The serpent deities and their cult as evinced from Dongba manuscripts

Manuscripts dedicated to serpent-cult, or Ssù cult,[1] constitute a wide corpus, and among them there are 3 which could be taken as text-guides:

A. manuscript Ssù Ndo ngvgu Bpu – which title means to escort the nine Ssù,

B. manuscript Bpo lu k’uthe origin of the Ssù

C. manuscript Ssawndaw yu dsuinviting the ancestors of the Ssawndaw[2]

All manuscripts are actually preserved as copies in the Harvard Yenching Naxi’s manuscript Collection, respectively  cataloged as:

A. n. 11100767 (Rock n. 1399)

B. n. 11100738 (Rock n. 1400)

C. n. 11100776 (Rock n. 1020)

all recorded into CENSUS General Catalog of Dongba Manuscripts[3] as numbers:

A. 50[4]

B. 13[5]

C. 51[6]

From manuscript B. Bpo Lu K’u we read about the origin of the serpent and the dragon like deities:

[pg. 13, r. IX]

“At first, when there were no human beings, heaven and earth were. In the center came forth white and black clouds.

They caused a magic and there came forth white and black wind.”

[pg. 14]

“from the latter came forth white and black dew.

This dew caused a magic and there came forth the lake.

The lake caused a magic and there came forth a golden egg.

From it was born the Yellow Golden frog named Ha shi bpa ma.

The frog for one year looked toward the east and there came froth a pair of silver eggs; one year she sat looking south and there comae forth a pair of blue eggs.

One year she sat looking west and there came forth one pair of black eggs.

One year she sat looking north and there came forth one pair of yellow eggs.

One year she looked up in the center and there came forth one pair of spotted eggs.

It was three years since the eggs had been laid, but there was no one to hatch them.
[…] it the east there will come forth from the pair of silver eggs the white Ssù-swe-pa and the white 2Lu.

In the south form the pair of green eggs”


“ the green Ssù-swe-pa and the green Lu.

In the west, from the black eggs the black Ssù-swe-pa and the black Lu.

In the north, from the yellow eggs the yellow Ssù-swe-pa and the yellow Lu.

In the center from the spotted eggs the spotted Ssù-swe-pa and the spotted Lu.”

The pictograph is associated with 2 readings: Ssù-swe-pa and Ssù, both referring as serpent deity; the pictograph is associated with the reading Lu and means a dragon deity. Thus Ssù[-swe-pa] and Lu have to be considered two different supernatural creatures, although they share a common origin, as both are said to be born form colored eggs, which color depends on the quarter of the compass:[7]

  • East = white Ssù-swe-pa and white Lu
  • South = green Ssù-swe-pa and Lu
  • West = red Ssù-swe-pa and red Lu
  • North = yellow (gold) Ssù-swe-pa and yellow Lu
  • Center = spotted (means immaculate, variegated) Ssù-swe-pa and spotted Lu

The manuscript B. goes on:


“[…] after 9 months and 13 nights there were born in the east the white Ssù-swe-pa, the white Lu.

Then were born the Ssù-swe-pa named T’a-yu, the one named Ch’er-nyi-t’o-k’o-sso, the Ssaw-ndaw…


“ … named Dso-gkv, the Ssù named Ch’er-dta-dgyuwu, the Ssù named Ddv-p’er-la-p’er and the Ssù named Ddv-p’er-ssi-nggu.

They went to dwell on white mountains and white cliffs and the white lakes.

In the south, from the green eggs there came forth the green Ssù-swe-pa and the green Lu.

Also the Ssù-swe-pa named Dsaw-bpu, the Ssaw-ndaw named Bbue-na, the Ssù named O-de la-dzi, the Lu mun named Yi-mber-ho.

They went to dwell in the south or green mountains, green cliffs and green lakes.

In the west from the black eggs there came forth the Ssù-swe-pa named na Lu na, the Ssù Swue Pa named…

The scripture presents a ritual pattern and some features recurring. At first, it could be stated that from the colored egg came forth different entities, and the order with which they had origin have to be considered not as a insignificant or just chronological succession, but as a hierarchy and distinguished pyramid of importance and power.

