THE CUSTOM of worshipping snakes in Kerala reaches a climax at Mannarsala, the best known of the four main Naga temples in the state. According to legend, a woman from a family of great Naga devotees gave birth to two sons, one of whom was a serpentchild, who asked his family to worship him and vanished. The temples at Mannarsala, dedicated to the King of Snakes, Nagaraja, and his consort, Sarpayakshini, are situated in a thick grove of tall trees and dense bushes, surrounded by thousands of hooded stone serpents of various styles and sizes.
In Kerala, the ancestral home (tharauad) of every upper-class Namboothiri and Nair family is supposed to have a saipa-kavu or snakegrove, housing a nagakal or snake stone. If a tharavad cannot afford to maintain its own shrine, the snake stones are offered to this temple. The holy rites at Mannarasala are conducted by a priestess (ammo), a vestal virgin, who lives on the premises and is supported in her religious duties by her family. Childless couples place a bell metal vessel (uruli) face down in front of the deities, to seek their blessings.