This post was updated Nov. 13, 2018.
Nagas stand guard at all Buddhist temples (wats) throughout Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Ferocious, wild eyed, fanged, tongue waggin’, scaly and serpentine-that’s a Naga.
Scary-yes. Evil-no. (A Buddhist wat certainly wouldn’t be guarded by an evil spirit. Right?)
Just what or who are these puzzling creatures. Suprisingly, no one is quite sure. Scholars have differing opinions and theories. So let’s talk all-things-Naga and try to get a cultural grasp on these enigmatic serpents.
Never Mess with a Naga
Last year I visited one of my favorite Thai wats, the Blue Wat (aka Wat Rong Suea Ten), in Chiang Rai. It’s a very new wat that was just completed only a few years ago and is quickly becoming famous for it dazzling Buddhist artwork and architecture, especially the psychedelic nagas at the entrance.
I first visited the Blue Wat when it was only half built and I knew even then that it would become crowded with tourists because of its unique beauty. Sure enough on my last visit, the Blue Wat was crowded with tourists. The wat was now fully built and tour operators had quickly added it to their list of must see places.
As I was looking closely at some artwork, newly added since my last visit, my wife (she’s Thai) came running up to me with a look of horror on her face.
“A man was doing something terrible to the naga in the front of the wat!”, she said in a half whisper, half shriek.
“Huh?” I responded.
” He was humping one of the nagas out front! People started yelling at him and he stopped. He was farang.” My wife said breathlessly.
We quickly went to the front where the two Nagas reside, but all seemed normal. Lots of hustle and bustle. Tourist eagerly taking selfies with the Nagas and having a good time.
After talking more to my wife and a couple of Thai people who witnessed what occurred, I began to get a good sense as to what had just happened. Apparently, a 20-something White guy began rubbing his crotch against the Naga’s body and waving at his friends. To him-a joke. Ha-ha-ha. Laughing, he started to thrust his pelvis onto the Naga to simulate sex. In other words, he was dry humping a Naga in broad daylight as a joke.
I had to wonder: Did this tourist have any clue that the recipient of his crude sexual display, the Naga, is considered sacred in Thailand? Or that his crude act was considered legal blasphemy under Thai law with a five year prison sentence attached?
Maybe a better question would be: Just what exactly are these nagas that stand guard at all wats in Thailand?
Naga Naga…Whose There?
Nagas are the serpent creatures that stand guard at all the Buddhist wats in Thailand.
Naga is the sanskrit word for cobra, although a looser translation could be snake. It’s religious roots originated with Hinduism. Ancient Hindu texts refer to walking-talking Nagas or snake deities that were both good, bad and something in between.
But Thailand practices Theraveda Buddhism, so what are Hindu serpent deities doing at a Buddhist place of worship?
Thailand’s cultural font, especially religion and art, flowed from India, through Myanmar (Burma) and into Thailand. Thereveda Buddhism has its roots in Hinduism. Hinduism and Buddhism have many overlapping doctrines and dogmas.
Thai Nagas figuratively slithered over from India and took up positions as sentries at almost all Buddhist wats.
Why snarling, fanged-toothed Nagas are perched at the entrances to wats is a disputed topic. There is no simple answer.
The easiest answer is that Nagas ward off evil spirits from entering the wat. Makes sense. After all, Nagas are always fearsome, with wild eyes and mouth wide-open showing off an impressive set of choppers. Any evil spirit with half a brain would never dare to try to get by one of these creatures.
But a more complicated answer is that Buddhist Nagas represent serpents from the river and many scholars argue that they therefore represent water and fertility.
Regardless of the exact reasons why Nagas are placed at temple entrances, their ubiquitous presence indicates their importance to Buddhist temple iconography. A lot of work goes into creating a Naga and that alone tells us of their spriritual importance.
New, lavish wats are sprouting up throughout Thailand, especially in the north. The Blue Wat, the White Wat (Wat Rong Khun near Chiang Rai) and Wat Baan Den (Click here to read my blog entry about this wat.) are just a few of these modern wats that push the boundary of Buddhist art and architecture.
The Buddhist temple designers of these new wave wats have also concentrated their talents on designing fantastical Nagas far beyond their counterparts of the past. The new breed of nagas are gigantic, colorful, and sometimes whimsical. They demand accomplished artisans and lots of baht to build them.
Although no Buddhist monk would ever admit to it, there seems to be a competition of sorts as to which new wat has the most unusual Naga.
Naga…Whose Your Daddy?
Back to the farang tourist who was humping the naga. By all means, let’s go to a foreign country and openly insult and blaspheme their religious practices…NOT!
I can’t help but think what would have happened to this idiot tourist had he pulled an equivalent stunt in Mecca.
Thai Buddhists are a forgiving, tolerant people, but this tourists feigned sex act with a Naga left my wife shaking mad along with all the other Thais who witnessed the incident. It was good that he and his freinds left the area immediately, although all the Thais were in agreement that bad karma will haunt him.
Nagas may appear as cartoon creations to many Western folk, but they are actually integral to the spirituality of the Thai wat. Yes, pose for selfies with the Nagas. Touch the Nagas if you like. Lean back and rest against their serpent bodies.
But whatever you do, don’t disrespect them.