Krishna and His friends were grazing their cows when one of the cows went to the riverside to drink water from the river Yamuna.
Soon it dropped dead from water poisoning.
Krishna’s uncle Kamsa had been sending his emissaries on and off to kill Krishna and they too had tried various methods to kill Him, but in vain. So, many thought that this must be another ploy of Kamsa but soon realized that the culprit behind the poisoning of the Yamuna was Kaliya or Kalinga, the dreaded Naga, snake.
The friendly waters of the Yamuna soon became green and nobody could go near the Yamuna any longer. Krishna seized of this, entered the water to seek out and rout out Kaliya.
The people of Braj were shocked and anxious at Krishna’s dare. Krishna’s father Nandagopa and mother Yashoda came running in panic, worried about what would happen to their dear son. The whole village assembled on the banks of the river and everyone started pleading with Krishna to return to the shore.
Krishna however waded further and sought out Kaliya. A fierce struggle ensued between Kaliya and Krishna. At one point, both Krishna and Kaliya disappeared beneath the waters. People on the bank prayed with bated breath.
Krishna suddenly emerged from the waters, dancing on the hood of the fierce Kaliya, holding Kaliya’s tail in His hand.
Krishna dancing on Kaliya, Kalinga
Seeing her husband in this plight, Kaliya’s wife emerged from the waters and pleaded with Krishna, not to harm Kaliya but to let them off, so that they could go away somewhere far off and not disturb the people of Braj anymore.
Krishna let Kaliya and his family off and peace returned to Braj. The waters of the Yamuna sparkled once again. Krishna and His friends returned to their favourite pastime of grazing and playing by the Yamuna.
This incident of Krishna subduing Kaliya has come down as one of the popular tales around Krishna’s childhood. It has found a place in everyone’s heart and in almost all homes in India through millennia in legends and some form of art or the other, including song and dance.
In art it became Kalinga Nardhana, since Nardhana means dance.
In legend and plays, this same incident also became popular as Kalinga Mardhana. Mardhana means crushing, destroying, vanquishing. Just like Kamsa Mardhana for the vanquishing of Kamsa, by Krishna again.
Kalinga Nardhana, Krishna’s Dance On Kalinga
Under the Hood
Rivers meander by nature. i.e., they take up a new course. In the course of this meandering, as the river moves away, troughs in its earlier path which get cut off from the main stem, retain water and become stagnant and seasonal pools. Such cut off sections of the rivers are known in geography as Oxbow lakes.
The Krishna-Kaliya episode is expressed as an incident connected with contamination of one such Oxbow. It was not in the main Yamuna, as in a river, the poisons would have been carried away downstream by the flowing waters of the river.
Beyond the Miracle
Today, this legend of Kaliya has to perhaps be understood and internalized beyond the miracle and beauty of Krishna’s dance on the hood of a venomous snake.
Even today, there are people who continue to poison our waters with modern day pollutants and garbage. They are the “Kaliya” of today, who need to be identified and suitable steps need to be taken to rescue our water bodies from the inconsiderate acts of such Kaliya.
More on the story of Kaliya Nardhan in our book, “Historical Krishna–Facets of Krishna”.