The Nagas in Sinhala Sculpture

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 Naga figures are found on either side of the moonstones
Naga figures are found on either side of the moonstones

The ancients in the Orient believed that mankind is beguiled, surrounded, and supported in their lives by abundant homely guardian personalities. The function of such guardians is to preside over the continuous efficacy of the cosmic power which shapes the world.

Genii (Yakkha) represents the forces of soil and mineral treasures such as precious metals and jewels. Serpent kings (Nagas) direct the territorial waters of the lakes, ponds, rivers, and oceans. Tree goddesses (vrasha-devata) patronize the kingdom of vegetation.


Sacred elements (Naga same term as a serpent) consorted with the clouds bearing rain. These elements bestow upon the human world all the boons of earthly happiness such as an abundance of crops, cattle, prosperity, offspring, health, and long life. The following notes aim to examine the way of depicting in sculpture the genii, Naga presiding over the waters.

The Vedic gods such as Visnu and Balarama are closely associated with the Nagas. God Visnu rests on the coil-bed of Ananta, king of Nagas. God Balarama, brother of Krishna had the experience of emitting a Naga out of his mouth while resting on the sea beach. The Buddha spent the 6th week following the Enlightenment under the shade of a Naga king called Mucalinda. In India and Sri Lanka there is a number of examples of Naga figures in sculpture. This essay is limited to examining only some of the local specimens.

Naga at Nalanda 6th Century B.C.
Naga at Nalanda 6th Century B.C.


Among ancient ruins on the island, one may notice three groups of Naga figures carved on stone. Out of them abundant are the seven hooded Naga figures shown on guard stones. These guard stones flank the doorways of religious buildings such as stupas and image-houses. The five-hooded Naga figures are found on the banks of ponds, lakes, and tanks. The third group is very rare.

It shows the figure with nine hoods. Many of these examples are found, as told earlier, on guard stones, and a few are found free-standing. The guard stones are originally free from any carvings. Later they were modified to carry purnaghta (full-pitch) motif. Still later they were modified to carry Naga figures in zoo-morphic form.


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In the last stage of development, the Nagas were transformed into an anthropomorphic form with the expanded seven hoods behind the head. The purnaghta has been placed on the palm. The Naga symbolizes the Buddha who is intimately associated with the life of the Enlightened One. The Buddha is also called Buddha Naga in literature. It is rather difficult to attribute a feasible meaning to the number seven (hoods).


The second group with five hoods is usually found on the banks regulating waters. This motif signifies God Balarama or Baladeva. As noticed above water is the life-giving element to the world of vegetation. The five-hooded Nagas seldom assume the anthropomorphic form, unlike the first category. Nevertheless, it has been suggested by the present writer that the figures engraved on a slab of terra-cotta discovered at the ancient Maduru Oya sluice depict a family of Balarama with his wife and attendant. In Mysore, many naga-gal (Naga stones) are found with five-headed Naga figures. Many of them are in the animal form and a few display the anthropomorphic design.

The last group, namely nine-hooded Naga stones are very rare. The only example available to us in Sri Lanka is found at the Seruvila Vihara in the eastern province. It depicts clearly the Buddha sitting on the coil of Mucalinda Naga during the sixth rainy week after attaining the Buddhahood.

In Indian art, however, an anthropomorphic figure of a Naga king with a shield of many hoods is available. The slab has been discovered on the premises of the ancient Nalanda Buddhist University. The number of hoods appears to be nine. It is not certain whether this slab suggests the episode of the Buddha-Naga meeting at the Mucalinda Lake. The marked distinction between a male Naga and a female Naga (nagini) is suggested by the number of hoods they show.

A female Nagini is often shown with a single hood. Nevertheless, a three hooded example is found in the compound of the Vatadage at Medirigiriya. Naginis have not been shown in anthropomorphic form.

An interesting figure of a Naga is found on a slab discovered from the bed of the Tabbova tank. It shows seven hoods in a diagrammatic form. There is a couple of minute Naga figures flanking the body of the Naga. They would represent Naginis or attendants.

There is in the Colombo Museum a slab with carvings of a Naga family with Naginis and offspring.

A.M. Hocart, Archaeological Commissioner in 1921 says that the guard stone at Tabbova is a unique one.

As noted earlier seven hooded Naga stones are placed in association with Buddhist Viharas. As the Tabbova example was found in the tank-bed its original home would have been in a vihara close to the tank.

By Professor Abaya Ariyasinghe
Sunday Observer

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