Project / Naga–The Serpent Spirit of Southeast Asia
Task / Research & Photo Documentation
Client / (William Harald-Wong—a self-initiated project)
Exhibitions / Samwon Paper Gallery, Seoul, South Korea / Fusion Art Institute, Shizuoka, Japan
Year / South Korea 2004, Japan 2008
All photographs by William Harald-Wong
Naga, a sanskrit word for serpent, refers to both living cobras as well as mythical ones. In ancient Buddhist texts, it may also mean an elephant (probably because of its snake-like trunk) or a mysterious person of nobility.
Naga is a personal project piqued by my curiosity to understand Southeast Asia’s deep connection with the serpent spirit, and its relationship to the Chinese dragon.
I am very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to make many trips across Asia, either as an invited speaker, a judge for design competitions, on business, or a long-delayed vacation. Whatever the occasion, I’ll try to sneak out between social engagements to do a bit of photography.
Having to manage and lead a design company full time, I do not have the luxury of weeks on end to focus solely on this project. Hence, the collection of images that was exhibited in Seoul was pieced together over a period of six years, covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India, France and the Czech Republic—the two European countries provided me with their viewpoints on dragons and serpents.
I have excerpted some text and images from the Seoul exhibition here. The full text can be downloaded at the end of this web page.
Naga—The WATER SYMBOL of Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia, with its many rivers, islands and long coastal stretches, gave rise to several 'water civilisations'—civilisations that flourished because of its location near a prominent water body. Almost every ethnic group in Southeast Asia believe that the creation of the world involved water, usually in the form of a flood that followed the cosmic fire.
And as people travel regularly across waters, they also start to observe various water-related phenomena and develop corresponding beliefs. The accumulated experience in the region with the sea alternating with the land could have led to the formulation (or adaptation) of the Hindu-Buddhist Cosmological Model, which has alternate rings of oceans and continents with the sacred Mount Meru in the centre.
The rippling profile of this series of concentric rings of oceans and continents resembles the slithering movement of the naga. It is also believed that the water flowing clockwise* down Mount Meru also represents the naga, as illustrated in murals and illuminated manuscripts.
Because of this, nagas are regarded as guardians of the life energy stored in springs, wells and ponds—the water of the earth that is essential for a bountiful harvest. The naga's role as a symbol of fertility and rebirth of the earth is further reinforced by the fact that the monsoon season is synonymous with the hatching of young cobras in many parts of Asia.
*Observation: I witnessed a traditional Chinese funeral wake in Malacca where the relatives of the deceased walked anti-clockwise around the coffin. I was informed by an elderly man that a clockwise movement represents the evolution of life, and an anti-clockwise movement symbolises the life force being drained away.
Naga—Male and Female; Yin and Yang
As a Male Symbol
The rearing, erect stance and spread hood of the cobra represents the male sex organ to villagers from India to Indonesia.
In Hindu temples, the cobra is considered a manifestation of Shiva, the god of destruction and creation. One finds in these Shiva temples the phallic linga set in the yoni, the female counterpart, often guarded by carved stone cobras.
The linga is comparable to Mount Meru. The waters of life flow down both, and each has a receptacle at the base. In the case of the linga, it is the yoni, the female genitalia, where life takes form. The symbolism here is of fertility, which is both agricultural and human.
Because of this, nagas have been involved in fertility rites since ancient times. During the annual festival of the snakes along India’s Malabar Coast in the 19th century, women encouraged living cobras to penetrate their vagina in a graphic simulation of the union between Shiva and his Energy, Shakti. These were serious religious rites considered essential for human welfare.
As a Female Symbol
Symbols in Asia have ancient roots from many sources, and the same symbol may sometimes have several meanings. This applies to the naga as well.
If the shape, movement, and the fact that snakes live in holes in the ground are considered, then it is obviously a male symbol.
But the snake, living in the earth, may also be regarded as a representative of Mother Earth; and by extension, a female symbol. In addition to that, serpents are often a great source of knowledge for special plants, including sources of medicinal herbs and dyes for weaving; and are therefore closely linked with women and their traditional preoccupations.
The naga as a female symbol is also demonstrated at religious sites. Many temples have nagas as door guardians, often a male naga on one side and a female, complete with breasts, on the other side. These pairs of nagas represent the yin and yang elements, and therefore symbolise the dynamic balance between the two.
When Buddhism came to animist Southeast Asia 2,500 years ago, serpent worship was already well established. In order to win converts, the wise Buddhist missionaries did not try to reject or replace the ancient snake cults, but weaved the nagas into the stories of the Buddha instead.
It was easy to link the Buddha with the nagas since the serpent is not perceived as evil (unlike in Christianity, where the serpent is associated with the Devil). All of nature’s creatures rejoice upon the appearance of the Buddha; and the serpent, as the guardian of the life-giving waters of the earth, is equally eager to serve and protect the Buddha.
The image of the seated Buddha protected by a powerful serpent with seven hoods is an archetypal image in Southeast Asian temple art. One finds a similar image in Hindu mythology whereby a naga guards the sleeping Hindu god Vishnu, thereby linking Hindu deities directly with Buddhism. This relationship explains why ancient Hindu temples in Thailand and Cambodia were easily converted to Buddhist temples.
Naga and Garuda—Symbolical Antagonists
The Hindu deity Garuda is a giant golden bird, representing the heavens—the home of the stars, the sun, the moon, the gods, and the birds. He is the opposite of the earthbound nagas.
Garuda and Naga are an archetypical pair of symbolic antagonists: respectively, the champions of heaven and earth, day and night, open and closed, male and female.
The hot tropical sun of Garuda evaporates the earthy waters of Naga, but both Garuda’s light and warmth as well as Naga's soil and water are essential for growing crops. Many Southeast Asian (Hindu) gods have a dual nature—they create as well as destroy.
Naga in Daily Life
ANCIENT THOUGHTS FOR MODERN PRACTICE
Several of my posters have been inspired by the naga, from theatre to the Beijing Olympics.
I have often been asked the relevance of myths in today’s world. I believe it is about imagination—mythology is a fountain with an unending flow of exuberant ideas that inspires creativity. The enigmatic Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul which won the 2010 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or—explores a similar thought: the blending of myth and the supernatural with the everyday, the ordinary.
Add to that, an article by Fast Company, “How a Degree in Scandinavian Mythology can Land You a Job at one of the Biggest Tech Companies”.
The relevance of mythology in contemporary society is best summed up by M.L. West:
For the full article (in English and Korean), published in Asia Design Journal by the Korean Design Research Institute, please click on the image below.