Gods & Monsters: The Naga

One of the things I’ve always found intriguing about the Tomb Raider series is how often the game writers, developers, and artists draw on real-world mythology and folklore for inspiration when they’re designing ancient environments for Lara Croft to explore and the exotic creatures that populate them.

In previous instalments of my Gods & Monsters series, I looked at how Crystal Dynamics re-imagined the ancient Egyptian snake demon Apep and the “Devourer of Souls” Ammit for their 2014 game Lara Croft & the Temple of Osiris.

This time around, I’ll be examining the naga, those pesky giant lizards that gave Croft a spot of bother in the coastal Thailand levels of Tomb Raider: Underworld.

A close-up of a naga lizard (Image credit: Wikiraider)
A close-up shot of a naga lizard. Image credit: WikiRaider.

Lara first encounters the naga lizards when she reaches the ruins of Bhogavati, the capital of Patala, the seventh (and lowest) realm of the underworld in Hindu tradition. Keen-eyed gamers may spot a couple of these large reptilian creatures scuttling around the ancient hallways and the monumental Shiva statue in the central courtyard early on in the level but these show no interest in Lara,  at least not initially.

It’s only when Lara reaches the lower levels of the courtyard that the naga lizards show their true colours and go on the offensive by spitting venom at her, charging at her, or simply trying to take a bite out of her.

While the nagas in Underworld were depicted as giant lizards, the semi-divine nāgas of Hindu and Buddhist tradition were normally depicted as giant serpents (often cobras) or as humans with snake-like traits who could shift between a fully human or a fully serpentine form at will.

The Hindu god Krishna conquers the nāga known as Kaliya. Kaliya's wives can be seen in the bottom right corner (Image credit: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons)
The Hindu god Krishna conquers the nāga known as Kaliya. Kaliya’s wives can be seen to the right. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

Nāgas can manifest themselves in either a male or female form, though female nāgas are referred to as nāginī, a name that will be no doubt be familiar to fans of the Harry Potter series.

As with many Hindu deities, nāgas are neither solely malevolent nor solely benevolent creatures. These nature spirits may be commonly associated with fertility and rainwater – and, by extension, life – but they can also bring about deadly droughts, floods, infertility, and other misfortunes. It’s generally thought that nāgas will only bring disaster upon others if they are mistreated or disrespected. So with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that the naga lizards would turn aggressive the minute Lara violated the sanctity of their realm.

Although they’re primarily associated with the Hindu religious beliefs and cultural traditions of the Indian subcontinent, nāgas can be found in the traditional folklore and art of most Southeast Asian countries as a result of cultural diffusion.

A restored nāga statue and unrestored guardian lion at Angkor Wat (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A restored nāga statue and unrestored guardian lion at Angkor Wat.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Cambodia – one of Lara Croft’s regular haunts – the serpentine nāgas represent prosperity and water, a vital lifeline for agriculture. They are often depicted in traditional Khmer art as multi-headed snakes and stone carvings of these multi-headed mythical serpents can be found at the entrances to many of the country’s temples, including the world-famous temple complex of Angkor Wat, where the serpents are sometimes paired with guardian lions.

Similar carvings can be found throughout Bhogavati in Tomb Raider: Underworld. A five-headed stone serpent can be found near the entrance to the subterranean chamber that once housed one of Thor’s gauntlets, a subtle reminder that nāgas were also regarded as guardians of treasure. The only thing these guardians didn’t account for was the resourcefulness of a certain Ms Croft.

A multi-headed nāga statue guards a secret subterranean chamber in Bhogavati (Image credit: Katie's Tomb Raider Site)
A multi-headed nāga statue guards a secret subterranean chamber in Bhogavati.
Image credit: Katie’s Tomb Raider Site.

Addendum: Tomb Raider Arabia’s admin sent me a photo of some early concept art for the naga that he had found in the official Prima guide.

As you can see, the naga went through quite a few design changes throughout the game’s development, starting off more like the serpentine naga of Hindu and Buddhist myth – including one iteration with four, or possibly more, heads – and slowly morphing into the lizard-like creatures we saw in the final game. The decision to switch to a single-headed giant lizard was largely due to technical limitations.

Sources & Further Reading:

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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5 Comments on “Gods & Monsters: The Naga”

  1. Interesting to read, as always!
    Southeast Asia is strongly influenced by Indian religions, and Brahmanism/Hinduism/Buddhism were(are) state religions in Southeast Asian countries. So it’s quite normal we see nāgas almost everywhere there. (And in China, “nāga” in Buddhist texts was translated as “dragon” in Chinese, to make them more acceptable to Chinese people I think. Surely they are different than dragons in Chinese tradition.)
    Besides the guardian lions, nāgas are often paired with mythical birds Garuda, the eternal enemy of the Nāga race. Their story was related to Samudra manthan legend(The churning of the Ocean of Milk), which is a story about the the drink of immortality mentioned in TRU story.
    The story of Samudra manthan was engraved in Angkor Wat and thus appeared in TRU too (see here http://gmly.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/tru2.jpg,)
    BTW, as a fan of history and a webmaster of TR fansite, I wrote articles about History information of TR serious for years, and there are some about Thailand in TRU(Cambodia in real life, and more accurately, Angkor Wat), but all in Chinese and I don’t think google translate can do the translation:(

    1. Hi TombCrow! Thanks for the additional information. I wanted to bring Garuda into the article but I decided to keep it relatively short and simple for the readers (otherwise the articles would turn into books!)

      I’ll check out the articles on your site but I wanted to ask: Do you allow people to translate the articles? I actually have experience as a Chinese-English translator and would be happy to try and translate some of your articles for the English-speaking fans.. 🙂

      1. What a big surprise that you can read Chinese! I think Chinese is very difficult to learn for English-speaking people:)
        Of course you may translate anything interests you! I used to write on our forums and then put the information into our wiki http://wiki.gmly.info/doku.php/wgpo53. And some times I just post articles on main site if the information are not very closely related to games or simpley when we don’t have time to edit wiki pages.
        I myself is one of your loyal readers and intended to send you sth about what we found but I don’t have enough spare time to do it:(
        PS: As you can read Chinese, you will understand what I said here, lol http://tc.gmly.info/233.png

        1. LOL. Most of my favourite site admins are female too. 😉

          I did my degree in Chinese Studies a long time ago (I graduated in 2003) so my speaking and writing aren’t that good any more. But I can still read it pretty well (though I need to keep practicing to get back to my old level).