Also emerged different readings for sign, which seems to be derived by association of with other pictographs, as it is attested in manuscript Ssawndaw yu dsu – Inviting the ancestors of the Ssawndaw


In he large house of the Ssù, in the central region between heaven and hearth a Ssù dwells at each of the eight regions of the compass.

At one region sits the Ssù gyi-bbu named bbu L’o-v-dsho, his body is white and scintillating.

He sits on a lion throne and holds a bpo-mba in his hands.

Ch’ung-bpa (ba) mbo is performed to him by the landlord


and prostrated before him.

In the East on a lotus carpet placed, there sits the Ssù gyi-bbu named O-mbu.

His body is green and scintillating.

He holds in his hand green rope.

The landlord prostrates and performs Ch’ung-bpa…

From A. Ssaw-ndaw yu dsu and B. Bpo Lu K’u manuscripts’ pages thus emerged the associations of pictograph with other signs, with different readings, which are Ssù-swe-pa, Ssù, Lu-mun and Ssaw-ndaw.

In the last page examined, from manuscript Ssaw-ndaw yu dsu, the pictograph appears associated with two others signs: water [8] and container [9], and to the reading of the tri-syllable Ssù gyi-bbu.

The Ssù gyi-bbu, because in this manuscript appears for first in the enumeration of supernatural serpent-like creatures, it could be characterized of the highest hierarchy position, or at least the highest in this context. From a semantic point of view the Ssù gyi-bbu seems to be associated to the concept of a serpent-like spirit as the lord of the region where it’s residing, a theme which is well-attested both in the Tibetan ཀླུ Klu and the Indian नाग Nāga traditions.

Considering this two texts and the whole corpus of manuscripts dedicated or related to serpent cult, is thus possible to attest the following association of sign with other pictographs. The order in which they are presented, respects the order with which they emerged from texts:

A. association of Ssù with the pictographs read with the syllable swe (cfr. Ms B. for instance), associated with the reading Ssù Swue Pa, a recurring pattern where could be interpreted as the abbreviation for the bi-syllable swuepa.

The various Ssùswuepa are among the first creatures which appears during the creation processes, they were generated from different colored eggs, which color depends from the compass of the quarter where the originated and the  Ssù-swe-pa had inherited.

Being the first Ssù creatures appeared the Ssù-swe-pa thus have to be considered as hierarchically the first of a Ssù creatures’ pyramid, so they have to be considered as the royal Ssù.

The concept of the Ssù-swe-pa found concordance with the Tibetan ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ Klu rGyal-po, from the Tibetan ཀླུ Klu = serpent god and རྒྱལ་པོ rGyalpo = king, lord, as both are in concordance with the Indian नागराजNāgarāja, from Sanskrit राज rāja = king, royal, chief and नाग Nāga = serpent god:[10] the ཀླུ Klu, according to Das Sarat  Chandra[11] is the equivalent to Indian नाग Nāga, a demi-god having the human head and the body of a serpent, which is generally supposed to live in fountains, rivers and lakes. The ཀླུ are also believed to be the guardian of great treasures under-ground; they are able to cause rain and certain maladies, and become dangerous when angry.

Those are all features which perfectly coincides with the iconology of the Naxi – Dongba Ssù.

Association of the two pictographs and takes form into 3 different ways:

1. the Swe complement could be directly inserted over the head of the Ssù in a complex-fusion pictographic unit, resulting as [12]

2. the Swe complement is inserted on the body of the Ssù, resulting again a complex-fusion pictographic unit,as [13]

3. the Swe complement is not inserted on the body of the Ssù but immediately just-apposed as , [14] or written at certain distance, as ,[15]
thus making a complex-composed pictographic unit.[16]

Iconography and iconology of Ssù-Swe-Pa are variegated.

At first is possible to find correlations between some Ssù Swe Pa and serpent-deities kings both from Indian and/or Tibetan tradition.

