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naga (नाग, နာဂ)

Sanskrit-Hindi and Burmese. A mythical serpent with characteristics of a cobra, usually represented with multiple heads (fig.) and sometimes in human form, semi-human form (fig.) or as a snake with human heads (fig.). It is the guardian of the Buddha and protector of the earthly waters (fig.). It is the symbol of fertility, steadfastness, wealth and abundance, and according to legend the ancestor of the Khmer race. Being associated with water it actually dwells in three realms: beneath the earth where it guards minerals and gems, in bodies of still and flowing water, and in the skies where it creates the rains. In Isaan, legend has it that Phraya Thaen, the angel of the waters, ordered nagas to play in Anohdaad lake, a place in Himaphan, so that water spilled down to the human earth as rain, the primary natural source of  water. At the end of the dry season, people in Isaan will launch self-made rockets into the sky (fig.), in order to wake up the naga's and send down the rains needed for nourishing their crops. In Nong Khai, i.e. Thailand's Naga City (map - fig.), the annual phenomenon of bangfai phayanaag takes place on the Mekong river, in which soundless fireballs, told to come from the naga, shoot up from the river (fig.). In art naga is often represented in battle with the Garuda, the natural enemy of the snakes. According to Buddhist folklore, the naga had great reverence and admiration for the Buddha and yearned to be one of his disciples. However, serpents are deemed to be lowly beasts forbidden from being ordained into the monkhood and barred from entering temples. Hence the naga resorted to magical powers, transforming itself into human form, in order to mingle amongst the disciples, undetected. One day, while listening to sermons, the naga fell asleep. The spell cast was broken and the true form of the naga was revealed. The Buddha asked the naga why it had disguised itself and the naga answered that it wished to be in his presence and serve as a disciple. Having heard the naga's explanation, the Buddha told the naga that while it was not possible for the naga to be ordained, it could guard the temple and temple doors. From that time onwards candidate Buddhist monks are called naag and the naga can be seen coiled around the outer walls of temples and slithering on roof edges and stair handrails of temple buildings, sometimes emerging from the mouth of a makara (fig.), a representation known as nagamakara (fig.). Besides this snake-like patterns are commonly seen in Buddhist temples, reminding the visitor of the naga, e.g. the snake-like pattern of the temple roofs, offers such as pineapples, etc. It is even said that one reason for monks and novices to shave their heads bald is to resemble the features of a naga. Another legend tells that phayanaag, the chief of the nagas, drank all the water of the world to provide his son-in-law with land. Angered by his impertinence Vishnu ordered the devas to tie him to Mount Meru and squeeze him until he expelled all the water he had consumed (fig.). The water he regurgitated is regarded to be amarit. In Myanmar, there exist a mythological creature that looks like a legged naga (fig.) and which is locally referred to as nagah (nagā - fig.), rather than naga. Whereas many Thai temples honour the naga with statues, Wat Pah Khlong 11 in Pathum Thani (fig.), is nearly entirely dedicated to this mythical snake (fig.). In Pali, the naga is known as phuchong, as in Reua Phra Thihnang Anek Chaht Phuchong. Since the naga is the protector of the earthly waters, this mythological serpent is in Thai iconography often depicted in the seven colours of the rainbow (fig.), a feature associated with water, of which the naga is the protector, and simultaneously representing the seven races of nagas that exist, of which each has a different overall skin colour. They also often feature on bridges called naga-bridges (fig.) or Saphaan Naak, from the Khmer term Spean Neak (fig.), thus symbolizing a safe passage over water guarded by a naga on each side of the bridge. Nagas are also associated with caves and as such Thailand features both natural naga-caves, such as Tham Din Phiang in Nong Khai (fig.), and artificial ones, such as that of Wat  Maniwong in Nakhon Nayok (fig.). See also Naag Manop (fig.), nagaraat, phet phayanaag (fig.), Kambuja, Phra Upakhut and Kaliya, as well as THEMATIC STREET LIGHT (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), (8), (9) and (10)