When we think about it, most of the traditions of worship involve the five elements of nature – Agni (fire), Vayu (air), Prithvi (earth), Akash (space) and Jala (water). Our physical body, throbbing with life is also composed of these five elements. In the world we live in, experiencing the human connection with nature is a luxury of sorts. Sometimes, taking a step back to celebrate nature can be a spiritual experience too. I feel this is the relevance of the Pancha Bhoota Sthalas.
What are the "Pancha Bhootha Sthalas"? My first encounter of the term was though a brief travelogue. It mentioned about five ancient temples of Shiva each built for his manifestation as one of the five elements of nature. Wow! The whole concept caught my imagination and had me curious. Two years after reading about the them and quite a bit of planning later, I was lucky to visit these wonderful temples. This blog is my attempt to share my experience in a fashion that will be useful for similar experience seekers. All these temples are geographically located within the Deccan Plateau- one in Andhra Pradesh and four in Tamil Nadu. The image below will introduce you to the temples and the elements they represent:
In this write up, I run you by my experience, the legends, some finds and a bit of practical travel tips. I cover one temple at a time. Both natural and supernatural, there are phenomenon to experience beyond nature at these divine spots. If this sort of trip is your thing, our explorer team has also created a detailed travel package for your perusal too. We start at the watery world of Thiruvanakaval in Tiruchirappalli.
Also known as Thiruvanaikoil, Jambukeswaram, Jambu Linga and Appu (Water in Tamil) Linga, this place is the abode of the Pancha Bhoota Shiva Linga representing water. The sanctum of Jambukeswara has an underground water stream which in spite of pumping water out, it is always filled with water.
While the gopuram looks simple and unassuming, the grandeur of the main complex will make you stop in your tracks. The exquisite sculpture work of pillars, ceilings and walls is as good as any temple in South India.
As we walk further, it appears that the sanctum sanctorum is located almost underground. It is interesting to note the unusually small entrance of the sanctum, measuring only 4ft by 2.5 ft (we discuss the story below). The lighting with only oil lamps inside the Garbha Griha (where the Appu lingam is located) gives a completely mystic and divine feel.
While the priest does the puja, we can see flowing water oozing out of the ground and hear a gurgling sound. It appears as an underground spring that flows at the foot of the Linga. One cannot stop but wonder:
Did they install the linga knowing that the spring was there? Is it intelligent architecture or divine mystery? Not much is known. Either way, it continues to mesmerize humanity for thousands of years!
Here, Goddess Parvati is worshiped as Akhilandeswari (the goddess who gained knowledge). Unlike other Shiva temples, Akhilandeswari’s radiant idol is installed facing east opposite Shiva. Read on as we explore the legends of this temple and share travel information:
For Hindus only
This temple is the abode of the Pancha Bhoota Shiva Linga representing the element: water
Tickets: For a Darshan close to the Garbha Griha, you might have to buy a ticket for special darshan. Camera INR 30 and Video INR 200.
Timings: Open from 6 AM to 1 PM and 4 PM to 9 PM.
Visit Duration: 2 hours
Myths apart, the temple’s history goes beyond a thousand years. In fact, the temple’s foundations were laid during Chola king Kochenkannan’s time, who ruled around 1st -2nd Century A.D. This means the temple is at least 1800 years old!
The noon puja is not to be missed when the priest dresses up like a woman to worship lord Jambukeshwara, in a symbolic recreation of goddess Akhilandeshwari’s puja. Another peculiarity is the unusually small entrance of the sanctum, measuring only 4ft by 2.5 ft
The temple is located in Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) which is well connected by rail and air. It is located 3 km north of Rock Fort and very close to Srirangam temple. If you exit from the Vellai Gopuram side of Srirangam, you could even walk up to the temple.
Official website: Click here
Why is the temple entrance so small? What is this unique ritual with the priest dressed as a woman during noon? We explore the stories
It is fascinating how these names, legends and myths came about. Here, we have a story which explain many of the unique rituals and settings in this temple.
One legend talks about Parvati’s penance for Lord Shiva in the Jambu forest (explains the name Jambukeshwara). It is said that she fashioned a lingam out the holy waters of cauvery. Lord Shiva appeared gave Upadesa (divine knowledge) giving the goddess the name Ahkilandeswari. As Lord Shiva is the Guru here, the idols are installed opposite each other and no thiru Kalyanam (marriage) is conducted in the temple. The noon puja, with priest dressed as a woman is a symbolic recreation of goddess Akhilandeswari’s puja.
