“Saurashtre Somanatham cha,
Sri Saile Mallikarjuna.
Himalaye to Kedaram,
Varanasyam cha Vishweshwam,
Paralyam Vaidyanatham cha,
Sethu bande Ramesham,
Grishnesam cha Shivalaya”.
This is the famous sloka given in the Shiva Purana describing the 12 jyotirlingas of Shiva.
In Hinduism, the Absolute is known as the Brahman and is formless and without attributes. But the human being has form and attributes so we need some form of the Absolute on which we can concentrate. The lingam which is a rounded, upright stone is used as a symbol of Shiva. Worship of the lingam is one of the most important aspects of the worship of Shiva. The word ”lingam” actually means a sign or characteristic. So the Shiva lingam is a sign of Shiva and helps us to remember him in his formless aspect. The Shiva lingam is also considered to be the divine phallus, containing within it the seed of the universe. From it all life is created. Together with the yoni or seat on which it rests and which corresponds to the female vulva, the yoni-lingam represents the union of man and woman, Shiva and Shakti, the cosmic Spirit in union with the cosmic Prakriti, which brings everything into existence.
There are thousands of lingams all over India but some of them have a special importance. The most important of these are called jyotirlingas and they are twelve in number. As given in the sloka, their names are Somnatha, Mallikarjuna, Mahakala, Omkara, Kedara, Bhimshankara. Vishvanatha, Tryambaka, Vaidynatha, Nagesha, Rameswara and Ghushnesha. Most of these are supposed to be self formed or sprouted out of their own will. A few have been installed by human hands. Every Shiva worshipper dreams of doing a pilgrimage to all these twelve jyotirlingas at least once in his lifetime.
We will now take a tour of all of them in turn.
Somnatha is the name of Shiva in the town of the same name situated in Prabhas Patan in Saurashtra in the state if Gujarat in India. Prabhas Patan is the place where the Yadava clan fought amongst themselves and came to an end as per Lord Krishna’s wish.
Somnatha is connected with the story of Daksha’s curse to Chandra or Soma who is the moon god in Hindu mythology. Daksha was one of the patriarchs and Soma was his son-in-law. However Daksha took a dislike of Soma and cursed him that he would wane away to nothing. Soma appealed to Lord Shiva to save him from this curse. Somnatha is the place where Soma prayed to Shiva. Shiva decreed that he would not wane away to nothing but would have only fourteen days of waning after which he would start waxing for the rest of the month. Excellent Somnatha Link!
Mallikarjuna is the name of Shiva in the town of Sri Sailam near the town of Kurnool in the state of Andhra Pradesh in South India. The temple is rich in carvings and architectural wealth. Adi Shankara is supposed to have composed his great poem called “Shivananda Lahari” at this temple. The legend concerning this temple is connected with Karthikeya, the son of Shiva. He had left Kailasa and gone to stay on a hill in south India. Parvati was bereft at the departure of her son and begged Shiva to take her there. Kartikeya refused to let them live on his own hill so Shiva and Parvati took up their residence on the hill at Sri Saila from which spot they could pay periodic visits to their beloved son. An interesting thing here is the sound of buzzing which seems to come from within the granite wall at the back of the temple. Bees are supposed to have made their home here but they have never harmed any of the devotees.
Excellent Mallikarjuna in Srisailam Link!
Mahakaleshwar is situated in Madhya Pradesh in the ancient and historic town of Ujjain or Avanti. It is situated on the river Kshipra which is one of the four places in which the Kumbha Mela takes place. It is mentioned in the Bhagavad Purana as being the place where the famous rishi called Sandeepany had his gurukulam or institute of learning where all the princes of the land went for their education. In fact Lord Krishna and his brother Balarama also did their course of studies in this institution. The temple here is situated beside the cremation grounds and it is said that the ashes of this cremation ground is taken for puja in the temple. Shiva is the Lord of destruction and ashes from the burning ghat signify the ephemeral quality of life.
The legend goes that four Brahmin brother were great devotees of Lord Shiva and used to worship him daily at that spot. However a demon wanted to put an end to their worship and went to kill them. The brothers were confident that their Lord would protect them and continued their worship undaunted. Suddenly the lingam burst open with a tremendous sound and Shiva leapt out brandishing the weapons of destruction. His form was that of Mahakala or the great destroyer in the form of Time. The demon was burnt to ashes. The brothers begged Shiva to stay there forever and so he did.
