SarpaResha - a graceful dedication to snakes, the threshold deities of Indian civilisation



Sarpa Resha or serpentine lines in Indian floor art are hypnotic, zigzag lines dedicated to the Sarpa or Naga, often used interchangeably for the snake - a deity whose significance in Indian thought is nothing short of immense.


According to a Rigveda hymn, the earth is addressed as sarpa-rajni, i.e. the queen of serpents. In Hinduism, Naga is associated with Vishnu and his incarnations, Shiva and Ganapati and is therefore an auspicious symbol. In Jainism it is associated with Jina Parshvanath, who has a serpent hood. In Buddhism, the Naga are often protectors of Buddha and dharma.


The association of snake with rains is not too hard to see - its sensuous, winding wave-like movement is very water-like. Thus, it is not surprising to find snakes shrines and votive slabs worshipped near rivers, ponds and lakes. They, as controllers of water, are both water-confining and water-bestowing.

As impregnating Mother Earth, they are popularly associated with Mother Goddesses and considered to be bestowers of progeny. prominence to the erotic dimension of this very function, so evident in the entwined serpent pair motif in sculptural images and rangoli patterns. The mystery of having no children is referred to as ‘sarpa-dosham’.


Apart from the benevolent attributes, the most malevolent aspect of the snake is its association with death – the bite that causes instantaneous death. Their wrath is identified with the wrath of the ancestors.

The polyvalent characteristics of the snake have not only led to its association with cure, life, rebirth and immortality but also with disease, death and destruction. Due to its casting of its skin it symbolizes rejuvenation and as such it is worshipped as a tutelary deity.


The Nagas, having access to the underworld mystical source of life and guarding the unlimited treasures there, are considered threshold deities. Describing the Garbhadana ceremony or the inception ceremony of a Hindu temple, Stella Kramrisch says that – “on an auspicious night, the Garbha vessel, in the form of a casket, is lowered to the prescribed level of the foundation. On its floor the Serpant Ananta, the Endless is drawn. On the hood of Ananta the Garbha-casket has its place. Here the casket represents the earth.


The origin of the word Nagara is related to ‘naga’ as the meaning of Nagara is Universe (Visva). The temple, the Universe in a likeness, is Nagara for it rests on the naga, who supports the Universe and is Shesha, the Remainder.


Iconographical evidence testifies to numerous female snake divinities and serpentine figures, not only in well-known temples but also in forgotten village shrines, as in Buddhist and Jaina art and in Mohenjo-Daro seals. In one of the seals a deity is seen in yogic posture, flanked by adoring worshippers and the towering shapes of upward-coiling snakes.

Nagamudra, resembling the hood of a snake is a hasta-mudra in Indian classical dances. There is also a yogic posture named Sarpasana. Nagas are also endowed with the healing touch, the belief rooted in the medical properties ascribed to its skin. They also operate as donors of prosperity and opulence, grantors of wishes, owners and guardians of valuable treasures. The spectacle marks on the cobra's head are supposed to be a half Swastika.


The polyvalent characteristics of the snake have not only led to its association with cure, life, rebirth and immortality but also with disease, death and destruction. Due to its casting of its skin it symbolizes rejuvenation and as such it is worshipped as a tutelary deity.