For instance in manuscript Lu nyi ssa nda the Ssù Swe Pa named T’a-yu should be related with the Tibetan serpent-deity ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་མཐཧ་ཡས Klu rGyal-po mThah-Yas (ཀླུ་ Klu – serpent god རྒྱལ་པོ rgyal-po – king ་མཐཧ་ཡས mThahYas[17]), or in manuscript Tso Ma Yu tsu Lu chung the Swue Pa named Nabpu has to be related with the Tibetan ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་ནག་པོ Klu-rgyal-po Nag-po.[18]

Statistic analysis of Ssù-Swe-Pa into Dongba manuscript are resumed below. Detailed statistic, with page and rubric number for each attestation is available in appendix and also as online resource.[19]

B. association of Ssù iconography with pictographs water and container used as phonetic complements to compose the bi-syllable gyi-bbu which in Naxi language means a lord – a term again in palese relationship with the Tibetan རྒྱལ་པོ rGyal-po – but in the sense of a chief of something contextualized and restricted to a precise filed and dominion. The Ssù gyi-bbu are then here meant as the god-land-lord of the region where they inhabits, hierarchically probably subdued or less important then Ssù-swue-pa.[20] Association of of Ssù with the pictograph of water and container should also be related as a semantic allusion to the water-world as the meaning of Ssù as a water-divinity, grant of rain, of prosperity and fertility, although the Ssù hasn’t to be confined to just a water or rain entities, because its many variants and manifestation are believed to dwell everywhere: in the ground, in rocks, in the fields, on
mountains, etc…

As the Naxi Gyibbu is closely related with the Tibetan རྒྱལ་པོ rGyal-po, as in Dongba manuscript literature others concordance are possible to be suggested among Ssù Gyi-bbu and Tibetan tradition, as in ms. Tso Ma Yu Tsu Lu Chung[21] pg.1, r.II, where Ssù gyi-bbu is associated with syllables du = the white conch shell, and dgyu = to crow, to turn back, both used to compose the Ssù gyi-bbu‘s name Du-gyu = a northern Ssù gyi-bbu associated to the white conch-shell; this could be closely related to the Tibetan ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་དུང་སྐྱོང ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་དཀརཔོ་དུང་སྐྱོང Klu rGyal-po dkar-po dung skyong, which name means a serpent (ཀླུ Klu) King (རྒྱལ་པོ rGyal-po) protector (དཀར་པོ dkarpo) of the white conch-shell (དུང་སྐྱོང dung skyong): confronting the Naxi and Tibetan name, the first one appears as in part transcription and translation of the latter:  ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་Klu rGyal-po → Naxi Ssù gyi-bbu དུང་སྐྱོངDung-sKyong → Naxi Du-gyu). [22]

Focusing on the relationship between Tibetan Buddhist myths and Indian ones, as according to Sarat-Chandra, the ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་དུང་སྐྱོང ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་དཀརཔོ་དུང་སྐྱོང Klu rGyal-po dkar-po dung skyong, thus also the Naxi Ssù gyi-bbu Du-gyu, has in turn to be closely related to the Indian Nāgaraja Sankhapala.[23]

Other interesting concordances could be suggested for the Ssù gyi-bbu named Dsawbpu and the Tibetan ཀླུརྒྱལ་པོཧཇོག་པོ rGyal-po hjog-po,[24] or the Ssù gyi-bbu named Bpama with the Tibetan ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་པད་མ rGyal-po Pad-ma.[25]

The Ssù gyi-bbu are also attested as complex iconography with the body of the Ssù (tail of serpents, body trilobated) and with animals’ head, as for instance in manuscript Ssù k’v man chung[26] is possible to identify a Ssù gyi-bbu with the head of a Water-Buffalo,[27] a Ssù gyi-bbu elephant headed,[28] and a Ssù gyi-bbu with the head of a Tiger.

