A preliminary cross-study between Naxi – Dongba, Tibetan and Indian iconology of serpent-like deities

What emerged from the study of manuscripts belonging to Naxi – Dongba pictographic tradition as iconographies,  statistics and semantics suggested and evinced to the author many and close relationship with Tibetan and Indian  traditions.

The Naxi Ssù and Lu-mun as the serpent-like deities are closely related to the Tibetan ཀླུ Klu.

Both the Ssù/Lu-mun and the ཀླུ Klu are demi-gods, 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.[1]

This feature perfectly coincides with the iconology of the Naxi – Dongba Ssù emerged from the study of manuscripts and tradition; moreover is possible to relate the Tibetan ཀླུ, thus the Naxi – Dongba Ssù as correspondent to the Indian नाग Nāga,[2] and a closer look both to Tibetan ཀླུ Klu and Indian नाग Nāga could be helpful for integration and a clearer understanding of Ssù/Lu-mun features and for cross references.

The Ssù/Lu-mun and the ཀླུ Klu both play a significant role into the relative cosmology, as it also correspond for the  Indian being नाग Nāga: they all are closely related and indicate the forces and powers of the earth and of the water, of which the prosperity (of agriculture, of nature spontaneous fruits, of abundance of springs, of good-weather, etc…) is believed to depend.

According to Kern in his history of Indian Buddhism[3] the नाग Nāga occupy the eight rank in the system of the world, after the Buddhas and the Garudas and before goblins and demons, giants and ghosts. They are water-spirits, represented as a rule in human shapes, with a crown of serpents on their head. Kern also reports that they are “snake-like being resembling clouds”.[4]

According to Hardy[5] the नाग Nāga reside in the loka (world) under the trikuta rocks that support Meru, and in the waters of the world of man.They have the shape of spectacle-snake, with the extended hood (columber नाग Nāga). They are demi-gods and have many enjoyments; they are usually represented as being favorable to Buddha and his adherents, but when they wrath is roused, their opposition is of a formidable character.

Such descriptions of Indian नाग Nāga find easily place beside the features of the Tibetan ཀླུ Klu and what recorded and represented into Naxi – Dongba pictographic manuscript tradition about the Ssù/Lu-mun.

An entire cycle of myths has grown up around the ཀླུ Klu and the नाग Nāga, forming the theme for an entire cycle of literature, which seems to be in part represented into the Naxi manuscripts dedicated or related to the Ssù cult, which thus appears not more as an isolated and not contextualized phenomenon, but could be seen as a segment – with all its  peculiarity – of the wider line of the stream of the serpent-like deities cult diffused in far East.

As the Naxi – Dongba count thousands of Ssù and Lu-mun ruled by Ssù gyi-bbukings of Ssù and Ssù-swue-p’alords of Ssù, as the Tibetan tradition numbers ཀླུ་ཧྦུམ Kluhbumhundred thousand of ཀླུ Klu ruled by ཀླུ རྒྱལ་པོ Klu rGyal-po Kings of ཀླུ Klu, and so the Māhāyana school knows a long list of नाग Nāga ruled by eight great नागराज NāgarājaNāga kings:[6]
This eight are often mentioned in Chinese and Japanese legends as 八龍 王 ba long wangthe eight dragon kings, and were said to have been among Buddha audience, with their retinnes, while he delivered the instruction of the Saddharma Pundarika SutraLotus Sutra of the good Law.

