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The Legend of the Naga Part 2 – Naga Lore

The Legend of the Naga Part 2 – Naga Lore

In the folklore of Southeast Asia, it is believed that Nagas

are fond of crossing over into the human realm. This is usually done in secret, but they may sometimes be discovered by observant humans. Though they often take on the form of ordinary snakes, these mystical beings usually exhibit some telltale signs. They are unusually large in size and sometimes display strange, prominent features. They are best left to their own devices, as tormenting them often comes with the penalty of calamity, misfortune, and even death.
(Pic credit: Paragorn Dangsombroon/
(Credit: Paragorn Dangsombroon/

Nagas have shared the world with humans since time immemorial. As well as being prominently featured in Buddhist scripture, they are also widespread throughout Asian folklore. Unlike other ghosts, demons, and phantoms, however, Naga are considered to be very much real creatures that we can see, touch, and even interact with.



The Many Faces of the Nagas

In the Thai text known as the Trai Phum Phra Ruang

or alternatively, Traibhumikatha
; or the book about the three realms of existence (human, heavenly and underworld realms), it is said that the Naga are capable of taking on a human form; either as a single individual or as multiple individuals across several locations all at once. They are also able to transform into a vast number of animals.


Although Nagas are often capable of shapeshifting at will, their skill at doing so is dependent upon the circumstances of their birth, and the deeds they have accumulated in a past life.

It is believed that the Naga who was born of Oppatika

(spontaneous birth) may transform both on land and in water.


Nagas born of Sangsetcha

(born or arisen from moisture) which originated in the tunnels of the earth, can transform themselves only while in there. Outside of these subterranean caverns, they remain trapped in serpent form.


Nagas born of Chalapucha

(born from the womb) and 7.Anthatcha (born from eggs) however, may only remain in their serpent form, as they have not accumulated enough merit.


(Note: Refer to Part 1 for a primer on the 4 types of Naga birth.)

Nagas who have accumulated substantial merit and power may gain the ability to transform into humans during their lifetime. There are, however, specific circumstances where they will revert to their serpent form.

There are five situations in which a Naga will have to remain in, to revert to, their serpent form:

  1. At the point of their birth. This is because the body must be shaped in serpent form, according to their class or family.
  2. While molting. Just like with any regular snake, Nagas need to molt as they grow bigger. To do this, they have to revert to their serpent form.
  3. While mating. When their minds are focused on carnality, they become consumed by lust. Unable to muster the concentration they need to remain in their other forms, they revert to their serpentine selves.
    Nagas in copulation (Credit: By Worawut/
    Nagas in copulation (Credit: By Worawut/
  4. When asleep, Nagas are unable to maintain the focus they need to stay in human form, and they immediately reveal themselves to anyone looking.
  5. Upon death. When their karmic life force burns out, their bodies return to their original state as they no longer possess the consciousness required to transform.

When Nagas die, they curl and sprawl into the shape of a Banlang Nak

, or Naga Throne. Their bodies then turn to stone, slowly crumbling into dust. Naga remains are often discovered in underground caverns or under large rivers. A Naga of noble standing, however, is known to disappear almost immediately.


Banlang Nak (Pic credit: Thai vector studio/
Banlang Nak (Credit: Thai vector studio/


The Nagas are also known for their extremely powerful poisons, with up to 64 known types being described. These poisons are stored within their bodies, with the reservoir being shifted every 15 days. If the Naga do not expel these poisons, they risk slowly killing themselves as well. To mitigate this, they keep their mouths open while in motion, allowing the poison to be expelled while they are on the move. This is the reason most Naga statues are depicted with open mouths.


Nagas as Treasure Hoarders

In Buddhism, Naga are often described as the guardians of valuable treasure. They seem to have a particular affinity for relics of the Buddha. In some instances, they are even known to act as guardians of specific teachings of the Buddha, which they are tasked with spreading at the right moments. One such example is the Prajnaparamita Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism.

In this respect, Naga are venerated as guardians of the Sangha and caretakers of Buddhist teachings. They also hold the position of being its propagators and devotees as well as avid hoarders of treasure, such as gold, jewels and relics of the Buddha.


