Mahmud Selim
Director of Music & Dance, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy
Md. Tazuddin
Programme Officer, Bangladesh National Commission for UNESCO

Bangladesh, situated on the tropic of Cancer and due to its close proximity to the Bay of Bengal, has hot and humid weather throughout the year, except for a brief, moderate winter. These climatic conditions have made Bengal an ideal habitat for hundreds of venomous snakes, such as the king cobra. The high number of deaths caused by snakebites instilled a sense of helplessness in the people, compelling them to worship gods and goddesses for protection against snakes. Before converting to Islam, the people of Bengal were devoted to Hinduism, which has 330,000,000 guardian gods and goddesses. And Manasa, the snake goddess, is one of the most potent members of the Hindu pantheon.

The cult of Manasa has historically been most prevalent in Bengal, where she has been ceremoniously worshipped in temples, particularly at the onset of the monsoon season when snakes are most active. Since Manasa has been such an important part of the people, there are many folktales involving snakes and the snake goddess, the most popular being the legend of Behula-Lakhindar.

According to the legend, there lived a rich merchant named Chand Shoudagar who was blessed with six sons and lived in a lavish mansion surrounded by colorful gardens. Chand was a devout worshiper of Shiva, the supreme god of masculine vigour. At that time Manasa, a daughter of Shiva, had no earthly devotees even though she was a goddess. She was determined to have Chand worship her. She ordered Chand to offer worship to her, but he did not comply. Rather he insulted her calling her names, which infuriated Manasa and sparked a feud of truly epic proportion.

In retribution, Manasa plotted against Chand. She destroyed his beautiful gardens and tormented him by killing his six sons by snakebites. She even sank his merchant ships laden with valuable goods. She left him penniless. However, with great perseverance, Chand rebuilt his fortunes and regained his former eminence. He remarried and had a son named Lakhindar.

Lakhindar grew up to be a kind, handsome young man, who everyone loved. Chand sought a suitable bride for Lakhindar. He chose a lovely girl named Behula, the daughter of the landlord of Ujaninagar. The wedding date was fixed. However, Manasa, who had not yet given up her resolve to subdue Chand, heard of the wedding and approached Chand. Again, she demanded to be worshiped. Chand refused, again. Manasa threatened to kill Lakhindar by snakebite on his wedding night. Chand, not one to be intimidated, hired an architect to build a room made of iron so that nothing could enter. Hearing this, Manasa ordered the architect to leave a hole for a snake to enter or to face death.

After the ceremonies and celebrations were over, the couples were led into the metal chamber, and Chand locked the door from outside. Soon after, Lakhindar and Behula fell asleep. A snake named Kalnagini slithered through the hole the architect had left, and the snake bit Lakhindar, and Lakhindar died.

It was a custom to place the deceased who died from a snakebite onto a raft in the hopes that an expert snake charmer would notice and bring the dead back to life. So the dead body of Lakhindar was set afloat on a raft. Out of profound love, Behula boarded the raft and promised that she would not return if she could not bring her husband back to life. The raft drifted down the river for days. One day, Behula saw that a washerwoman killed her son with a slap, and after the woman finished her work, she sprinkled some water on his face and the boy regained his life.

Beulah got out of the raft and went up to the woman and told her what had happened to Lakhindar and begged the woman to revive him as she had done with her own child. The washerwoman turned out to be Neti, the washer of the robes of the gods and goddesses. She led Behula to the house of gods and goddesses. Behula had to satisfy the gods by dancing in front of them to get back her husband’s life, but the final condition was that Behula had to convince Chand to offer worship to Manasa. Chand, faced with the chance to bring back his beloved son threw a flower at the effigy of Manasa with his left hand in disdain. Manasa, pleased even with this, revived Lakhindar and Chand’s other six sons and returned all his previously lost wealth. Manasa’s fame was established, and she became a goddess to be feared and revered.

Today, the millions of Hindus in Bangladesh and India still worship Manasa.