The Naga King is a cobra-like serpent with seven heads.
He is a God of the Underworld; he is the Lord of Kampuchea (Cambodia); he is a symbol of the nature, the land, the water, and of female power.
A God of the Underworld
The realm of the Naga is at the deepest storey of the Underworld.
Naga princesses take shape as beautiful young women with Naga heads in their hairdo.
Soma (“The Moon”) was the daughter of the Naga King, the Lord of the land. near the Mekong. She was "celebrated for her virile force and her exploits ".
Kaundinya, a Brahmin, came from India by sea. He landed at the bank of the Mekong. He had a sacred javelin with him which he drove into the ground to mark the centre of his kingdom and capital.
Soma attacked him with her female warriors but they could not defeat him.
At last they fell in love with each other. The Naga king married them; he swallowed the water and so dried up the land for rice fields. Thus Kaundinya became King of Kampuchea. The king ruled the country; the queen owned it.
Till to this day it are the women own the rice fields in Cambodia.
Naga sprawling on the ground
- The sprawling Naga protects causeways
which are crossing the water.
This is a crucial task, in some South-East Asian armies, including the Communist ones, there is a rule: Crossing a river, the last soldier in the line has to call for imaginary comrades behind him. In this way the malicious spirit of the river is diverted from catching him.
- Sprawling Naga are escorting devotees from the secular world into the sanctuary, the Naga also represents the "Bow of Indra", the rainbow, the connection of Heaven and Earth, of Gods and living beings.
The Buddha and the Naga Mucalinda
The Buddha was meditating when a fierce thunderstorm attacked him. The Naga King Mucalinda coiled his body around him and spread the array of his heads over him, thus covering and protecting him like a powerful mother.
The Buddha enthroned at the Naga
In Angkor the body of the Naga was transformed to a triangular coil, the array of heads makes a decorative frame to the Buddha's head. The Naga has been degraded to a piece of furniture. This Buddha on the Naga is the icon of Mahayana Buddhism in the Bayon era.
The Naga and Garuda
Garuda is the King of the Birds and the mount of God Vishnu, representing light and fire, the male principles, the culture.
Along the outer wall of Preah Khan, Garuda shows up in forty huge reliefs. He wants to get the Naga under control by taming him. He holds the Naga by his hands and his claws.
Traditionally the Naga and Garuda are regarded as deadly enemies; but obviously Garuda is just taming the Naga.
In front of the gates the Naga are guarding the causeways, escorting human beings from the secular world to the sacred area of the temple. Giant balustrades are at the entrances of Preah Khan, Angkor Thom, and Banteay Chhmar. Looking outside you see gods to the right and demons in equal number to the left.
fifty-four deities are all pulling at the snake with their hands, and look as
if they are preventing it from escaping."
But lifted from the ground, the Naga loses the contact with the Earth, the source of his power.
A Pyrrhic victory: Naga balustrades
In the Bayon era the Naga is seemingly defeated: He is lifted on balusters. He loses the touch with the ground, his tail is cut. This is not the Naga, it is a dummy. His heads still look pretty and imposing, like trophies collected by huntsmen. The torso makes the rail looking like misshaped taxidermy.
Naga balustrades are almost omnipresent in Angkor; they were also added to temples from the Angkor Wat era.
The Naga at the Phimeanakas, a legend
But the Naga was still in power. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese envoy in the late 13th century, relates a legend:
"Inside the palace there is a gold tower [the Phimeanakas], at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lives a nine - headed snake spirit which is the lord of the earth for the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. […] If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this […] king to die. If for a single night he stays away, he is bound to suffer a disaster."
The Naga has withdrawn from the World, the daylight. But in the darkness, in the Underworld, the king has to submit to the supreme power of the Naga.
In the 13th century, Angkor's irrigation system got overstressed and broke down. The limits set by nature – the female principle – were ignored and eliminated; the male principle had to fail. Angkor was abandoned.
When the Naga - who controls the water - was superficially eliminated, the irrigation system in Angkor collapsed.
This may be mere coincidence; anyhow the failure of water supply was the main reason for the decline of Angkor.
The roots at Ta Prohm
After the breakdown of Angkor, the Naga return in the guise of trees and their roots, transforming or destroying the works of civilization, and restoring nature.
- Goddesses, Devata, Apsara and Naga - Female power in Angkor (Free PDF download, 1.21 MB)