Shiva in his Element, Published in The Times of India-Speaking Tree on 3rd November 2012

At the Panchabhuta Sthalas, Shiva is worshipped as fire, water, space, wind and earth to remind us that we should live in harmony with nature, says BHAGYALAKSHMI KRISHNAMURTHY
Every time I visit a Shiva temple, I am struck by the irony of how Shiva, the destroyer, is also known to manifest himself in the panchabhutas or five elements - fire, water, space, wind and earth - without which, creation and life are impossible!

The Shiva temples at Tiruvannamalai, Thiruvannaikaval, Chidambaram, Kanchipuram, all in Tamil Nadu, and Srikalahasthi, in Andhra Pradesh, are collectively known as Panchabhuta Sthalas, where Shiva manifests himself in the form of the five elements. While the 12 Jyotirlingas are well-known across the country, the Panchabhuta Sthalas in southern India are lesser known but equally significant.

At Tiruvannamalai, Shiva is worshipped as fire. According to the puranas, a heated debate between Vishnu and Brahma about their supremacy plunged the universe into misery. Shiva, out of compassion, stepped in to rid the universe of this misery and appeared to both of them in the form of a column of fire. A voice from the fire decreed that he who finds the beginning and the end of the fire is Supreme.

Column Of Fire
Vishnu assumed the form of a boar and started burrowing into the earth to find the base of the fire, while Brahma assumed the form of a swan and soared into the sky to find the pinnacle of the column. Vishnu abandoned the search, sat down to meditate and realised that the column of fire was Shiva himself.

Suitably chastened, he returned to earth only to find Brahma claim he had found the crest of the fire! Shiva knew that Brahma’s claim was false, so he proclaimed that Vishnu was the true devotee. A repentant Brahma and a sober Vishnu implored Shiva to reside in the place. So the column of fire merged into the Arunachalagiri hill as well as inside a Shiva lingam at the eastern foot of the hill. This is the Tejo lingam, or the lingam that enshrines the divine light.

At Thiruvannaikaval, Shiva, as Jambukeswara, embodies water. In the days of yore, a sage called Jambu, came across a rare white tree, Venn Naaval, and offered its fruit to Shiva. So intense was his devotion that he swallowed the seed that Shiva spat out. Soon, a white tree grew out of the sage’s head. Pleased with Jambu’s devotion, Shiva accepted his offer to reside in the tree.

Many years later, Shiva banished Parvati to the earth for disturbing his meditation. A repentant Parvati made a lingam from the waters of the Cauvery river, placed it under the Jambu tree and prayed for forgiveness. Shiva forgave her frivolity, taught her the Shiva Jnana, merged with the water lingam and stayed under the Jambu tree. He came to be known as Jambukeswara. Since it was Parvati who worshipped the lord here, even today, the temple priest dresses up like a woman when he performs the puja at noon.

At Chidambaram, Shiva is akasha or space in the Akasha lingam. Since space is essentially formless, the sanctum at the temple contains no idol. At regular intervals, the curtain is moved to provide devotees a glimpse of nothingness punctuated by a garland of golden bilva leaves hanging from the ceiling.

Dancing Shiva
Adjacent to the inner sanctum, Shiva is worshipped as Nataraja, dancing the divine Ananda Tandava. According to a legend, Shiva - in the form of a mendicant - and Mohini - the female form of Vishnu - were strolling in the forests of Chidambaram, which was also home to a group of rishis, who believed God could be controlled by magic rituals. Seeing the two resplendent figures, the rishis’ wives got distracted and neglected their duties. The angry rishis used their magical powers and created a demon, Muyalakan, to attack the duo. The mendicant struck him down and danced the tandava with a beautiful smile on his face!
The rishis realised that this Nataraja was Shiva himself and could not be bound. Thus, Nataraja came to Chidambaram and stayed there as the formless one.  

At Kanchipuram, Shiva is Ekambareswara and embodies earth. Parvati is believed to have made a lingam out of sand which she worshipped under a mango tree here on the banks of the river. This tree was believed to yield only one fruit a year - Ekambara. In order to test her piety and devotion, Shiva made the river swell, but Parvati clung to the earthen lingam to protect it. Pleased with her devotion, Shiva came to rest in the lingam and stayed there as Ekambareswara. The lingam came to be known as the Prithvi (Earth) lingam.

Flickering Lamp
And finally, at Srikalahasti, in Andhra Pradesh, Shiva resides as air or wind in the Vayu lingam, believed to be swayambhu or self-manifested. Inside the sanctum, the flame of the lamp flickers constantly, even when there is no wind blowing, indicating the presence of Shiva as air. The region gets its name from three unusual devotees of Shiva, a spider (sri), a serpent (kala) and an elephant (hasthi) who worshipped the lingam in their own ways. Recognising their intense devotion, Shiva granted them moksha, or liberation.

Devotees throng the Panchabhuta Sthalas with only Shiva on their minds, the panchabhutas receding far into the background. Even if a handful of devotees begin associating nature’s flora and fauna, as part of the persona of the gods, the sthalas would have served their purpose.

Unfortunately, man is destroying environment to feed his greed. Every festival revives the hope that the devotee will realise that the ultimate goal of spirituality is to coexist in harmony with nature, because he is part of a philosophy that extols the environment, long before it became fashionable to do so.


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