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Jyotirlinga, the light of Shiva

Shiva is one god who’s as celebrated in popular culture as he’s revered in the holy scriptures. It’s probably not very surprising. Shiva is said to have a rather human temperament: one moment he’s the soft-hearted Bholenath, and the next an ill-tempered Rudra.

Mahadev also finds a dedicated place in temples and prayer rooms alike. No matter which deity a family worships, Shiva still holds a special place in the puja room, often as a lingam. A lingam is the power-vested, oval-shaped or column-like symbol of Lord Shiva.

Most lingams are said to be vested with divine power through the chanting of mantras. However, the most potent ones are known to have originated on their own (swayambhu lingams), when Shiva appeared as a fiery column of light to protect his devotees. According to Shiva Purana, Shiva pierced the three worlds of Swargaloka (heaven), Bhuvarloka (earth), and Patalaloka (underworld) to end an argument regarding the supremacy of creation.

Today, there are 12 temples in India, where Shiva is known to have appeared as a jyotirlinga (fiery column of light). Each temple has its own legend as to how the jyotirlinga came to be. But the one common theme running through most of these legends is that Shiva protected his devotees in this form. Here’s Soulveda delving into these special legends behind the 12 temples.

Somnath, Gujarat

A confluence of Rivers Kapila, Hiran and the mythical Saraswati runs along Somnath, making it a pilgrimage centre. The waters of this confluence are considered holy, for Soma–the moon god–is known to have bathed in this river to regain his lustre. The story behind this belief is present in the Prabhasa Khanda chapter in Skanda Purana. According to this legend, Soma was married to 27 daughters of Daksha Prajapati, but loved Rohini above others. Displeased by Soma’s negligence towards his other wives, Daksha cursed him to lose his radiant beauty, plunging the world into lifelessness.

An upset Soma came down to the town of Prabhas to bathe in the River Saraswati and pray to Shiva. Lord Shiva then blessed Soma with brightness once more. Upon the request of Lord Brahma–who feared the world would turn lifeless without Soma’s radiance–Shiva decided to remain eternally in Prabhas as a jyotirlinga to continue protecting Soma. So, that’s how the town of Prabhas came to be known as Somnath.

The Omkareshwar Temple is perhaps one of the most special jyotirlinga temples. Located on an island in the River Narmada, it has shrines for Goddess Parvati and a five-faced form of Lord Ganapati. 


Bhramaramba Mallikarjuna, Andhra Pradesh

Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati once decided to find suitable brides for their sons Ganesha and Karthikeya. The two brothers had an argument about who gets to wed first. So, Shiva declared that whoever goes around the world seven times and comes back first, gets to marry first. So, off went Karthikeya on his ride, the peacock. But his brother Ganesha had circumambulated his parents seven times, as it was considered equivalent to going around the world. Shiva, impressed by his sheer cheek, declared Ganesha the winner. He was to be married to Buddhi (intelligence), Siddhi (spirituality) and Riddhi (wealth).

Upon returning, Karthikeya realised that his parents had favoured his brother. Enraged that he’d been tricked, he went away to live by himself on Mount Kraunja in Srisailam (now in Andhra Pradesh). Then onwards, Shiva and Parvati had to come all the way till Srishailam to meet their son. So, they decided to stay on–Shiva as Mallikarjuna and Parvati as Bhramaramba. Hence, to this day, Bhramaramba Mallikarjuna temple is the only one where both jyotirlinga (energy form of Shiva) and shaktipeeth (energy form of Parvati) are worshipped with equal fervour.

Mahakaleshwar, Ujjain

According to a legend in the Puranas, Ujjain–once upon a time called Avantika–was an epicentre of spirituality. Chandrasena, the ruler of Avantika, and many of his subjects were ardent devotees of Shiva. Once, their kingdom was under attack by Kings Ripudamana and Singhaditya of neighbouring kingdoms. Aided by the powerful invisible demon Dushan, the kings plundered the city.

