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Pandanus is a biannual peer-reviewed international journal publishing original research papers in English on nature symbolism in Literature, Art, Myth and Ritual. It has a regional focus on South Asia but welcomes papers from other regions. The journal is the outcome of the Pandanus project, based at the Institute of South and Central Asian Studies, Seminar of Indian Studies, Philosophical Faculty, Charles University in Prague. Pandanus volumes started coming out in 1998 on an annual basis as a result of co-operation between three Universities ... please click here to read the full text of Pandanus Mission Statement.

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Pandanus ’12: Serpents in Angkor. Apotheosis of a Decorative Motif
Volume 6, No. 2 (2012)
Special Issue
Adalbert J. Gail
Freie Universität Berlin

Editor-in-chief: Jaroslav Vacek
Deputy Editor: Martin Hříbek
Members of the Editorial Board:
Giuliano Boccali (University of Milano, Italy)
Alexander Dubianski (University of Moscow, Russia)
Daniele Feller (University of Lausanne, Switzerland)
Adalbert J. Gail (Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany)
Oldřich Král (Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic)
Dagmar Marková (Oriental Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic)
Cinzia Pieruccini (University of Milano, Italy)
Tiziana Pontillo (University of Cagliari, Italy)
Chettiarthodi Rajendran (University of Calicut, Kerala, India)
Danuta Stasik (University of Warsaw, Poland)
Lidia Sudyka (Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland)
Anna Trynkowska (University of Warsaw, Poland)
Eva Wilden (EFEO, Paris, France)
Gyula Wojtilla (University of Szeged, Hungary)
Reviewed by Prof. Dr. Monika Zin (Ludwig Maximilans Universität, München) and Dr. Zsuzsanna Renner, PhD. (Zelnik István South East Asian Gold Museum, Budapest; and South East Asian Research Institute, Hungary)

English correction: Dr. Mark Corner, HUB University, Brussels
Institute of South and Central Asian Studies, Seminar of Indian Studies
Philosophical Faculty, Charles University in Prague
Celetná 20, 116 42 Praha 1, Czech Republic
Publisher: Stanislav Juhaňák - TRITON
First edition, Praha (Prague) 2012
ISSN 1802-7997
(Registration number of MK ČR) E 17677


  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The nāga lintel
  • Chapter 2: Cosmology – Viṣṇu Anantaśayana
  • Chapter 3: The nāga fan
  • Chapter 4: The churning of the milk ocean
  • Chapter 5: Akroteria and Antefixes
  • Chapter 6: Kr̥ṣṇa and Balarāma and other avatāras
  • Chapter 7: The Buddha and the nāga Mucilinda
  • Chapter 8: Neak Pean, Terraces, Royal Bath
  • Chapter 9: The regents of the directions of space including zenith and nadir
  • Epilogue
  • List of Figures
  • References


This study not only investigates the various aspects of the magnificent nāga motif in Khmer art, but also it

  • confirms, by means of expanding upon the development of the nāga fan (Chapter 3) the – recently again challenged – sequence of main monuments in Angkor , namely the Angkor Wat erected under Suryvarman II (1113–1150 AD), and the Bayon erected under Jayavarman VII (1181–1219 AD)
  • clarifies the identity of several regents of the directions of space (Chapters 1 and 9) in Khmer art and discovers the 10th regent Śeṣa / Ananta in the Great Gallery of Angkor Wat (Chapter 9)
  • tries to elaborate a clear distinction between akroteria and antefixes in order to to give some system to a significantly diverging terminology on the part of scholars (Chapter 5)
  • replaces, last but not least, the so called Tārakāmaya war (saṃgrāma) as the narrative background to one of the most beautiful panels of the Great Gallery of Angkor Wat with a new and, I hope, more fitting explanation (Chapter 9).

Traces of serpent worship can be found all over the Indian subcontinent, either directly or mirrored by other Indian religions. While in India the nāga motif may rightly be called a fertile motif in the religious arts, in the Khmer empire it is of extraordinary, unsurpassed importance and allows the conclusion that both religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, when reaching Cambodia encountered an atmosphere where any nāga myth and nāga décor in the arts was more than welcome.

Whether Nāga tribe in Assam – in the event that their name has anything at all to do with serpents = nāgas – can be taken, in the past or now, as bearers of nāga worship must, at the moment, be cautiously denied. To give only two important sources: J. Ph. Vogel, who carefully collected an enormous mass of testimonies on serpent worship in India (Indian Serpent Lore, London 1926), does not give any hint of this possibility, and Fürer-Haimendorf, who spent thirteen months with the Assamese Nāgas (Die nackten Nagas, Leipzig 1947), evidently did not observe any particular serpent cult among these people. Milada Ganguli (A Pilgrimage to the Nagas. New Delhi 1984) does not give any hint at nāga worship among the Nāgas of the Indo-Burmese borderlands either.

Julia Shaw, however, observes a relation between a local Nāga clan and nāga sculptures as agricultural deities in the Sāñcī area, Madhyapradesh.

As with the cult of spirits (bhūta, yakṣa) nāga worship seems to have remained prevalent in India as a basic religion of the common people that was never entirely displaced by the so called high religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism but preserved an important role in popular belief and imbued the imagination of the people.