Ssù gyi-bbu are also attested as in manuscript Ssaw ndaw yu dsu – to invite the ancestors of the serpent-deities  Ssawdndaw [29] as Dragon’s headed.[30]

Statistic analysis of Ssù gyi-bbu presence into Dongba manuscript dedicated to Ssù cult more then one hundred  attestations, as resumed below. Detailed   data, with page and rubric number for each attestation is available as online resource.[31]

C. iconography of as stand-alone pictograph, a basic reptile-divinity sign associated
with the readings Ssù, Lu-mun and Ssaw-ndaw, also not read and not associated to any syllable, not
necessary related to others pictographs or recurring patterns or combinations.[32]

Analysis of Dongba manuscripts evinced the following attestations :

Interpretationof  data retrieved from manuscripts evinced that pictograph, as independent-basic unit,appears very much associated to Lu-mun reading with a frequency of 49,50% over 101 attestations. Immediately after the Ssù reading is attested with a frequency of 29,70%, then Ssawndaw reading with a frequency of 15,84% and  as mute sign with any readings with a frequency of 4,95%; the latter is possible to hypothesize to be a mute determinative of serpent deity.

However sign appears in many graphical variants which in turns could be associated with different readings just mentioned: the general rule which could be isolated seems to consists in the pattern [ body ] + [animal[33]/demons/human[34] – one head or plus heads], and this is attested with relative readings as:

· 25% of time as Ssù,

· 31,25% Lu-mun,

· 6,25% Ssawndaw,

· 37,5% no reading.

Resuming plates of regarding to Ssù, Lumun, Ssawndaw and no readings is reported below:




Lu mun

ssaw ndaw







body +

animal / human / demon head/s












Another recurring variant of is [35] with trembling lines protruding form the body, 3 for each side, indicating the property of shining or scintillating, as attested for instance in manuscript Tso Ma Yu Tsu Lu Chung,[36]
where it appears many times[37] as
the Lu-mun named Ghugh-yu-gkv-dzu,[38] or for instance the pictograph which represents the southern regional Lu-mun named ts’o-gkv-dzu.[39]

While Lu-mun and Ssù readings appears as the more frequent, Ssawndaw are less one.

Closer look to manuscripts’ contexts for Ssaw-ndaw evinced that this reading is associated with the concept of thousands and thousands of entities which were generated from a higher ranked Ssù.[40]

Association of no syllables to the pictograph and/or its variants also needs a closer look to the contexts, where it seems to be clear that peculiar phenomena could be explained with the use of the pictograph as a mute determinative, a
specification of a Ssù-like entity whose name is phonetically rendered by pictographs, as for instance in the case of
, read pa-ma-chi-mpu, syllables that could be considered as the Naxi transcription of the Tibetan པད་མ་ཆྷེན་པོ Pad-ma-chhen-po,[41] or again for , read as ch’er-t’a-gyu-wu, a tiger-headed eastern regional Ssù, whose name’s second syllable is the phonetic transcription of the homophone Tibetan སྟག sTag = tiger.[42]

[1] From Naxi Ssù = serpent divinity, the most common reading attested for iconography.

[2] Saw-ndaw is another reading associated to pictograph of serpent deities

[7] and the eggs from which they came forth the Ssù and the Lu use to have the color of the region whence they originated

[8] Pictograph attestations in main Dongba dictionaries:

[9] Pictograph , as variant of . Attestations in main Dongba dictionaries:

[10] नागराजNāgarāja, King of Snakes. It is applied to three main deities, Anantha, Vasuki & Takshak. Anantha, Vasuki and Takshak are brothers, children of Kashyap and Kadru, who are the parents of all snakes.
Anantha, the eldest brother, was a devotee of Vishnu, and represents the friendly aspect of snakes, as they save food from rodents. Lord Vishnu is always on continuous meditation (Yoganidra) with Anantha forming a bed for him, and this posture is called AnanthaSayana.Vasuki, the younger one was a devotee of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva always wears Vasuki around his neck. Takshak
represents the dangerous aspect of snakes, as they are feared by all due to their venom.

At Nagercoil in Kanniyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, a temple dedicated to Nāgaraja exists. There is another famous temple named Mannarasala in Alleppey district of Kerala. The deity in this temple embodies both Anantha and Vasuki into one.

A temple devoted to Nāgaraja exists in Poojappura of Thiruvananthapuram District in Kerala, India. It is known as Poojappura Nāgarukavu Temple. The uniqueness of this temple is that here the family of the Nāgaraja including Nāgaramma, Queen of Nāga and Nāgakanya, Princess of the Nāga kingdom is placed inside a single temple.

