It is not only in temples that you will see wood carvings depicting serpent figures; you may well see them even in some hotels in Nepal with a heritage bent. The reason serpents are so visible everywhere is because they play a big part in Kathmandu Valley’s culture.
There’s this eternally mystifying myth about the valley’s origin. Once upon a time, a long time ago, the valley was said to be an enormous lake called Nagdaha (naag: snake deity, daha: lake). As the name signifies, it was inhabited by a large number of serpents. Now, the valley was well protected on all sides by huge mountains, and the weather was lovely. In other words, if only the lake could be drained out, it would be a fine place to live in; agriculture could thrive. So it was no surprise that some enterprising folk got together to do so. Their endeavor was not taken well by the nagas, who were roused from their slumber. As a matter of fact, they were really angry. Since they had power over the rains, they decided to punish the intruding humans by creating a state of severe drought—no rain whatsoever for years.
The frightened humans didn’t know what to do; how to pacify the furious nagas? They were at a total loss, until one fine day, a king came into the valley; a king with great tantric powers. He immediately called upon his powers and succeeded in compelling the nagas to allow the rains to come down again. But, tantric that he was, he also acknowledged the terrible powers of the nagas and understood only too well that they had to be kept appeased. They had to be given the respect they were due. So he proclaimed that, henceforth, the fifth day of Shrawan (July/August) would be celebrated as Naag Panchami in their honor, a day in which they would be worshipped by humans. The king also realized that suitable sites would have to be provided where the nagas could live safely. Thus, certain specific lakes in Kathmandu Valley were decreed to be safe refuge for the nagas. The lakes so chosen were Taudaha in Kathmandu and Nagadaha in Lalitpur.
Taudaha is a large lake in Chobar, some six kilometers from Kathmandu, to the southwest. Aside from its cultural significance, it is also a refuge for many wetland birds, it being the only remaining natural lake in Kathmandu Valley. People come here during Naag Panchami (August 1 this year) to pay homage to Karkotak Naag, the king of the nagas. There’s a lot of flora and fauna around the lake as well. Nagadaha is located in Dhapakhel of Lalitpur district. It is a large natural pond (about five hectares). Aside from these two, there is a man-made pond to the east of the former royal palace that is small in size. It has a totem pole in its center with a naga on top. Like the bigger sites, this too is where devotees flock to during Naag Panchami. On this day, you’ll see most houses in the valley with a colorful picture of a naag pasted with cow dung over, or beside, their main door. You’ll also see Lord Krishna featuring prominently in some of the pictures. That’s because there’s another prevalent myth about Naag Panchami in the Hindu religion. It is said to be a day to celebrate the victory of Lord Krishna’s victory over Kaliya, an evil and gigantic serpent.
Another festival with serpentine connotations in Kathmandu Valley is the Rato Matsyendranath Jatra, which is celebrated every year for month (May/June). It is a festival participated in by thousands of Patan-dwellers who haul a giant chariot containing an image of Lord Matsyendranath through the lane of the city, with various sites designated as resting spots for a certain period of time. The origins of this colorful (and vigorous) festival are as mystical as that of any other festival. Here’s how the myth goes: many centuries ago, there was a great sage called Goraknath who dwelled in a cave in Gorkha. Once, he happened to come to Patan, and as is the norm for ascetics, went door-to-door seeking alms. Now, the locals were not exactly that generous lot, and in fact, the sage was subjected to some disrespect as well. In his righteous anger, he decided to bring about a drought as never seen before by the valley denizens. With this objective in mind, he promptly sat down on the heads of the nine rain-bringing nagas. Then, he started meditating, and in doing so, slipped into a trance that lasted days on end. The rains stopped pouring down because the nagas were immobilized.
The people begged him to break his trance and get down from the nagas’ heads. Desperation prevailed, since the mighty sage remained unmoved. Now, luckily, there were a couple of cunning fellows around, and they devised a clever plan of action. They traveled all the way to Assam in India, where resided Goraknath’s teacher (guru), Matsyendranath. He was brought to Kathmandu posthaste. On realizing that his guru had come to see him, Gorakhnath promptly stood up in respect, and his trance was broken. The nagas were thus liberated and free once more to do what they did best, that is, to make the rains come pouring down on the valley. With so much depending on the nagas, it is, therefore, no wonder that the people of Kathmandu Valley hold so much respect for them. And, no wonder that you may see more than just a couple of serpent figures in the wood carvings around hotels in Nepal.