by Soimart Rungmanee
Naga, a semi- divine creature taking the form of a great snake or dragon, appears in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology. Naga in Buddhist folklore was a human being with a snake or dragon extending over the head. One naga who transformed into a human semblance attempted to be a monk, but it was impossible as the Lord Buddha said that a human could be ordained. To respect this Naga, the Lord Buddha proclaimed that all men who were ordained will be called “Naga or Nâak” which implied the reborn of a man who is becoming a monk.
Nowadays, Naga exists in sacred places, particularly in architecture and sculpture. Every Thai temple has a staircase which features a Naga in styles such as a serpent-like creature or a five-head serpent. Naga is also a guardian figure that protected the Lord Buddha from a fierce storm by using its cobra head as a shield. The belief of Naga is exclusive for people living along the Mekong River. According to a local myth, the Naga is the creator of nature and life as well as prosperity and richness. At the same time, the Naga could also punish people by releasing over supply of water and destroying the cities.
In Northeast Thailand and Laos, there are many stories on the origin of the cities and the lakes related to the Naga legends. People also believed that the Mekong River came into existence through the passing by of the Naga. Local people in Thailand and Laos regularly hold an annual sacrifice for the Naga.
In Nakhon Phanom Province where I conducted my fieldwork, people managed to have the illuminated boat procession or ‘Lai Ruea Fai (fire boats decorated with flowers, incense sticks, candles, and lanterns)’ event as a tradition at the end of Buddhist Lent to pay a respect to the Lord Buddha and the Naga in the Mekong River. In Nong Khai province, approximately 300 km from Nakhon Phanom Province, the Naga Fireball festival is regularly held also at the end of Buddhist Lent. Thousands of people wait along the Mekong River to witness the mysterious fireballs that erupt from the surface of the river. The local legend said that the fire balls come from the Naga.
Living in Central Thailand, the belief of the Naga remans mysterious to me, even after conducting research in areas along the Mekong River. It was in December 2015 that I first came across the myth of Naga and learnt how strong this belief was held by the local population. Conducting research in a fish-farm village approximately 70 km away from the provincial airport, I usually rent an eco-car to drive there on my own. Since the village street was narrow, I needed to park my car in a small temple. One day after I had done the interviews, I tried to reverse a car to without turning my head back. I saw the staircase in the front mirror but I did not see the Naga above it. Suddenly I heard a loud noise and realized I had hit something. At first I thought it was temple stairs but when I got out the car I saw the big Naga above my car! At the same time, a few villagers who lived near the temple came around to see what had happened.
Immediately, I searched for number of the car insurance company and called. The operator asked me several questions that when I think back make me laugh. Our conversation is as follows (SR as “I” and ICS as “Insurance Company Staff”:
SR: Hello, I rented a car from your company and just had an accident. The back glass is broken. I am at Ban Had Guan approximately 70 km from the airport. What should I do?
ICS: Who is your party?
SR: Emm…the Naga at the temple.
ICS: What? Is your party ok?
SR: Yes, the Naga is fine but my car is broken.
ICS: Can you tell me how did it happen?
SR: I reversed the car and hit the Naga. I did not see the Naga body above the staircase. The Naga’s neck hit the back glass and broke the back window. I don’t think I could drive back to the airport.
ICS: Is anything apart from the back glass broken? You can drive back I will tell you how to do. But are you sure the Naga is fine? If the Naga is damaged I will have to compensate for it too. Can you LINE me the photos of Naga and your car?
I walked around to take photo of my car and the Naga for the Insurance company staff. Now, there were ten people came to see the accident. Some of them took photos of my car. I sent all photo and restarted the conversation again.
SR: Yes, the Naga is fine but from the photo you can see my car is damaged. Can you send someone to help me?
ICS: I think your car is OK. To drive back, you just take the back glass off. Just drive slowly and carefully. I am sorry I cannot go to see you. My office is in anther province, approximately 200 km from where you are now. If you wait for me, it could be another 3-4 hrs.
SR (spoke in angry noise): But people have car insurance for when they have an accident.
ICS (spoke is a very chilled voice): No, trust me you can drive it back. I will call you again to check. You can do it. But before you leave, make sure that you make a respect to the Naga. You hit the sacred serpent. It could be insulting him. Don’t forget to make it.
Hung up!!! I was stunned and looked at the Naga. I pressed my palms together and prayed in my mind that I am sorry. I did not mean to hit you. Are you trying to warn me to be more careful when driving? Are you trying to warn me to look back when I reverse a car?
I turned to the villagers around me and asked if they thought I could drive back? The men around me punched out the back window and removed it. It worked to drive without a back window. They also told:
“You should write down the number plate of your car number of your car. They could be lucky numbers for lotto! The Naga might give you luck”
That afternoon was no fun for me at all. I was extremely stressed driving back to the airport. Waiting for a flight back to Bangkok the day after, I spent a few hours walking around the temples facing the Mekong River. I took flowers to make a respect to all Nagas I had seen to say sorry. I felt terrible and started to question whether my research would be successful. But after 24 hours, I thought back and laughed at my clumsiness. I told myself to drive carefully and turn my head back every time when I reversed car.
Everyone who heard the story laughed at me for hitting a scared Naga sculpture. They asked for the numbers plate to buy a lotto ticket but unfortunately no one won. A month later I returned to the village. Many villagers recognized me right away as “that woman who hit the Naga”. I became popular! I regularly travelled back to this village and successfully completed my research. I still parked in the temple; however, I never forgot to say hello and made a respect to the Naga before going to see villagers. This experience taught me to be more careful and to be more sensitive in respecting the local belief for my own sake.
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Image source for The Multi-tiered roof and the Nagas of the Royal Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.: https://d19lgisewk9l6l.cloudfront.net/assetbank/Buddhist_Temple_in_Luang_Prabang_Royal_Palace_Laos_7205.jpg