THE MAHABALESHWAR TEMPLE AT GOKARNA
Gokarna, in coastal Karnataka, is a town bound by water on three sides. On the west is the Arabian Sea, and to the North and South are the rivers, the Gangavali and Aghanashini. It was probably the shape of the land between these bodies of water, that gave Gokarna its name – Cow’s ear. It was also what probably prompted the ancient legend that Shiva emerged here from the ear of a cow, who was, actually, Bhudevi, or Earth. Nature and myth combine to make Gokarna the interesting place it is, and both draw visitors from across the world to this small, peaceful town, hidden away amidst the lush green Western Ghats.
By Anuradha Shankar
The main attraction at Gokarna is the temple, located on the shore. It is an ancient one, said to have been first built in the time of Ravana, by Maya, the architect of the Asuras. The legend of the temple is closely connected to Ravana too. After all, it was he who was responsible for the lingam installed here! It is said, that centuries ago, while Ravana was still a young and valiant king, before power and greed overcame him, he was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He performed austerities to the Lord, not for power or immortality, but to obtain His blessings and grace. Lord Shiva was pleased, and offered him a boon. Ravana asked for the Atmalingam – a special lingam from Kailas. Lord Shiva obliged, but he added a caveat. Ravana was to carry it straight to where he wanted to install it. Under no conditions was it to be placed anywhere else. Once placed on the ground, it could never be moved!
Ravana, flush with his gift, hastened back home to Lanka, but as he was passing the western coastline, noticed, to his consternation, that the sun was setting. Ravana was a diligent performer of rituals, and he would never miss his evening prayers. But how could he perform his rituals while holding the lingam? A young boy loitering nearby seemed to be a godsend. Calling the boy, Ravana asked him to hold the lingam while he prayed. The boy protested that the lingam looked too heavy. There was no way he could hold it for so long. Ravana, one eye on the setting sun, assured the boy that he would finish quickly. The boy, after a pregnant pause, accepted the task, but warned Ravana, “If I find it too heavy, I will call you thrice. If you don’t come back by the third time, I will keep it down.” Ravana opened his mouth to protest, but the sight of the setting sun cut him short, and he accepted, rushing to begin his prayers.
He had just begun the chants, when the boy called out, “It is too heavy. I can’t hold it!” He rushed on at breakneck speed, casting a piteous glance at the boy. The boy called out again, this time his voice more urgent. Ravana rushed to finish, waving to the boy to wait. He was just offering the oblations, when the boy called again. Leaving everything as it was, Ravana rushed to the boy, but it was too late. He reached the boy just as he placed the lingam on the ground.
Ravana panicked. Leaving the boy aside for the moment, he tried to get the lingam off the ground. However, no matter how hard he tried, the lingam wouldn’t budge. As it turned out, when he used his immense strength, the lingam began to deform, but refused to come out. That is when he gave up, and looked towards the cause of the mischief.
The little boy, sensing Ravana’s anger, had begun to run, but Ravana, catching up with him, gave him a hard knock on the head. As he did so, the young boy revealed his true form – he was none other than Ganesha.
Shiva’s gift of the Atmalinga had been a source of worry for the Devas. They feared that Ravana, already set on the path to power, would be invincible, with the Atmalinga blessing his home. They turned to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, to help prevent the Atmalinga from reaching Lanka. Ganesha had obliged, and the Devas had done their bit, making the sun appear to set.
Ravana, once he learned of the trick, realised it was too late to do anything. The Atmalinga wouldn’t budge, he couldn’t possibly get another lingam to take to Lanka, and hence he built a temple here, and named the Lord, Mahabaleshwara – the one with great strength! After all, even his immense strength could not succeed in pulling the lingam out!
No trace is left of the temple Ravana is said to have ordered Maya to build, but there are many references to the Mahabaleshwara temple over the centuries. First under the Kadambas and then under the Vijayanagar Empire, the temple and the region flourished, only to be destroyed by the Portuguese. However, the temple was rebuilt again in the 18th century, and this is the temple we visit today. It is a simple structure, built in the local style, with the central structure of stone and tiled roofs. Inside the sanctum is the main lingam, which is in a sort of depression. Unlike most South Indian temples, however, this lingam is open to the public for prayers. We can pour water and other offerings directly on the lingam, and even touch it, which makes this temple one of a kind!
Outside is another shrine – an equally interesting and unique one, this one dedicated to Ganesha. After all, it was He who was responsible for the lingam being placed here! He stands here in the pose he was in, when the lingam rooted itself in the ground. This is one of the few shrines of Ganesha where he is depicted in standing form. Besides, he also has a depression on his head, where Ravana struck him!
Interestingly, there are a total of six temples on the coast, between Gokarna and Kasargod, all of which show Ganesha in the same posture. These temples are located at Idagunji (66 Km), Anegudde (150 Km), Hattiangady (142 Km), Mangalore (SharavuMahaganapathy, 230 Km) and Kasargod (MadhurMahaganapathy 280 Km).
Also, the legend of the Atmalingam doesn’t end with the Mahabaleshwara temple. It is said that, frustrated with the events, Ravana flung off all the accessories the lingam came with, and as each of them touched the ground, each turned into a lingam! There are 5 such temples around Gokarna. Other than the main temple, these are at Sajjeshwar (the casket carrying the lingam, 35 Kms from Karwar), Dhareshwar (the string covering the lingam. 45 Km from Gokarna) Gunavanteshwar (the lid of the casket carrying the lingam, 60 Km from Gokarna) Murudeshwar, the cloth covering the lingam, 70 Km from Gokarna).
Location; Gokarna is located at a distance of 580 Km from Bangalore, 230 Km from Mangalore, and 60 Km from Karwar
How to reach: By Road: Gokarna is off NH 17, and buses are available from Karwar (60 Km), Kumta (30 Km) and Ankola (25 Km). By Train: The nearest railway station is Gokarna Road (6 Km) on the Konkan Railway
By Air: The nearest airports are at Mangalore (230 Km) or Goa (156 Km)
Where to Stay: There are plenty of options for accommodation at Gokarna, starting from lodges to resorts, to suit every budget. There are also a number of home stays, conveniently located.