Excellent Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga Link
Omkareshwara is situated on an island in the middle of the river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. The Shiva is here is also known as Mamaleshwara. Once the celestial sage Narada had gone on a visit to the mountain known as Vindhya. The sage knew that the mountain was puffed up with pride so in his usual bantering fashion he told Vindhya that the mountain Sumeru was superior to it. Vindhya decided to become the equal of Sumeru and started doing tapasya to Lord Shiva. When Shiva revealed himself, Vindhya begged him to remain there all the time so that it would be the equal of Sumeru. Omkareshwara is the place where Vindhya did tapasya.
Excellent Omkareshwara Link!
Kedarnatha is the northernmost of the jyotirlingas and nestles in the snow clad Himalayas. It is snow bound for six months of the year and opens only from May to October. The last twelve kilometers of the journey to Kedarnatha has to be made on foot or pony. During the last part of their sojourn on earth the five Pandavas (heroes of the Mahabharata war) and their wife, Draupadi proceeded to the place in the Himalayas known as Kedarkanda. They went in search of their favourite deity, Shiva. They thought they saw him and gave chase but they were unable to catch him. Very soon they were joined by a wild looking dog and a noble buffalo. They came to realize that the buffalo was none other than their favourite deity. Once again they tried to catch it but it ran away. The Pandavas chased the buffalo and at last each of the brothers managed to catch one part of the animal. To their consternation it came apart into five pieces in their hands. They threw the pieces far and wide. Those spots where the pieces fell came to be known as the panch Kedars or the five Kedars and are important pilgrim spots in the Himalayas. The hump of the buffalo fell at a most auspicious spot and came to be known as Kedarnatha. The lingam at Kedarnatha is in the shape of the hump of a buffalo.
Excellent Kedarnatha Link!
Bhimshankara is situated in the Sahyadri hills of Maharashtra. The easiest way to go there is via Pune. This is the spot where Shiva is said to have destroyed the three demons known as Tripurasuras. The legend connected with this place has to do with one of the brothers of the demon known as Kumbhakarna who was a brother of Ravana, the demon king oof Lanka. His son was called Bhima. When he heard of the death of his father at the hands of Rama, he swore vengeance on all the devotees of Vishnu (Rama was an incarnation of Vishnu). His first target was the king called Kamarupa whom he captured and threw into a dungeon along with his wife. The couple started earnest prayers to Shiva to save them. When he heard this, Bhima rushed to the dungeon with upraised sword to kill him. At that moment Shiva split open the lingam and jumped out of it and killed the demon. The couple begged him to remain there and hence the lingam here is known as Bhimshankara.
Vishvanatha temple Bhimashankar Temple
Vishvanatha temple is situated on the banks of the holy river Ganga in Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is the most famous temple of Shiva in India and attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. The famous Manikaran ghat is the place where countless Hindus have been cremated. The fires of cremation have never been extinguished here since time immemorial since dead bodies are being constantly brought there. Anyone who sits for a few minutes at this ghat will realize the transitory quality of life and start looking deeper into the meaning of life. The creator Brahma himself is supposed to have done tapasya in this spot. It is said that Varanasi will not be destroyed even at the time of the great deluge when the rest of the world goes into dissolution. Shiva will raise the city on the point of his trident and protect it while destruction rages all around.
There is another story connected with this city. Once Shiva and Parvati had gone to the world of Brahma. He began reciting hymns through all his five mouths in praise of Shiva. But one of the mouths was making mistakes and so Shiva, who was a perfectionist where music was concerned, plucked off the head which was making mistakes. But since this was a great crime, Shiva found that he could not shake off the head which had stuck to his back. For many years he went round with the head on his back. It was only when he went to the holy city of Varanasi that the head fell off. So Shiva decided that he would stay there in the form of a lingam. This lingam is called Vishwanatha or the Lord of the universe. The first humans to worship there were Swaymbhu Manu and his wife Shatarupa who were the first couple to be created by Brahma.
