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Manzoor Ahmad Najar

Manzoor Ahmad Najar: Heemal Nagrai

Kaleidoscopic Portrayal of Myth in Folktales with Special Reference to Heemal Nagrai

India is a country where the elements of folklore exist in abundance in the form of folk performing art and non performing art, folk practices, folk literature etc. Going into the literary meaning of folklore, we identify folk and lore as two distinct aspects. The folk identifies with the specific community whether it is tribal or non-tribal and lore specifies the collective knowledge or wisdom on a particular subject. Lore is also often associated with myth. Myth is an important mode of human communication, teaching, knowledge and learning.

It has been suggested that one of the reasons for the invention of tales and myths is filling in of leisure time. It is not only in modern Western culture that relief from boredom has been sought, though elsewhere this is often masked as something that seems more worthy- religious ceremonial, magic dance, a tale for the edification of youth, a pious commemorative exercise in honour of saint or ancestor. Tales and myths do, of course, have their practical uses aside from mere amusement or past time. It is this great variety of function that has given rise to so many theories of their origin and meaning.

Kashmir has a wealth of myths and folklore. Kashmiri folklore has stories of valour and cowardice; love and hate; faith and disbelief; admiration and jealousy; loyalty and deceit. One uncommon story is of Heemal and Nagrai (the king of serpents), an ancient folktale which tells us about the aborigine race of Kashmir, the Nagas and the new settlers of the valley, the Aryans. The Nagas were beautiful by physical features and they were temperamentally very tolerant. The Aryans were a dominating race and they were intellectually superior to the Nagas. Therefore, the Aryans could not develop a harmonious relationship with the Nagas but the tolerant Nagas tolerated them in their own land. Then, in due course of time, a cordial relationship developed between the two races. ‘Heemal Nagrai’ is a fascinating folktale that has been cherished through several variegated connotations in poetry, prose and drama which depicts a theme of love and social conduct at surface level but turns out to be a rich metaphysical pursuit in the spiritual path of a mystic. As an essential definition of myth I am content to borrow the one by Alan W Watts: ‘Myth is to be defined as a complex of stories- some no doubt fact, and some fantasy- which, for various reasons, human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.’ (Watts 1953: 7)

Heemal-Nagrai Story

In the regions of Balpora, Shopian (J&K) there lived a poor Brahmin Soda Ram who was fed up with his wife’s cunning temperament. One day, Soda Ram stepped out of his home to get flour. He reached to a spring of water which is now-a-days famous by the name of ‘Nagrai Park’. It was a summer season and he hung his bag on a fence, and leaned under a shade. In the meanwhile an elegant snake skipped into his bag. Soda Ram woke up and was frightened on seeing the snake; but soon an idea struck his mind that he should carry this snake home and hand it over to his wife, so that he would get rid of her.  On reaching back home he handed the bag over to his wife and waited impatiently outside to hear the news of her death by the snake bite. A little while later his wife came smiling and asked him about the gift. Soda Ram wondered and entered the home, where he found a prince-like child playing in the room. The charming prince told them his name was Naagrai, the prince of pataal (underworld). Soda Ram and his wife adopted him as their son.

One day while Nagrai was hanging out, suddenly he reached at the royal garden of King Walla Veer, he got fascinated and entered the garden through a hole in his snake form and assumed back his human form. The princess Heemal saw him and showed her anger on him but sooner her heart melted because of Nagrai’s gorgeous appearance and polite approach, and were lured to each other and interacted for a while. Heemal cautioned him that he has committed a crime of trespassing the garden. Nagrai conveys his eagerness to enter the garden as he had heard of her beauty and generosity. Heemal tells him that he should be aware of the punishment for the trespass, but Nagrai expressed the intensity of his curiosity to see her and explore her beauty. This reply moulded Heemal’s heart towards Nagrai, and told him to meet her regularly, without being caught by the guards, preferably during dusk. Their love deepened day by day. One day Heemal expressed her eagerness to marry Nagrai. King Walla Veer came to know this affair and stood opposite to the marriage proposal; the king finally seeing the emotional attachment of his daughter consented to let her choose her bridegroom.

