Buddha and the snake


Stairs, protected by Nagas, lead to a ruined temple in Chiang Saen along the banks of the Mekong in Thailand. Photo by Elizabeth Hutchins.

I am sitting on some moss-covered stone steps leading to an ancient temple in the jungle along the banks of the Mekong River in the Golden Triangle. The whole thing looks—and feels—like something out of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland. An old creeping fig tree grows out of the ruins of a long-forgotten temple; a barely-recognizable stone Buddha head, four or five feet tall, sits upside down, half-buried in the rich soil, vines and moss growing on it.

To get to the ruined temple you have to climb those very same moss-covered steps upon which I am sitting. The stairway is protected on both sides by undulating nagas, those mythical snake figures that figure prominently in Hinduism and, at least in this part of Thailand, in Buddhism as well.

They say that many of the hill tribes that live along the Mekong River use nagas in their creationism stories; nagas live in the river and give life. They also take life. Some time ago, the villagers along the river started seeing dozens, sometimes hundreds, of flaming orange balls rising above the river. They attributed the flaming orange balls to the nagas that lived in the river and started a folklore about them. Then a Thai TV show picked up on it, investigated, and determined that the flaming orange balls were actually tracer bullets fired by soldiers in Laos over the river. Which really pissed off the hill people who continued to believe that the flaming orange balls had something to do with their sacred river snakes.

Perhaps the most notable naga in the Buddhist tradition is Mucalinda, King of the Nagas. They say that shortly after Buddha achieved enlightenment, he was meditating in the forest when a great storm came up. Mucalinda came to Buddha’s rescue by covering the Buddha’s head with his 7 cobra-like snake heads. Which is why, particularly in Northern Thailand, you’ll often see a Buddha statue with Mucalinda covering his head. It’s a little bit Hindu, a little bit Animism, and a little bit Buddhist. Like so many things in this part of the world.

Mucalinda protecting Buddha

Mucalinda, King of the Nagas, protects the Buddha at this temple in Thailand. Photo by David Lansing.

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