Our visit to the Pancha Kshetras or Panchalinga Kshetras of Karnataka happened by chance when we stopped to savour the rising sun at Murudeshwar en route Karwar, where we were vacationing for a week. For it was here at Murudeshwar that we became aware of a slice of history and mythology that took us to the times of the Ramayana.
According to mythology, Hindu gods attained immortality and invincibility by their devout worship of atmalinga, which was possessed by Lord Shiva. The demon king Ravana, a staunch devotee of Shiva, sought to possess it by undertaking a penance. This story also has a different version: it seems Ravana sought to obtain the atmalinga at the behest of his mother Kaikesi, who was heartbroken when Indra threw the saikatha linga, a linga sculpted from sand that she used to worship, into the ocean.
After much penance, Shiva granted Ravana’s wish and gave him the atmalinga, but upon a condition that it should never touch the ground during its journey from Kailash, Shiva’s abode to Lanka, Ravana’s kingdom. Should the linga be placed on the ground for any reason, it would remain fixed there and all its powers would return to Lord Shiva.
Agreeing to the condition, Ravana began his return journey to Lanka with the coveted atmalinga. Apprehensive over Ravana’s possession of the atmalinga and its powers, Narada instigated Lord Ganesha into tricking Ravana into grounding it. And eventually, Ravana was tricked to place the linga on the ground near Gokarna. When Ravana realised that he had been tricked, he sought to uproot the linga in a fit of rage. In the struggle, while the linga itself remained firm, the materials that covered it — the casket, lid, string around it and cloth — were flung to varying distances.
It is said that upon touching ground, all these materials became lingas. Consequently, these places became the Panchalinga Kshetras of Karnataka, with Mahabaleshwar at Gokarna being the first and principal one. Other kshetras are Murudeshwara Temple, Sajjeshwara Temple, Dhareshwar Temple and Gunvanteshwara Temple.
The Murudeshwar Temple, bearing the name of the beach town in Bhatkal district, appears to rise from the middle of the sea. Surrounded by the cerulean waters of the Arabian Sea on three sides, the Temple is home to supposedly the world’s second tallest Shiva statue, at 123 feet.
The sanctum sanctorum contains the mridesa linga also called Murudeshwara, believed to be the cloth covering the atmalinga. The linga, at two feet below the ground level, is essentially a rough rock inside a hollowed spot in the ground. Normally, devotees are not allowed inside the sanctum, but those performing special seva or puja catch a glimpse of it.
Gokarna was our next halt. It assumed the place of pride with the Mahabaleshwar Temple built around atmalinga that got entrenched there. Since the mighty Ravana was unable to lift the linga from the ground, he termed it maha bala, meaning ‘too strong’, which led to the name, Mahabaleshwar. Since then, this small town on the banks of the Arabian Sea in Uttara Kannada district is venerated as one of India’s most sacred places.
The Temple, built of granite in a classical Dravidian style of architecture, was constructed by Mayurasharma of the Kadamba Dynasty. It enshrines the six feet tall atmalinga in a square saligrama peeta (pedestal) that is covered for the most part. A small opening in the middle of the pedestal allows devotees to have a wee glimpse of the top of the linga. The linga is fully unveiled only once in 40 years when the ashta bandana kumbhabishekam is performed. The temple is home to several other idols of deities as well.
There are several myths regarding the naming of Gokarna. It came to be named so from the shape the atmalinga took when Ravana exerted force on it to uproot it and the linga took the form of a cow’s ear — go means cow and karnam means ear in Sanskrit. According to yet another legend, when Shiva, as Rudra, was sent to nether land by Brahma to perform penance, he eventually returned from there through the ear of mother earth and blessed her with the name Gokarna. Others believe that Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow and thus the name. Yet others opine that Gokarna, located between River Gangavali and River Aghanashini, is so named for the ear-shaped confluence of the two rivers.
Gokarna, referred to as the Kashi of the South, is also one of the seven venerated places called Mukti Sthalas and Parasurama Kshetras, having been created by Parasurama on land claimed from the sea.
We were a trifle disappointed at the sight of the remaining three temples that are part of this important circuit. While regular pujas are being performed in all three temples, which have sculptural works dating back to hundreds of years, they wear a desolate look today. The Sajjeshwar Temple, situated at Shejwad village on the outskirts of Karwar, is home to the casket carrying the atmalinga. Though the route to the Temple is scenic with the Karwar coast on one side, the structure of the Temple itself is small and nondescript.
While the temples at Dhareshwar and Gunvanteshwar are set in huge precincts compared to the Sajjeshwar Temple and also have a pond overlooking the edifices, they too wear a deserted look. The Dhareshwar Temple contains the string covering the linga, while the one at Gunavanteshwar houses the lid of the casket carrying the linga.
It is believed that Shiva, along with Parvati and Ganesha visited all these five places and worshipped the lingas and declared that these would be his Pancha Kshetras and anyone who worshipped the lingas at these places would be absolved of their sins and would have their wishes fulfilled before attaining salvation.
We were thrilled at being privy to new knowledge and visiting monuments of which we were completely ignorant. We came away wishing and hoping that such chunks of rich history and culture be better maintained and kept alive for posterity.