They started a happy life. One day Nagrai went out for hunting, in the meanwhile one potter passed by his house. Heemal called her and brought one vessel (clay pot) for her husband. The lady, potter by profession, was sent by Nagrai’ex-wife, Gul Rang, so that she may breed contempt between Heemal and Nagrai. The lady told Heemal that she knew Nagrai who was a cobbler originally and has left his first wife with her children and that he may cheat Heemal too. Therefore, if Heemal would ask him about his real caste, he will never disclose it before her. Heemal was left in a great chaos and confusion.

Nagrai returned home and Heemal fetched him water in a newly bought vessel. Nagrai could sense the smell of pataal (underworld) out of this vessel. Heemal then asked him about his caste. Nagrai warned  her that she would repent the consequences of her persistence to know his caste. But Heemal stood by her quest and asked Nagraai to step into a bowl of milk to reveal his caste. It had been propagated by the lady that Nagraai’s caste would be revealed once he immersed himself in milk. He stepped into the bowl and began to sink slowly, when Nagraai was about to sink Heemal could understand that he was disappearing so she tried to pull him out and hold his hair. But he fully disappeared and Heemal was left with a handful of his hairs.  After a long time a holy saint appeared before Heemal to whom she told the whole story of her life. He related that he knows one such person who regularly offer alms to the king and his army by a spring. On Heemal’s humble request he took her to the spring where she met Nagraai. Heemal begged him to take her with him so he turned her into a pearl and took her to paatal (the underworld). There he told his wife, Gul Rang Pari, that he has brought a maid servant for her and presented Heemal before her in original human shape. Usually Gul Rang Pari would separate the water from boiled rice in a container and keep it for cooling. Then on making sound in the vessel she would call her children (young snakes) to drink that cold rice water. One day Heemal was assigned this duty. She put the separated hot rice water in a container for cooling but unfortunately her ring fell down and stroke to the vessel that produced a sound upon which the children come to drink the rice water. The children drunk the hot rice water and burnt. Nagrai took Heemal away to Balpora forest to safeguard her life from the vicious rage of Gul Rang Pari and hung her on a tree in a cradle. He employed two Jennies in the guise of two lions for her security.

After a long time one merchant passed by. He picked down the cradle and proposed her to marry him. Heemal rejected the proposal at first. Then Heemal told him that she’ll wait for twelve months for Nagrai after which she may marry the merchant, if Nagrai fails to show his presence. Twelve months spend and Nagrai appeared, but that time Heemal was in a deep slumber. Nagrai assumed a snake shape and coiled over Heemal as he did not want to disturb her sleep. The merchant suddenly appeared again as per the promise he had made to Heemal.  On seeing a snake over Heemal he at once killed it. Heemal woke up and was shocked at the incident and began weeping. Heemal took the dead snake for cremation, where both lover and beloved disappeared to the flames of fire. It is said that there evolved a spring of water which is still known as Hemal’s spring.

This folk tale has been orally transferred through generation to generation and encloses the Kashmiri social and cultural reflection of life. It is the mirror of communal behaviour, ideas, human emotions, feelings, thoughts and understandings & intuitions. This story helps to develop the spirit of coping up and subduing the hardships and develops the power to make possible out of impossible; it projects upon the struggle. Albeit familiarizing the ultimate truths of life, it provides the strength and fervor. In even its character’s despair and desperation, there is a message of hope. The glimpses of cultural frame and human relationships are clearly visible in it.


Myths address daunting themes such as creation, life, death, and the workings of the natural world, answering major life questions such as “How did the world begin?” and “Why does the Sun rise and set?” Myths often include deities and other supernatural beings in their lists of characters, and they may tell of cosmic events, such as the birth of the universe. Myths are closely related to religious stories, since myths sometimes belong to living religions. In addition to explaining questions about the world around us, these stories create a sense of community among believers, often giving comfort to the listeners. It also signifies ideas, thoughts, and images and is related to folklores, fairy tales, spiritual stories, stories of Gods and legends.

