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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Khmer Art History Glossary (National Museum of Cambodia)
- Khmer’s Naga Mother by Don Lehman Jr.
- Nāga (Wikipedia)
- Naga (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
- Naga (WikiRaider)
- Nagas (IndiaNetZone)
- Nagas and Ophiolatry in Hindu Culture by Adam Bégin
- The Cambodian Naga (Cambodia Calling)
- The Mythical Creatures Bible: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Beings by Brenda Rosen
- The Symbolism of Snakes and Serpents in Hinduism (Hinduwebsite.com)