For centuries, the serpent has served as an important symbol for Indian culture and cosmology. The serpent drawings in Claude Simard’s collection were made mostly by students from schools and art studios throughout Rajasthan, a northern Indian state, during the second half of the nineteenth century. These serpent drawings were likely intended as household decorations for the Nag Panchami festival, a Hindu snake-worshipping ritual observed in July/August in most of South Asia. One of the most common practices during the festival is to feed milk to cobras, and there are several images depicting cobras around a dish of milk in this group of drawings.
The serpent, a creature traditionally both feared and revered in Indian symbolism, references a multiplicity of complex meanings. Some of the most prominent serpent symbolism includes Ananta (infinity), Kama (desire), upavitam (sacred thread for adornment), Kundalini (sexual energy), Kala (death or time), and Tamas (destructive tendency).
Additionally, the serpent plays a large role in Vedic beliefs. Vedic legends and myths come from the Vedas (“Books of Knowledge”), the ancient scripture of Hindu faith. The Vedas, written in Sanskrit sometime between 1200 BCE and 100 CE, comprise Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. They include hymns, incantations, and rituals that serve as the authority on Hindu traditions and worship.
Some of these drawings feature mandalas, graphic mystic symbols in both Hindu and Buddhist imagery. The form of a mandala—typically a circle—is meant to suggest wholeness, a cosmic model for the structure of life, a life that is never-ending. Within Hinduism, mandalas serve as spiritual tools, and are incorporated into many traditional Hindu paintings.
–Jonah Jablons ’17 and Alicia Russo ‘17
From the exhibition: If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day: Collections of Claude Simard (April 22 – September 24, 2017)