Pancha Bhoota Stalam: Lord Shiva's Elеmеntal Tеmplеs

Pancha Bhoota Stalam: Five elemental temples of Lord Shiva

Pancha Bhoota Stalam are spread across South India - four in Tamil Nadu and one in Andhra Pradesh. Soulveda explores the legends behind the five temples.

“Whether it is the individual human body or the larger cosmic body, essentially, they are made of five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and space. In this, the first four elements are the active participants—space is the catalytic force. It is in the lap of this boundless space that these four elements play the game,” writes Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a spiritual leader, on his personal blog. In Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva is worshipped as the embodiment of these elements of nature. The Chola Kings of South India hence built five Shiva temples, known as Pancha Bhoota Stalam, deifying the five elements. Each shrine of Pancha Bhoota Stalam houses a lingam that represents Lord Shiva as the manifestation of each element.

The Pancha Bhoota Stalam are spread across the regions of South India—four in Tamil Nadu and one in Andhra Pradesh. In this feature, Soulveda explores the legends behind the five temples.

Ekambareswarar—The Earth Lingam

Located in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, Ekambareswarar is one of the oldest Pancha Bhoota Stalam in India, and also one of the oldest shrines. Built by the Cholas and the Pandavas, the Ekambareswarar temple is famous for its intricately sculpted gopuram (a tower present at the entrance of Hindu temples). Apart from being a photographer’s haven for its mesmerising architecture, Ekambareswarar temple also draws millions of devotees every year for its legendary earthen lingam.

According to a legend, once Goddess Parvati was performing penance for Lord Shiva under a mango tree near Ekambareswarar. She constructed an earthen lingam there to conduct her rituals. To test her devotion, Lord Shiva showered a rain of fire upon her. But she was saved by Lord Vishnu. In another attempt, Lord Shiva directed the Ganges to disrupt her penance. But Parvati convinced goddess Ganga to spare her. Eventually, Lord Shiva was moved by Parvati’s devotion and married her there.

The earthen lingam and the tree mentioned in the legend still exist. The tree, especially, is said to yield four varieties of mango. With Eka meaning ‘one’ and Amra meaning ‘Mango’, the name Ekambra refers to Shiva as the Lord of the Mango Tree.

Jambukeswarar—The Water Lingam

The Jumbukeswara temple, located in Thiruvanaikoil, represents the element water. Built by the Chola kings around 1st – 2nd Century CE, the Pancha Bhoota is believed to be over 1500 years old. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple is a small dark place lit only with oil lamps. What is fascinating is that the base of this lingam is constantly submerged in water, and hence the idol is called Appu Lingam (water lingam).

According to a local legend, Lord Shiva sent Parvati to Earth to do penance after she mocked him. Parvati took on the avatar of Goddess Akilandeswari and came to the Jambu forest. She made a Shiva lingam out of the waters of river Cauvery and worshipped it. Moved by her penance, it is said that Lord Shiva finally came down himself and taught Akilandeswari the Siva Gnana. Akilandeswari took her lessons facing East whereas her tutor, Lord Shiva, faced west. Incidentally, in the temple, the idols of Lord Shiva and Parvati are installed opposite to each other in accordance with the legend.

Whereas the innermost sanctum sanctorum of Thillai Nataraja Temple houses Lord Shiva as the Nataraja (the cosmic dancer), the other shrine called the Chidambara Rahasyam is an empty space with a golden roof.

Arunachaleshwarar Temple—The Fire Lingam

The town of Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu is a spiritual haven, home to several ascetics and monks who are on a spiritual journey. With the scenic Arunachala (also called Annamalai) hill in the backdrop, the town of Thiruvannamalai is also famous for the Annamalaiyar Temple. Built by the Cholas, the Annamalaiyar temple is one of the oldest temples in India where Lord Shiva is worshipped as the Agni lingam (fire lingam).

Legend has it that Parvati once closed Lord Shiva’s eyes playfully in Kailasha (heaven). Instantly, the whole universe, including the Earth, was engulfed in darkness. To reverse the consequences, Parvati performed a penance. Lord Shiva then appeared as a fiery flame atop the Annamalai hill and lit up heaven and earth once again. He then merged half of his body with Parvati’s and became Ardhanarishvara, the half-female, half-male form of Lord Shiva. The Karthigai Deepam festival is celebrated every year to uphold this legend, and a huge beacon of light is lit on the top of the hill.

Srikalahasti Temple—The Air Lingam

Built by the Chola and the Vijaynagara kings, the Sri Kalahasti temple located in Andhra Pradesh is famous for Vayu Lingam (Air Lingam). Considered Kashi of the south, Srikalahasti is where Lord Shiva is worshipped as the elemental air. Interestingly, even though the sanctum sanctorum is a completely enclosed space with no windows, the flame on the oil lamp there constantly flickers as if in the path of the wind.

According to Hindu mythology, three animals displayed intense devotion to Lord Shiva, which earned this temple its name. An elephant (Hasti) is believed to have bathed the lingam every day as a mark of devotion. It then placed Vilva leaves. A spider (Sri) revered and protected the lingam from dust and storm by building cobwebs around it. A snake (Kala) worshipped it by placing precious gems to adorn the lord. However, the animals were unaware of each other and their unique methods of worship.

One fine day, Sri had just built a thick web around the deity when Kala came by and placed a gem upon it. A little later, Hasti arrived on the scene and seeing cobwebs on the deity, he cleaned the lingam as usual by sprinkling water. Hasti’s act annoyed the other two animals and they began fighting. Kala entered Hasti’s trunk and bit him. With the poison spreading, Hasti ran amok, hitting his trunk against the Lord Shiva’s lingam. In one blow, Hasti killed Kala and squashed Sri as well. Disturbed by this scene, Lord Shiva is said to have finally appeared and enlightened the three for their selfless devotion.

Thillai Nataraja Temple—The formless (ether) Lingam

Located in a small town called Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, the Chidambaram Nataraja temple literally means “an atmosphere of wisdom.” Spread across 51 acres, this temple built by the Cholas is symbolically said to connect formless divinity with creative art forms. Accordingly, whereas the innermost sanctum sanctorum houses Lord Shiva as the Nataraja (the cosmic dancer), the other shrine called the Chidambara Rahasyam is an empty space with a golden roof. This space has spiritual energy about it as if the formless Shiva (representing ether) is present.

A local legend goes that Lord Shiva (in the avatar of a handsome mendicant) once strolled into the Thillai forest where a group of sages lived. The sages’ wives were enchanted by his beauty and that naturally enraged their husbands. Well-versed in rituals and mantras, the sages considered themselves superior. Therefore, to kill the mendicant, they invoked serpents through magical rituals. But Lord Shiva, being more powerful, donned them as ornaments around his neck. Further enraged, the sages invoked a tiger. But the tiger, too, was no match for Lord Shiva. He wore the tiger’s skin as a shawl around his waist. Finally, the sages gathered all their power and called upon a powerful demon. Unperturbed, Lord Shiva simply immobilised the demon and performed the Ánanda Tandava on top of him as Nataraja. That is when the sages realised the true form of the mendicant and surrendered to the superiority of the Lord.


Your wellbeing is a few clicks away.

Subscribe to your weekly dose of positivity, wellness, and motivation and get a free printable
Soulveda Gratitude journal