The helpless devotees prayed fervently, hoping the city would be saved. And indeed, Shiva heard their prayers and appeared in his Mahakala avatar, destroying the three kings and their forces. Upon the request of his devotees, Shiva remained in Avantika as Mahakaleshwar in form of a jyotirlinga, so he could protect the kingdom and its subjects.

Omkareshwar, Khandwa

The Omkareshwar Temple is perhaps one of the most special jyotirlinga temples. Located on an island in the River Narmada, it has shrines for Goddess Parvati and a five-faced form of Lord Ganapati. There is also a cave where Advaita philosopher Adi Shankaracharya is believed to have met his guru Govindapada.

Legend has it that Vindhya, the mountain deity of the Vindhyachal Range, once prayed to Shiva at this spot to be absolved of his sins. He used sand and clay to create a geometrical diagram of the lingam in an om pattern. Pleased by Vindhya’s effort, Shiva appeared in front of him as Omkareshwar.

Yet another legend says that devas (gods) and danavas (demons) were once at war with each other. When the danavas won, the devastated devas prayed to Shiva to protect them. Shiva then emerged as Omkareshwar jyotirlinga and defeated the danavas, after which he remained there in the avatar.

Legend has it that an Asura (demon) named Bhima lived in the Sahyadris with his mother Karkati. Rather disturbed about not having a father, he snuffed out compassion and kindness wherever he went.


Kedarnath, Uttarakhand

It is said that after the Mahabharata war, the Pandavas went to Kedarnath (in today’s Uttarakhand) to do penance and wash away their sins. But no matter how much they tried, they couldn’t find Shiva to absolve them of their misdeeds. Apparently, Shiva was angry with them for using cunning and unethical tactics against the Kauravas in the war.

When they were in Guptakashi, they recognised Shiva, who was in the disguise of Nandi (his bull). Bhima, the second Pandava brother, got hold of the bull’s tail and hind legs. But the animal managed to escape and vanished into a cave. Shiva then reappeared as Kedarnath jyotirlinga. They say this jyotirlinga represents Nandi’s hump, and that the Pandavas built a temple for it on a site adjacent to the present-day temple.

Bhimashankar, Maharashtra

Legend has it that an Asura (demon) named Bhima lived in the Sahyadris with his mother Karkati. Rather disturbed about not having a father, he snuffed out compassion and kindness wherever he went. One fine day, he demanded that his mother tell him about his father. Bhima was shocked to hear that he was the son of Kumbhakarna who was killed in war by Lord Ram.

Anguished that Lord Vishnu–in the avatar of Lord Ram–had killed his father, Bhima decided to seek revenge. He impressed Lord Brahma with his penance and was blessed with immense powers. Bhima then used these powers to cause havoc everywhere. He even went on to demand that Kamaroopeshwar, a staunch devotee of Shiva, look up to him instead of the god. When Kamaroopeshwar refused, an audacious Bhima raised his sword to strike him. Just in time, Shiva appeared before him and turned Bhima into ashes. Then onwards, Shiva remained as Bhimashankar jyotirlinga at the spot. Today, the temple dedicated to this deity is a few kilometres from Pune.

Kashi Vishwanath, Varanasi

There’s a story that says Prakriti (nature) and Purusha (human consciousness) once meditated to make Shiva bring about his best creations in the universe. Pleased with their penance, Shiva created the wonderful city of Panchakoshi, which resided in his trident. He then removed the city from his cosmic trident and placed it upon the mortal world. Shiva also retained a part of his own energy in this city as the Panchakoshi jyotirlinga, so that even mortals who had no hope of salvation could attain moksha here. He ensured that the mortals too were protected by his aura. This city, people say, is what we call Kashi today.

