‘Naga’ is the Hindi word for snake. As the name suggests, snakes are venerated and worshiped at this festival. Snakes are sacred in the Hindu mythology as it is believed that the Earth itself rests on one of the heads of ‘Shesha’, the thousand-hooded cobra.
On this day, people observe fasts and conduct pujas for the good health and advancement of the family and also make offerings consisting of milk and sweetmeats to the snakes. Naga Panchami falls in the month of Shravan, which corresponds to July/August on the Roman calendar.
This being an ancient festival, there are various legends that are used to account for its origins and history. One such speaks of Lord Krishna’s victory over the snake Kaliya. Another speaks of the great yagna conducted by Janamejeya of the Mahabharata epic, to avenge the death of his father, wherein he tried to kill the entire race of snakes. Janamejeya was placated by Astika, son of the Goddess Manasadevi and spared the snakes who reformed, becoming helpful and keeping rodents and other vermin away from the crops.
Additionally, snakes are also sacred to Gods like Shiva and Vishnu, with Shiva often being portrayed with a snake around his neck like a garland.
Nag Panchami falls on the fifth day of the moonlit fortnight of the Shravan month of the Hindu calendar. On this day people, especially women, observe fasts for the good health and prosperity of the family. People gather in snake temples and Shiva temples to worship the snakes and offer them milk.
In villages, people pour milk into the holes in the ground around their houses in the hope that the snakes will drink it. They also place saucers of milk close to the holes. Sweets like kheer and coconut barfi are prepared.
Since it is not always possible to have a real snake to worship, very often snake idols of stone or mud are worshiped instead. The idol must first be purified with a sacred bath before offering sweets, milk and flowers. After this a mantra is recited which roughly translates to ‘Let all be blessed by the snake goddess, let everyone obtain peace. Let all live peacefully without any turbulence.’ This unusual and unique festival is celebrated all over India. In Goa, one may visit the temples to observe or participate in this feast.