be demi-gods, whose kings lived in great luxury in magnificent palaces in the depths of the sea, at the bottom of lakes or as the sons of mother earth inhabiting the underworld. They were also believed to control the clouds, produce thunderstorms, guard treasures, and do marvellous things in general.
Many feats attributed to Nagas could be performed only by beings with human powers and faculties, whence they were said to assume human form if required. By their great charm Nagis (fig. 7, below) could rouse the passion of a man; unions between mortal man and immortal woman are often met with in Indian fables. Nagas also know magical spells which they impart to specially favoured or haunted mortals. They can provide help in many problems of health, infertility and domestic affairs.
Temples for Nagas were erected and may be visited with special wishes, such as Gatisubrahmanya in Karnataka which is visited by parents to pray for the health or recovery of their children. In Kerala, worship at the snake temple of Pambumekat (fig. 8, above) is reputed to cure skin diseases, while Mannarsala is favoured by infertile couples praying for issue. Many private houses have a corner of their garden reserved for snakes (kavu). It must not be entered by humans and accordingly develops its own eco-sphere with otherwise unknown vegetation, often with medicinal plants. In temples and even in Christian churches metal images of snakes and their eggs are given as votive offerings in search of protection from snake bite and evil. In a Syrian Christian church in Kochi, I found small metal balls and real eggs, piled up before a statue of St. George fighting the dragon, which was obviously considered a snake analogue.
In the Himalayan region, many kingdoms and clans had Nagas as their emblem, which also appeared on coins. Many a folk tale narrates the fate of particular snakes. Wooden temples show carvings of snakes and snake gods on their front side panels, private houses have snakes as door or window decoration (fig. 9, above) for protection. The conspicuous perakh (fig.10, above) of Ladakh is supposed to represent a cobra, protecting the woman wearing it.
From Orissa the worship of live snakes is reported but is not found any more now. Farmers here, as everywhere in India, will never kill a snake which they find in their fields or in the house because snakes are respected as sacred and help the peasants by eating up rodents which are a great threat to the crops.
In Bengal an anthropomorphic serpent folk goddess, Manasa, presides over the serpents. She was widely worshipped from pre-Aryan time, especially among the lower classes. With little or no orthodox Hindu affiliation, her cult is still alive in Bengal and neighbouring states. During the best known snake festival, nagpanchami, which is not only celebrated in Bengal, women offer flowers and fruits and pray for the wellbeing of themselves and their children.
In Gujarat the Rabari, a wandering tribe of herdsmen, worship brass images of the cobra as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and decorate it with flowers. (fig. 11, below)
In Tamil Nadu, a peculiar custom, called naga-pratishta, is known for barren women. A stone image of a snake (fig. 12, below) is first submersed in a spring or pond for a certain time to be impregnated with the mysterious power of the snakes living there. Then the barren woman circumambulates the Ashvatta tree (ficus religiosa) and has the snake stone established under the tree, or it is lined up with others in the precincts of a temple.
Edgar Thurston reported in 1909 that Nagavadam (cobra's hood) is the name of a subdivision of the community of the Palli, who wear an ornament, called nagavadam, shaped like a cobra's head, in the dilated lobe of the ears. The oft-employed use of snakes in amulets is most obvious in the Tamil choti, a precious gold braid ornament with a polycephalic cobra as top and a dancing Krishna figure on it. (fig. 13, above)
Snake earrings of India
In Orissa and Gujarat snake earrings are called nagulu or nagali from the skrt. naga -snake. In Tamil Nadu the name pambadam is used, derived from the Tamil word pamba for snake.
Although the earring name refers to snakes, the shape
of the ornament often does not resemble the original model very much.
And even though snake worship is performed by most wearers, it is not
any more connected consciously with their private adornment. The meaning
and purpose of wearing a snake emblem is forgotten. With varying accentuation
the emblem may stand for protection from snake bite, the wish for fertility
and longevity or indicate devotion to Lord Vishnu.
Asked for an explanation of the name of their nagali (figs. 15-15a, below), women in Pushkar, Rajasthan, describe a mushroom which is called snake umbrella and comes out after the rains, because snakes have the habit of hiding under its hood. The nagali earring is supposed to stand for the doubled shape of the mushroom.
Rabari tribes, now living in Kutch, Gujarat, passed the Pushkar region on their migration from the north of Rajasthan and may have seen the local earrings there, or rather transferred their own designs to the village people.
The nagali earrings of the Kachhi Rabari in Gujarat
with their spiral, spring-like shape (figs. 16-16a, above) can be considered
as the forms most closely related to snakes. As other Rabari, these herdsmen
have shrines for snakes, but associate them with Lord Vishnu in the form
of Shesha and deny a connection of these images with their earrings.
More autonomy of the original double spiral snake form was achieved by the Bharvad herding community who were residing beyond the Rabari in western Gujarat and probably picked up the nagali design from them. They switched from gold to silver and have their earrings made of solid sheet. (figs. 18-18a, above) It certainly requires a lot of information and imagination to visualise a snake in this earring type, which also carries the name of nagali.