As for the small entrances, interestingly, the legend is with shared another Pancha Bootha temple – Sri Kalahasthi. We detail the quirky myth in the next section. Read on!
The main deity of this temple, Srikalahasthiswara is a Vayu Linga (linga made of element air). Notwithstanding its mention in historic texts, the flicking flame in the sanctum all year round is a miraculous indicator of the presence of Vayu (Air) and the temple’s significance.
The temple of Kalahastheeswara is among the most impressive Shiva temples in India. Placed between two mountains and a river, the location awe-inspiring. The architectural brilliance on top of it makes it legendary. The temple is carved out of the side of a stone hill. The huge white lofty gopurams (120 ft high) add to the magnificence. While the initial structure was created by the Pallavas (5th century), the Cholas (10th century) and the Vijayanagara (16th century) kingdoms have contributed with their architectural brilliance to make the current structure.
We make our way through dim light narrow paths to the inner sanctum. The linga at SriKalahasti is widely acknowledged to be self-manifested or Swayambhu. It is interesting to note that the Vayu linga remains untouched by even the priests. The Abhishekam (offering) which is a mix of milk, camphor, water, sandalpaste, flowers and panchamrita is offered to the utsava-murti and not the main linga.
It is difficult to reason as to how the lamp in the sanctum constantly flickers despite the absence of air or windows and even when the deity room is shut. This miracle is interpreted as the presence of element: air/wind.
An even more interesting anecdote has to do with the shape of the Linga. It is shaped like an elephant trunk with tusks on each side and a figure of a spider at the bottom. When seen from above it is shaped like a five-hooded snake. There is an interesting story to this. We explore it in the legends section below.
This temple is the abode of the Pancha Bhoota Shiva Linga representing the element: Air
Tickets: For a Darshan close to the Shiva Lingam, you might have to buy a ticket for special darshan (INR 30)
Timings: Open from 5:30 AM to 11:30 AM and 5 PM to 9 PM.
Visit Duration: 2 hours
According to ancient Tamil sources Sri Kalahasti has been known as the ‘Kailas of the South’ for slightly more than two thousand years
This temple itself is a great architectural piece of art and it is worth spending some time exploring it. You can see that the inside pillars are fresh as they were hundreds of years back because they were hidden from degradation by nature.
The Srikalahasteeswara Swamy Temple is renowned as a Rahu Kethu Kshetra. It is frequented people who have Sarpa Doshas or Rahu Kethu Doshas which manifest usually as problems related to marriage and child-birth. It is believe that the Rahu - Kethu Sarpa Dosha Nivarana Puja in this Temple all the Doshas get removed and desired results occur.
Srikalahasti is 38 km north of Tirupati and is accessible by rail and road. There are also several daily trains from Tirupathi which will take you to Srikalahasti in 30 mins. APSRTC has numerous buses plying through this route too.
Official website: Click here
Why are the temple entrance and pathways so narrow? What is story behind the unique shape of the Shiva Linga here? We explore the legends.
The story of the warring spider, snake and the elephant that captures prominence in this place. Let’s read about this interesting legend.
The popular story talks about how an elephant, a snake and a spider found unique ways to worship the Lord. The snake would place a precious gem everyday to adorn the lord and the spider would spin a web to protect the lingam. It is said that the elephant, in an attempt to pour holy water at the lingam, would destroy the spider’s diligently spun web over the lingam (designed to shade the lingam from sunlight and leaves) every day. Once day, the snake got angry by the elephant’s water play and crawled up the tusker’s trunk in the process killing itself. The elephant ran amok and hit its trunk against the linga squashing the spider to death. The tusker eventually died of snake poisoning. It is in memory of this story that the Shiva Linga has unique features representing the lord's selfless devotees – the snake, spider and elephant.
The story goes that the spider was reborn as Ko Chen Kannan, the red-eyed Chola king who built 70 temples on either side of the Kaveri, including the one at Thiruvanaikkaval. In memory of his old enmity, all temples built by him were yanai yera koils, or temples where elephants cannot enter. The gates were so tiny, even baby elephants cannot squeeze through. That explains the small entrances of both the temples at Thiruvanaikaval and Srikalahasti. Its really interesting how these legends connect temples. Next we move to the element of fire at Tiruvannamalai.