A definition of myth that fits our purpose is offered by Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko:

Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides patterns of behaviour to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult. (Honko 1984: 49)

The sanctified dimension of myth makes it distinct from other genres of narrative such as folktales or legends that are not perceived as sacred, even though in some instances these forms of expression may overlap. Their correctness is spun by narrative means throughout the concerns of individuals and the institutions of society.

A contrast that has arisen in challenging the “truth” of myth is the opposition between myth and actual history. Myths in many cultures distinguish between the present time of “ordinary” people and actions and the time of mythic events, when, for example, gods interacted with people, animals conversed with humans, and indeed beings of one existential status readily transformed into another.

Lévi-Strauss formulated an approach to myth based on analytic properties that are not dependent on whether a person is a “believer” or not; the “suppression of time” is one of those properties (Levi-Strauss 1963). He advocated first understanding the structure of myth itself, before relating myths to other cultural expressions or social contexts. Seeing myths as built upon expanded linguistic principles, they are constituted by a coherent system of signs with an internal structure that remains constant and may be transposed from one situation to another, over space and time, and still be recognized as “the same.” Thus, a sense of eternity appears to inhere within them.

In The Valley of Kashmir, Sir Walter Lawrence writes, “The pretty springs of cold clear water so frequent throughout Kashmir are the abodes of the Nagas, the old deities who were worshipped in ancient times. When the Nag visits the world he leaves his home in the heart of some mountain, and creeping through sinuous passages like a snake emerges at the spring. Sometimes he comes with benevolent intent, sometimes on mischief bent, and all agree that he is powerful and to be propitiated” (Lawerence 1895: 295). In all the village tales the serpent nature of the Naag is prominent. When the Naag assumes the human form he can be detected by the water that drips from his locks. If one has leisure to sit by a spring with the villagers many curious legends may be heard, often full of interest and beauty.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1926) saw myths as outlining a charter for social life, providing both ideal models for behavior as well as serving as interfaces against which specific acts and historical events may be assessed. Elaborate myths succeed in weaving threads that link large questions of the origins of the cosmos with concrete social norms and practices.

Some of the ancient Naaga legends of Kashmir which have been preserved in the Buddhist and Brahamanical literature will find an appropriate place in the present paper. In the first place we give the story of the settling of Kashmir according to two Buddhist versions in which a Buddhist saint or Arhat  figures as the culture-hero of Kashmir. Then follow three extracts of from the Nilamata Purans, two of which also refer to the same subject. It will be seen that in these stories the origin of human existence and civilization in Kashmir is ascribed to the Saga Kasyapa and to his descendant, Chandradeva.  The four legends which we have drawn from the Rajtarangini show us the Naagas in various aspects and excel by their refined literary form.

We here give the Buddhist version of the legend regarding the origin of Kashmir. The history of Kashmir sayeth that “This country was once a dragon-lake. In old times the Lord Buddha was returning to the Middle Kingdom (Madhyadesa) after subduing a wicked spirit in Udyana (presumably the Naaga Apalala is meant), and when in the mid-air just over this Kashmri, he addressed Ananda in this voice: “After my Nirvana the Arhat Madhyantika will found a kingdom in this land, civilize the people, and by his own exertions spread the law of the Buddha.” In the fiftieth year after the Nirvana, the disciple of Ananda, Madhyantika the Arhat, heard of the prediction of Buddha. His heart was overjoyed, and he reappeared to this country. He was sitting tranquilly in a wood on the top of a high mountain-crag, and exhibited great spiritual changes. The dragon beholding it was filed with a deep faith, and requested to know what he desired. Then the Saint said: “I beseech thee to give me a spot in the middle of the lake just big enough for my knees.” Thereupon the dragon withdrew the water so far, and gave him a spot. Then by his spiritual power the Arhat increased the size of his body, whilst the dragon-king kept back the waters with all his might. So the lake became dry and the waters exhausted. On this the Naaga, taking his flight, asked for a place to live in. (quoted in Jean Philippe Vogel, Indian Serpent Lore: Or, The Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art) Thus a Kashmir Sufi poet, Ahmad Batwari, utters so:

Loba Heemal Naag_Baliyee
Gul Teh Gulzaar Phaliyee

(Heemal found it on the banks of spring. Flowers bloomed everywhere.)

The Saint then spake: “To the north-west of this is a pool where thy posterity mayest continue to dwell.” The Naaga then pressed his request in this manner: “May five hundred Arhats then ever receive my offerings till the end of the Law. After which I ask to be allowed to return to this country to abide in it as a lake.” Madhyantika granted his request.

One important function of the tales has been to fulfil pleasantly man’s leisure, and there seems to be no evidence from those who have been familiar with storytellers in all parts of the world to make us believe that men everywhere cannot invent persons and scenes and project them upon a background, natural or supernatural, so as to make a story. It seems incredible that the further we go back, the more philosophical the tales should become, that they should contain allegories, or that the characters should represent heavenly bodies or stages of the weather. The psychoanalytical interpretations of various stories and myths seem equally unlikely, but they cannot all be dismissed lightly. Each one has to be studied on its own merits.

Between the sky-touching mountains in the valley of Kashmir, this folk love story “Hemal Nagrai” in an objective shape is connected deeply to the Kashmiri psyche as well as cultural life. This provides an important source of metaphors and similes used in our Kashmiri poetry. Mahmood  Gami, Rasool Mir, Mehjoor, Shamas Fakir, and other Sufi poets have borrowed metaphors from this folk tale to produce the charismatic effects to their poetry. Its effects can visibly be seen in our folk poetry too. A Sufi poet Shams Faqir has employed the myth to relate his inner craving for the Beloved, thus he says:

Nagrai Khatsaav Adam Chaale
Bael_Puer Nuon Draav Trovun Gaah
Zaath Haavith Tas Heemal_e
Meha Gos Baa_le Chuon Deedar

(Nagrai morphed himself to human form and appeared his light at Balpora. He manifested himself to Heemal. Ah! My beloved, I’m craving for your glimpse.)

In another verse he says:

Talpatal Chhum Shah-i-Indraz
Yesse Meain-i Chhas Vaayan Saaz
Tath Chhi Vanan Soz-i-Shiraz
Aem Naagrayan Trov Parvaz

(In the Underworld dwells the King Indraz, My chums are playing music to him. This is the music of Shiraz and hearing this melody the Nagrai soars)

Thousands of years ago existed; this folk tale is dominant on our cultural consciousness. Because of its popularity and interestingness of this folk tale has motivated Sadru din Wafai to translate it into a Persian mathnavi “Qisa Arazn Va Hemal.” Wali_ullah Mout (a lover of Prophet’s (PBUH)) has translated this mathnavi in Kashmiri language which has won a great fame. Saif_ud_din Tara Balli too has written this folk tale in Marhnavi genre entitled “Sehr-i-Hilal”. In 1955 Noor Mohmmad Roshan and Deena Nath Naadim wrote Heemal-Naagrai opera, which was staged at different places. Ghulam Rasool Santosh, a famous artist has brushed down Heemal’s picture on canvas which is displayed in (Tourist Reception Center) Srinagar.