[11] 1902: 44 – ཀླུ

[12] Manuscript 2Tso 2ma 1yu 2tsu 3lu 3chung – invite the ancestors, 2nd volume, pg.1, r. VI. A copy of manuscript is preserved in Harvard Yenching Collection, number 11100763, Rock n. 994.

[13] Ibid, pg. 3, r. V

[14] Ibid, pg. 1, r. II

[15] Ibid, pg. 2, r. VII

[16] For complex and basic pictograph approach into Dongba pictographic manuscript tradition cfr. Zamblera S., 2009 “Dongba pictographic and Geba writing systems iconographic and thematic index plates and classification” in “THE 16th WORLD CONGRESS OF THE INTERNATIONAL UNION OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL AND ETHNOLOGICAL SCIENCES – Paper Abstracts Vol. 4 – Cultural Diversity in Multi-disciplinary Research”, Chinese Union of  Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences , July 2009.

For a closer look to the concepts of basic pictographic unit, complex-fusion pictographic unit and complex-composed pictographic unit, please cfr.
[Both → 07/12/2009]

[17] Rock suggested that the ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་མཐཧ་ཡས Klui rGyal-po mThah-Yas should be related in turns with the Nāgaraja अनन्त शेष Ananta Śeşa, alias the world नागNāga or the world serpent.

About the Ssù Swe Pa T’a Yu, cfr. manuscript Lu My Ssa nda, which a copy is preserved in Harvard Yenching Collection as number 11100806, Rock n. 1377.

About अनन्त शेष Ananta Śeşa, in Hindu tradition he’s the King of all nagas, one of the primal being of creation, and according to the Bhagavata Purana, an Avatar of the Supereme God known as Sankarsham. In the Puranas, Shesha is referred as “Ananta-Shesha” which means “Endless Shesha” and as “Adishesha”, which means First snake.

[18] Sarat Chandra Das suggested that the last two syllables of the Naxi name na-bpŭ = the black one coincides with Tibetan ནག་པོnagpo. Rock and Tucci agreed and suggested moreover that Ssù-ddv-na-bpŭ coincides with the malicious Tibetan Bön Nāgaསེ་བདུད་ནག་པོ Se-bdud-nag-po. Cfr Vaidurya dkar-po, folio 466b, where occurs the sa-bdag named Se-bdud.

Tucci also formulated some generalization (cfr Tucci l.c. p. 715a) about the Tibetan syllable SE which has to be related with the Naxi Ssù: “ probably the name of these Se, bSe, or bSue should be linked with the Hsi-Hsia word szu, which according to Chinese sources coincides with 巫wū = wizard, shamans, being Naxi and HSI_HSIA languages closely related (cfr. Laufer, the Hsi-hia language in T’oung Pao, 1916: 68, no. 138) Rock accorded to Tucci’s theory and hypothesized that the word Se and Ssù seems to be the oldest name for serpent entities, as Nāga concept transposition into Naxi tradition from Bön times.

The Se-bdud-nag-po is in turn identifiable as the Sanskrit Kāla; cfr The Kala Nāga King Story, Extract from The Chronicle of Gotama Buddha – by Mingun Sayadaw.

For Ssù Swue Pa Na Bpu cfr. ms. Tso Ma Yu tsu Lu chung, preserved in a copy in Harvard Yenching Library with number 11100763, Rock n. 999, and cfr. manuscript 2Ssù-1Ndo 2ngv 2gu 3bpu.

[20] The Ssù gyi-bbu are always named AFTER the Ssu-swue-p’a, thus being such scriptures liturgical texts, it seems plausible to hypothesize that the first supernatural beings have to be considered the most powerful and hierarchically highest then the following.

[21] Harvard-Yenching collection n. 11100763, Rock n. 999

[22] du = white (as the conch shell) coincides with Tibetan དུང dung = white. According to Joseph Rock (1972) ཀླུ་རྒྱལ་པོ་དུང་སྐྱོང rGyal-po Dung-sKyong is in turn related to the Sanskrit Sankhapāla, alias the Bodhisattva born as a Nāga king.

