Srisailam, also known as Sriparvatam or Srigiri, meaning Holy Hill or the Divine’s Mountainous Abode in each case is a Saivite pilgrim centre of great renown situated in the Nalla Malla Range (itself again meaning the Good Hill), which is part of the Eastern Ghats. It is a town, and administratively a mandal, situated in the Nandikotkur Taluka of Kurnool District of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh (about 232 km south-west of its capital, Hyderabad) in a wild, beautiful region of dense forests, high mountains, deep gorges, a swiftly–flowing major Indian river, a region populated with diverse wildlife and tribal communities. The shrine is atop a mountain (at an elevation of 409 mt. or 1345 ft. above sea level) at whose feet, 1000 mt. below in a gorge just 100 mt. wide, flows the holy River Krishna (aptly named as it appears dark and cool). The river is also known, because of its sacredness and the depth at which it is found, as the Paataal Ganga, and has been dammed here, at a facility called the Srisailam Hydro-electric & Multipurpose Project, which serves the power and irrigation needs of the state. The river continues to flow through the narrow gorge till it reaches Nagarjuna Sagar carrying on both the banks intractable forests dotted here and there by small tribal settlements. The Bhramaramba Mallikarjunaswamy Temple as the shrine is collectively known is consecrated to Lord Mallikarjuna Swamy (a manifestation of Shiva) and Devi Bhramaramba (a manifestation of Parvathi). Both the icons derive their great sanctity from the fact of their being self-manifested, swayambhoo of great antiquity. Over and above this are two facts. One is that this holy kshetram is one of the dozen holiest shrines in the country consecrated to Lord Shiva, the ‘Dwadasha Jyotirlingas’ (the Illumined Lingas), occurring second in the ‘Dwadasha Jyotirlinga Stotram’ following the reference to Lord Somnath of Saurashtra. The second fact is that this sacred kshetram is also one of the ‘Ashtadasha Shakti Peethas’, one of the eighteen most sacred shrines of Devi Parvati in the country. The unique combination of jyotirling and shaktipeeth is what makes Srisailam so blessed. The origin of the names of the Deities makes interesting reading. A young princess named Mallika was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and would often offer the beautiful white ‘arjuni’ flowers to the Ling here. Pleased with her devotion, the Lord appeared to her. Soon, the means by which the Lord manifested Himself, Mallika and arjuni, were conjoined to make Mallikarjun, the name by which the presiding deity is known here. As for, Bhramaramba, Bhramar means bee, the form that Parvati took to slay the demon, Mahishasura. A tiny hole in the temple of the Devi emits a buzzing sound to this day which can be heard if the ear is put to it. The shivling at Srisailam is self-manifested, and it is believed that this Deity used to be worshipped even by prehistoric tribes of the era before the Vedas. Even today, the Chenchu tribe prides itself on being the guardian of the shrine, and on a special relationship with the Deity and the Temple. The uniquely democratic character of the shrine is that an individual of either gender, any age, any caste or community can enter its sanctum sanctorum and touch the Linga while worshipping it. A renowned centre of Saiva thought, the Temple is patronised specially by the Veershaiva or Lingayat community, mainly from Karnataka and the Reddsy community, mainly from Andhra Pradesh. The status of jyotirlinga has conferred on the shrine an appeal that transcends caste and geography, attracting the faithful from India, and other Hindu countries and regions such as Nepal, Mauritius, West Indies, South Africa and Bali. At the Mallikarjunaswamy Temple, priests belonging to the Veershaiva community, called archakas, officiate at all ceremonies. The temple of Devi Bhramaramba has Brahmin priests called upadhyayas who officiate at all ceremonies. The temple is run by the Srisaliam Devasthanam Trust. The antiquity of Srisailam can be traced to the Puranas. The Skanda Purana includes a chapter called Srisaila Khandam dedicated to it, which is indicative of its ancient origin. Indeed, in homes and holy places across peninsular India, any ritual begins with that particular location being described with reference to the location of Srisailam. The great Hindu unifier, social reformer, system builder, and exponent of non-dualism, Advaita philosophy, worshipped and did penance at Srisailam, apart from composing the immortal Sivananda Lahiri while there. The great Veershaiva saint poetesses like Akka Mahadevi and Hemraddy Mallamma worshipped here and did penance and have spots consecrated to them. One of the caves on a thickly forested island in the Krishna nearby is said to be the place where Akka Mahadevi achieved salvation. Shri Rama and his consort Devi Seeta installed the Sahasra Linga here, and the Mahabharata