Most ancient in appearance and least sophisticated in look are the nagulu of North Andhra Pradesh (fig. 19, left) and South Orissa. (figs. 20-20a, below) They consist of a simple wire coil that is hammered flat and oval at one end, symbolising the snake head with hood. It is believed that these earrings protect the wearer from snakebite. Another reason given to me for wearing a coiled serpent as ear ornament was that snakes look beautiful. A beautiful woman is like a snake, highly poisonous; if a man misbehaves with her, the snake is supposed to provide protection.
The snake earrings were eventually adopted by other tribals in Orissa who do not practise snake worship, like the Saora. Obviously, they were not even conscious of the form's idea and consequently abandoned the head. They now wear simple silver wire spirals of 10-15 cm length which are screwed into the distended lobe (figs. 21-21a, below). Most Saora meanwhile gave up wearing this earring type because it does not match the now fashionable sari which replaced the traditional dress.
In Tamil Nadu, people carefully avoid speaking disrespectfully of snakes: the cobra is called nalla tambiran "the good lord" or nalla pambu "the good snake". The snake earrings of South India, pambadam and nagavadura, are the types with the greatest likeness to real cobras. Of the two, nagavadura (fig. 22, below) were mainly worn in the northern parts of the province. They are practically extinct now, while pambadam are still worn and produced in the southern half of Tamil Nadu. (fig. 23, below)
The unique shape of both earring types has caused many attempts at interpretation in the west, from pecking birds to saddles. As goldsmiths in Nagercoil explained to me however, pambadam represent without any doubt a stylised egg-laying cobra, coiled on her nest, her head erect and her hood wide spread.
Cobras are the only snakes known to build a real nest of earth and dead plants for incubating their eggs. The most striking feature of a cobra is the characteristic hood with a distinctive circle pattern which is explained by this story: Kaliya was a poisonous Naga living in the Yamuna River. Once Krishna and the herd-boys were playing together, when their ball fell into the river. Krishna jumped after it while Kaliya rose and attacked him. Krishna at once assumed the weight of the whole universe and, jumping on Kaliya's head, danced on it defeating the Naga. (fig. 24, above) Kaliya, respecting the greatness of Krishna, surrendered with the promise not to harass anybody in future. So Krishna pardoned him and then let him go free to leave the river.
The circles on the hoods of the cobra are believed to be the footprints left by the divine boy dancing on the heads of the defeated Naga Kaliya. (fig. 25, below) The mark is also supposed to protect the serpent from its archenemy, the bird Garuda. On the "hood" of the pambadam earring, the footprints are always depicted as a large round appliqué. (fig. 25 a, below) The cobra wears on its head the mani or precious jewel, which is clearly visible in the earring as a pyramidal knob, while the big balls represent the snake's eggs.
Pambadam are common in South India at least since the 19th century. The Journal of Indian Art 1891 describes the ear ornament "representing the cobra with extended hood". They are worn by all communities except Brahmin. Old women in southern districts of Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala can still be seen with the large earrings in extremely distended lobes. (fig. 26, above) After 1940, the fashion of pambadam subsided in many regions. Before, it was a mandatory custom to wear them. They were given by parents to daughters before marriage as a display of wealth and prestige and probably also to ensure fertility, though this explanation is denied by present day women. Each woman knows exactly the gold weight of her pambadam: at least 16 g. Pambadam are not hereditary and are sold or melted at the demise of the owner.
Nowadays, the tendency towards "modernisation" cannot be overlooked. Daughters ask their mothers to refrain from wearing pambadam, for which distended earlobes are required. Mothers often accordingly sell their earrings and have their distended lobes cut and stitched together for a small hole that can hold a fancy stud only.
In Sankarankovil, a small place in South India, pambadam are still regularly made and it is possible to watch the process. (fig. 27, left) To have them ready in time, the goldsmith prepares the different elements in advance. Pleated gold foil is moulded in a die for the balls; all flat pieces are cut freehand from sheet. Even the screws are self-made by twisting wire around a peg. The balls (the "eggs" of the snake) are filled with melting wax through a small opening. Bee's wax with some chemical additives is used to make long coiled-up threads for the filling. Finally, all single parts are assembled and soldered. The demand for pambadam that appear almost like a little cubistic sculpture is reinforced by orders from Europe and America, in a way connecting East and West through the fascination of the mysterious reptiles and their assumed occult powers.
all text & images © Waltraud Ganguly
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Ganguly Waltraud, Earrings, ornamental identity and beauty in India. BR Publishing Corporation, Delhi 2007
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Sadhu Charan Panda, Naga Cult in Orissa. B.R.Publishing Corporation, Delhi 1986
Thurston Edgar, Castes and Tribes of Southern India. 7 vols. First published 1909. Reprint 1993 AES
Thurston Edgar, Ethnographic Notes in Southern India. First published 1906. Reprint 1989 AES
Vogel J. Ph., Indian Serpent-Lore or the Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art. Arthur Probstein London 1926. Reprint AES 1995