It’s not unusual to find a holy site in an Indian river. The Ganges is sacred to Hindus and is a site of frequent pilgrimage. Some rivers, however, are less obvious in their importance. Something sacred has been hidden beneath the waters of the River Shalmala for hundreds of years, but it was only a drought that allowed it to be brought to light.
The River Shamala flows through the state of Karnataka. The place is known as Sahasralinga, which means “thousand Shiva lingas” in Sanskrit, because what was found there is sacred to the god Shiva. It’s probably been there since the late 1600s or maybe the early 1700s, but the river meant it could not be seen until the drought caused water levels to fall.
Shiva is one of the most important gods in Hinduism, and shrines to him can be found throughout India. What was hidden in the river, however, is remarkable in its scale. It gives some insight into the human who lived there hundreds of years ago and the importance that they place on a god still worshipped today.
It’s almost impossible to understand the history of India without also understanding its diverse array of religions. It’s the birthplace of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, as well as the home of significant populations of Muslims and Christians. The interplay between these religions is a major part of how India developed into its current shape.
India’s first great civilization was built in the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan, but we know little about this society. This means that as well as not understanding its language and culture, we know very little about its religion. We can’t know for sure if it influenced the later development of Hinduism, though there appear to be similarities.
Hinduism is the oldest and most popular religion in India, with about 80 percent of the modern population identifying as Hindus. The Indus Valley period was followed by the Vedic Period that began around 1500 B.C. and continued until 500 B.C. Archaeological evidence tells us that the people of the time spoke Sanskrit and practiced various forms of sacrifice.
Sacrifice in this context doesn’t just mean that ancient Indians were killing animals and offering them to the gods. Practitioners would also use products like butter and milk as part of a sacrificial meal. These would be shared with the gods by offering them to a sacred fire, though people would also share the meal with each other.
There’s no one person whom you can point to as the founder of Hinduism and no one book that sets out its fundamental principles. The religion is a collection of philosophies and traditions that have developed over thousands of years, with many different branches and sects coming under its banner. Even the word “Hindu” was given by outsiders, rather than being a common identifier for Hindus themselves.
Common concepts in Hinduism include karma, samsara, moksha and dharma. Karma is a kind of cosmic cause and effect, while samsara is a belief that a person’s soul (atman) is reincarnated into a new body when they die. The soul eventually aims to reach moksha, or a state of salvation. Dharma is the moral code that governs Hindu life.
Most Hindus view Brahma as their main god, but they also believe that he is surrounded by lesser gods and goddesses. Brahma is the creator of the universe while Vishnu is its preserver. In some forms of Hinduism, they are considered part of a trinity with Shiva, the god of both destruction and rebirth. Different gods have different forms of worship.
As well as the trinity, gods with popular sects include Krishna, the god of love and compassion, and Devi, the goddess in charge of preserving dharma. Traditionally, Hindus are also divided socially into a caste system based on both dharma and karma, though this is no longer as strict as it was many years ago.
The different castes are given different prominence, with the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the Brahmin caste being the most highly regarded. They are followed by Kshatriyas, who protect and serve society, then the skilled workers known as Vaisyas. Shudras are unskilled workers, while Dalits (previously known as “untouchables”) are at the lowest level because they are outside of the caste system.
There are aspects of Vedic sacrifices that still form part of modern Hindu rituals, but the years after the Vedic Period also saw a rise in devotional worship in temples. Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita) and Ramayana were composed between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 to tell some of the most important stories in Hinduism.
Other texts composed in this time period included the Dharma Sutras and Shastras, which helped establish the concept of dharma. This is a central tenet of Hinduism and it comes in three aspects: law, duty and truth. Dharma can be found in the Veda in the form of revelation, in tradition and in good custom.
From A.D. 320 the Gupta Empire started to grow in power and with it Hinduism grew. Worship began to divide into different sects that focused on different gods. Vaishnavism was the following of Vishnu, Shaktism followed Devi and Shaivism concentrated on Shiva. The little kingdoms that emerged when the empire collapsed also divided among different gods.
Great temples were built to honor specific gods and these temples also became seats of political power. Gurus and poet-saints began to development religious philosophies in their own languages rather than just in Sanskrit. They also challenged the ideas of newer but growing religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.
It was in the eighth century that Islam first travelled to India, but its political power became established by 1200 with the founding of the Turkish Sultanate. Muslim armies were conquering in the north of India even as Hinduism continued to develop in the south. By 1526 the Mughal Empire ruled a significant territory.
The Mughals were Muslims, but to begin with they still allowed Hindus to practice their religion freely. The Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was less tolerant, however, and had many Hindu temples destroyed. Then 1757 saw the British Empire defeating the Mughals and establishing Western dominance on the subcontinent.
Christian missionaries followed the British as attempts were made to westernize Indian religion and culture. This led to new Hindu philosophers in the 19th century trying to challenge the British with their new ideas. Indian nationalists and independence campaigners such as Gandhi would adopt these ideas.
Gandhi was a firm believer in non-violence, and he based his teachings on his Hindu faith. He also dreamed that an independent India would be a united India, but rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims instead led to the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state. This occurred in 1947 when the British finally gave up control of the subcontinent.
Partition was a violent and bloody business that helped exacerbate the tensions that it was supposed to solve. Indian and Hindu nationalists continued to target non-Hindus living in India, whilst other religions also tried to convert Hindus to their faiths, sometimes violently. Religion is a still a defining feature of Indian life even today.
