The Naga is a serpent that lives in the river. It is also called Phanya Naak, or Nguak, or Luang. But Naga is the most common word used. The Naga motif is a powerful mythical symbol. In Laos, we believe Nagas live in rivers and ponds. The King of Nagas lives in the Mekong River. And we believe the Naga King is the guardian spirit of Luang Prabang.
The Naga offers protection and fertility. Nagas are kind and caring. They protect from illness, hunger and bad spirits. But, Nagas can also get angry. It is believed that if the Naga is not honoured properly, they can cause floods, storms, illnesses and even death.
But most importantly nagas act as a link between the human and spirit world. That is why you will see Naga motifs on bridges across rivers and stairs leading to temples.
Where does the word Naga and the idea of Naga come from?
Laos, as you may know, has over 49 ethnic groups. Most practice some form of animism, or worshipping animal and nature spirit. In Laos and Thailand, 2000 year old pottery found in northeastern Thailand and southern Laos, show many images of snakes and river serpents. This is evidence that people of this region have worshipped the naga spirit for centuries.
It is believed that the word “naga” comes from India. It means ‘without clothes’, naked or bare. In India, old Hindu beliefs said that there were serpents which were half human and half snakes that lived in the spirit world. These serpents would become humans to perform blessings or curse the human world.
When Buddhism came from India to Southeast Asia, many ideas and words came with it. The words “naak” or “naga” were adopted by locals here to describe snakes and serpents, because they were bare skin and no hair.
Why is the Naga important in Lao culture?
Lao people practice Buddhism, but animism has been incorporated or mixed in with Buddhist practice. This is especially true with the Naga. They are everywhere in Lao culture – on the clothes, in temples, in local architecture. The Naga is the guardian spirit of the waterways and rivers. The river is the source of life in Lao culture as it feeds agriculture and farming.
Women will weave Naga motifs on their sinh – traditional skirt – for protection, strength and guidance. Young brides-to-be or newly weds wear sinh with Naga images as a symbol of fertility.
Over time, the Naga has been incorporated into Buddhist practice and rituals. There are stories of river serpents or Nagas that protected the Buddha during a big storm while he was meditating. Another story says that when Lord Buddha came back to Earth, he descended a staircase created by the Naga. This is why many steps leading up to the temple have Nagas on it.
One of Luang Prabang’s most important and beautiful festivals is Auk Phansa, or the end of Buddhist lent. This time is celebrated by Boun Huea Lai Fai or Festival of Lights. Each temple makes a float shaped like a naga and they are released into the Mekong.It is a way to pay homage to the time when Buddha preached to the Naga on the banks of the river.
The Laos Cinderella Story: The Beautiful Weaver & The Prince of the Nagas
At Ock Pop Tok, we are inspired by many stories, but one really stands out. And that is the story of the beautiful weaver and the prince of nagas. You could say this is like a “Lao Cinderella story”. It’s a story about a humble, hard working girl weaver who meets her Prince.
Once upon a time a young Naga Prince was looking for a bride. Nagas have the magical power of disguising themselves as humans and animals. The Prince left the underwater Naga world and went to a village.
The Naga/chicken stole the weavers shuttle, grabbed it in his beak, and ran to the river.
In the village, he turned himself into a chicken, so that no one would recognise him. There, he saw a beautiful village girl weaving and immediately fell in love. He knew he had to take her to the Naga world to meet his parents. But how to get her to the river? The Naga/chicken stole the weavers shuttle, grabbed it in his beak, and ran to the river. The weaver followed him jumping in the water, swimming after the chicken all the way to the underwater kingdom of Badan.
When they got to Badan, deep in the river, the Prince Naga turned back into a Naga and proclaimed his love for the village girl, asking her hand in marriage. The King and Queen gave the girl a lotus flower and told her to take this back to her parents and see if they would approve the marriage.
Her parents heard the story of the Prince and decided to sleep on their decision. In the morning when they awoke they found that the lotus flower had turned into a diamond. The family became instantly wealthy and approved the union. The Naga Prince and his bride now spend 6 months on land and 6 months in the river.
The King and Queen Naga motifs are often shown entwined around the central diamond motif.
There are many textile variations of this story throughout Laos. The chicken or bird, Naga, diamonds and lotus flowers represent elements of this story. Crab, bird, frog and siho (half elephant and half lion) motifs represent the animal shapes the Naga Prince takes when he is on land. The King and Queen Naga motifs are often shown entwined around the central diamond motif.
Lao women weavers are praised for being patient and careful in their work. In Lao folklore and culture, it is often said that a patient, skilled weaver will meet her Naga Prince. This belief and story inspires many weavers, and they weave the motifs related to this story into their textiles.