contains references to the kshetram. The Pandavas are said to have installed the Pancha Pandava lingas in the temple courtyard at Srisailam. Vrishabha, or Nandi, the sacred bull mount of Lord Shiva performed is said to have performed penance here, in answer to which Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati apeared in the form of Mallikarjuna and Bhramaramba, and remained there to be worshipped by all. Hiranyakasipu of the Kretayuga epoch, wicked brother of the equally evil Hiranyaksha and father of ardent Vishnu bhakta, the boy saint Pralhada, is also believed to have worshipped here. Srisailam gained prominence in the twelfth century due to the Sharana movement and Vachana Sahitya headed by saint poet and social reformer, Basava. The temple has also been associated with a number of historical figures like the Chalukyan kings, Chhatrapati Shivaji (who constructed the Shivaji Gopuram in the temple complex in gratitude to the Devi), Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire and the Reddy rulers. The world famous Buddhist pilgrims, Fahiyan and Hieun T`sang have also written about this temple in their travelogues. Tribes and movements such as Buddhism, the Shaktas, Kapalikas also adopted the centre for their spiritual endeavours. Until even a few decades ago, the temple was remote and reached only by trekking about seventy kilometres from the plains to the hills through deep forests infested with wild animals, and secretive clans specialising in human sacrifice to Lord Shiva. Modernity brought with it the ban on such blood thirsty practices and the laying of a hill/ ghat road through the good offices of the former president, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in the 1950s. The 60-km long motorable road to the top of the 1563-foot high plateau, from Dornala on the Kurnool-Guntur road constitutes a pleasant drive on a road lined with green and flowering trees. Passing through the small town of Dindi one reaches Mannanur from where the Rajiv Gandhi Reserve Forest starts and so does the climb to the Nallamalais. At 10 km drive gets us to the point where we can spot the majestic white gopuram of Srisailam. The pilgrimage to Srisailam was highly ritualised, with all devotees required to approach the shrine by one of four main gateways, a practice that prevails to this day. Gateways The four gateways are situated in the four cardinal directions namely,
- Tripuranthakam, which is in Prakasam District to the east where Lord Tripuranthakeswara Swamy and Devi Tripurasundari preside.
- Siddhavatam, which is located on the bank of the river Penna in Kadapa District to the south where Lord Jyothisideswara Swamy and Devi Kamakshi Devi preside.
- Alampur, which is on the bank of the river Tungabhadra in Mahaboobnagar District to the west where Navabrahma Alayas, a group of nine temples of the Chalukya period, are located. This Kshetram is also the seat of Goddess Jogulamba, another of the eighteen Maha Shakthis.
- Umamaheswaram is located in Rangapur, Achampeta Mandal, Mahaboobnagar District in the North where God Umamaheswara Swamy and Goddess Umamaheswari Devi are the presiding deities.
Secondary Gateways In addition to the main gateways, there are four secondary gateways located at four corners:
- Eleswaram, which was located in Mahaboobnagar District but is now submerged in the waters of the Nagarjunasagar Dam to the north-east with Lord Eleswara Swamy and Devi who are the presiding deities.
- Somasila, which is located on the bank of the river Penna to the south-east with Lord Skanda Someswara as the presiding deity.
- Pushpagiri, which is located in Kadapa District to the south-west with Lord Santhana Malleswara who presides.
- Sangameswaram, which was located at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra in Kurnool District to in the north-west, but is now submerged at Srisailam Dam with Lord Sangameswara as the presiding deity. The temple has been re-built at Alampur.
The images of the presiding deities of the Srisailam Temple, Lord Mallikarjunaswamy and Devi Brahmaramba, were enshrined in the most recent renovation-cum-restoration carried out by the devout and grateful Vijayanagara king Harihara Raya in 1404 AD. A massive fort, with six meter high walls encloses the temple complex. The fortress-like wall, which is 20 feet high, 6 feet wide and 2120 feet in circumference, was constructed in 1520 AD. The wall has 3200 stones, each weighing over one tonne, and is decorated with fine relief carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, a treasure house of sacred art in itself. A cluster of minor shrines within the temple compound include the Sahasra Linga, Pancha Pandava temples and Vatavriksha. The sculptures in the temple are awesome in their antiquity and artistry. About one hundred and sixteen inscriptions can be found in and around the temple, invaluable for historical, religious and artistic reasons.
(Photograph: Sunita Ojha)