“When his devotees call him,
He comes glittering…
And bestows his grace upon all
He is indeed the thief who has stolen my soul away.”
~~~ Tamil poet Sambandar on Lord Shiva.

During a tirthayatra we worship our deities by visiting their greatest shrines. For Lord Vishnu there is the Chaar Dhaam yatra that covers the four cardinal points of the Indian subcontinent as pilgrims visit Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri and Rameswaram. For the great mother goddess Devi we have fifty one sacred seats of the deity called Devi or Shakti Peethas. For Lord Shiva the pilgrimage follows a beam of divine light to the temples with the twelve jyotirlingams that are located all across the land, from Kedarnath in the Himalayas, Vishwanath by the Ganga River, Somnath by the Arabian Sea to Rameswaram by the Bay of Bengal.

These circuits of yatras have been part of the Hindu spiritual life for over three thousand years and one wonders how in a country the size of India, with primitive forms of transport and communications, we created such an intricate network of connected pilgrimages. The Sanskrit scholar Diana Eck calls this network a “sacred geography” that offers moksha to the pilgrim. She says that the news of the sanctity of these shrines and their mythology was carried across India by pilgrims, traders and travelling story tellers called kathakaars. So from time immemorial our pilgrims united the country through their faith.

These pilgrimages are listed in ancient texts like the Puranas, Mahabharata and Ramayana that were written by scholars and philosophers we call rishis. For example in the Tirthayatra Parva of the Mahabharata when the Pandavas are in exile and hiding in the forest they decide to go on a pilgrimage. The sage Rishi Pulastya guides them in their journey and this list of pilgrimages then inspires pilgrims for centuries.

The locations of the twelve jyotirlingam temples are listed in the Shiva Purana and there is a shloka in their praise composed by Adi Shankaracharya though neither explains why these specific temples were selected. It may be because these shrines were the most ancient and popular among pilgrims. Each jyotirlingam is said to be a different manifestation of Shiva as a symbol of his infinite character and they are located in places of natural beauty like on hills, by rivers and the sea. Among them the most important is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi which is called the city of Shiva.

Shiva is not a Vedic god and he is not mentioned in the Rig Veda which has songs in the praise of gods like Indra and Agni. A form of Shiva may have been worshipped in the Indus Valley Civilization as some of the seals found at Harappa show a male figure sitting cross legged in a yogic posture surrounded by animals that resembles Shiva as Pashupatinath or the god of animals. Also small stone columns have been found that could be Shivalingams. Shiva, a Harappan god, became so popular that the Aryan priesthood had to include him in the pantheon of Puranic gods and build temples to him. Then they explained the symbolism of the lingam through the myth of the jyotirlingam.

The myth of the jyotirlingam or the divine pillar of light tells of the supremacy of Shiva over the other two members of the Hindu trinity – Brahma and Vishnu. It begins with an argument between Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva about who is the supreme lord of the universe. They ask the Vedas and this compendium of knowledge says that Shiva is the greatest. A dissatisfied Brahma and Vishnu refuse to believe the Vedas and this makes Shiva very angry.

In his rage Shiva turns into a glittering pillar of light that is so big that it pierces the sky and digs deep into the earth. Then Shiva challenges Brahma and Vishnu to discover where the column begins and where it ends. The five headed Brahma flies away on his swan to find the end in the sky. Vishnu turns himself into a boar and begins to dig deep into the earth. Both fail to find the ends of the pillar.

Vishnu confesses to Shiva that he has failed and acknowledges that Shiva is the great god. Hearing this Shiva’s column shrinks and turns into a shivalingam that Vishnu places in a temple and worships. Brahma refuses to confess that he had failed and claims that he had found the end of the column in the sky. Hearing this lie Shiva turns into the fierce Bhairava and cuts off Brahma’s fifth head. He also curses him that from then on Brahma will not be worshipped by anyone.

 This myth called Lingodbhava explains why we worship the Shivalingam as a symbol of Shiva because he is a god beyond any form – male, female, animal or plant. The jyotirlingams are called swayambhu or self created and they are of natural formations. For instance the lingam at Kedarnath is a piece of rock and the one at Varanasi, called a banalingam, is a smooth stone from the Narmada River. A lingam carved by a sculptor that we see in most Shiva temples is called a sthapit lingam.

Many of the jyotirlingams have their own myths like Somnath is a story of Shiva and Chandra, the moon god. Rameswaram has a myth woven around Rama and Sita. Kedarnath and Varanasi are connected to the story of Shiva’s atonement after cutting off Brahma’s fifth head.

Also each jyotirlingam has a name and they are:

  • Somnath, Gujarat
  • Mallikarjuna, Srisailam, Tamil Nadu
  • Mahakaleshwar, Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh
  • Omkareshwar, Madhya Pradesh
  • Kedarnath, Uttarakhand
  • Bhimashankar, Pune, Maharashtra
  • Vishwanath, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
  • Tryambakeshwar, Nashik, Maharashtra
  • Baidyanath, Deoghar, Jhrakhand
  • Nageshwar, Dwarka, Gujarat
  • Ramanatha, Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu
  • Grishneshwar, Ellora, Maharashtra

Kashi or Varanasi is where the column of light is said to have appeared first and then shrank into a lingam. The festival of Mahashivaratri celebrates this episode as also the marriage of Shiva with Parvati.

Devdutt Pattanaik describes Shiva as, “the container of infinity, the form of the formless, the tangible that provokes insight into the tangible.” Shiva is thus the great god and called Mahadeva and Ishvara. He is a family man and also an ascetic yogi, he can be angry and benign, creative and destructive. He wears the Ganga River and the crescent moon and is the supreme lord of light and darkness.


Below is the shloka that lists the jyotirlingams:

“In Saurashtra’s Somnath, in Sri Saila Mallikarjuna

In Ujjain there is Mahakala, At Omkara, Mamaleshwara

And at Paralli, Vaidyanatha, in the south Bhimashankara

At the Bridge there is Rameshwara, and in the pine forest Nagesha

In Varanasi there is Vishveshwara, on the banks of the Gomati, Tryambaka

In the Himalayas, Kedara, at the abode of Shiva, Grishneshwara

These twelve I honour

Whoever, on rising in the morning may read this,

Is free from all sin and obtain all powerful fruit.