Nagapanchami is a sacred Indian festival dedicated to the snake-God. The festival gets its name from the fact that it is celebrated on the fifth day (panchami) of the moonlit fortnight of the Hindu month of Shravan (July /August). According to the Gregorian calender, the festival is observed sometime in August.
The exact origins of the Nagapanchami festival is uncertain. It is not known when the worship of snakes and the snake-god precisely began. The mere sight of the slithering reptile gives many of us a creepy feeling and hence, the worship of snakes in India appears strange to many people, especially those not familiar with Hindu customs. But then, snakes have been associated with many Hindu Gods. Sheshnaga (Snake with Six hoods) is the vehicle of Vishnu. The world according to Hindu mythology and cosmogony, rests on the head of Sheshnaga, and when he shakes his head we have earthquakes.
The custom of snake-worship is believed to have come from the "Naga" clan, a highly developed tribe who lived in ancient India. The Indus Valley civilisation of 3000 B.C. gives ample proof of the popularity of snake-worship amongst the Nagas, whose culture was fairly wide-spread in India even before the Aryans came. Later, the Indo-Aryans began to worship many of the snake deities of the Nagas and some of them even found mention in the Hindu Puranas.
Many scholars have detected traces of existence of snake-worship contained in the 8th Ashtaka of the Rig Veda, wherein the earth is addressed as the Sarpa-rajni or "the queen of the serpents or the queen of all that moves". The Yajur-Veda provides a more definite account of serpent-worship; the Samhita of this Veda contains prayers to the Sarpas(snakes) who are addressed as denizens of the heavens, the skies, the rays of the sun, the waters, the vegetables and the like. In the Brahmanas of the Samhita part of the Yajur-Veda, invocations are addressed to serpents and sweet sacrifices are offered for their acceptance. Manu, the ancient law-giver of the Hindus also makes mention of the Nagas and the Sarpas. Carved or painted figures of snakes can be found on the walls of many Hindu temples that exist from the medieval era. Images of snake worship rituals can also be spotted in the world famous Ajanta caves. Detailed description of the cobra snakes can also be discerned in Arthasastra, the classic ancient Hindu political text by the great Hindu philosopher Chanakya (c.300 bc).
In medieval India figures of snakes were carved or painted on the walls of many Hindu temples. In the carves at Ajanta images of the rituals of snake worship are found. Kautilya, in his "Arthashastra" has given .
The mention of the Nagas and the Sarpas is also found in the Mahabharata. In the sacred Hindu text BhagavadGita, one witnesses how Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that Vasuki and Ananta represent him amongst the Sarpas and the Nagas respectively.
The Hindu Puranas(Sanskrit encyclopedic texts) also mention the Nagas and the Sarpas. In the Bhagavata Purana, Vasuki and eleven other Nagas are mentioned as forming the string of the sun's chariot, one serpent being held to be sacred to each month. The Markandeya Purana embodies the well-known story of the marriage of Madalasa, a Naga princess of superb beauty, with King Kulvalasva.
In the apologue of the gold-giving serpent, the fifth fable of the Panchatantra(famous Indian collection of fables and other morally instructive tales), authentic evidence is found of the prevalence of serpent-worship in the post-Vedic ages of Ancient India. As it has been established that the Panchatantra was composed sometime between the first and sixth centuries, it is believed that the tradition of snake-worship existed in India prior to the sixth century A.D. The celebrated French traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier, in the course of his visit to India in the seventeenth century, saw the serpent worshipped in the form of an idol. Though Tavernier has neither mentioned the name of the festival nor given any further details, the description corresponds with the Nagapanchami festival as it is observed throughout India at the present day.
To understand the history of the festival, the time of its observance should also be kept in mind. Nagapanchami is observed in the month of Shravana (July/August), the advent of the rainy season in many parts of India. It is the time when snakes leave their holes in the flooded fields and jungles and enter the habitations of men - thereby throwing them into great consternation. It is during this period that the greatest number of deaths from snake-bite occur in places like Lower Bengal. The people of the country-side labour under the impression that the only way of obtaining immunity from snakebite is by propitiating the snake-goddess Manasa. It is also the beginning of the harvest season, when crops attain their full growth and the harvest is ready to be reaped. In countries like India the reaping of the harvest is (still largely) a manual operation and farmers have to work in the fields all by themselves, thus exposing themselves to the bites of poisonous snakes lurking unseen among the dense crop. This fear seems to be the main cause for Nagapanchami celebrations. Propitiating the snake god provides some psychological succour to the poor rural folk whose main occupation remains agriculture.
Apart from this, the festval also owes its origin to myriad legends and myths many of which can be traced back to the ancient Hindu Puranas.