INDIA: Pancha Bhoota Sthalam refers to the five sacred temples dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, each temple signifying the elemental facet of nature: earth, air, water, fire, and ether.
The five elements are believed to be enshrined in the five lingams (an abstract representation of the Hindu god Shiva in Shaivism). Each of the lingams are named differently, according to the lingams they represent. Breaking it down, ‘pancha’ means five, ‘bhoota’ means elements, and ‘sthala’ means place.
The sacred temples of Shiva are spread across India, four in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, while one is located in Andhra Pradesh.
Here is a brief history of the legacy of each holy site which is widely frequented by Shiva devotees all over the world.
Water: Jambukeswarar Temple
Jambukeswarar, or Thiruvaanaikaval Temple, is a famous Shiva temple in Tiruchirapalli district in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India, representing the element of water or ‘neer’ in Tamil.
The sanctum of this temple has an underground water stream, which always seems to be filled despite pouring water out at all times.
Resplendent and dazzling with beautiful colourful carvings, this temple’s architecture is extraordinary, decorated with giant pillars and water springs.
In the Thiruvaanaikaval temple, Shiva is said to have manifested himself in the form of water (Appu Lingam).
Earth: Ekambareswarar Temple
The Ekambareswarar Temple, which signifies the elemental power of earth, is located in the town of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. This temple is one of the largest sacred sites in India, spread lavishly over 25 acres of land, with four gateway towers called ‘gopurams’.
The tallest is the southern tower, with 11 stories and a height of 58.5216 metres (192 ft), making it one of the tallest temple towers in India.
According to legend, Shiva’s wife, Parvati, worshipped her husband in the manifestation of a ‘Prithvi’ or earth lingam under a mango tree.
Fire: Arunachalesvara Temple
Seated in the heart of the Arunachala hill town of Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu is the elemental power of fire or ‘agni’ manifested in the Arunachalesvara Temple.
The temple complex covers 10 hectares of land and is also one of the largest in India. The temple also has numerous shrines, including those of Arunachalesvara and Unnamalai (Shiva’s wife, Parvati).
According to Hindu mythology, Parvati once closed her husband’s eyes playfully in a flower garden at their abode atop Mount Kailash, following which all light from the universe was extinguished, even for a split second.
Parvati performed penance for her sins along with other Shiva devotees. Shiva finally emerged as a huge column of light at the top of the Annamalai Hills, returning light to the dark world.
The beautiful architecture of this temple dates back to the 9th century CE, with masonry work sculpted by the Chola dynasty, who ruled at the time. The temple has a total of five precincts, each of which holds a giant statue of Nandi, the sacred bull of Shiva.
Air: Srikalahasteeswara Temple
One of the most famous Shiva temples in India representing the air element is the Srikalahasteeswara temple, located in the Tirupati district of Andhra Pradesh.
The inner temple was constructed around the 5th century, while the outer temple was built in the 11th century during the Chola dynasty. Shiva, in his aspect as ‘Vayu’ or air, is worshipped here as Kalahasteeswara.
This is the only temple in India that remains open during Solar and Lunar eclipses and is famous for Rahu-Kethu pooja (performing this pooja ensures the evil, astrological effects of Rahu and Kethu will not affect humans).
Legend has it that in primordial times, the wind god Vayu performed penance for thousands of years to the Karpoora or camphor-made lingam of Shiva, following which Shiva gave him three boons. Vayu was blessed to be present everywhere in the world in the form of air.
Ether: Thillai Nataraja Temple
The last elemental facet of Lord Shiva is ether, housed in the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple in Tamil Nadu. It is a Hindu temple dedicated to Nataraja, the form of Shiva as the lord of the dance.
The temple architecture is uniquely built, symbolizing the connection between the arts and spirituality, creativity, and the divine.
The sacred temple was built during the reign of the Chola dynasty. It became the regal capital of the royal family, who renamed the temple as Chidambaram to pay homage to the family deity of Nataraja Shiva, who is the new amalgamation of wisdom, thought, consciousness, and cultural creativity.
These five sacred Shiva temples form the sacred prototype of a grand combination of architectural grandeur and sacred sanctity, attracting devotees, architectural enthusiasts, and tourists to frequent their halls for generations.