Today Hinduism has spread around the world thanks to the many Indians who have immigrated to Europe and North America. This means that Hinduism has grown and changed again. It also means that Westerners have borrowed aspects of Indian spirituality (such as yoga), although they don’t always acknowledge its origins. Even the Beatles tried it out.
Pilgrimage is important to Hindus, and one site of pilgrimage is where the River Shamala runs through the town of Sirsi. It’s in the Uttara Kannada district of the state of Karnataka. There, the rock of the riverbed is carved with more than 1,000 remarkable icons. These icons are lingas, which are holy symbols dedicated to Shiva.
The lingas are in different sizes, and a combination of time and flowing water have worn many of them down. Not all the carvings are clear, but Shiva can be seen, as can the white bull known as Nandi. Nandi is considered foremost of Shiva’s attendants and provides him with a vehicle to ride.
The name Shiva (sometimes Śiwa or Śiva) comes from Sanskrit and means “Auspicious One.” He has many epithets, or nicknames, with meanings that include “Great Lord,” “Great God,” “Benign” and “Beneficent.”He’s one of the most prominent gods in Hinduism, with the Shaivite sect worshipping him as the supreme god.
Shiva has many names, and he is also represented in a variety of ways. He can be portrayed as a beggar or a holy man, as a father, as the cosmic dancer or as an androgynous body in which he is combined with his consort (known as Parvati, Uma, Sati or Kali). His sons are Skanda (who has six heads) and Ganesha (the god with an elephant’s head).
Shiva may have one, human-appearing head (although it does have three eyes), but he still has a very distinctive look. His body is smeared white with ashes from cremated bodies, while his neck is blue where it once contained poison. In his matted hair can be seen a crescent moon and the Ganges (the story is that he used his hair to carry the river from the sky to the land).
Shiva’s third eye can both look inwards to provide insight or cause destruction by looking outwards. Many aspects of Shiva show him embodying opposites, whether as the master of both medicine and poison or as a master of fertility who is also an ascetic denying himself physical pleasures. It’s all part of his role as both destroyer and creator.
Depictions of Shiva vary in him having two hands or four, but those hands are used to carry important objects. These include a small drum, a trident, a deerskin and a club topped with a skull. That skull earned Shiva the nickname “Skull-bearer,” and he carries it in honor of the time he decapitated one of Brahma’s heads.
Shiva’s affinity with medicine and poison comes from his affinity with snakes and he wears a serpent necklace as well as a garland of skulls. Cows are sacred in Hinduism, and Shiva is a herdsman known as the “Lord of Cattle,” but he has also been known as a slaughterer of souls. Shiva’s chosen vehicle is a bull called Nandi, whose image also appears at Sahasralinga.
Nandi is a gatekeeper as well as a vehicle, and as such his statue or image appears in many Shaivite temples. He is often depicted as a great white bull but also has a human form not unlike Shiva’s. He has three eyes and matted hair containing the moon. One of his hands contains a battle axe, and another contains an antelope, but he also has two more arms that are often together in worship.
Sometimes Nandi also carries a golden staff to show his role as Shiva’s chief attendant, above his other servants. It is Nandi who plays the music when Shiva performs the cosmic dance of creation, but Nandi also has an independent role as guardian of four-footed animals. It was Nandi who killed an elephant demon so that its head could be given to Shiva’s son Ganesha.
One holy text (the Saura Purana) describes Nandi as “adorned with all ornaments, glowing like a thousand suns, holding a trident in his hand, three-eyed, adorned with a sliver of the moon, a thunderbolt in his hand, four-armed, like a second Sankara [Shiva].” In Shiva’s temples, he sits at the entrance so that he can look in and see the sacred lingas.
Lingam or linga is Sanskrit for “distinguishing symbol,” and in Hinduism they are symbols that represent Shiva and his creative power. Many private and Shaivite shrines have their own lingas at their center, where they are often surrounded by sacred images. The oldest known Shiva linga comes from the third century B.C.
A linga comes in a smooth, cylindrical shape that is considered to represent masculinity. When placed in a feminine yoni, which is a disk dedicated to the goddess Shakti, it represents unity between male and female. Cylinders similar to lingas have even been found in ancient cities of the Indus Valley, although they probably had nothing to do with Shiva.
Lingas in southern India often show Shiva emerging from flames in reference to a popular story where Shiva proved he was superior to Brahma and Vishnu. The two gods were arguing over who was more important when Shiva appeared. He turned himself into a pillar of fire, and even when Brahma flew up as an eagle, or Vishnu turned into a boar to dig into the ground, they could not find a top or bottom of the flames.
Water, milk, grass, flowers, fruit, leaves and rice are all considered suitable offerings to any linga, but the most important lingas of all are those believed to have formed naturally at the beginning of time. Across India there are near to 70 places where rocks on the ground or in caves take the form of lingas and are venerated as such.
Pilgrims visit Sahasralinga on Maha Shivaratri, which is a feast day dedicated to Shiva. It marks the day of the flaming linga and is celebrated with fasting during the day and prayer during the night. Worshippers of Shiva hope that honoring Shiva in this way will bring them good fortune.
Historians believe the lingas at Sahasralinga were carved during the reign of Sadashiva Raya, who ruled the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India between 1678 and 1718. He was known as the King of Sirsi and according to one legend, he hoped that the carvings would help him produce an heir to one day rule his kingdom.
India is not the only place where Shiva lingas can be found. A man called Jean Boulbet discovered some in Siem Reap in Cambodia in 1969, but a bloody civil war made it too dangerous to explore the site for another 20 years. Today the site is a popular tourist spot, but it’s a remote enough area that it’s not easy to visit.