Nagapanchami is a festival dedicated to a the snake-God. It occurs on the fifth day (panchami) of the fortnight as is evident from its name. This festival is observed sometime in August. It is celebrated with more fervour especially in the rural areas. On that day women and children visit snake-pits and worship the snakes residing there by performing Aarti (invocative prayer) and offering milk and honey to the snakes. In urban areas where snake pits are rare images of the deity are worshipped. As during Ganesh-chaturthi, small clay images of Naga are installed for being worshipped. Even snake-charmers carry captive snakes from door to door to enable city house-wives to worship the deity.
Naga as Sheshnaga in Hindu Mythology
Worship of a slithering reptile whose mere sight makes our flesh creep would appear strange and curious to a person from another part of our globe, not familiar with Hindu customs. 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 (This explanation, of course is for the devout).
In another episode Krishna is said to have battled with Kalia who is portrayed as a giant snake with multiple hoods who resided in the Yamuna river and terrorised people living nearby. But strangely, worship of the snake Naga on Nagapanchami day is not associated with any of these deified snake-gods. Naga is a deity in his own right and is worshipped as such. This indicates that apart from all mythologies which have eulogized and deified this reptile, his worship during Nagapanchami owes its origin to some other reason.
Agricultural Origins of Nagpanchami
Nagapanchami occurs at the beginning of the harvest season. The time of its occunence and the method of its observation betray the origin of Naqapanchami in the agrarian way of life. At the beginning of a harvest season 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 for the performance of which farmers have to mote among the dense crops for cutting them before the threshing, dehusking, etc. In doing the farmers, expose themselves to the danger of snakebite from these reptiles lurking unseen among the dense crop. From this fear and for providing psychological comfort for themselves farmers propitiate the snake (God).