Monday, May 24, 2010

Himmapan Forest-3: The world of the Nagas

Nagas, morphing rain-giving majestic serpents, are probably one of the most revered mythical creatures in Thailand.  I was born on a Saturday and my protective Buddha figurine is that of the Buddha sitting on and under the protective shade of the 7-headed Naga, Muchalinda.

Wat Pho

In Buddhist stories about the life of the Buddha, it was told that not long after the Buddha had gained enlightenment, he travelled through many towns and villages to teach the people about his path towards enlightenment.  On the outskirts of one village, he settled into deep meditation under a tree for seven days, oblivious of the heavy storm that was raging about him during that time.  Muchalinda, the King of the Nagas, called Phya Nak by the Thai people of the North, Northeast Thailand and Laos, protected the meditating Buddha by morphing his body into a big shade over and around him.  When the Buddha came out of meditation, Phya Nak transformed himself into a human form to bow before the Buddha and returned to his crystal palace in joy.

In another Buddhist story, the Buddha went to teach the angels and gods in celestial heavens, his descent was aided by seven jeweled rainbow steps laid by the gods between the bodies of two nagas.

Naga sculptures can be found in many Thai, Northern or Laotian temples, at entrances, adorning stairways, or on rooftops, as gaurdians of these sacred places, or as a metaphor for the rainbow bridge that connects the human world with heaven. 

Prasat Hin Pimai

The original dwelling place of the Nagas is in the mythical forest of Himmapan, a place where the most beloved Buddhist tales took place. 

In King Lithai's Traibhumikatha, a description of the Naga and their dwelling place is given:

"After a kalpa is brought to an end by the great fire, a new earth is born.  Nothing is the way it was before.  The land had been flattened and is then a glittering white, as beautiful as a sheet of pure silver. Beautiful green grass grew.  The entire land radiates glory and splendor.  Everywhere is beautiful.

There are several lakes that are generally covered with five kinds of exquisite lotuses. There are trees with beautiful trunks untouched by insects or disease. They bear fruit and flowers that are a wonder and delight to behold. There are tough mountain vines, some with red floweres, some with yellow flowers. The whole place is a glorious spectacle as if someone had carefully planned it. This is the homeland of the Nagas.  It is their native dwelling place. Here there are crystal mansions, silver mansions and gold mansions beautiful beyond description. However, there are also some areas where nothing could live.  They are hollow and empty.

Under the Himmapan range, there is a cavity of some 200 yoth wide. It is the city of the Nagas where there are seven kind of gems: gold, silver, lapis lazuri, crystal, agate, ruby and cornelian. It is as beautiful as Traitrimsha, the abode of Lord Indra. Several large lakes are found where the Nagas live and play. The water is beautifully clear and smooth, like a large piece of glass polished a number of times. In fording places, Nagas bathe and play, large fishes gliding along together snapping at smaller fishes. Patches of water-lettuce and five kinds of lotus bloom spectacularly. The flowers of the sacred lotus are as large as a cart wheel. When the water ripples, these blooms sway back and forth looking delightfully pretty, as if they had been consciously arranged.

There is one kind of Naga that dwells in the ocean. When the female of this Naga is well advanced in preganancy, she thinks to herself: "What if the newborn were delivered in mid-ocean? The ocean churns and foams violently; great sea birds agitate the waters; the winds from the wings of the Garuda beat the waves into foam."  Thus reasoning, the pregnant Naga dives deep and long and emerges where one of the five great rivers run into the ocean.  The Naga then swims up river until she reaches the great Himmapan forest.  In this forest there are golden caves beyond the reach of the Garudas. 

She delivers her young in one of these caves and remains to nurture him until he grows strong. When he is ready she takes him to a place where the water is only knee deep to teach him how to swim first in circles. After it is clear to her that he can swim well, she takes him back and forth across one of the great rivers. When he can cross the river with due swiftness, she induces a heavy rainfall which floods the Himmapan forest until it looks like an ocean. She then creates a spired mansion of gold, ornamented with the seven gems that gleam in glorious splendor. This palatial mansion is rich with decoration and good food.  It is as magical as those that are the dwelling of the devatas. The mother Naga places her child in the spired mansion and floats it down the river to the mouth, and out into the deep ocean where they dive to dwell under in the ocean bed.

There are two different kinds of Naga: the water-born and the land-born. The latter can change their form only when they are on land, they cannot do so in water. The water-born Naga can transform themselves in the water, but not on land. Neither kind can change its form in its place of birth, its death or where it sleeps. Nor can they do so when they assemble, nor when they are sloughing off their skins. The Nagas have the power to transform themselves only in places other than those just mentioned.  When they so wish, they can take forms as angelic as the devatas, their females as graceful as the female inhabitants of the celestial heavens. When the Naga seeks its prey, it will take the form in which it can most easily hunt its victim. In such a form they roam the land in search of food.  Sometimes they appear as common water snakes, sometimes as the Sai, or the Krasa, cobras, vipers, and sometimes as forest beasts. It is thus so because the Naga properly belongs to the Animal Kingdom."

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