Published on 28th January, 2023, in The Times of India.
One of the ways you map India is through the Shakti Pithas. It is said that when the goddess got angry with her father, Daksha, for insulting her husband, Shiva, she jumped into the yagya altar and burned herself to death. Shiva carried the remains of her body on his shoulders – these remains broke into many pieces and fell across India. Thus, India can be marked by a pilgrim route that connects the various body parts of the goddess.
This story is much like the story of Buddha’s relics after his cremation. Charred remains of his body were taken to different parts of India and placed under stupas. Thus, a network of pilgrim spots based on Buddha’s body established the geography of India.
Using the body to mark territory is a recurring theme in Hindu mythology. In the text Vishnu Puran, we are told that Vishnu lay asleep during yoga nidra, at the dawn of creation. In his ear, wax accumulated, and thereof the two asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha, emerged. These two asuras disturbed Brahma, who rose from the lotus that bloomed from Vishnu’s navel. Brahma begged Vishnu to wake up. Vishnu woke up and fought the asuras. Since there was no solid ground at that time, the whole world was covered with water.
Vishnu placed the two asuras on his lap and killed them. From the body parts of the two asuras, the continents came into being. Thus, solid land is considered a manifestation of the asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha. Asuras took the earth under the sea but Vishnu as the boar Varaha brought her back up. He embraced her tightly and this caused the mountains and valleys to form.
Another story talks about Gayasura. Gayasura was so holy that to keep him under control, Vishnu requested him to lay down so Brahma could perform a yagya on his body. As a result of this, Gayasura’s bones turned into metal that we still mine.
As per local legend, Gayasura’s body extends between the city of Gaya and the coast of Odisha. This area is known for its iron ore. It is why the Mayuran King, Ashoka, attacked Kalinga, 2,300 years ago, in search of metal. Here we find mythology marrying history and connecting with geography.
Shiva-linga is placed on a leaf-shaped trough that always points towards the north. So water poured on Shiva always flows north. Why is that? Shiva is linked with North India. He lives on Mount Kailasa. His wife is Parvati, the goddess of mountains. Himavan, god of the Himalayan mountain range, who is Shiva’s father-in-law, is the father of all mountains of India.
Vishnu’s father-in-law is the sea, Sagara, located in the south of India. All rivers are considered the daughters of the sea. Thus, Shiva and Vishnu are connected to the mountains and rivers and seas of India.
Since Parvati is also Durga who kills the demon Mahisha, many mountains and hill-forts across India, such as in the Aravalli mountains and Mysore, claim to be the abode of the goddess who killed demons Chanda and Munda, causing their heads to roll down the slopes.
Parvati is also linked to the city of Kashi. Her kitchen is located there just as Sita’s kitchen is located in Ayodhya. Rivers like Godavari are said to be the Ganga of the South, thus linking the southern rivers to the Himalayas.
Mountains, rivers and seas
As per temple lore, the earth was tilted more towards the north, because more sages lived in the mountains eager to learn from Shiva. So Shiva told Agastya to go south, carrying Vedic lore to balance the earth. The Vindhya mountains lowered themselves to help Agastya pass. Agastya carried mountains from the Himalayas which fell on the ground and became the Eastern and Western Ghats. The Ganga water he carried in his water pot fell on the ground and became the southern rain-fed rivers.
After a fight with his father, Shiva’s son, Kartikeya, also moved south. His path was blocked by a mountain that stands at the border of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. This was Krauncha Giri. Kartikeya split the mountain with his lance to create a pass, so he could pass. The mountain was actually a form taken by the asura Surapadman.
East of Krauncha Giri is Mallikarjun mountain. It is the place where Shiva came to persuade his son to return to Kailasa. But, Kartikeya refused to return and moved further south.
In coastal Andhra, there are five temples associated with the body parts of Tarakasur. Tarakasur is the asura killed by Kartikeya. Tadakasur was also a devotee of Shiva. Thus, the places where his head fell became Shiva temples, in coastal Andhra.
Further south in Tamil Nadu is the mountain of Palni. We are told that some mountains from the Himalayas were brought south, along with Agastya. They were carried on a sling that was placed on the shoulder of the asura Hidimba who took them to the south. Hidimba did this on the orders of Parvati, who did not want her son Kartikeya to miss his home in the northern mountains. Thus the mountain of Palni is supposed to be the Himalaya of the South.
Ravana tried to carry Shiva’s mountain south but failed. He carried the Shivalinga to the south but was tricked into leaving it on the ground near the coast of Karnataka.
His brother Vibhishana carried the image of Vishnu south but was tricked into leaving it on the ground near the Kaveri river, giving rise to the Vishnu temples there.
Hanuman and other monkeys helped Ram to build a bridge to Lanka. When the bridge was ready they simply dropped the mountains wherever they were. Thus the southern mountain ranges and the boulders of Deccan came into being.
Parashurama migrated from the Narmada region towards the western coast of India after killing ungenerous kshatriya kings. He threw his blood-soaked axe and the sea recoiled to reveal the Konkan and Malabar coast. Many parts of the western coast are linked to asuras such as Bali and Naraka who were defeated by Vishnu’s avatars Vaman and Krishna.
In Northeast India are the kingdoms of Naraka Bhauma, son of Varaha and Bhu-devi, who was defeated by Krishna. Krishna also defeated Bana, worshipper of Shiva, who lived in Assam, and another worshipper of Shiva who lived in Kashi. As per local legends, Krishna’s wife Rukmini and his daughter-in-law Usha come from the Brahmaputra region.
While many people remember stories of Ram travelling to the south, few remember stories of southern goddesses like Meenakshi travelling north to marry Shiva and bringing him to Madurai where he lived as a venerable sonin-law. There are sites in Tamil Nadu like Chidambaram associated with where Shiva danced.
The Jyotir-linga that spreads out into the Deccan are the spots where Shiva appeared spontaneously through an endless pillar of fire. This tale ensures that Shiva is not restricted to the Himalayan range.
If Shiva connected north to the south, Vishnu also connected east to the west. So he meditates in Badari at Uttarakhand, eats at Puri in Odisha, prays at Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and then rules as king in Dwarka, as per Vaishnav lore.
As Ram, Vishnu travelled from north to south, but as Krishna, he migrated from Mathura region to Dwarka on the coast of Gujarat. As per the Puranas, the river Yamuna followed him there.
When Krishna was cremated on the western coast of Prabhas, his charred body was carried the sea to the eastern coast of Odisha, where it appeared like a log of wood that was used to carve the first statue of Jagannath in Puri. Remains of this are still locked in the new images of Jagannath carved every few years.
Thus we see how memories of ancient migrations are captured in the pilgrim sites of India. These stories are not Vedic. They are Pauranic. They began appearing 2,000 years ago and were amplified 1,000 years ago as Vedic culture spread from the Gangetic plains to the rest of India, along river valleys and coasts.