The story of Murudeshwar dates back to the ‘Treta Yuga’.
Hinduism reckons four ages of mankind, namely Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvaapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga, which together comprise a set of four yugas called Divya Yuga or Chatur Yuga. Satya Yuga lasted 1,728,000 years, Treta Yuga 1,296,000 years, Dvaapara Yuga 864,000 years, and Kali Yuga, the present-day epoch in which we live is set to last 432,000 years.
Treta Yuga (Devanagari: त्रेता युग) is thus the second out of four yugas, the spiritually significant events in the age being Lord Vishnu’s fifth, sixth and seventh incarnations as Vamana, Parashurama and Ramachandra respectively. The Dharma bull, which symbolises morality, stood on three legs during this period. It had all four in the Satya Yuga and only two in the later Dvapara Yuga. Currently, in the immoral age of Kali, it stands on one leg alone.
Treta Yuga was the time in which the gods attained immortality and invincibility by worshipping a divine Lingam called the Atma-Linga or Prana linga, the very soul or essence of Shiva, the Divine. Of all His devotees, none was more ardent than the king of Lanka, Raavan, born to a Brahmin father and a Rakshasa mother. Ardent he might have been as a devotee, but Raavan was egoistic, besides being covetous of the atma-linga, standing as it did for immortality. By much prayer and arduous penance, Raavan won the Lord’s heart. Lord Shiva appeared before him, and asked him what he would like as a boon, to which the demon king named the atma linga. The Lord agreed to give him the boon on the condition that if he placed the pran linga on the ground it would no longer be his. All its power conferring immortality would return to Lord Shiva again if that were to happen. Having obtained his boon, Ravana started back on his journey to Lanka.
The divine sage Narada, aghast on learning that this priceless blessing had been conferred on a demonic human, rushed to Lord Vishnu and also to Lord Ganesh, the son of Lord Shiva. Ganesh, the Lord of the People sized up the situation at once. Knowing well Raavan’s penchant for rituals and penances, he resolved to restore the lingam to its rightful keeper. Lord Vishnu blessed the undertaking, promising to facilitate Ganesh’s efforts.
As Ravana neared Gokarna, on the western coast of India, near Karwar in Northern Karnataka, Lord Vishnu blotted out the sun in order to fool the Lankan King into thinking it was dusk and time for evening ablutions and prayers. On seeing darkness approach, Raavan became deeply worried, wondering how to perform his rituals without placing the pran linga on the ground before night fell.
The demon king spotted a little Brahmin boy there, who was in reality Lord Ganesh in disguise. Raavan summoned him and ordered him to hold the linga in his hands, never to place it on the ground. The little Brahmin boy was reluctant at first, saying he would hold such a heavy object only until he could, but that he would call out to the king thrice to be relieved of carrying it and would place it on the ground only if Raavan did not respond to his cries. Raavan agreed and began his elaborate observances, taking his time as he did so.
Meanwhile, Ganesh deceived Raavan by placing the linga of immortality on the ground without calling out even once. At the same time, Lord Vishnu removed the illusion of dusk. Raavan realised in a mix of despair and wrath that he had been robbed of his boon of immortality. In great fury, he struck a blow on Ganesh’s head, flattening a part of it (the statue of Lord Ganesh at the near-by temple of Lord Mahabaleshwar, another shrine to Lord Shiva at present-day Gokarna clearly shows a flattened head). Consumed with rage, Raavan tried to lift the atma linga off the ground. It did not move. He used his full demonic force to move it but succeeded only in tearing away fragments from the linga, which could not be uprooted (this linga is worshipped as Lord Mahabaleshwar, the Super Mighty Shiva).
Of the scattered pieces of the lingam, one fell in what is present day Surathkal. The famous Sadashiva Temple was built around that piece of linga. The case covering the linga was found to have fallen at a place called Sajjeshwara, 23 miles away, where there a temple was built. Parts of the lid of the case dropped on to Guneshwara (now Gunavanthe) and Dhareshwara, 10–12 miles away, where, too, shrines to Lord Shiva were built. Finally, the cloth covering the AtmaLinga was flung by Raavan to a place called Mrideshwara on Kanduka-Giri (Kanduka Hill). Mrideshwara has been renamed Murudeshwara. We can thus imagine the antiquity and origin of the Shree Murudeshwara, where part of the very essence of Lord Shiva, no less, is worshipped.