Its seven tongues erupting like cannon blasts from their fanged fortresses, the seven-headed serpent dragon gaped at me through its 14 lifeless eyes. My gaze shifted down the scaly necks to a low table on the concrete promenade, where incense burned alongside flowers and drink offerings set before the beast.
The phaya naga.
My second cousins, a missionary couple I’d come to visit in Thailand, had told me about this creature. With its seven-to-nine heads, the phaya naga (PHY-ah NAH-gah) represented the king of deified serpents, beings which are still known by the ancient Sanskrit name for serpent demon, naga.1
Unlike natural snakes, I learned, nagas are demoniacal creatures which are thought to dominate waters and skies, control weather, protect religious doctrines and—like werewolves—occasionally manifest as humans. Natural snakes and supernatural nagas also receive their own mentions in the earliest Eastern texts, confirming that nagas are different from normal snakes. Naga worship, however, can include the worship of live snakes as well as their spiritual counterparts.1,2
In both senses, serpent worship has permeated the veins of Eastern doctrines like cobra venom for thousands of years. Even in the 4th century BC, for example, Alexander the Great’s officials reported live snake worship in India.1 Serpent imagery continues to factor heavily into Eastern religious symbols, stories and practices today, with some of the most important Hindu deities being associated with serpents.2 As for serpent depictions in Buddhism—well, standing by the seven-headed naga statue, I could see that first-hand.
This part of Thailand, my cousin’s words echoed in my mind, is a central region of naga worship.
The Mekong River’s presence explained that much. According to local tradition, the Mekong’s murky waters, which slithered in place just a stone’s throw away from me, represent a veritable naga playground. Thousands of humans still flock to these waters at the end of Buddhist lent, I heard, to celebrate the annual Naga Fireball Festival. Flaming orbs—compliments of the nagas—are supposed to shoot from the river to the sky at festival time if the nagas are pleased.
Now, from the promenade where I stood above the Mekong’s banks, I could see the nagas’ influence everywhere. Naga images twisted forth from fireball-shaped lampstands all along the promenade’s peripheral fencing, which incorporated metal nagas into every fence panel. Two more nagas adorned a sign at the promenade’s end, across the street from a two-story-tall naga head roaring in front of a Buddhist temple. Like most other temples I’d seen, this one’s roof featured distinctive, single-horned naga heads curving upwards from each peak and corner. To the building’s right, a huge Buddha statue sat placidly in the shadow of a nine-headed phaya naga.
Later that evening, my cousins and I strolled near another temple as the dying sun spilled fire across the Mekong’s opposite shore.
I glanced at the ancient tree beside me, its trunk so wide I could have comfortably lived inside it. Several colourful sashes girded the trunk, and I noticed an array of offerings—silver plates, cups of water, and bits of food—scattered amidst the roots.
I’d heard that Buddhist practices here often incorporate animism, the belief that inanimate objects possess unique spirits. How many of these cloth-enrobed trees had I already seen, each with a collection of offerings for the ‘tree spirits?’
“Look at this,” a voice from the other side of the tree broke my thoughts.
I hadn’t realized that behind the tree, a saffron-robed buddha sat enthroned on serpent coils above an assortment of offerings, idols and naga statues.
“That’s the Mother Earth goddess,” said my cousin, pointing to one of the nearby figures, “and these other statues represent the river goddesses. And there’s the phaya naga, the main deity in this part of Thailand.”
He pointed to the ornate hood-like element above the buddha’s head. That’s when I realized that this was no hood, but another seven-headed serpent demon. This is one of the more common Buddhist images in Southeast Asia, I later learned, depicting a story found in a Buddhist sutra (scripture), in which the naga king sheltered a meditating Buddha during a storm.3
Moving away from the idols, we crossed the street to arrive at another temple. Darkness had settled over the temple grounds, but I could still discern elaborate artistry—murals of spirits and deities—enveloping the temple walls inside and out.
“It reminds me of the paintings on cathedrals,” I commented, “but the images are different.”
Silently, we strolled along the building until arriving at its entrance. Two ornate serpents flanked the stairway, their bodies tracing an undulating path towards the temple’s door. In the light pouring out from the open door, stark against the outer darkness, I could see an orange-robed monk sitting on the floor inside, his back toward us, chanting before another golden image.
We turned away, passing several more shelters filled with all manner of vacant-gazed idols. I’d wondered, before coming to Thailand, whether I’d be able to feel spiritual oppressiveness at places like these. And, yeah, I supposed that I did sense a pang of spiritual heaviness constricting my heart.
But more than oppressed, I thought, I mostly just feel sad. What continuous grief must weigh on God’s Father-heart to see His most cherished creation, for whom He offered His own life, entangled beneath the serpent’s heavy coils.
As we left, a monk ran down the road after us, carrying something in his hands. I watched him speak with my cousin in Thai for a moment; then he went his way.
“He tried to give us souvenirs,” explained my cousin as we left, “idols. I said that we’re Christians, so we couldn’t accept them.”
A few days later, we sat on the local high school’s main field to watch hundreds of students practice a traditional dance. Their arms waved slowly, fingers curving back, as the music rose and fell along scales as foreign to my ears as the song lyrics. One of my cousins leaned over and interpreted the music’s meaning:
“It’s a song about the nagas and the fireball festival.”
I scanned the rows upon rows of young faces turning in sync with the music.
“If Christian students didn’t want to participate in this,” I asked, “could they be excused?”
“Theoretically,” she replied, “but it would be very difficult.”
As the music continued, I thought back to the Mekong River, the fireball lampstands, and the golden serpent-dragon. How closely the phaya naga resembles another seven-headed serpent dragon, the enemy of God depicted in Revelation:
“And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, firey red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.” (Revelation 12:3, NKJV)
Revelation 20:2 identifies the dragon as “that serpent of old, who is the devil and satan.” This dragon, who must be forever vanquished at the end of time, is the same serpent whom God cursed at the beginning of time with the words,
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” (Genesis 3:15, NKJV)
For now, the whole world—and all its cultures—remain under the serpent’s sway. (1 John 5:19) But in every culture, despite every challenge, and over every dragon, He has already sealed the final victory. All authority in heaven and earth, without exception, belongs to Him. (Matthew 28:18) Ultimately then, even the phaya naga’s seven golden heads are under His feet as well.
- Vogel, J. P. (1995). Indian serpent-lore: or, The Nāgas in Hindu legend and art. Asian Educational Services.
- Das, D., & Balasubramanian, A. (2017). The Practice of Traditional Rituals in Naga Aradhana (Snake worship): A Case study on Aadimoolam Vetticode Sree Nagarajaswami Temple in Kerala, India. In SHS Web of Conferences (Vol. 33, p. 00025). EDP Sciences.
- “Naga Serpents in Buddhism: Mythical Serpent Beings” https://www.thoughtco.com/naga-449846