Seeking Shiva - On the trail of devotion

Bijoy Venugopal
466273993 Shiva Statue
A Shiva statue on the coast of India.

Among the three deities of the Hindu Trinity, perhaps none inspires so much mysticism and devotion as Lord Shiva. Shrines to him are often located on the farthest fringes of human habitation; some are indeed almost inaccessible. Merely reaching them demands immense physical energy, mental grit and complete spiritual investment - the sum total of that effort is perhaps best defined by that loosely used word, devotion. On a pilgrimage to a Shiva shrine, the journey is often the destination.

Mahashivaratri — literally, the Great Night of Shiva — is one of the most significant nights on the HIndu calendar. It is observed for one day and one night in the month of Phalguna, which falls in February. Special prayers are offered on this moonless night and devotees stay up all night in observance of Shiva’s glorious deed of rescuing the world from destruction. It was on this night that Shiva is believed to have drank the deadly poison, Halahala, that emerged when the gods and the demons churned the cosmic ocean for the nectar of immortality. The poison had the power to wipe out all creation but as Shiva swallowed it, his consort Parvati held his throat and stopped him from ingesting it. The event turned his throat blue and hence he is known as Neelkanth - the Blue-throated One. It also illustrates the love between the two celestial partners Shiva and Parvati.

On Mahashivaratri, Shiva is worshipped in the form of the lingam, the phallic form that represents him. The lingam is represented alongside the yoni, a symbol of female creative energy or Shakti. Their union represents the indivisible male and female. Mahashivaratri is particularly auspicious for married women as Shiva, the consort of Sati, Parvati, Durga and Kali, is also the manifestation of the ideal husband. Staying awake on this holy night, singing songs in praise of the Lord, is believed to purify the soul and rid the atma from the cycle of karma.

While Mahashivaratri is observed across the country, the celebrations are particularly fervent at the twelve jyotirlingas — the most sacred shrines to Lord Shiva. These temples are believed to be swayambhu — the lingams here are believed to be not man-made; they created themselves. The mountain shrine of Amarnath near Srinagar, Kashmir, is one such. The other jyotirlingas are at Kedarnath, Nageshwar (both in Uttarakhand), Ghushneshwar (near Aurangabad, Maharashtra), Vaidyanath (Jharkhand), Somnath (Gujarat), Srisailam (Andhra Pradesh), Mahakaleshwar (Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh), Omkareshwar (Madhya Pradesh), Bhimashankar (Maharashtra), Kashi Vishwanath (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh), Trimbakeshwar (near Nashik, Maharashtra) and Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu).

Explore our collection of articles and slideshows on the temples of Lord Shiva.

Legends of Shiva - Gokarna and Murudeshwar
The story goes that Ravana, the ambitious demon-king of Lanka, desiring immortality and power, performed rigorous penance to propitiate Shiva and be granted the Atmalinga, the divine linga that bestows the gods with immortality. Shiva granted his wish under condition that the Atmalinga be never placed on the ground as it would be embedded there.


Tungnath - The kingdom of Lord Shiva
Tungnath, at 12,073 above mean sea level, is the world's highest built temple dedicated to Shiva, discounting perhaps the Amarnath Cave shrine near Srinagar, Kashmir, which is situated at an altitude of 12,756 feet. Tungnath is second in importance among the five mountain shrines collectively known as the Panch Kedar (the other Kedars are the most famous one at Kedarnath, Rudranath, Madhyamaheshwar and Kalpeshwar). The temple opens for worship after winter snows melt in June and remains open until late October when snowfall cuts off access to the temple.

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Chandrashila - In the arms of Shiva
From Tunganath, the highest Shiva temple in India, a trail leads up the hill towards the peak of Chandrashila. On a clear day, this unique vantage point offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. This, truly, is Lord Shiva's kingdom.

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Shrikhand Mahadev Yatra, India's toughest pilgrimage
This 35-km pilgrimage, one of the toughest in the world, ascends through alpine meadows beyond the snow line to a 72-ft high pinnacle of rock, the Shivling, at 16,900 feet above sea level. The yatra, organised by the Himachal Pradesh government, typically takes 10 days to complete and prior registration is mandatory. The Yatra is held in July every year and over 18,000 people visit every year. If you plan to make the journey next year, start working on your fitness.

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A pious journey into the heart of India
It's one of the harshest months of the year when the blazing hot sun makes it difficult to even step out of the comfort of your home, forget walking miles barefoot. But a look at the Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain tells you a different tale. The burning floor, sweltering heat, long queues, pushing and shoving — nothing deters hundreds of Shaivites (followers of Shiva) who have thronged the shrine to seek blessings of the 'creator and destroyer'.


Thillai Nataraja Temple - Shiva dances in Chidambaram
At Chidambaram in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu stands a great Shiva temple dating back to the later Chola period. Run and managed by a community of Brahmins, the Podu Dikshitars, it is one of the foremost temples of Lord Shiva and is listed in the Tamil Sangam classics. The Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara and Chera kings offered patronage to the temple during their time. The deity, known as Thillai Koothan (the God who Dances), takes its name from a species of poisonous mangrove tree (Excoecaria agallocha) known locally as Thillai. This is Shiva as Nataraja — the cosmic dancer — and he is depicted as performing the Ananda Tandava (the dance of delight) in the main sanctum with its gold-plated roof. The temple complex has five halls (sabhas) and a number of smaller shrines dedicated to other deities of the Hindu pantheon. Revered as one of the five Pancha Bhootha Sthalams -- temples of Lord Shiva representing one of the five sacred elements — Chidambaram represents akasha (ether).

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Rameshwaram - In Lord Rama’s footsteps
Here, on the island of Rameshwaram, is where Lord Rama worshipped Shiva before he set out on his mission across the ocean to Lanka to rescue Sita and vanquish Ravana in war.


Darasuram – Piety and poetry in immortal stone
Secrets stir sleepily in this dusty village in ancient Tamil Nadu, where the Airavateswara temple to Lord Shiva dates back to the 12th century. Discover the stories behind these ancient stones.


The little-known temple at Thenparankundram
Graced by peacocks, this rocky shrine 8 km from Madurai can leave you feeling how little you know about your own country

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On the Nandi Trail
Nandi, the sacred bull and the mount of Lord Shiva, is a familiar sight at any temple dedicated to Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, Nandi is the gate-keeper of Shiva and his most loyal attendant. It is believed that all your wishes come true if you whisper to Nandi before visiting his master. Pilgrims can be found circumambulating the statue and touching it. Women, especially, are said to benefit from touching Nandi as the bull is a symbol of fertility. Not surprisingly, bulls and cows find sanctuary at Shiva temples everywhere in India.

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Unfading Glory - Thanjavur’s Big Temple
The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, also known as the Thanjavur Big Temple for the imposing grandeur of its architecture, was built by the Chola emperor Rajaraja and completed in 1009-10, in the 19th year of the emperor’s reign. In his time the Chola empire encompassed the whole of southern India and the regions of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), the Maldives and the Laccadives (Lakshadweep). Built of granite, it looms large over the flat plain of Thanjavur.

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