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.
 

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 The Samwon Paper Gallery is a paper & printing resource centre and a cultural art space that hosts international exhibitions and lectures on topics related to the design industry.

The Samwon Paper Gallery is a paper & printing resource centre and a cultural art space that hosts international exhibitions and lectures on topics related to the design industry.


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.

 Korean translation courtesy of Sanwon Gallery; The concept was expanded from an original work by Sumet Jumsai in his book,  Naga–Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific

Korean translation courtesy of Sanwon Gallery; The concept was expanded from an original work by Sumet Jumsai in his book, Naga–Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific


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.

 Rice fields in northern Malaysia. Deadly cobras are commonly found in rice-fields where they hunt for rats but rarely attack farmers. Photo: Penang, Malaysia

Rice fields in northern Malaysia. Deadly cobras are commonly found in rice-fields where they hunt for rats but rarely attack farmers.
Photo: Penang, Malaysia


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.

 A Wayang Golok puppet. Puppets give visual form to the mythical forefathers of Javanese rulers who trace their ancestry to Hindu gods.  Photo: Jakarta, Indonesia

A Wayang Golok puppet. Puppets give visual form to the mythical forefathers of Javanese rulers who trace their ancestry to Hindu gods. 
Photo: Jakarta, Indonesia

 Linga-yoni in a family temple. The linga, according to the Skanda Purana (a Hindu religious text), symbolises the substance of the universe in the process of formation and dissolution.  Photo: Ghanerao, India

Linga-yoni in a family temple. The linga, according to the Skanda Purana (a Hindu religious text), symbolises the substance of the universe in the process of formation and dissolution. 
Photo: Ghanerao, India

 

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.

 Stone cobras at Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan), Vientiane. Live cobras grow up to eighteen feet long and is the world's largest poisonous snake. Death can come to a human within twenty minutes once bitten. Yet cobras have been raised to the status of life-giving gods, powerful symbols whose phallic shape and periodic shedding of the skin symbolise fertility, the seasonal rebirth of nature, and immortality. Photo: Vientiane, Laos

Stone cobras at Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan), Vientiane. Live cobras grow up to eighteen feet long and is the world's largest poisonous snake. Death can come to a human within twenty minutes once bitten. Yet cobras have been raised to the status of life-giving gods, powerful symbols whose phallic shape and periodic shedding of the skin symbolise fertility, the seasonal rebirth of nature, and immortality.
Photo: Vientiane, Laos

 James McCarthy, the 19th Century English explorer, recounts the story of a mythical river-serpent of the Mekong River: “It is 53 ft long and 20 ins thick. When a man is drowned it snaps off the tuft of hair on the head, extracts the teeth, and sucks the blood; and when a body is found thus disfigured, it is known that the man has fallen victim to the  nguak , or river serpent, at Luang Prabang.” Photo: Vientiane, Laos

James McCarthy, the 19th Century English explorer, recounts the story of a mythical river-serpent of the Mekong River: “It is 53 ft long and 20 ins thick. When a man is drowned it snaps off the tuft of hair on the head, extracts the teeth, and sucks the blood; and when a body is found thus disfigured, it is known that the man has fallen victim to the nguak, or river serpent, at Luang Prabang.”
Photo: Vientiane, Laos


Naga_Hindu/Buddhist Beliefs

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.

 St. George slaying the dragon. In Christianity, the serpent is often associated with the Devil, and the religion promoted the symbolism of saviour-versus-serpent. (Welsh folklore contains some notable exceptions to this view). Photo: Prague, Czech Republic

St. George slaying the dragon. In Christianity, the serpent is often associated with the Devil, and the religion promoted the symbolism of saviour-versus-serpent. (Welsh folklore contains some notable exceptions to this view).
Photo: Prague, Czech Republic

 Devotees purchase small squares of gold leaf as donations to the temple and rub the gold against the statue of Buddha, protected by the seven heads of the naga.  Photo: Bangkok, Thailand

Devotees purchase small squares of gold leaf as donations to the temple and rub the gold against the statue of Buddha, protected by the seven heads of the naga. 
Photo: Bangkok, Thailand

 Whether it's Hindu or Buddhist, nagas are found on lintels, form balustrades, and featured above every entry in ancient temples throughout Thailand and Cambodia.  Photo: Sukhothai, Thailand

Whether it's Hindu or Buddhist, nagas are found on lintels, form balustrades, and featured above every entry in ancient temples throughout Thailand and Cambodia. 
Photo: Sukhothai, Thailand


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.

 Garuda is famed for his supernatural powers, invulnerability (posseses mystic power against the effects of poison), and creative energy. Photo: Rajasthan, India

Garuda is famed for his supernatural powers, invulnerability (posseses mystic power against the effects of poison), and creative energy.
Photo: Rajasthan, India

 Vishnu the Preserver, the best loved of all the Hindu gods, mounts Garuda. This is a common motif on the gables of Thai and Cambodian Buddhist monasteries. Photo: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Vishnu the Preserver, the best loved of all the Hindu gods, mounts Garuda. This is a common motif on the gables of Thai and Cambodian Buddhist monasteries.
Photo: Siem Reap, Cambodia

 Bangkok's Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most revered shrine in Thailand, is kept “afloat” by a ring of golden garudas grasping nagas in their claws. Photo: Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok's Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most revered shrine in Thailand, is kept “afloat” by a ring of golden garudas grasping nagas in their claws.
Photo: Bangkok, Thailand

 The roofs of  wat  (temples) in Laos are often decorated with nagas symbolising the water flowing down from Mount Meru. In Thailand, this architectural detail (cho fa) can also feature a highly stylised garuda, the naga’s immortal enemy. Photo: Vientiane, Laos