According to Indian beliefs, the नाग Nāga are divided in four castes, just like man, and form whole states: “ […] they are the lords of the earth more than anyone else, and send, when having been insulted, drought, bad crops, diseases and pestilences among mankind”, exactly as Tibetan ཀླུ Klu and Naxi – Dongba Ssù/Lu-mun.[7]

Naxi – Dongba conception of the Ssù/Lu-mun, as propitious – adverse entity is regulated by a path which decided about the world and the nature to be shared among humans and Ssù, and this seems to be so closely related too with the Tibetan thought of the relationship between things and events on the one hand, and men on the other, which correspond to the main two བྲ་ཤིས Bra-shis and བཀྷྲ་མི་ཤིས Bkhramishis concepts, which could bee translated as the idea of some forces favorable and auspicious and some-other forces hostile and harmful

In this peculiarly Tibetan point-of-view of the world, whether man is favored by fortune, or is her victim, doesn’t depend on chance It is rather fruit of the Karma. Every fact, every event is the result of the intervention of a force, as a conscious will or of a conscious power, that sometimes takes material and visible forms or manifestation, but other times remains indeterminate and impossible to be grasped.

Most of these powers, the way they act, depend on the way the men conduct themselves towards them, and this general conception of life and relationship among man and the rest of creation is as reflected in the ཀླུ Klu cult as in the Naxi – Dongba Ssù cult.

As the Indian नाग Nāga the Tibetan ཀླུ Klu and the Naxi – Dongba Ssù are touchy beings, inclined to hungry and  demanding respect and veneration They MUST be worshiped by men, and if they regret to do this then both the Naxi and the Tibetan can be sure of the Ssù or of the ཀླུ Klu revenge[8], and this is perfectly represented into Naxi – Dongba manuscripts.

With a wider point of view, it could be stated that in general the supernatural powers of both Naxi – Dongba and Tibetan tradition can be divided into two groups:

· the white and good which in Naxi is p’er ddvwhite conch-shell and in Tibetan ཕྱོགས་དཀརphyogs-dkar

· the black and evil, which in Naxi is na and in Tibetan ཕྱོགས་ནག་ངན phyogs-nag-ngan

a division which is also according to Indian tradition resting upon the working of Karma, though also corresponding to the division into two created worlds, in certain theological doctrines of Iranian origin, which were taken over by the Tibetan Bön tradition.[9]

The consequences of the enmity of these malefic powers, whether it’s innate or provoked, is always a pernicious influence against with both Naxi and Tibetans must protect in advance[10] or heal the disastrous effects by performing rituals and magical formulas.

In Tibetan these rituals are called མདོས mdos, and are of many types: for instance is possible to distinguish those for the prevention of dangerous threatening one in the ལུས lus
physical realm, in the
སེམས sems
spiritual realm, danger threatening the
ཡུལ yul
land, those threatening a man or a woman, property, heard, etc…

This is specular in Naxi – Dongba tradition, where rituals could be sorted distinguishing among those for the prevention of calamities in the living-world (the world of man) and those related to the realm of spirits – ancestors, those related to the land, and those to the house – the family, etc…

However they are specifically destined[11], both Naxi – Dongba and Tibetan མདོས mdos have two principal objectives in view:

· propitiation and assurance of prosperity, a state of well-being, in Tibetan a state of བདེ་ལེགས bdelegs
good fortune, in the most material sense, as well as
ཚེ་རིང tsheringlong life, ནད་མེད nadmed
ལོང་སྤྱོད longspyod
riches, also power, victory over the enemy, etc….

These are the ground of both Tibetan and Naxi – Dongba rituals, as for instance the idea of བདེ་ལེགས bdelegsgood fortune is the main theme and the score which Dongba ceremonies for prosperity of family and herds look for, as the same could be stated for the Dongba Szi ch’ung bpoadd to long life and the Tibetan concept of ཚེ་རིང tsheringlong life, or the propitiation of victory is the ground of the Naxi – Dongba Ngaw bpoSacrifice to the spirits of victory.[12]

· བཟློག bzlogdriving out and elimination of all which could stands in the way of this བདེ་ལེགས bdelegsgood fortune, such as poverty, illness and early death, etc…

བཟློག bzlogdriving out seems to be the ground and to find strong expression in Naxi – Dongba ceremonial corpus
dedicated to prevent bad forces, as prevention of evil arising from the sky and land[13], propitiation of Ssùserpent spirits[14], the wide corpus of ceremonials dedicated to the propitiation and eviction of demons[15],
and the ceremonial corpus belonging to the har la Lu k’opropitiate soul of suicides or people died an unnatural death [16]

