The word Naga comes from the Sanskrit, and nag is still the word for snake, especially the cobra, in most of the languages of India. When we come upon the word in Buddhist writings, it is not always clear whether the term 'naga' refers to a cobra, an elephant (perhaps this usage derives from the snake-like trunk, or the pachyderm's association with the forest-dwellers of northeastern India who are also called Naga,) or a mysterious person of nobility.  It is a term used for unseen beings associated with water and fluid energy, and also with persons having powerful animal-like qualities, or an impressive animal with human qualities. 

In mythology, the category naga comprises all kinds of serpentine beings.  Under this rubric are snakes, usually of the python kind, deities of the primal ocean and of mountain springs; also spirits of earth and the realm beneath it, and finally, dragons

In Indian mythology, Nagas are primarily serpent-beings living under the sea.  Here we see the king and queen of water nagas worshipping Parshva, the Jain Tirthankara of the era before this one. 

All nagas are considered the offspring of the Rishi or sage, Kasyapa, the son of Marichi.  Kashyapa is said to have had by his twelve wives, other diverse progeny including reptiles, birds, and all sorts of living beings. They are denizens of the netherworld city called Bhogavati.  It is believed that ant-hills mark its entrance. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, too, the naga is a water spirit. 

Nagas and Water

Water symbolizes primordial Wisdom and in psycho-analysis, the storehouse that is the unconscious mind.  However, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud commenting on the interpretation of symbols in dreams, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."  The water in naga lore is really wet. 

In the language of Kashmir, the word for "a spring" is naga, and nagas are considered the earliest inhabitants of that region.  In a sense this is borne out by geology since that valley was once "a vast span of water, similar to a huge dam, walled in by high mountains. The Nilamatapurana records how the valley was elevated out of water and left under the care of the Nagas, of whom Nila, the son of Kashyapa, was the chief."  Kashmir is named after Kashyapa where "the term ‘naga’ stands for spring; 'chesmah,' and 'negin' for small spring.  Springs are the main source of water in Kashmir."  And "the auspicious and famous river of Kashmir, the Vitasta (Jhelum) originates from a spring near Verinag and is responsible for the water supply to most parts of the valley.  The religious significance of the river is established by the Nilamata.purana [Myth of the Indigo Goddess] when it records the entire land of Kashmir as the material manifestation of Uma and describes her as the divine form of the Vitasta."

"A large number of temples were built near springs and were dedicated to the worship of nagas."  and   "These places have become great centres of religious pilgrimage. The place names of certain areas, e.g. Verinag, Anantnag and Seshanag even today remind one of the intimate relations between the valley and the popularity of the Naga cult.  The Rajatarangini of Kalhana mentions Sushravas and Padma Nagas, who were tutelary deities connected with the Wular lake. The Dikpalas of Kashmir are believed to be four nagas, viz. Bindusara in the east, Srimadaka in the south, Elapatra in the west and Uttarmansa in the north."

Many Kashmiri festivals relate to Naga worship, "for example during the first snowfall, Nila, the Lord of Nagas, is worshipped.  The Nagas are also propitiated in April and are related to Iramanjari Puja and to Varuna Panchmi, which is organised in July-August."   And "in the darker half of the month of Jyeshtha, when a big festival is organised to propitiate the king Taksakyatra. The Nilamatapurana listed 527 Nagas that were worshipped in Kashmir. In the account of Abul Fazal, the court historian of Akbar, there are references to seven hundred places sacred to serpents."

The purana also points to the association of the cult of Nagas with that of Shiva.  In the Mahabharata and Harivamsa texts, Shesha was considered the son of Shiva.  A lesser relation was developed with regard to Vishnu as in his sheshashayi form which links the primal waters with the sleeping Vishnu.  Also, Balarama who is Krishna's elder brother is the personification of the snake, Ananta.  

Kashmiri names such as Vishnasar and Krishnasar are Vaishnavite ones where the suffix sar means 'reservoir.'  Even though Kashmir may be Muslim-dominated in contemporary times, a springs is  "understood as naga and enjoys the respect of every religion." 

"The prosperity goddess, Lakshmi, is said to have taken the form of the river Visoka (now known as the Vishov) to purify the people of Kashmir. Most probably, treating springs and rivers with great reverence wittingly or unwittingly resulted in the ecological balance necessary for a healthy and natural interaction between the environment and man."  

" ... every naga has a snake as its guardian deity. Fishing is prohibited in these springs, though the fish which come out of the main garbha [den, lair] of a naga can be caught.  Restrictions on fishing have definitely helped to some extent to preserve water ecology."

"Hindus still propitiate these nagas. At Martanda Naga even srada is performed. Water is offered by Hindus to the Sun God and to their ancestors (purvaj).  Before having darshan of the snow linga at Amarnatha a holy dip is essential in the Seshanaga.  A person suffering from a skin disease is said to be cured after having a bath in Gandhakanaga (sulphur spring) at Naghbal, Anantnag."

"Muslims show their respect for these nagas in many ways. They offer sacrifices and organise fairs on many festivals such as Id, [e]ven they do not catch fish in these nagas. Their faith in nagas can further be established by an example from Anantnag district, where during days of water scarcity or extra rainfall, people offer sacrifices to the Vasuk[i] Naga (the water of which remains in the valley during summer only and disappears in winter.)  They have full faith that offerings to Vasuk will bring rain or stop it as desired." 

~ B. Malla,  Water Resources and Their Management in Kashmir