‘Nagamandala’ An Exotic Tradition on the Wane
Organiser   30-Jan-2019
Nagamandala symbolizes a unique and sacred form of ‘snake worship’ prevalent in the coastal regions of Karnataka. Believed to remove curses, the ritual is dwindling rapidly. One more sign of several Hindu customs and rituals perishing
A friend of mine from Bramhavara in costal Karnataka invited me to attend a celebration called Nagamandala. I was not very keen to attend it as I thought it would be the usual installation of stone carved snake under a pipal tree. But she insisted on me joining her while threatening mildly that I mayn’t get another chance in my dear life as such celebrations are dwindling gradually.

Hindus worshiping Naga, the snake, is prevalent since time immemorial. But the way snakes are worshipped in Tulu Nadu of costal Karnataka, popularly known as Nagamandala, is unique and rare to be seen in other parts of India. Though the celebration follows certain Vedic traditions, it is completely unique by its concept and performance. Otherwise nagas are worshipped as Mahavidya elsewhere in India. Tuluvas celebrate ‘Nagamandala’ to remove the curse inflicted on humans. Elaborate Pooja rituals followed by dance will go on for a few days. Though the head of one family in the village takes vow to perform Pooja, the entire village participate in the celebration either directly or indirectly. As this ritual demands significant amount of money the villagers support the family by donating ‘hore-kaneke’ consisting of rice, vegetables, jaggery, and Singara the areca flowers.
Preparation for Pooja – the karthru (performer) who is believed to be inflicted by the curse (dosha) takes vow to the Naga God, has to call for “Arudha prashna” and “pithru pretha”. The scholar decides the auspicious dates for mandala. Generally it will be performed on Ashlesha nakshtra. Then the Gramadevatha (village deity) has to give her final nod to go about it. Performer has to adhere to the strict rules laid down. Among which non-vegetarian foods and liquor are forbidden for a specific period of time prior to the start of Pooja.
Rituals to accommodate large gathering a huge pandal will be erected in the open area of the village. Mandala, the sacred place, is created by drawing serpents using turmeric and vermilion (kumkum). The beautifully drawn mandala looks like rangoli can be drawn only by a few as per the shastras (rules). Mandala becomes the centre of the nagamandala. All the rituals go round the mandala. On the auspicious day the elaborate celebration starts with praying to the presiding deities like Bramha, Kshetrapala, and the Bootha (some consider this as pitru) followed by vedic way of Chandika homa, and Ashlesha bali. Ashlesha bali , the most important part of the ritual, is performed to remove the curse inflicted on the performer (karthru). Though the word bali (sacrifice) sounds eerie there is no animal sacrifice nor blood is used in pooja performance. To propitiate the snakes to remove the curse lime is used as bali. Lime is cut in to halves and vermilion is filled in each halves kept in an order in the middle of the mandala as per the ritualistic rules. At every step the ritual follows strict rules otherwise believed that Nagas get angry and curse will not be freed.
Due to the huge amount of cost and the prolonged rituals the celebration of Nagamandala is slowly perishing. Nagabanas are vanishing in villages due to real estate mafia and government’s apathy towards restoring ancient culture however useful they are 
The appeasement of snake does not end here. After all the vedic rituals, an interesting and unique dance performed only in coastal areas of Karnataka will go on through the night. It is called ‘naga dance’ and it will be performed around the mandala drawn. Dance will be performed by two male dancers are called nagapatri. The main priest called Patri, a Brahmin, will assume male naga role and the other performer will assume the female naga role. The Patri gets intoxicated by the very fragrance of areca flowers. The parti in trance gyrates around the mandala while lashing out his tongue like a snake to attract the female snake nagini. It is in fact a feast to the eyes to watch the female snake following in the steps of the male snake. Sometimes an entire village including people from outside their village will gather to watch this dance.
The nagamandala employs music, dance, and chanting of vedic mantras. At the end of the ritual, meals served to all. The pooja culminates on the last day with immersion of deity called prethe visarjane. Apart from Nagamandala ritual, the villagers worship snakes in real life too. Even today a small patch of land earmarked for snakes called nagabana (land for snakes) can be seen in most of the villages of this region.
Due to the huge amount of cost and the long rituals, the celebration of Nagamandala is on the decline. But still some who are hell-bent on restoring the ancient practices are performing here and there in Tulunadu. Nagabanas are vanishing in villages due to real estate mafia and government’s apathy towards restoring ancient culture however useful or exotic they may be. Hindus are known for worshiping Nature. In fact, it is a boon to the mankind. Nagabanas are considered very sacred and nobody is allowed to go inside even cattle are not allowed to graze in this land. An account of this practice a patch of land is kept virgin and varieties of fauna and flora of native origin will thrive well. This virgin land in each village answers the man and the animal conflict which the modern society is facing today. Hence such practices should be encouraged by modern society to follow the ‘live and let live’ policy.
(The writer is a traveller and a regular contributor to various magazines)