Writing about snakes and other reptiles isn’t what I normally do, not having much idea about them.
However, on second thoughts, this is not really about snakes but more about their dazzling presiding deity, Ma Manasa, their protector and guardian in Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, north east India and in some parts of north and south India as well. Manasa is not your typically benign, gracious and peaceful deity of the Hindu pantheon. She’s not Medusa, either, turning people to stone with a single glance. She’s Manasa, a temperamental, vengeful young woman who looks after her own but who can also turn decidedly unfriendly if people don’t acknowledge her powers.
It’s common for almost every ancient race to have legends and tales involving snakes. Snake worship existed in the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Phoenicia and in many other countries as well. Here in India, Ma Manasa is believed to have first found mention in the relatively newer Puranas, like the Brahmavaivarta Purana and the Devi Bhagavata and is also recorded under a different name in the Mahabharata.
However, she really came into her own in the Mangal Kavya( Poems of Benediction) of Bengal, Bengali Hindu religious texts written in verse, roughly between the 13th century to 18th century, narratives on the indigenous deities of Bengal, during medieval times. Amongst these Kavyas, the Manasa Mangal Kavya, which talked of how Manasa ( a non Aryan deity, sometimes thought to be brought in by the Dravidians from south India) established her worship here, is the oldest. Manasa has her own regional identity and enjoys unparalleled popularity amongst the locals, especially in the rural areas.
This ancient cult, grew around the need of the general populace, living in a hot and humid climate where snakes thrived, to have a protective deity to be worshipped, to ward off and cure snake bites, for prosperity and fertility, especially during the monsoon months when snakes appeared more often.
Like everything else about her, Ma Manasas parentage too, is colorful and has been variously attributed to either the sage, Kashyap Muni or to Shiva, while Kadru, the snake goddess is believed to be her mother. The story goes that after being disowned by Shiva, she vowed to get even with him and set out to display the fullest extent of her fearful powers on humans, here on earth. She zeroed in on the rich merchant Chand Saudagar, a Shiva devotee but not only did he refuse to acknowledge her powers but also insulted her in various ways.
An enraged Manasa, retaliated by sinking all his seven, treasure laden ships and killing all his seven sons, until the seventh son’s wife Behula, took it on herself to float on a raft on the Ganges with her husband Lakhindar’s dead body for one whole year, till she reached the abode of the Gods.The Gods were satisfied and Ma Manasa finally relented but only on condition that Chand Saudagar should first concede defeat. Left with no option, he offered a flower with his left ( inauspicious) hand to a statue of Manasa and walked away without looking at her but it was enough to pacify her. She restored all his seven ships and sons and then left him in peace.
Manasa Ma,continues to be a vibrant presence in the local pantheon and is especially popular in the folk arts and crafts of Bengal, even becoming a powerful presence in Amitava Ghosh’s recent book, ‘ The Gun Island’.
Growing up, these tales of Manasa usually evoked a sense of wonder in me but coupled with some healthy scepticism too. I’m not so sure about the last now though, after observing an incident a few years ago, on a visit to our ancestral village, Guptipara.
Tucked away in the depths of Hooghly district, Guptipara, was once an ancient seat of the Vaishnav movement and witness to many a historic happening.
It had rained all night and it was a grey and overcast morning in the village. Huge water pumps had been installed the day before, to drain out the waters of a large muddy pond that stood surrounded by dense mango orchards,so that fresh, clean water could replace the ones contaminated by some recent floods.The pump started throbbing and by sunset, the level of the water had dropped considerably. The following day however, to everyone’s astonishment, the waters were back to the previous day’s level. This same scenario happened over three days leaving everyone baffled.
On the fourth day, as the pumps worked and the water fell in the pond, a very large, weather beaten and ancient wooden beam suddenly stood exposed, wedged into one side of the pond. At exactly the same time, a simple, young, village girl who lived near the pond, suddenly started screaming in a shrill , threatening voice. A torrent of words spewed from her mouth, leaving everyone around her shocked and fearful for she was speaking in the voice of Ma Manasa. She railed against those who had dared to disturb her and promised vengeance for the act. The ignorant and hitherto reticent, young girl, transfigured into an enraged entity and started shrieking out intimate details of the families connected with the draining of the pond, matters which no one could have possibly known but the families themselves, much to their consternation. She also spoke of other obscure incidents related to the village from the dim past, unknown to most of the villagers.
As this violent and unnerving diatribe in Manasa’s tongue, continued without cessation, the word spread and villagers from near and far, started pouring in, placing flowers, money, saris, sweets and paying obeisance to the wooden beam and the girl. The wooden beam was thought to be the plinth of an ancient clay idol of Manasa, which had perhaps been immersed in the pond in the distant past and angry at being disturbed, she had possesed the girl. According to the devotees, the fact that the beam had hardly decayed despite being under water for (presumably) so many decades, also confirmed that there were some mystic powers at work here.
Within days, the whole area became a mass of surging people hailing Ma Manasa as the all powerful deity, demanding that the beam be properly sanctified and ensconced in a temple, to be built at that spot.
All this sent the owners of the estate and the local police, into a complete tizzy. Both parties were completely nonplussed at the unprecedented situation and it took a week of feverish deliberations before they finally came up with a possible solution.
In the dead of the night, when the villagers were fast asleep, the beam was hauled up with the help of heavy chains and a sturdy tractor, then dragged slowly and stealthily, to the outskirts of the village, where the Ganga had once flowed until it had changed course. Here on the sand banks lived a sadhu, a devotee of Ma Manasa, who had built a temple to her there and lived in solitude.He agreed to let the beam rest there in the premises and to do the daily puja, leading to a collective sigh of relief from the anxious petitioners.
The following day, the villagers were restive for some time but they couldn’t disagree with the final resting place of the beam, which was after all, a temple dedicated to Ma Manasa alone.The girl too fell silent and became her usual quiet self, with no recollection of what she had said before. Peace was restored in the area and the waters of the pond were successfully drained out, once the pumps started working again.
Till date, no one has come up with any rational or logical answers as to how an ignorant young village girl could know all that she did or why the water level of the pond kept getting restored or why once the beam was removed, everything returned to normal.
It’s also interesting to note that just before entering Guptipara, there is another small village called Behula. Locals believe that the name derives from the same legendary Behula – Lakhindar duo and that they had floated down the Ganga, which had flowed past that area then.
Coincidence, blind belief, sham theatrics, credulous people or mystic happening? The jury is still out on this one.