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The Naga and Makara

Naga Head in Chiang MaiThe Naga is seen pouring out of the mouth of a Makara, a creature that combines the crocodile, the elephant and the serpent. They are aquatic servants of Varuna, a powerful Vedic god. In Vedic mythology Varuna controlled not only the waters, but also controlled the means that produced the cosmos.

Varuna, as the serpent king, rode upon the back of a Makara and bound subjects who disobeyed natural law (the dhamma) in fetters which were represented as snakes. Varuna, therefore, may be closely associated with the Brahmanic notion of the universe as an illusion represented by Mara, and the Buddhist notion that man is bound to the world of illusion by sensory attachment.

The Naga and Makara live in paradises beneath the rivers, lakes and seas. They control the sources of rain and are the guardians of life-giving energy in its waters. On the balustrades to temples they represent both the rising of water to the heavens and the down pouring of rain from the sky. Thus they are powerful symbols in a culture based on wet-rice cultivation.

They may also be seen as linking the earth below to the heaven above by a celestial stairway represented by a rainbow. The colors of the rainbow represent different aspects of the unity of light at their source. The naga stairway, then, symbolically links opposites. It links the world of illusion, the Sea of Samsara upon which the viharn floats, to the formless world of nirvana. Thus the Naga and Makara symbolize the ties that bind man to the world of illusion, and the path that frees man from that illusion.

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