Moreover, focusing the research on the Ssù ཀླུ Klu, emerged strong concordances among the two written tradition, as for instance is possible to identify in Dongba Ssù corpus manuscripts and in Tibetan ཀླུ་འབུན Klu‘bunthe hundred thousand ཀླུ Klu[17] 3 main types of ceremonies:

1. The Naxi Dongba Ssù-gu which coincides with the ཀླུ་ཧྦུམདཀར་པོ Klu-hbum dkar-po

2. The Naxi Dongba Ssù ddü gu, which coincides with the ཀླུ་ཧྦུམནགཔོ Klu-hbum nag-po

3. The Naxi Dongba D’a Lu ds[18], which coincides with the ཀླུ་ཧྦུམཁྲ་པོ Klu-hbum khra-po

In this context, then activity of the Tibetan exorcists སྣགས་པ snagspa and the Naxi religious specialists at first the priest Dongba,[19] thus have an infinitely wide filed open before them, even if restricting the field of activities to the serpent-deities cult: in case of drought they have to invoke rain, as for Naxi’s ritual Khu marain wanted belonging to the propitiation of Ssù serpent spirits set of ceremonies, or in case of inundation to stop it, as for the Khu dtv – stop of [excessive] rain, from the same set. Reacting versus Ssù/Lu munཀླུ Klu powers and revenges, by banishing hail or conjure it to inflict vengeance, call a halt to epidemics among men and flocks, etc…, all actions that consist in magical rituals that have for their aim:

· ཞི zhipacifying of hostile powers, as in Naxi Dongba manuscripts which are dedicated to the propitiation of the Ssù

· རྒྱས rgyasfurtherance of well-being, as in Naxi Dongba manuscripts which are dedicated to the propitiation and beseching of abundance and prosperity

· acquisition of དབང dbangpower – manuscripts, as in Naxi Dongba manuscripts in those texts which are related to invoke the power of Dongba Shilo and of the Khyu t’khyu, to help in previously operations and to evict, suppress and fighting hostile forces.

· acts of དརག drag – terrifying nature, as in Naxi Dongba manuscripts which relates about the struggle among Khyut’khyu, or other winged deities against demons and obscure forces, or again in those manuscripts who describes about the hostile nature which subdued humans, destroy their fields and flocks, houses and villages,  etc…; in truth it seems possible to state that the hostile nature which terrifying and damage men could be seen as the manifestation of relative spirits and gods random, who react in a specific or random way to humans’ sins previously committed.

Both in Naxi – Dongba and in Tibetan traditions, the multitude of powers who inhabited this world and still survive at today in the folk religion, were divided in many groups of supernatural beings. For instance, regarding to serpent-deities
there’s not just one supernatural deity, bud a myriad of supernatural manifestations, as the thousands of Ssù/Lu-mun =
ཀླུ Klu, of the Shizi = ས་བདག sabdag and the antagonist of such the serpent-deities, the eagle-winged Khyu-t’khyu = ཀྱུང Kyung.

The close relationship of the elements here just mentioned also reveal a mighty influences of Indian thought. It seems  plausible to hypothesize that Buddhism introduced a high number of Indian, not especially Buddhist, conception and legends, in a Buddhist garb, into outer countries.

This is a well-known phenomenon, as in ex. in China Taoism was ready to gratefully take up the foreign elements which in many respects resembled its own ideas or were of the same nature; in this way the store of the ancient Chinese legends wasn’t only largely enriched, but they were also mixed up with Indian fables and elements.

The same took place in Japan, when Buddhism, after conquered Korea, in the IV century of our era reached Dai  Nippon’s shores, and in a hundred years the Japanese mind got imbued with foreign ideas, partly Chinese and partly Indian.

Moreover in Japan, to the mixture of these two elements, a third one, consisting of the original Japanese conception, was added, and a very intricate complex was formed.