Legend of the Buddha’s Bowl

When Siddhartha Gautama

left his palace on his quest for enlightenment, he spent 6 years practicing severe austerity. After 6 years of self-torture, he realized that such self-immolation would still not destroy the deep-rooted mental fetters that plagued sentient beings.


He recalled an incident from childhood, where, after witnessing a bird carrying a worm that had been turned up by his father’s plough, he slipped into a deep state of meditation with ease, his mind staying alert and supple enough to recognize the truth of interdependence.

This incident inspired his concept of the ‘Middle Path’.

He accepted milk rice offered to him by a lady named Sujātā

. Legend has it that Sakka (the King of the deities) and the 4 Heavenly Kings were present to watch over the stove that prepared this nourishing meal, and that it was offered to him in a golden bowl.


Painting of Sujātā offering milk rice
Painting of Sujātā offering milk rice


After partaking in the offering, Siddhartha set the bowl afloat on the Neranjara River. He declared that if he should attain enlightenment, then the bowl would defy the current and float upstream. The bowl floated to the middle of the river (symbolizing the middle path he had taken; the extreme of indulgence in sensual pleasures on the one hand and severe asceticism on the other) and went upstream (symbolizing going against the stream of human consciousness which is steeped in greed, ill-will and delusion).

The bowl then sank into the domain of the Naga king Kala

, where it came to rest amongst the bowls of the 3 previous Buddhas (our current aeon is said to host 5 Buddhas, and Siddhartha Gautama was the 4th). (Note: there are several versions concerning the legend of the Buddha’s bowl.)


The Naga King and The Buddha’s Relics

A legend from Sri Lanka surrounds the enshrinement of the hair relics from the Buddha.

In the version of the scriptures, the 2 brothers Tapussa

and Bhallika
came into possession of hair relics of the Buddha while on their business travels to India. They requested these from The Buddha himself, who offered 8 hair tuffs as a gift. (These hair tuffs are enshrined in Botahtaung, Sule and Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar today.)


Buddha’s hair relics from Manelwatta temple in Sri Lanka (Picture credit: pattayamail)
Buddha’s hair relics from Manelwatta temple in Sri Lanka (Credit: pattayamail)


In Sri Lanka, a lengthier version of the story told as the Datuvamsa

, exists. In this account, Tapussa and Bhallika were set upon by the Naga king Jayasena
during their journey home. The Naga king stole some of these relics and brought them to his palace at the bottom of the sea to be worshipped.


Centuries later, King Kakavanna Tissa

of Sri Lanka came into possession of the forehead bone relic of the Buddha. The forehead bone relic had originally been acquired by the Mallas (an ancient Indian republic that constituted one of the sixteen great kingdoms of ancient India) at the time of Buddha’s parinibbana, and later acquired by Mahakassapa
(one of Buddha’s disciple) and then passed on from elder to elder within different monasteries in India.


Eventually, it found its way to Southern Sri Lanka, known as Rohana at that time, and was passed down through the royal lineage until reaching King Kakavanna.

The King wished to end this cycle of inheritance, and thus decided to enshrine the relics within a stupa. He had heard about the legend of the Buddha’s hair in the palace of the Naga king below the sea. He sought to enshrine the Buddha’s hair alongside the forehead bone.

Tissamaharama Dagoba in Sri Lanka, thought to house the forehead bone of the Buddha
Tissamaharama Dagoba in Sri Lanka, thought to house the forehead bone of the Buddha


Turning to the monks, he sought someone with the supernatural prowess to retrieve the relics from the Naga realm. A monk by the name of Siva stepped forward.

The Naga king Jayasena got wind of what was headed his way, and in an act of panic, swallowed the casket containing the Buddha hair relics in an attempt to stop it from being taken.

The monk Siva however, was not to be deterred. Using his immense supernatural powers, he stretched his hands and reached into the Naga’s gut and ripped the casket out with ease, presenting it to King Kakavanna.

The forehead bone relic is presently believed to be housed in Tissamaharama Dagoba

in Sri Lanka. (Note: There is a rather similar tale involving different characters namely Sonuttara
, the monk with supernatural abilities and Mahakala
, the Naga King.)


In Part 3 and 4 of the Naga series, we will explore the physical evidence for Nagas, and some sites famously attributed to them.


Credits to:

  • Relics of The Buddha, John S. Strong, Page 67 to 70, 81
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