Tiruvannamalai is the spiritual hub of South India centred around the Annamalaiyar Temple where Lord Shiva is worshiped as an Agni lingam (Fire). In the background, the mystical Mount Arunachala or Annamalai glints in the rays of the rising sun (arun). It is considered as holy as the temple that lies at its base. Tiru's reputation for strong spiritual energies has produced numerous ashrams of enlightened gurus like Seshadri Swamigal, Ramana Maharshi and Yogi Ramsuratkumar to name some. The town attracts ever-growing numbers of spiritual-minded travellers.
We enter the awe-inspiring 10 hectares large complex through the Raja Gopuram or East Gateway Tower. It is 11 stories high at a height of 217 feet making it among the tallest gopurams in the country. Take a moment to imagine the kind of work that would have gone into creating something this detailed. As we walk further is the Kambattu Elayanar Murugan temple, Shiva Ganga tank to the left and the thousand pillar mandapam to the right. Straight ahead is the Patala lingam where Sri Ramana Maharishi is said to have meditated while ants devoured his flesh.
Did you know that the Deity never enters through the Raja Gopuram? There are stories to be discovered in every corner of this majestic temple.
A large nandi statue stands in front of the Siddhi Vinayaka temple, and you can also get blessed by the temple elephant on the way here!
The kili (parrot) gopuram leads to an inner enclosure where the main temple stands. Take a ticket for special darshan and enter the main complex. People from other faiths are also allowed entry to experience darshan.
The spiritual energy emanating from the inner sanctum is undisputed. I felt vibrations hitting me like waves from the hot traditional-lamp-filled inner sanctum. This is one spiritual experience that resurfaces at the very mention of Arunachaleswara.
For those on pilgrimage, ascending the holy mountain from the Western town to do a ‘Girivalam’ or ‘Pradarshina’ is a rewarding spiritual experience. It is a 14 km circumambulation of this holy hill done barefoot with numerous ashrams, cave shrines, tirthas (sacred spots) and lingas along the way.
Tip: For a majestic birds-eye-view of the temple complex, take a 10 min (450 steps) hike up Pavalakunnu (Coral hill) which is en route to the bus stand.
This temple is the abode of the Pancha Bhoota Shiva Linga representing the element: Fire
Tickets: For a Darshan close to the inner sanctum to see the Agni Linga, you can buy a special entry ticket (INR 20).
Timings: Open from 5:30AM–12:30PM and 3:30–9:30PM
Visit Duration: 3 hours
The temple’s basic structure is traced backed to the Chola dynasty in the 9th century while later expansions are credited to the Vijaynagara rulers (13th -16th century)
Geologists claim this to mount to be older than the Himalayas and an extinct volcano. The history is tracked from BC 100 Tamil Sangam Age.
An elaborate series of rituals are followed even today beginning with the processional delivery of water by the temple elephant.
Every full moon ‘Tiru’ swells with pilgrims who do the purifying ritual called Girvalam. The strong spiritual energy of the meditation caves is a big draw for sadhus (holy men). Once a year, the Karthigai Deepam festival is conducted when a huge fire is lit on top of the mountain.
The town of Tiruvannamalai is around 200km from Chennai and well connected by road and train. It connection to Bangalore is through NH 66 (Bangalore -Pondy Highway), 40 km from Gingee and 106 km from Pondicherry (2 hrs). Regular buses ply from Chennai Bus stand, the journey takes around 5 to 6 hours.
Official website: Click here
Why is Lord Brahma never worshiped in temples? What is the legend behind the extravagant Karthigai Deepam festival? We explore the stories here.
The story goes that, Lord Shiva manifested himself as an Agni lingam or column of fire, and challenged Hindu gods Brahma and Vishnu to find the crown and feet. Vishnu assumed the form of a boar and headed south to see the root while Brahma became a swam and flew heavenward. Vishnu accepted defeat in the challenge while Brahma enlisted two Ketaki flowers as false witnesses. An enraged Shiva cursed that Brahma would never be worshiped in temples and nor would Ketaki be used in Shiva worship. The story is carved in stone on the walls of the temple.