This is what maybe could be hypothesized was happened in Lijiang region, where over a strong Bön tradition substratum melted with local shamanism, practices of divination and peculiar traditions, were mixed up Indian, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian elements, giving birth to what today we used to call as Naxi culture and Dongba tradition.

The Tibetan ཀླུ Klu, the Naxi – Dongba Ssù/Lu-mun, thus appears as segments of the wider and oldest Indian नाग Nāga serpent-shaped divinity, which in Chinese mind was identified with the four legged 龍 long, because both were divine inhabitants of seas and rivers and givers of rain, as for Japanese minds, in this blending of Chinese and Indian motifs recognized own serpent or dragon-shaped gods of rivers and mountains, to whom they used to pray for rain in times of drought.

Ancient legends of different countries were combined, and features of the one were used to adorn the other, especially at popular beliefs, and from there extended afterward by the official religions.[20]

With regard to the नाग Nāga in Indian art[21], there are three main iconographies in which the Indian Buddhists’ artists have represented the नाग Nāga:

1. fully human,Casella di testo:  Gently concession of वदे ह http://www.videha.co.in/favorite.htm Casella di testo:  1300 - 1399 A Nāga King (item no. 65439) Collection of Rubin Museum of Art. Gently concession of Himalayanart.com, url: http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/65439.html on the head an ureaus-like snake, coming out of the neck and often provided with several heads.[22]
According to Visser, this form has been taken up in Tibet, China and Japan.[23] It is attested into Naxi – Dongba manuscripts as decorations of title-pages, and very rarely attested among pictographs very complex variants, as for instance in part represented by

2. common serpents, with one

or more
iconography seems to constitute the ground of Naxi – Dongba pictographs
Shi-zi for mountain and
tutelary-spirits, that are closely related with the Tibetan
ས་བདག Sa-Bdag.

3. a combination of both, as snakes of which the upper part of the body looks human,

snakes’ heads appearing above a human head, the lower part of the body entirely snake-like.[25]

This iconography is the most diffused into Naxi – Dongba manuscript tradition, both in manuscripts’ decorations and pictographs’ iconography. For instance in  manuscript Sawndaw yu dsuInviting the ancestors of the Sawndaw the 1st page the iconography of the

two serpent-deities and the pictographs shares evidently the same iconography which seems to closely related and local Naxi interpretation of the नाग Nāga human-reptile deities belonging to Indian tradition.

[1] Das Sarat Chandra, 1902: 44 – ཀླུ. Sarat-Chandra states that this name also means a serpent or any snake in general, and also means a kind of flower.

[2] As ཀླུ Klu as Tibetan equivalent of the Indian deity नाग Nāga, cfr.: L.q.; Helmut Hoffmann, “The religions of Tibet”: 192; Robert Beér, “The encyclopedia of Tibetan symbols and motifs”: 70 – 73

[3] Kern Hendrik, 1901 “Histoire du bouddhisme dans l’Inde” annales du Musée Guimet, Bibl.. d’Etudes, X et XI, Col. I: 310(295)

[4] Ibid: 59

[5] Hardy R. Spence, 2003 “Manual of Buddhism”: 44

[6] Nanda, the greatest नागराज Nāgarāja, king of all नाग nagas: Upananda, Sāgara, Vāsuki, Takshaka, Balavān, Anavatapta, Uptala. Cfr: Grünwedel Albert, 1900 “Mythologie des Buddhismus in Tibet und der Mongolei“, Führer durch die lamaistische  sammlung des fürsten E. Uchtomskij. 1900, F. A. Brockhaus (Leipzig) : 190

[7] Ibid: 187

[8] Tucci, 1894: 171

[9] Tucci, 1894: 172

[10] l.q.

