The Story of Manasa Devi the Naga Goddess of Bhagirathi

The unknown folklore of Manasa Devi, the snake-goddess worshipped in the Bhagirathi-Hooghly region about a century ago.
The Story of Manasa Devi the Naga Goddess of Bhagirathi

Preface

IF THE COLD-BLOODED DECIMATION OF our classical art forms is a cultural destruction on a fundamental plane, the dismantling of Hindu folklore is a more comprehensive ruination. In reality, there is really no opposition or dichotomy between the classical and the folk traditions of Bharatavarsha. But that’s a story for another day. 

In a broad sense, Hindu folklore is how the Itihasa and Purana were localised, adapted, repurposed and in many cases, took an independent life of its own. Just as how Bharatavarsha is the largest global repository of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it is also the world’s largest treasure-trove of folklore. Just as how the dialect and cuisine of Bharatavarsha changes roughly after 90 kilometres in any given region, there is an inexhaustible reservoir of Hindu folklore measured for example, in clusters of villages located in an average area of 50 kilometres. 

Over the last seventy-five years, the lived tradition of Hindu folklore has been destroyed through a variety of tactics chief of which is neglect. A major element that has driven this neglect has been the mistaken notion of “modernity” — the accursed colonial thrall that continues to grip the minds of our policymakers and educationists. The other element is the epidemic of missionary conversions which exploded after India attained a questionable freedom. When the rustic Hindu gets converted, he not only loses his deities but becomes a ghost-worshipper. The magnitude of this loss is compounded because he also loses  everything associated with his former deities including millennia-worth of folklore. It is rare to find Hindu folklore that does not have divinity attached to it. 

The British at least had the sense to preserve Hindu folklore by initiating and funding their conservation efforts. Bureaucrats like J.F. Fleet and R.C. Temple actively sought out Hindu scholars like Natesa Sastri who produced encyclopaedic works such as Folklore in Southern India. Others like H.M. Elliot published voluminous collections of the folklore of North Western India organised by races living in that vast region. 

After “independence,” there have been similar efforts to preserve folklore but they are primarily in the nature of excavating the dead and then “studying” them. Like idioms and proverbs and maxims, Hindu folklore provides the living proof of the Sanatana civilisational and social continuum.

As we were digging through the archives at The Dharma Dispatch, we unearthed this precious gem of a story. As recently as a century ago, it was wildly popular along the rustic interiors of the Hooghly-Bhagirathi stretch. Among other things, this folktale was apparently linked to the sanctity of banana — stem, tree, fruit, leaves… everything about the eternal Kadaliphalam. The Naga-Devata named Manasa Devi was obliquely invoked to bolster this sanctity. 

Here’s her story.   

The Story of Manasa Devi and Benlo 

MANY CENTURIES AGO, there lived a very rich merchant named Chand Saudagar somewhere up the Bhagirathi. The entire region was the abode of the Naga-Devata named Manasa Devi. Chand Saudagar was extremely proud of his wealth and did not worship Manasa Devi, whom he considered an inferior deity. 

But Manasa Devi was not only a powerful deity, she also had a quick temper. But she also had a weakness. She was fond of the good things in life… jewellery, elaborate meals, fine dress and ornaments. Among the vast multitude of her devotees, only Chand Saudagar could provide her these things in the form of Naivedya. For many years, she sent frequent signs and omens to Chand demanding him to fulfil her desire for these goodies. But Chand remained obstinate. Her patience finally ran out and one day, she appeared in person before Chand Saudagar. Swallowing her pride, she almost begged him but he stuck to his miserliness. Then she threatened him. Chand remained unmoved. Manasa Devi then showed him her terrible form and thundered, “I will kill all your seven sons!” Chand Saudagar scoffed at her. Seething with rage, Manasa Devi gave him a dreadful look and disappeared.

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The very next day, Manasa Devi commanded her children — snakes, to bite each of Chand Saudagar’s sons one after the other. And so it happened. Over the course of six weeks, Chand Saudagar’s six children were bitten to death. However, even this serial tragedy did not melt the  wealthy old miser’s heart.   

Only his youngest son remained. His name was Lakhindar. 

Manasa Devi played her last gambit. One evening, Chand Saudagar heard a portent from the Devi: your son, Lakhindar will die of snakebite on his wedding night. After the deaths of his six sons, a semblance of sense had dawned upon Chand. But instead of acceding to Manasa Devi’s request cum threat, he decided to take precautions to save his surviving son. He built an iron room in which Lakhindar would celebrate his wedding night. Chand Saudagar thought that that room was fully snake-proof.  

Three months after this, Lakhindar was married to a maiden named Benlo, fabled for her beauty.  On the wedding night, Lakhindar and his bride went to sleep in the iron room. Benlo was already informed of the Devi’s curse on her husband. Scared and vigilant, she tried her best to remain awake throughout the night to save her husband from the curse. However, no force in the fourteen worlds could deter Manasa Devi’s wrath. Lakhindar was bitten by a snake and he died before daybreak. 

The poor widow grieved but like Savitri, she resolved to get her husband back to life. She prayed with great devotion in the banana grove and then prepared a raft made of plantain stems. After this, she took the ashes of her husband upon it, floated down the river, down , down, down, till she met Manasa Devi somewhere near the mouth of the Hooghly. 

Manasa Devi, a mother herself, melted when she saw Benlo’s devotion to her husband and her faith in her goodness. With tears in her eyes, she promised to bring Lakhindar back to life only if that wretched father-in-law worshipped her. Benlo assured her and returned home, fell at her father-in-law's feet, and, with tears in her eyes , begged him to worship Manasa Devi, the queen-goddess of the snakes. 

By now, Chand Saudagar had realised what his obstinate folly had cost him. He had been  sufficiently humbled but some specks of his former haughtiness still remained. He consented to worship Manasa Devi according to her wishes. However, he would do it with his left hand and not with the right. This was quite disrespectful. Manasa Devi was enraged again but she saw no other recourse. She too, realised that she must either accept the left-hand worship or forgo worship itself.  And so, she agreed to the compromise, and when she was thoroughly satisfied with Chand Saudagar’s rich offerings, she restored the life of all his seven sons, and there was peace and harmony ever afterwards between Manasa Devi and  Chand Saudagar. 

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