This holy place where Shiva appeared as fire on an unreachable mountain ‘annamalai’ came to be called ‘Tiru-annamalai’. It is to commemorate this legend that every November the 10 day Karthigai deepam festival is celebrated. On full moon day, the priest summit Arunachala and light a huge beacon of fire on the hill top. The flame blazes for days and can be seen from 30 km away. The event is witnessed by thousands of pilgrims performing Girivalam (circling the hills by foot) adding to the drama.
Already thinking of a trip to the Pancha Bhoota Sthalas? Check out our customisable tour package designed on this spiritual circuit.
With a legacy of more than 3 centuries, the Ekambaranathar’s 12-hectare precinct is the shrine of earth. The Pallavas built the shrine, the Cholas renovated it and the Vijaynagara kings added the musical pillars and the Gopurams which towers a majestic 57 m high on the town’s sky line. Temple is among the oldest functioning temples in India.
We enter through the beautifully sculptured main gopuram. Inside, a columned hall leads left into the central compound, which Nandi faces from the right. Among the unique work on the temple walls is the outer sanctum’s Makara thorana vayil, a grand arched entrance shaped like a Makara (a mythical sea creature). Entry to the inner sanctum is allowed only to Hindus. As we walk inside the main complex, the most notable feature is the Aayiram Kaal Mandapam, or the "hallway with a thousand pillars". The temple’s inner walls are also decorated with an array of 1008 Shiva Lingams.
The inner sanctum houses the Prithvi lingam which has an unusual conical shape. Unlike other Shiva temples, no dhara is done here as the lingam is made of earth. A mirror chamber reflects the central Shiva image in endless repetition. After darshan we visit the sacred mango tree.
A hallway past the temple leads to a courtyard where the original tree stands. As per the legend (explained below), Shiva and Kamakshi got married under this tree which is 3500 years old. The sacred tree has four branches that bear fruits of different shapes and tastes as an embodiment of the four vedas.
For Hindus Only
This temple is the abode of the Pancha Bhoota Shiva Linga representing the element: Earth
Tickets: For a Darshan close to the inner sanctum to see the Earth Linga, you can buy a special entry ticket (INR 5). Camera INR 10 and Video INR 100.
Timings: Open from 05:00 AM - 12:00 PM, 04:30 PM - 08:30 PM
Visit Duration: 2 hours
The temple’s basic structure was built by the Pallava dynasty in the 5th century while later expansions are credited to the Vijaynagara rulers (13th -16th century)
None of the Shiva temples in Kanchipuram including Ekambaranath have a separate shine for the female diety Kamakshi (Parvati). This is unlike other Shiva temples where it is customary to have one. It has to do with the legend of the temple.
A unique feature of the architectural design is that on the day of Ratha Sapthami (7th day of Thai in January), the rays of the sun fall directly on the Shivalinga in the sanctum.
Kanchipuram is 75kms away from Chennai, regular buses ply from CMBT bus stand. Journey takes less than 2-3 hours.
Official website: Click Here
Why are there no separate shrines for Parvati in Kanchipuram? What explains the unusual conical shape of the linga? We explore the legend here.
It is said that Kamakshi (Parvati Devi) did penance for lord Shiva, and worshiped him by fashioning a lingam out of sand under a mango tree. To test her devotion, Shiva caused the neighbouring Vegavati River to flood the town. Not afraid of her own safety, Kamakshi embraced the prithvi lingam tightly, leaving the imprints of her bangles and breasts on it. Contented by her devotion, Lord Shiva agreed to marry Kamakshi, who was united (ekya) with the Lord under the same mango (amram) tree. Thus the mud-linga of the Lord (nath) is worshipped as Ekambaranath. The lord is also referred to as the ‘one who melted in her embrace’. As a tribute to Kamashi’s worship, none of the temples in Kanchi have a separate shrine for Parvati.
Next, we head to a temple filled with symbolism and source of creation at Chidambaram.
Chidambaram’s claim to fame is the temple of Nataraja where Lord Shiva appears as the Cosmic Dancer. Besides being one of the holiest of Shiva sites, the temple happens to moonlight as a Dravidian architectural fantasy too. Spread over 51 acres, every space in the Thillai Nataraja Temple is nuanced with meaning and symbolism.