[11] as “[…] the most appropriated places to perform མོདསmdos are the three-peaked mountains, junctions of paths and crossroads, places near waterfalls or those where neither sunlight nor moonlight can fall” (Tucci, 1894: 172) the Naxi – Dongba ceremonials are used to be practiced en plein air (cita Rock e McKhann)

[12] which according to
Rock, is one of the most ancient ritual, belonging to the wider set of ceremonial dedicated to nature worship

[13] Dtv bpo – preventing demons descending from the sky; muan k’u dxi bpo – closing the gate of the sky; Lu k’u dter bpoclosing the gate of the ground which Rock states to be equivalent to Tibetan ceremony of closing the doors to the demons of sky and earth

[14] Ssu ndo bpoevicting the Ssù – serpent demons; Ssu gu – the Ssùserpent deities ceremony; Ssu ddu gugreat Ssù serpent deities ceremony; D’a Lu dsrestricting the Dragon Lu to his residence.

[15] T’o lo ts’u t’udrive out the T’o lo demons; Ch’ou ts’u t’udrive out the demons of Ch’ou – impurity; Ch’ou ts’u bpuescort the demons of impurity; Ts’u t’udrive out the demons; Non ts’u t’udrive out the Non demons; Gyi Mun Ghugh bpopropitiation the Water Demons Mun and Ghugh; Mbbue bpopropitiation of the demons of sterility; Dter ts’u t’udrive out the Dter demons; Shi k’u dter bpo closing the gate of the dead; Ts’u dshiobstruct the demons; T’i lua ts’udrive out the T’i lua demons; Ndzi ts’u Lu ts’u bpu – escort the flying demons and the demons of the hunt Lu ts’u; Zher ts’u La ts’u bpu – escort the leopard and tiger demons; K’o  ngv ts’u t’udrive out the K’o ngv demons; Gkyi bpo – propitiate the demons of leprosy; Nder ts’u t’udrive out the demons who  cause epidemics in domestic animals; Mi szer bpoceremony for the suppression of the fire demons; Ba Lu yu ts’u ndu – to chase the demons with the flaming hot rocks of the Ba d’a; O p’er, O na, O ndz’a bpopropitiate the white (p’er), black (na), spotted (ndz’a) demons of quarrel

[16] Dter la Lu k’odied by violence; Ts’u la Lu k’odied by hanging; Yu la Lu k’osuicides; Shi k’u dter la Lu k’oclose the gate of the dead, died by violence, accidental deaths; Ch’ou la Lu k’osuicides after illicit sexual intercourse; Mun la Lu k’osuicide by  drowning; Mbbue la Lu k’osuicide of the last member of a family (male line only); K’o ch’i la Lu k’ousing a dog for suppressing the demon of suicide; Wu la Lu k’ofor slave who committed suicide; Dta gku gyi bpuusing a monkey as a substitute (of the last  breath of the victim)

[17] According to Sarat Chandra “A Tibetan-English dictionary”: 46, the ཀླུ་ཧྦུམ Kluhbum is a treatise on a hundred thousand nagas.  According to Tucci, 1894: 222 it could be divided into 3 parts, the white ཀླུ Klu, the multicolored ཀླུ Klu and the black ཀླུ Klu”. Translation in Germany by Schiefner, F. Anton von, 1880 ‘Ueber das Bönpo-sutra’, St. Petersbourg. Acad. imperiale des sciences;  Karmay, Samten G. (1977) “A Catalog of Bönpo Publications” Tokyo: Tokyo Bunko

[18] a ceremonial  performed when building a new home: d’a is the ground where the house is going to be build, so the divinity  who is believed to dwell the d’a has to be propitiated

[19] the shamans Sainii and the exorcists sorceress

[20] Visser, 1913 “The Dragon in China and Japan”, vol. I

[21] Cfr. Grünwedel Albert, 1893 “Buddhistiche Kunst in Indien”, Berlin

[22] Von Schroeder: 114

[23] Visser, Dragons in China and Japan: 5.

[24] Cfr. iconography

[25] L.q.; Grünwedel Albert “Mythologie des Buddhismus in Tibet und Mongolei”: 89, fig. 73

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