A thousand shrines shine here

A thousand shrines shine here

With a thousand Shiva lingas engraved its stones and a diverse flora and fauna surrounding its banks, Shalmala river is a treasure, writes K Karunakaran.

It was while driving from Hubli towards Banavasi that I chanced upon a decrepit signage on the roadside indicating a deviation towards the Sahasralinga Shrine. A 10 km drive from Sirsi brought me to the banks of the river Shalmala, flowing through lush green forests on both sides. Shalmala river, as the name suggests, evokes lyrical beauty and magic. This small river is a tributary of the west flowing river Bedthi (also called Gangavalli), in the Western Ghats, in North Kanara district of Karnataka.

It was indeed a breathtaking scene, with the river itself becoming a temple, where small-sized Shiva lingas carved out of stones embedded on the river bed lay scattered all over. The place derived its name Sahasralinga (thousand lingas) because of the existence of these uncountable lingas on the river bed. Most of the lingas are clearly visible when the water level in the river is not very high.

There are many small Nandis (bulls) carved out of rocks around the lingas also. It is believed that originally, every linga had a Nandi facing it; but now many have been damaged and some are missing, probably due to the force of the ravenous waters’ during the rainy season. On the auspicious occasion of Maha Shivaratri, thousands of pilgrims throng to this place to worship Lord Shiva, in his multiple manifestations.

Sahasralinga is a serene, picturesque location amidst lush green nature, where one can relax and lavishly drink in the glory of unspoilt natural ambience in abundance. The eerie silence of the forest is only broken by the singing of bulbuls reverberating over the green canopy of the treetops and the shimmering waters’ of the Shalmala river, flowing in solemn ablution to Lord Shiva all over its lap.

History and parallels

According to historians, these one thousand Shiva lingas on the river bed are believed to have been commissioned to be carved by Sadashiva Raya (who was also called the King of Sirsi), of the Vijayanagar Kingdom during 1678-1718. There is a local legend that says the Sahasralingas were ordered to be created by the king based on a belief that doing so might help beget an heir to his kingdom.

Though there are Sahasralingas in locations like Orissa and even near Hampi in Karnataka, the spot near Sirsi is unique in that here the lingas are carved on rocks of various sizes and scattered all over the river bed. In the case of the Sahasralinga at the Parashurameshvara Temple in Orissa, a huge single linga is present and carries on itself in 1008 miniature lingas. Similarly, at Hampi, thousands of Shiva lingas are found, carved on the rocks along the banks of the River Thungabhadra.

Historians opine that there flourished in India a traditional cult that worshipped Lord Shiva out in the open. Sahasralinga, is therefore, considered as a manifestation of such worship. There is also a belief that representing an icon in multiplicity is intended to show the enormous power of the multiplied object. Multiplied copies of the Buddha are seen in the caves of Ajanta.

As per the annals of history, in Heian Japan, a team of sculptors at Sanjusangen-do (at Kyoto) made 1001 copies of a statue of the thousand armed Kannon (a Japanese deity) for the same reason. This temple is considered as a national treasure of Japan.

It is also interesting to know that, far away in Cambodia, deep among the silent rivers that flow through the forests, not far from Angkor Wat, one can find yet another striking example of similar beauty of multiple lingas. Kbal Spean (Bridge Head) is an Angkorian era archaeological site on the slopes of the Kulen Hills, along the Stung Kbal Spean river, near Angkor in Cambodia. The site is reported to consist of a series of stone carvings in sandstone formations in the river bed and banks. It is commonly known as the “Valley of a 1000 lingas” or “The river of a thousand lingas”.

There are various Hindu mythological motifs in that river bed too, including depictions of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi, Rama, and Hanuman, as well as animals such as cows and frogs.

Biodiversity treasure-house

The Shalmala river and its banks are considered as a biodiversity treasure-house by bio-scientists and environmentalists. It was reported that in June 2011, a team of environmental scientists, members of the Western Ghats Task Force (WGTF) and Karnataka State Biodiversity Board had visited the Sahasralinga area on the banks of river Shalmala and discussed several issues on environment protection.

The team decided that the Sahasralinga area should be considered as a natural heritage site under the Biodiversity Act and accordingly, orders have been issued by the State Western Ghats Task Force.

The scientists noted that River Shalmala at Sahasralinga is being worshipped from time immemorial. The lush green forest in the area consists of a variety of flora and fauna, especially many varieties of medicinal herbs and plants used in ayurvedic preparations. Hence there is no doubt that the area deserved to be declared as a natural heritage site.

Today, the river has been protected through constitution of Shalmala River Riparian Conservation Reserve. One of the important arguments in the proposal for conservation reserve is the unique cultural value of the river.

It was reported that on March 13 this year, that on the eve of International Day of Action for Rivers, more than 1,500 people gathered on the Ganeshpal Island in the Shalmala river. Young and old had thronged the locale in large numbers with women being in majority. There were barefooted farmers, planters who owned gardens along the river, dhoti-clad priests clutching files with stories on river protection, school children who thoroughly enjoyed splashing about in the river, tribal groups who venerated the Shalmala, researchers working on rivers, and even swamis who had come here with a tough message.

The densely forested river banks were decorated with garlands of flowers and mango leaves and there was a local band drumming rhythmic beats. They had gathered to celebrate the lovely Shalmala river, a life giving resource to these villages. On one of the boulders inside the river was a painted notice, “If anyone tries to destroy our environment and rivers, we will not allow it”.

They were unaware that this remarkable local phenomenon was resonating with a similar global endeavour – that the International Day of Action for Rivers celebrates just this spirit – of protecting, celebrating and fighting for our rivers. Residents along Shalmala river have been taking action for their river for more than 10 years now.

Whatever be the historic background or the beliefs, Sahasralinga is an archetypal scenic place where one can blend in with the nature. A hanging bridge has been built recently across the river, connecting the two neighbouring villages. 

Walking up to the middle of this bridge, one can take in the serenity of mother nature all around, in all its blissful glory. When you look down into the river bed and take in the scenic view of the one thousand lingas, the only sounds reverberating in your consciousness will be that of the birds in the trees above and the flowing waters’ below.

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