[23] About Sankhapāla: it was a Nāga king, impressive because of its great magnificence. Cfr. also Alāra. The story is given in the Cariyāpitaka (ii.10; see also J.i.45; MA.ii.617; BuA.50) to illustrate Sīla pāramitā.

Cfr. Vogel “Indian serpent-lore”: 133 – 135, 150 – 151; N. Ramesan – 1961 “Glimpses of Buddhism‎”: 55. Also cfr:

[24] Manuscript Ssù 1k’v 2gku 3chung – to invite the Ssù 1st volume: pg 7, r.IV, actually a copy is preserved in Harvard-Yenching collection, n. 11100757, Rock n. 1386

[25] Manuscript Khur Ma, actually a copy is preserved in Harvard-Yenching Collection n. 13321400, Rock n. 1782.

[26] Manuscript Ssù 1k’v 3man 3chung is actually preserved in a copy at Harvard Yenching collection, n. 11100758, Rock n. 1392

[27] pg.6, r.II

[28] pg.6, r.I

[29] Manuscript 1Ssaw 3ndaw 1yu 2dsu – to invite the ancestors of the Saw-Ndaw, actually preserved in Harvard Yenching collection with number 11100776, Rock collection n. 1020.

[30] Page 28, rubric VII

[32] Need to be attested.

[33] For instances, cfr. below: Lu mun Ghugh-yu-gkv-dzu, Lu mun ts’o-gkv-dzu and ch’er-t’a-gyu-wu

[34] ms. 3155; Rock J., 1972: 157; NNCRC: 112 + tavola 45 fig. 1

[35] Manuscript n. 11100763 (cfr note 27), pg.1, r. IV.

[36] Harvard-Yenching collection n. 11100763, Rock n. 999

[37] In all the 12 folia of manuscript the pictograph appears 24 time, referred to 3 different Lu-mun.

[38] Ibid, pg. 8, r. II.

[39] Ibid, pg. 8 r. II.

[40] for instance, in manuscript n. 6052 of Joseph Rock collection is written , read Saw-ndaw nyi-muàn-wuà-dtv = the 25 thousands of Saw-ndaw. About the translation: Nyi = 2, muan = 10.000, wuà = 5, dtv = 1.000, thus the 25.000 Sawndaw.

[41] པད་མ་ཆྷེན་པོ Pad-ma-chhen-po could in turns be associated to the Sanskrit Nāga Mahāpadma, both as a king and as a reptile-god.

For the Naxi pa-ma-chi-mpu, it’s attested as the 6th of the 8 great Ssù in ms. 1116 of Joseph Rock private collection, pg. 6, r.II; in the same manuscript is also told about the 99 great white celestial Ssù.

About the Tibetan པད་མ་ཆྷེན་པོ Pad-ma-chhen-po and its equivalence with Indian Mahāpadma, cfr: Hermann August Francke, 1996 “Antiquities of Indian Tibet” : 74 – 75; Das Sarat Chandra, “Tibetan-English Dictionary” : 779;, Guenther Herbert Von, 2001 “The jewel ornament of liberation” : 60, 61

About the Nāga Mahāpadma, cfr. Stein M.A., 1989 Kalhana’s Rajatarangini: A Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir“: 424; Stein M.A., 1899 “Ancient geography of Kashmir” in “Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal” vol.68, Part 1: 17, 115 – 117;  Bhagavatprasad Natvarlal Bhatt, 1973 “Śrīkaṇṭhacaritam: a study” M.S. University of Baroda research series 14- University of Baroda (Baroda) : 45, 72 – 74; Vohel J., 2005 “Indian Serpent Lore Or the nagas in Hindu Legend and Art‎” : 21, 84, 191, 210, 240 – 248, 304

[42] Ch’er-t’a-gyu-wu is one of the 5 regional Nāga listed in manuscript n. 1782, pg.12 of the collection of Joseph Rock, actually preserved in a copy in Harvard Yenching Collection with n. 13321400. Concordance between the Naxi and the Tibetan is based on the homophony between the Naxi t’a [ta] and the Tibetan sTag [ta], and considering that Naxi word to mean tiger is la[la].

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