We enter through the main entrance at the east gopuram where the 108 positions of the dance form Bharatanatyam adorn the passageway. We can see the other soaring gopurams, the Siva ganga tank and the 1000 pillar Raja Sabha to the right. To the southern part of the central compound we see the chariot shaped Nritta Sabha (Dance Hall). With 56 finely carved sculptures of Shiva in Urddhva Tandava pose and Kali, it marks the place where the dance competition was held (legend explained below).
We pass the Deva Sabha or Hall of Gods where festival deities are kept and enter the Kanaka Sabha Pavillion (Golden Hall). This is where the unique daily rituals are conducted at puja times by the temple’s hereditary Brahmin priests (Dikshithars). North of the Kanaka Sabha is the innermost sanctum, the golden-roofed Chit Sabha (Hall of Consciousness) where the cosmic dancer Nataraja is housed. Read on as we discover the ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ here.
Here is the most fascinating aspect of this temple: the symbolism. At different times, the golden roofed sanctum of Chidambaram houses the lord as a different presence – in form as Nataraja and formless as Space. The anthropomorphic form has Lord Shiva as the cosmic dancer- ending one cycle of creation and beginning another. In formless nirakaar presence, we worship empty space. This the beauty of the concept.
During the daily rituals, the chief priest, parts the dark curtain which indicates withdrawal of ignorance and reveals empty space. Only a strand of 51 golden vilva leaves indicate the Lord’s presence. Essentially, we focus our consciousness (chitt) on a formless space on a stage (ambalam). This is from where the place derives its name.
The Chidambara Rahasya is a deep concept where we worship empty space. It indicates we can surrender to emptiness and experience bliss.
This temple is the Pancha Bhoota site representing the element: Space or Akash
Guides: Temple Dikshitars often double up as guides and are reliable people to hire
Timings: Open from 6 am- noon & 4.30-10pm
Visit Duration: 3 hours
This powerful legacy of Dravidian art has attracted pilgrims for over two millennium. There are mentions of Chidambaram from third century CE.
Unlike other Shiva temples in Tamilnadu which follow agamic rituals based on Sanskrit scriptures, at Chidambaram, Vedic rituals set by sage Patanjali are followed. This throws light on the age of the temple. The Kanaka Sabha (Golden Hall) is venue for daily vedic rituals which are centred on fire sacrifice (yagna) and headed by the Dikshitars. Everyone is allowed to witness these ancient rituals.
Built like a Kundalini chakra as per the Shaiva Siddhanta philosophy, the temple architecture is similar to the construction of the human body. The roof is made up to 21,600 gold tiles that represent the number of breaths the average human takes in a day. They are fixed by 72,000 nails, which symbolize the nadis (veins) in the body. The nine kalasams (finials) on the roof represent the nine energy centres and nine holes in the human body. The sandalwood frame of the sanctum sanctorum represents the skeletal system and where the Nataraj idol lies, is the heart.
Chidambaram is around 190km to Chennai, located at Tiruchirappali. Regular buses are avaialble from Chennai CMBT bus stand, journey takes around 5 - 6 hours.
Official website: Click here
According to legend, Shiva and Kali got into a dance-off judged by Vishnu at the Thillai-vanam (mangrove forest of Chidambaram). Kali matched every move of Shiva, until the fateful moment when his right earring fell down. Without faltering, Shiva picked it up deftly with his right leg and placed it back on his ear. As this step would be indecent for a woman to imitate, Kali accepted defeat. Shiva won the title of Nataraja (the lord of Dance) and is worshiped in a pose with his legs raised (urddhva tandava). There is also the story of how Shiva immobilised demon Muyalakan and performed the dance of Bliss to disclose his true form. All these legends add to the mysticism of this ancient temple which draws an endless stream of worshippers.
Does a mix of temples, heritage sites and immersive local experiences interest you? Check out our customisable tour designed around the Tamilnadu heritage circuit.
The journey to these consecrated spaces was a phenomenal experience. Most of what I’ve shared covers what was perceived through my senses. However, the essence of the journey is beyond that in the spiritual realm. That is something which you must experience for yourself.
Because, irrespective of your belief system, a need will come that you want to get in touch with the source of creation
That is the time for you to embark on such a journey. It will throw perspective on certain dimensions of life you would find difficult to discover otherwise. The Pancha Bhoota Sthalams are rewarding destinations for the seeker in you.
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