Naga: The Dragons of Indonesia

In Indonesian and Malay culture, the word for dragon is “Naga” or “Nogo”. “Naga” is also sanskrit for “serpent” and appears in not only Indo-Malaysian myth, but Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The naga is a large part of myth and culture in this part of the world, appearing in countless stories and legends as well as in art and architecture. Nagas of all kinds of forms transcend country lines and religions, and is believed to have originated in the Indo-Malaysian areas.

Naga in Myth

In the mythology and legends told by these people, these dragons have varying descriptions but are always large, serpentine creatures, similar to western dragons we think of. Many times, they have human features, appearing as half human and half snake or cobra. Some myths even name naga has being capable of appearing entirely human or entirely serpentine at will.

Whereas western dragons in fantasy books and films tend to be evil, destructive, and cruel, Indonesian Naga dragons tend to have divine natures and be kind and benevolent. They preside over sacred lands like mountains, forests and specific parts of the sea. They are revered and respected in myth and story instead of being featured and persecuted. Instead, in the East, they are respected and even celebrated. In the modern Hindu tradition, the birth of such dragons are celebrated on Naga-panchami which happens in the month of Shravana.

The Reach of Nagas

Belief in these dragons spread over time with Hinduism into Maritime Southeast Asia. Before Islam became prevalent in Indonesia, the concept of the Naga was much more prevalent. Today, “naga” remains the most common word for dragon in this part of the word. The Japanese also use the word Naga to describe a dragon in their mythology. This one is crowned, magical, and often has wings.

Despite often being more benevolent than dragons we are used to in the West, Naga dragons have a varied history and appear in both devine happy stories and darker ones as well. For instance, There is a wayang theater story where a snake god – referred to here as naga – named Sanghyang Antaboga or Antaboga is a godlike figure. But instead of flying around in the heavens, it is a guardian deep in the bowels of the earth.

There are three very popular nagas:

  • Shesha or Ananta is a creature in Hindu myth that is associated heavily with Narayana or Vishnu. The entire world rests upon him and he lives below the sea.
  • Takshaka is the chief and ruler of all snakes.
  • Vasuki was used in myth to create the cosmic ocean of milk.

Cultural Impact and Appreciation 

Dragons or naga such as these are represented culturally in many different places and in varying forms. For example, nagas are often seen as guardians in doorways and entranceways. They guard and protect whoever is inside. They are often shown in art with multiple heads, as partly human with the serpentine aspect covering the human form, or adoring one of the major gods or mythical heroes.