By Barbara Ann Steinberg
Pambadam earrings combine traditional female customs in Tamil Nadu with the northern Krishna-cult story of the Naga Kaliya.
The earring is a stylized cobra coiled on her nest. She is laying eggs, which are expressed as a large ball connected to a smaller one on the back. The arch-shaped pieces on the side indicate that the hood is wide open, and her head is erect. Rubies or garnets gleam from her eyes.
Pambadam are made from sheet-gold filled with lac, which comes from the insect Kerria Lacca’s resin. Although they look heavy, the smaller-sized earrings are relatively light to wear. Larger pieces might have been used as offerings. Women elongate their ear lobes first before they put them on. However with modernization, this tradition is withering away.
In the Hindu religion, people worship natural things, whose power they cannot control. As they become more aware of how the subconscious power of snakes influences them, the cobra transforms into a religious, mythological figure.
Divine nagas rule the underworld in Indian epic poetry, ancient Vedic Sanskrit hymns, and Hindu stories. “It has poison, it sheds its skin, it sits of the crown of Shiva’s head, its bite when irritated cannot be cured. Such is the case with the cobra in the city of the renowned Titumakainãyan, where groves flow with honey.” 
In most parts of India, the naga is male. However, in Tamil Nadu, snake goddesses are female and bless a woman with fertility, prosperity, familial well-being, and protection from diseases. If a goddess feels threatened, she takes the form of a cobra, and can render an astrological curse called “nāgā dōsam” (snake blemish). Killing a snake is a sin.
A snake goddess can also overlap with incarnations of Mariyamman, who is worshipped for bringing rains and curing diseases like cholera, smallpox, and chicken pox. Both goddesses are united in anthropomorphic form in the inner sanctum of an anthill, which is conceived by some to be the eruption of the goddesses from the earth. At the tunnel-like openings, women leave offerings of milk, whole eggs, and promise saris, jewelry, and other items if their wishes are fulfilled.
The two circular appliqués located in between the arches, and the pyramid-shaped knob on the snake’s head, link to the Krishna-cult story of the Naga Kaliya. The circles represent Krishna’s footprints, as he dances on the heads of the defeated snake. The pyramid represents a “mani,” or precious jewel, which will protect Kaliya from Garuda, when Kaliya leaves the Yamuna River and returns to his home on the island of Ramanaka (Please see Appendices 1 and 2).
Each stylized part of a pambadam earring has symbolic meaning in the Hindu religion. In the Himalayas, snakes are male. They are believed to dwell in springs, which highlight their relationship to the earth and the underworld. In Tamil Nadu, snakes are female, and the connection to water is not prominent. The goddess changes form from a young woman to a snake, but her true form is a cobra. It takes an earring to unite two different visions of a snake.
I would like to thank Inder Kumar Misra for his invaluable help on this article.
1. Kaiiya is a multi-headed poisonous snake.
2. Ramanaka: an island in Hindu cosmology, whose geographical location is debated.
3. Garuda, the king of birds and a kite-like figure, ever watchful, and an enemy of the serpent. He also lives on Ramanaka, but was banished from living in Vrindavan.
4. Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna spent most of his childhood days.
5. The Yamuna River, the second largest tributary of the Ganges
6. Rādhā, worshipped as the goddess of love and devotion. She is the eternal consort of Lord Krishna.
7. Krishna, one of the three major deities in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu and also as a supreme god in his own right. He is the god of compassion, tenderness, and love in Hinduism.
8. Nag Natalya Festival, It is held every year between November and December.
9. Lord Vishnu, the preserver god. He protects the universe from being destroyed and keeps it going and has come to hearth in nine incarnations. One of his most famous is Krishna.
10. yogi, a practitioner of yoga
The story of the Naga Kaliya (abridged): Garuda drove Kālyia away from the island of Ramanaka to Vrindavan on the Yamuna River. As Garuda had been cursed by a yogi, he could not live there. One day, Rādhā walked across the Yamunā, saw the giant serpent, and fled to tell Krishna. The next day, Krishna was playing a ball game, and the ball fell into the river. As he dove to retrieve it, he met Kaliya, who coiled around Krishna and constricted him. Krishna expanded himself and assumed the weight of the universe, as he began to jump on all of Kaliya’s heads. The snake started to vomit blood and die. However, Kaliya’s wives prayed to Krishna for mercy, and Kaliya surrendered to Krishna. He was pardoned. Krishna then performed a final dance on Kaliya’s heads and gave him a jewel to promise that if Kaliya left the Yamuna and went back to Ramanaka Island, Garuda would not bother him. Between November and December, people celebrate this story at the Nag Natalya Festival.