The roofs of wat (temples) in Laos are often decorated with nagas symbolising the water flowing down from Mount Meru. In Thailand, this architectural detail (cho fa) can also feature a highly stylised garuda, the naga’s immortal enemy.
Photo: Vientiane, Laos


Naga in Daily Life

 A vendor selling milk ice-cream. The text reads ‘Blue Throat. Milk ice-cream depot; cashew pistacio, filled with almonds; 2, 3, 5, 7 rupees.’ “Blue Throat” is another name for Lord Shiva who turned blue because he consumed lethal poison, symbolised by the naga around his neck, to save the world. Photo: Ajmer, India

A vendor selling milk ice-cream. The text reads ‘Blue Throat. Milk ice-cream depot; cashew pistacio, filled with almonds; 2, 3, 5, 7 rupees.’
“Blue Throat” is another name for Lord Shiva who turned blue because he consumed lethal poison, symbolised by the naga around his neck, to save the world.
Photo: Ajmer, India

 A snake, an elephant (Ganesh) and Chinese food—quite an unappetising combination for outsiders—but food blessed with two prosperity symbols for those in the know.   The icon of a snake for this Chinese restaurant is not indicative of its menu, but is a symbol for business prosperity. ‘Ganesh’ refers to the elephant-headed Hindu deity of Wisdom and Remover of Obstacles. Photo: Mumbai, India

A snake, an elephant (Ganesh) and Chinese food—quite an unappetising combination for outsiders—but food blessed with two prosperity symbols for those in the know. 

The icon of a snake for this Chinese restaurant is not indicative of its menu, but is a symbol for business prosperity. ‘Ganesh’ refers to the elephant-headed Hindu deity of Wisdom and Remover of Obstacles.
Photo: Mumbai, India

 A tea stall in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Shiva’s three aspects—as the god of truth, creative energy, and darkness (as destroyer)—makes him a prominent figure in popular art, and his imagery pervades everyday life, thereby connecting earth life to a mythical one. Photo: Delhi, India

A tea stall in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Shiva’s three aspects—as the god of truth, creative energy, and darkness (as destroyer)—makes him a prominent figure in popular art, and his imagery pervades everyday life, thereby connecting earth life to a mythical one.
Photo: Delhi, India


NAGA MANIFESTATIONS

 The cobra is considered a manifestation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and creation. In the ancient religions of Indo-China, human sacrifice was essential to appease the Phi (Spirits) to ensure a good harvest and to guarantee the welfare of the community. Shiva fitted perfectly into this traditional pattern. Photo: Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia

The cobra is considered a manifestation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and creation. In the ancient religions of Indo-China, human sacrifice was essential to appease the Phi (Spirits) to ensure a good harvest and to guarantee the welfare of the community. Shiva fitted perfectly into this traditional pattern.
Photo: Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia

 The  gunungan  (Tree of Life) is an intricately carved tree or leaf-shaped puppet that serves to open and close all shadow puppet performances. Symbolically, it represents the created world—with images of monkeys, birds, snakes, even insects—in which human beings live. The Maha Makara (a sea monster with scales with the trunk of an elephant) represents the presence of evil spirits; or on a microcosmic plane, the many negative emotions and desires that reside in the human heart. Photo: Kelantan, Malaysia

The gunungan (Tree of Life) is an intricately carved tree or leaf-shaped puppet that serves to open and close all shadow puppet performances. Symbolically, it represents the created world—with images of monkeys, birds, snakes, even insects—in which human beings live. The Maha Makara (a sea monster with scales with the trunk of an elephant) represents the presence of evil spirits; or on a microcosmic plane, the many negative emotions and desires that reside in the human heart.
Photo: Kelantan, Malaysia

 Animals of the earth (nagas, elephants, dogs, etc) made of flour provide protection for blessing or healing rituals that invoke the spirits. Animals are intermediaries between the human-world and heaven, and are able to see and understand things, transcendental and subliminal, that humans cannot. The flour animal figures are floated away in a river after the ceremony. Photo: Kelantan, Malaysia

Animals of the earth (nagas, elephants, dogs, etc) made of flour provide protection for blessing or healing rituals that invoke the spirits. Animals are intermediaries between the human-world and heaven, and are able to see and understand things, transcendental and subliminal, that humans cannot. The flour animal figures are floated away in a river after the ceremony.
Photo: Kelantan, Malaysia

 In Bali, every man-microcosm is attended to by two nagas representing the physical needs of mortal man—safety, food, clothing and shelter—which are no longer needed after death. At the cremation ceremony, these nagas are symbolically killed by a flower-tipped arrow to symbolise the release of the spirit from its earthly physical needs and from its sins. Photo: Bali, Indonesia

In Bali, every man-microcosm is attended to by two nagas representing the physical needs of mortal man—safety, food, clothing and shelter—which are no longer needed after death. At the cremation ceremony, these nagas are symbolically killed by a flower-tipped arrow to symbolise the release of the spirit from its earthly physical needs and from its sins.
Photo: Bali, Indonesia

 A weathered advertising sign in Bangkok (without the text), possibly for a herbal medicine shop. Photo: Bangkok, Thailand

A weathered advertising sign in Bangkok (without the text), possibly for a herbal medicine shop.
Photo: Bangkok, Thailand

 As one travels northward through Laos towards China, the snake-form of Southeast Asia seems to transmute (‘grows legs’) into the dragon-form of North Asia. The mid-way point is where the beliefs of the community change, having been influenced either by Southeast Asia/India or China. Photo: Vientiane, Laos

As one travels northward through Laos towards China, the snake-form of Southeast Asia seems to transmute (‘grows legs’) into the dragon-form of North Asia. The mid-way point is where the beliefs of the community change, having been influenced either by Southeast Asia/India or China.
Photo: Vientiane, Laos

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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:

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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.

 
 
 

LINKS