An important noticing thing about this famous folk tale is that it is very popular even among Kashmiri Sufi sects. This Mathnaivi Heemal-Nagraai is sung in their musical congregations (mehfil-i-sama). To them this fable serves as an external and objective expression of their inner spiritual feelings. It conveys a message that a man should love the ultimate truth (God) with full faith and true heart. And that he should never doubt on this ultimate reality, however, he should have firm faith on what is concealed (eeman_bil-gaib). This folk tale presents the way of understanding delicacies and serves as the way of awareness of “love unto ultimate truth” within the veil of human love. This is the symbol of mysterious experiences of inner secrets (ultimate secrets). This folk tale gives a picture of our past history. A famous historian Peer Hassan Khuihami writes that Naagrai belonged either to Jennies or pandavas. Mohmmad din Fouk says that Naagrai was a prince. Historians connect the snakes and Naagrai with Ancient Kashmiri residents, for instance, Naag and Piashaaj (vampire). Both these creatures lived in Kashmir prior to coming of Aryans in the region. According to ‘Neel_math Puran’ Naagas lived in Kashmir from the time of its emergence. In Kashmiri language Naag means spring of water. K. R. Subramenan writes in his book “Origin of Shivism” that Naagas believe in Shivism. Sir Walter Lawrence writes that “I cannot help noticing the important part which water springs and snakes play in the Kashmiri Mythology (Lawerence 1895: 299).

Abul fazal writes in his book Aiin_e_Akbari that I’ve seen idols of snakes in Kashmir at about seven hundred places, which were worshipped by people. Besides this folk tale there are several other folk tales where snakes incarnate human shape. Hemal’s presenting of flower to Naagrai reveals that Hemal belonged to Aryan race, because this was the 4th method of the 8th ways used by the Aryans in the matrimonial ceremonies. Crook writes in his article entitled “Folk Lore of North India” that this method was used in ancient matrimonial ceremonies where the girl was free to marry a person of her choice. The burning of Heemal with the dead snake in the crematory indicates that the sati system was prevalent in Kashmir, which is witnessed in ‘Rajtarangni’ too.

Heemal-Nagrai folk tale reflects the cultural clash between indigenous natives of Kashmir and Aryans, when Aryans settled in Kashmir they treated Kashmiri’s inferior and titled them as yechh, vaatal (cobbler), Chhamar(poachers), Dev(giant), and Dreanthaal(cannibal). According to Katha Sarith Sagar, Page 1, Kashmiri residents were non-Aryans who were known as pishaajjs (vampire) and Naagas. It has also an element of caste system embedded in it. These Aryans treated themselves as supreme. The prior rejection to Heemal’s marriage by her father and the potter’s statement that Naagrai was a cobbler has a broad meaning, that Pishaaj and Naag were  treated as magicians and enchanters. The Naag who has the power of metamorphosis, of this folk tale is not mere a persona but has a very deep symbolic relation with Kashmiri mythical atmosphere. The mixing of this folk tale with symbolic atmosphere has created new meanings and dimensions.

Its grandiose subject matter and the beautiful presentation of delicate human emotions create an evergreen effect on the listener’s heart. Balpora, where Heemal was born, Rimb_Ara (stream) and Yariwan (forest) still exist and are very popular places. The splashing water from Rimb_Ara has still the echoing effects of bemoaning of Heemal. Heemal stands for the symbol of love and beauty. Fairies are heard singing and dancing. The passion of love and the anxiety of Nagrai can still be felt from the spring, Heemal-i-Hund Naag.

Works Cited:

Doty, William G. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986

Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality.Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row. 1963

Honko, Lauri. “The Problem of Defining Myth” in Alan Dundes, Ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984. pp. 41–52

Leach, Edmund. R. Genesis as Myth and Other Essays. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. Trans.Rodney Needham. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963

Lawerence, Walter R.  The Valley of Kashmir. London: H. Frowde, 1895. Print

Malinowski, Bronislaw. The Role of Myth in Life. New York: Dutton, 1926

Taylor, Archer. Folklore and The Student of Literature. The Pacific Spectator, vol.2, 1948

Watts, Alan W. Myth and Ritual in Christianity (London, 1953. Print

Propp. Vladimir. Theory and History of Folklore, translated by Ariadna Y Martin and Richard, 1984



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