It should be kept in mind that the supreme gods such as Śiva, Viṣṇu, and Devī are worshipped in order to ensure the salvation (mokṣa) of their believers. The minor gods are propitiated for practical purposes: in order to avoid their malevolent actions and to secure their benevolent behaviour. In the case of the nāgas it is above all protection against drought or arrival of rain that is sought.

The main features that seem to be responsible for the widespread relevance of serpents in Indian thinking have been impressively collected by J.Ph. Vogel.

“If we wish to explain serpent worship, we must start from the animal itself. Which among a primitive population is so suitable to be regarded as a demonic being endowed with magical power? The snake is unlike other animals, owing to its peculiar shape and its swift and mysterious gliding motion without the aid of either feet or wings. In addition to these most conspicuous properties the snake possesses other strange features such as the power of fascination of its eye, its forked tongue (of which the Mahābhārata offers a mythical explanation), and the periodical sloughing of its skin which is referred to in Vedic literature. The serpent is, indeed, the uncanniest of all animals. Above all things it is the deadly poison of certain snakes that causes the whole species to be looked upon as demoniacal beings which are to be dreaded and to be propitiated. There is an Indian proverb which says: ‘Even a great man is not worshipped, as long as he has not caused some calamity: men worship the Nāgas, but not Garuḍa, the slayer of Nāgas.’” (Otto von Böthlink, Indische Sprüche. 2nd ed. 1870, vol. 1, p. 7, No. 39).

Particularly narrow is the affiliation of the nāgas to early and later Buddhism (see also Zin 2003, pp. 121–130).

Although the Buddha himself was three times born as a nāga – i.e. Campaka, Śaṅkhapāla, and Bhūridatta (Vogel 1926, p. 133) – animals including nāgas who are able to adopt human shape are a priori excluded from ordination.

The nāgas appear as fervent worshippers of the Buddha and of the stūpas on the one hand, as faithful guardians of Buddhist sanctuaries on the other hand. The report on the distribution of the relics is not free from contradictions. One of the eight shares of the relics has been, according to unanimous tradition, obtained by a kṣatriya clan (Krauḍyas or Koliyas). Another passage, however, says that the eighth part of the relics was left in the hands of the nāgas in Rāmagrāma (Waldschmidt 1948, p. 330f. and Waldschmidt 1950, p. 450).

The Mahāvaṃsa, on the other hand, reports that the stūpa of Rāmagrāma was destroyed by the floods of the Ganga (Mahāvaṃsa XXXI, 25; Geiger 1958, p. 247, Geiger 264, p. 211), the reliquary floated to the mouth of the river and was then worshipped by the nāgas in nāgaloka – i.e. beneath the surface of the human world –, and finally came into Duṭṭhagāmaṇī’s newly built great stūpa (Mahāthūpa) on the island of Laṅkā (Laṅkādīpe) (Mahāvaṃsa XXXI,19; Geiger 1958, p. 246, Geiger 1964, p. 210). This report superbly connects Singhalese Buddhism with the earliest Buddhism comparable to the tradition that Anuradhapura’s bodhi tree goes back to an offshoot of the original bodhi tree. ….


Fig. 56. Nāga fan, Beng Mealea, south access, eastside. Fig. 56. Nāga fan, Beng Mealea, south access, eastside.
Fig. 64. Fronton with amr̥tamanthana and lintel with Anantaśayana, Prasat Preah Vihear, gopura IV, southside. Fig. 64. Fronton with amr̥tamanthana and lintel with Anantaśayana, Prasat Preah Vihear, gopura IV, southside.

Fig. 122. Fourteen-hooded nāga, Terrace of Leper King, corridor. Fig. 122. Fourteen-hooded nāga, Terrace of Leper King, corridor.


The nāgas, patrons of water-supply (see Introduction), seem to have finally withdrawn their support from Angkor. Due to overpopulation – an estimated 750,000 as compared to ca. 30,000 inhabitants of European “large” cities in the Middle Ages – and probably also due to a change of climate, the subtle system of canals and tanks (baray) was no longer capable of supplying the masses. These are relatively modern insights based on contemporaneous infrared photos of NASA that have brought to light many hitherto unknown temples and about 250 canals over an area measuring 25 by 45 km, i.e. more than 1,000 sq km. In the context of the decline of Angkor, deforestation – maybe comparable to that of Sicily – is also mentioned. First the élite might have left the area for Phnom Penh, followed by the majority of the population. The water argument is enhanced by the comfortable situation of Phnom Penh at the confluence of the rivers Mekong and Tonle Sap. From the 15th century AD onwards Angkor became little by little prey to the jungle. Why were the Khmer (artists) so incredibly fascinated by the motif of the multi-hooded nāga? Two answers are obvious. The decorative beauty of the multitude of cobra hoods, and the responsibility that the nāgas bore for the enormous demand for water (huge population, rice cultivation thrice a year). A third answer could well be the nāga as totem, as a consciously produced image of a tribe (Khmer) or nation that functions as an object of collective representation (Durkheim 1915). Here, however, begins the realm of sociologists.

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