The Mahabaleshwar Temple of Gokarna is a Hindu religious pilgrimage centre in Uttara Kannada district in the Indian state of Karnataka. A Pranalinga (Pranalinga is defined as “the reality of God which can be apprehended by the mind.”) also known as Atmalinga or Shiva Linga is deified in the temple, which is facing the city beach of the Arabian Sea in Gokarna. The Shiva Linga has a hoary legend. It is said to bestow immense blessings to devotees who even glimpse it. The temple is considered as pious as the Shiva temple at Varanasi or Kashi in North India on the banks of the Ganges River and hence is known as the Dakshin Kasi (South Kasi).
The temple, built in a classical Dravidian style of architecture, was first constructed by Mayurasharma of the Kadamba dynasty, who ruled between 345 – 365. This king wanted to gain knowledge of the Vedic rites and the Ashwamedha Yagna (a horse sacrificial ritual), so he travelled to Kanchipuram, a major learning centre, but on reaching there, was insulted by a horseman guard and angry, he swore to defeat the Pallava dynasty (the then ruling dynasty). Following their defeat, the king asked a few priests to perform a daily yagna to maintain his suzerainty over the region. His son, King Kangavarman brought more Brahmin families from different lineages to maintain administration at the temple. Kalidasa mentions the “Lord of Gokarna” in his Raghuvamsha of the 4th century. The Gokarnam shrine is one of the Paadal Petra Sthalams of the 7th-century Tevaram canon. Visvesvaraya of Halasunadu-Kundapura built the Chandrasala and Nandi pavilions when Queen Chennammaji and her son Soma Sekharanayaka were ruling Keladi (1653-1671). The temple is a large complex of shrines and much of it belongs to the later Vijayanagara period. In 1665, Shivaji came here to worship the deity.
According to the legend, the Atmalinga was perforce placed at Gokarna, in the temple precincts where it is presently deified, by Ravana, the demon King of Lanka of epic Ramayana fame when he carried it from Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Pilgrims take a holy dip in the Arabian Sea before visiting the temple for worship. It is one of the seven sacred Muktikshetras or Mukthistala (place of salvation) in India where many Hindus of Karnataka perform obsequies (death rites) for their departed; six other Muktistalas in Karnataka are: Udupi, Kollur, Subrahmanya, Kumbasi, Kodeshvara and Sankaranarayanan
The hoary legend of the temple as narrated links Ravana of Ramayana fame, the demon king of Lanka, not only to the Shiva Linga deified in the Mahabaleshwar Temple but also to the Bhadra Kali temple here. The legend also provides the reasoning for the naming of the Gokarna town.
Ravana’s mother, a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva, was worshipping a Shiva Linga to bring prosperity to her son. Indra, the Lord of Heaven, who was jealous of this worship, stole the Shiva Linga and threw it away into the Sea. The distraught mother of Ravana went on a hunger strike as her devotional worship of Shiva was disrupted. Ravana then promised his mother that he would go to Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva, and bring the main Atmalinga itself for her worship. Ravana then performed severe penance at Mount Kailash to please Lord Shiva and also sang, in his melodious voice, praises of Shiva (Shiva Tandava Stotram). He even chopped his own head and made a harp with threads drawn from his skin and intestine. Shiva pleased with all this devotional worship agreed to bestow boons to Ravana. Ravana, pleased with the promise of Shiva, asked for the Atmalinga and also a wife for himself, as pretty as Uma (mother of creation), Shiva’s wife. Shiva then took out the Atma Linga, brightly shining like the Sun, from his own heart and gave it to Ravana with strict instructions that it should not be placed on the ground till it was deified at a final destination. As regards the second request for a beautiful wife, Shiva offered his own wife to Ravana, as in his view there was no other woman more beautiful than Uma, his wife.
Ravana, blinded by his infatuation for Uma, accepted her and carried her off on his shoulder along with the Atmalinga. He went south towards his kingdom. This created an alarm and fear among the various gods in heaven. Ganesha, Skanda ( the warrior god) and Virabhadra, sons of Shiva and Parvati were perturbed. Nandi, the bull was equally surprised by this development. All of them appealed to Shiva for redress from this unwarranted situation. Shiva told them not worry and promised that Lord Vishnu would redeem the situation.
Uma, who was ordered by Shiva to go with Ravana, then appealed to Lord Vishnu for help. Vishnu agreed and he met Ravana at Gokarna, disguised as an aged, frail looking Brahmin. The Brahmin asked Ravana as to how he was carrying such a lovely woman on his shoulders. Ravana, in his enthusiasm, explained that Shiva of Kailash himself had given her to him. Pleased with the Brahmin’s words of praise, Ravana brought her down to have a look at her charming face. This was his undoing as at that moment, Vishnu played a trick and made Uma look haggard, aged and repulsive. The Brahmin then gave a derisive laugh and made a humiliating remark of Ravana’s choice of the lady. Thus humiliated, Ravana deserted Uma and went back to Kailash to complain and plead with Shiva. Vishnu then asked Uma to settle down at Gokarna. Now, she is worshipped in Gokarna, as Mother Bhadrakali.
Then Vishnu created an illusion of a charming girl in front of Ravana and assured him that this girl would be born as Mandodari, daughter of Mayasura and marry him. Mollified by this promise, Ravana returned carrying the Atmalinga. On the way, he met Ganesha in the garb of a cowherd (by the request of Lord Indra) at the same location where he had deserted Uma. At that moment Ravana wanted urgently to attend the call of nature and he, therefore, requested Ganesha to hold the Atmalinga in his hand till he returned after ablutions. There is another version of the legend at this point. It is said that Ravana, being a Brahmin wanted to offer his evening religious prayers, Sandhyavandanam, and he, therefore, requested Ganesha, who appeared before him as a Brahmin boy, to hold on to the Atmalinga till he returned; with strict instructions to Ganesha not to place it on the ground under any circumstance.
However, Ravana could not come within the specified time. Ganesha called out thrice rapidly for Ravana. Even before Ravana could return, Ganesha placed the Atmalinga on the ground, tricked Ravana and vanished from the scene with his cows. Ravana then chased the only cow, which was going underground. However, he managed to get hold of the cow’s ear only, as the rest of cow’s body had disappeared below ground. It is this ear now seen in a petrified form, which has given the name ‘Gokarna’ to the place, meaning “Cow’s ear.” (in Sanskrit ‘Gow’ means “cow” and ‘karna’ means “ear”). Then, Ravana tried hard to lift the Shiv Linga but failed as it was firmly fixed. Ravana had even fainted; thereafter he gave the name Mahabaleshwar (meaning all-powerful) to the Atmalinga. Thus, according to the legend narrated, the place now boasts of three divine entities namely: Gokarna, the cow’s ear; the Atmalinga or Shiva Linga that is deified in the Mahabaleshwar Temple; and the Goddess Bhadrakali, which are all now divine places of worship integral to Gokarna
How to reach?
By Road: National Highway 17 (NH17), a coastal highway on the western ghats of India (from Mangalore to Mumbai), passes close to the temple town of Gokarna. The town is 56 kilometres from Karwar and 252 kilometres from Mangalore on this highway. It is 450 kilometres (280 mi) from Bangalore.
By Air: The nearest airport is at Panaji, Goa, 155 kilometres away
(Featured Image source: travel.india.com)