Trimbakeshwar, Nasik

There once lived a rishi (sage) called Gautama in Satya Loka (today’s Nasik). When his village was struck by famine for 24 years, Gautama managed to feed the people owing to the boon he received from Lord Varuna, the god of rains. He’d sow rice grains in the morning, and reap them by afternoon.

However, he once accidentally killed a cow, upsetting all the rishis he used to feed. When he requested them not to leave and asked them to show him a way out of his sin, they advised him to pray to Shiva. Shiva then lets River Ganga pour from his locks and into Satya Loka. This not only ended the famine, but also let Gautama wash away his sin. When Gautama and the other rishis requested that Ganga remain there, she was reluctant to leave Shiva. So, Bholenath turned into a jyotirlinga and stayed on with Ganga close by, as Trimbakeshwar.

Baidyanath, Jharkhand

There’s a legend that says Ravana, the king of Lanka, fervently prayed to Shiva to grace Lanka with his presence. However, at the request of the devas (gods), Shiva refused to do so. Instead, he suggested that Ravana take one of the 12 jyotirlingas that were vested with the Mahadeva’s energy. However, he posed the condition that Ravana shouldn’t place the lingam on the ground before he reaches Lanka.

Ravana agreed and set out to bring the jyotirlinga from Harlajuri. During his journey back home, when he had to relieve himself, he requested a passer-by Brahmin to hold the jyotirlinga for him. Ravana had no idea that the Brahmin was actually Lord Vishnu in disguise, waiting to thwart him. The moment Ravana turned his back on him, the Brahmin dropped the lingam and disappeared. A devastated Ravana tried everything in his power to remove it off the earth, but the jyotirlingam wouldn’t budge.

Ravana didn’t accept defeat at that. He visited the site–today’s Deoghar–every day, relentlessly praying to Shiva. He even started giving up his 10 heads one by one in the hope that the Mahadeva would bless him and grant him boons. Highly pleased with such devotion and persistence, Shiva relented and healed Ravana at the spot. And hence, the lingam in Deoghar came to be known as Baidyanath, meaning Shiva, the healer.

Nageshvara, Dwarka

There was once a city under the sea called Darukavana that was inhabited by reptilian beings. Daruka and his wife Daruki were the serpent rulers of this city. Daruki was an ardent worshipper of Goddess Parvati. The goddess had blessed Daruki with the power to carry her forest with her, no matter where she went. Daruki used this power to help her husband kidnap hermits and take them to the underwater lair.

When the couple took away Supriya, a Shiva devotee, little did they know that it would be the end of their ways. Supriya built a lingam in the prison and asked his fellow prisoners to chant mantras appeasing Shiva. Listening to the pleas of these prisoners trapped underwater, the Mahadeva appeared in Darukavana. He slayed the demon couple, but spared the lives of the other innocent serpents. Upon being freed, Supriya prayed that Shiva resides there to protect the hermits. Shiva agreed, and assumed the form of Nageshvara jyotirlinga.

Rameshwara, Tamil Nadu

When Lord Rama sought atonement for his sin of killing Ravana, who was a Brahmin, he requested Hanuman to bring him a large lingam from Varanasi. But anticipating a delay in his return, Rama asked his wife Sita to build him a makeshift lingam, using clay. This clay lingam is vested with Shiva’s blessings in the form of Rameshwara jyotirlingam. However, Hanuman did bring a lingam from Varanasi, eventually, and this lingam came to be known as Vishwanathar. Both lingams are worshipped at the Rameshwara Temple in Tamil Nadu today.

Grishneshwar, Ellora

Legend has it that there once lived a pious woman named Kusuma in a village in Ellora. She would immerse a lingam in a natural water tank and pray every day with all her heart. Her husband had a second wife, who, in her envy, killed Kusuma’s son.

Devastated though Kusuma was, she continued to worship Lord Shiva anyway. The Mahadev, impressed by her unwavering devotion, brought her son back to life and resided in the lingam she worshipped. This lingam came to be known as the Grishneshwar jyotirlinga.

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