Legends of Shiva – Gokarna and Murudeshwar

Between them, the beaches of Gokarna and Murudeshwar on Karnataka’s northern coast tell a tale of devotion and celestial intrigue. LAKSHMI SHARATH explores the secret.

Om, the waves whisper as we walk down the seashore. As they ebb and flow, they form the Om symbol on the beach, a legend that explains why the beach is so named. A few foreign tourists look out from the shacks as the silence is interrupted by birds. The salts of the sea tickle your nostrils and the breeze lifts your spirits.

The breeze brings us to two ancient temple towns – Murudeshwar and Gokarna – where myth and legend flow with the waves. There is an air of sanctity as the temple towns resonate with the  legends of Shiva. The eyes feast on blue-green waters as rivers alternate with seas. Set amidst beautiful beaches, these tales are told by gods and demons, lending the towns with history and identity. The sea and mountains here have witnessed a tale set in ancient times – a story about good, evil and a weapon called power.

The story goes that Ravana, the ambitious demon-king of Lanka, desiring immortality and power, performed rigorous penance to propitiate Shiva and be granted the Atmalinga, the divine linga that bestows the gods with immortality. Shiva granted his wish under condition that the Atmalinga be never placed on the ground as it would be embedded there. The sage Narada, fearing that Ravana might become invincible, approached Lord Vishnu to retrieve it. Our tale begins here.

Ravana was a very devoted worshipper of Shiva who performed his rituals religiously in the evening. The Gods Vishnu and Ganesha decided to exploit his devotion .As Ravana neared Gokarna bearing the Atmalinga, Vishnu blotted out the sun with his Sudarshana Chakra to create the illusion of twilight. Ganesha, in the garb of a boy, approached Ravana who requested him to hold the Atmalinga until he performed his rituals.

The Shiva statue at Murudeshwar. Photo: Lakshmi Sharath

When Ravana returned, he saw that the boy was gone and the Atmalinga was planted firmly in the ground. Vishnu then dispelled the illusion. It was daylight again. Ravana, in anger, tried to uproot the Atmalinga but could only manage to pick parts of it. In anger he pulled away the cloth covering it and flung it away. It fell on a piece of land today known as Murudeshwara.

The Atmalinga, however, could not be removed and Ravana called it Mahabala as he was unable to lift it. It is believed that the  Mahabaleshwara temple was built in Gokarna on the site where the linga was placed. A small hole in the temple permits devotees to glimpse the top of the Atmalinga. The Maha Ganapathi temple here is a reminder of Ganesha’s role in the legend, while the towering statue of Shiva at Murudeshwar blesses the entire coast.

The legends do not end there. The earliest history of Gokarna is not known but it is said that the local people fled from Gomantak or Goa to escape forcible conversion by the Portuguese and British settled in and around Gokarna in the 15th century. Located at the ear-shaped confluence of two rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini, Gokarna literally means "Cow's Ear." In this land of sacred lore, it is believed that Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow – a metaphor for Mother Earth or Prithvi. According to another legend, Brahma sent Shiva to hell (believed to be beneath the earth) to undergo penance. He returned through the ear of the earth and blessed her with the name Gokarna. Shiva apparently collected the essence of all Brahma’s creations and created a golden deer with four legs, three eyes, and three horns. It is believed that the three horns were placed at Siddi Kshetras like Pushkar, Shaligram and Gokarna.

As pilgrims throng the temples, tourists flock the Kudle, Half  Moon and Paradise beaches, besides the Om and Gokarna beach near the main temple. The waves here chant a different rhythm, a sacred sound, echoing “Om” and probably narrating the legends in their own tune.

Gokarna in Uttar Karnataka is about 60 km from Karwar, 225 km from Mangalore and 460 km from Bangalore. It is closer to Goa -- the closest airport is Dabolim (185 km) – and well connected by train and bus. The closest railhead is Gokarna Road, served by Konkan Railway, 10 km away from the main town. Other railheads are Ankola, Kumta and Karwar. Buses connect all these towns. Accommodation is usually basic here but most hotels are in Murudeshwar, about 70 km away. Barring the monsoon, any time is good to visit Gokarna, though October through February is the best season.
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