Tryambakeshwara is situated on the banks of the Godavari River. In fact the river has its origin on a hill above the temple. The temple is about ninety kilometers from the pilgrim city of Nasik in the state of Maharashtra. The place is associated with the sage Gautama and his wife Ahalya. They had prayed to Shiva for a long time. At last the Lord appeared and asked them to choose a boon. He begged Shiva to allow the Ganga to flow beside his hermitage so that he could bathe in her purifying waters and expiate for his sin in having killed a cow by accident. Shiva granted the boon. However Ganga insisted that she would go there only if Shiva took up his residence there. This was agreed upon and Shiva stayed there in the form of a lingam. Ganga flowed beside him and took the name Godavari. To reach the source of the Godavari one has to climb some hazardous steps up the mountain near the temple. The steps lead you to a small shrine where water gushes out of a stone cow’s mouth. One can also trek up the mountain to the top where the river actually has her source.
The temple of Vaidyanatha is situated in the state of Bihar in the town of Deogarh. Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, was a great devotee of Shiva. He practiced intense tapasya in the Himalayas, but still Shiva failed to appear, So he made a fire and decided to sacrifice all his ten heads. He started throwing them one by one into the fire. After the ninth, Shiva appeared and asked him what he wanted. Ravana prayed for superhuman strength and the restoration of his nine heads. Only Shiva could grant such a boon for he was Vaidyanatha, the Lord of all physicians. Shiva also gave him a wonderful jyotirlinga and told him to take it straight to his capital city of Lanka. He warned him never to put it down. Ravana started back carrying the radiant lingam. The gods feared that if he took it to Lanka, he would indeed become invincible so they sent Ganesha to thwart him. Ganesha took the form of a young brahmachari and appeared before Ravana just as he felt a terrible urge to answer the call of nature. Ravana was forced to give the lingam to the boy who had so providentially appeared before him and warned him never to keep it down. Hardly had Ravana gone than Ganesha put the lingam down. When Ravana returned he found no trace of the boy and try as he would he was unable to budge the lingam which had become rooted to the spot! This is the lingam which is known as Vaidyanatha.
Excellent Vaidyanatha Link!
His Holiness Sri Sri Ganapathi Sachchidananda Swamiji of Mysore worshiping Nagesha Linga
The tenth jyotirlinga is known as Nagesha and is situated near the pilgrim city of Dwaraka in Gujarat. There was once a merchant who was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. During his travels he often had to cross a forest which was inhabited by a demoness called Daruka who kept harassing him. He begged Shiva to help him. Shiva came with his snakes or “nagas” and drove Daruka away. Daruka worshipped Parvati who gave her another forest to roam about without troubling anybody. The lingam which was worshipped by the merchant came to be known as Nageshwara, Lord of serpents. Parvati also took up residence here and is known as Nageshwari.
Ramanatha Swamy Temple Rameshwaram
The huge temple of Rameshwaram is situated on the island called Rameshwaran in the state of Tamilnadu. This spot is the closest bit of land in India to the island of Sri Lanka. Ravana, the demon king of Lanka had abducted Sita, the wife of Rama, king of Ayodhya and taken her to his island fortress. Rama came to rescue her but before he could cross the straits which separated the mainland from the island of Lanka, he made a lingam of Shiva and prayed to him to help him rescue his wife. Shiva appeared and blessed him with all success. Rama requested Shiva to stay in that spot forever. This is the lingam called Ramalingeswara and it is one of the most famous places of worship in India.
Grishneswara is the twelfth and last of the jyotirlingas. It is situated close to the famous caves of Ellora. Once there was a Brahmin called Sudharma who had a wife called Sudeha. They had no children and so his wife asked him to marry her niece, Ghrishna in order to get a son. She was a great devotee of Lord Shiva and she made a vow that she would make one hundred and one lingams of Shiva daily and worship them. At the end of her puja she would immerse the lingams in the pond near by. After having completed one lakh of pujas she conceived and got a lovely baby boy. As can be expected her aunt’s nature changed with the birth of the child and one day she killed the baby and threw the body into the pond in which the lingams were immersed. Next morning Ghrishna got up and started her daily ritual of worshipping Shiva. She refused to be distracted even when her husband announced the disappearance of the baby. At the end of her puja, Shiva who was pleased with her devotion restored the baby to her. When he raised his trident to kill her aunt, Ghrishna begged him to spare her life and asked for the boon that he would stay near the pond in the form of a lingam. He agreed and this lingam is known as Grishneswara.
Devotees of Shiva consider it to be a rare good fortune to be able to make a visit to all the twelve jyotirlingas in one lifetime.