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Yakshaganam Mrutyunjaya Chiranjeevi -Pilgrimage for a Long Happy Life

Shiva saves Markandeya from Yama

What is the one great unifying factor that distinguishes this ancient country whose history goes back several thousand years? It is spirituality. Highlighted by language and religion, enriched by saints and seers, and generated by a mass movement called the Bhakti movement. In the eighth and ninth century a huge corpus of devotional literature, panegyrics, music, and theatre bridged the chasm between god and the lay man. This trend continued till the 17th century and saints, poets and writers delved into the vedas, puranas, shastras, and epics; and distilled that knowledge and wisdom for devotees. Bharat being a multi-religious, multi-linguistic demography, thus was created an invaluable cultural corpus that continues to inspire us in this 21st century.

The title ‘Sacral Teertha Yatra’ – a pilgrimage for attaining a certain desire reminded me of an extract from a Marathi Yakshaganam written by the Thanjavur Maratha King Shahji II (1684 -1712 CE) Among the immense corpus of literature contributed by Maratha kings are yakshaganams which are a multi genre, multi lingual format for presentation with music, dance, and drama.

The Thanjavur Maratha Maharajas were highly religious, great devotees of Shiva, and would undertake pilgrimages to important temples.  Their main prayers were to be blessed with heirs and protection against enemies. Therefore, their works were ceremonial texts dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu.

This is the version of the story of Markandeya which is retold in a Marathi Yakshaganam (play, natakam) named Mrutyunjaya Chiranjeevi- The Immortal One Who Defeated Death, written by Shahji II, a Maratha ruler of Thanjavur (1670-1712CE). Yakshaganams are a form of drama format which is a multi-genre literary form, composed with narrative prose, poetry, and speech. It is also multi-lingual, with some verses in Sanskrit, but dialogues and narration in Marathi.

Mrutyunjay Chiranjivi Natak By Shahaji II

These yakshaganams are replete with poetic devices and metres like odes, vachanam /speech, dwipadas/couplets, daru/songs and descriptive Sanskrit verses called choornikas. All the yakshaganams are based on the Natyashastra, and performed by the Brahmin actors of Bhagavata Mela. Bhagavata Mela is an ancient vaishnavite dance-theatre tradition performed by men as part of their worship, in five villages in Thanjavur.

Story of Markandeya

Markandeya Purana is a Sanskrit text, one of the eighteen major puranas. It contains the story of Markandeya, a child devotee of Shiva which is an ideal example of how faith can thwart even Death. Mrukandu muni and his wife Marudvati are childless and yearn for at least one child. The sage decides to perform penance to ask Shiva for his blessing. Impressed with his devotion, Shiva appears. Mrukandu muni begs him to grant them the joy of having a son. Shiva offers them two options.  Do you want a dull child who will live a hundred years, or a brilliant son who will live for only sixteen years?

They of course opt for the latter and are soon blessed with a son. They name him Markandeya. He is well-loved, educated in religious texts, and becomes a great devotee of Shiva. Sixteen years later, the parents panic because his end is near, and they cannot bear to part with him. They tell him the story of his birth and that he is destined to die soon. Markandeya however, reposes his faith in Shiva and goes on a pilgrimage. He finally comes to a temple where Brahma is said to have changed his fate by praying to Shiva and begins his meditation.

When Yama, the god of Death sends his helpers to drag Markandeya by the noose and bring him in, Markandeya embraces the lingam which he is worshipping and refuses to go with them. Then Yama himself appears and arrogantly declares that no one can stop him from doing his duty, and throws the noose over Markandeya and the lingam. Shiva is furious that his devotee is being disturbed during his prayers, appears from the lingam to kick Yama away. Markandeya is blessed with a long happy life. Shiva curses Yama, the god of death, to die. Yama realises his folly and begs forgiveness. When Bhumi Devi, Mother Earth, explains that Yama balances the population, and she will not be able to bear the burden if people don’t die, Yama is forgiven.

Facts about Shiva Temples

There are some amazing legends about ancient temples in India. They are built according to science, as written down in the Agama Shastra, a textual guide to the scientific rules of the making of idols, the direction and the location of temples, the architecture, and how the garbhagriham or sanctum sanctorum is to be built.Important Shiva Temples in IndiaShiva temples, all thousands of years old, from Kedarnath in the Himalayas in the north to the Rameshvaram, the southern tip of the peninsula are aligned in a perpendicular line approximately 790 E 41’54” longitude. The distance is over two thousand kilometres and this was achieved by the sheer wisdom of our ancestors.

Shiva temples are grouped into the jyotirlingams and pancha-maha-bhootha lingams. Another group comprises five sabhas or sacred spots where Shiva danced the Cosmic Dance, tandavam. Then there are 276 temples which have a tevaram or devotional poem dedicated to each. These tevarams were composed during the 7th and 11th century CE by sixty-three Shaivite saints and comprise seven volumes of a twelve -volume collection of Shaivite poetry.

There are five elements Fire, Air, Earth, Water, and Space. One Shiva temple is dedicated to each of these elements. Water is found in Thiruvanaikaval, Fire in Thiruvannamalai, Air or wind in Sri Kalahasti, Earth in Kanchipuram and Ether in Chidambaram. These temples are in a certain geographical alignment and exude a magnetic field. How is the heavenly link to the elements indicated to devotees? There is an eternal spring in the sanctum of the water temple, and the lamps at the Sri Kalahasti temple flicker constantly in an enclosed space to reveal its link to Vayu or wind/air. Every year in the month of Karthigai, the temple is lit with blazing lights, and a giant fire is built on the Annamalai hill and the sanctum at Chidambaram is empty Space. A natural lingam believed to have been made by Parvati with sand in Kanchipuram indicates its link to Earth.

12 Jyotirlingas

Jyotirlinga means a radiant pillar of light. Many of the lingams are svayambhu or natural manifestations. Other lingams were created as jyotirlingams by Shiva himself who resides there on the request of his devotees, or because he was pleased with a devotee. Idols are made of stone, metal, or earth, but lingams are even be made with ice, like in Amarnath. They acquire power and energy, gradually invested in them through the continuous prayers of devotees over centuries. There are twelve jyotirlingams scattered around the country. Two temples are located near the sea, five are on the banks of a river, two are on the mountains, and three are on the plains.

The Pilgrimage Begins

This particular yakshaganam is more a devotional ode to Shiva; and contains innumerable epithets praising Shiva in all his forms, qualities, and attributes. This daru or song describes the pilgrimage of Markandeya to twenty-two important Shiva temples. All the verses have the name of the city and the deity of the temple.  He traverses the whole sub-continent from Nepal and Kedarnath in the north to Madurai in the south.

1. Kashi

Vasavaadi-nirjararchita-devadeva, Kashi-vishvesha paahi maam!

(O Kashi-vishveshvara, o god of the gods worshipped by divinities like Indra, protect me!)

Our journey begins right here from this sacred city, Kashi.


Kashi or Varanasi is the oldest city on earth and certainly the most sacred. Situated on the banks of the holy river Ganga, Vishvanath or Vishveshvar temple is one of the twelve jyotirlingas. Devotees believe that the ones to die in Kashi will be granted moksha or salvation.

2. Kedarnath

Veda-pratipadya shankara purahara kedaresha paahi paahi maam!

(O essence of Vedas, Shankara, Destroyer of Tripura, O Kedaresha, protect me!)

Kedarnath dates to the end of the Mahabharata war when the Pandavas decided to build this temple to atone for the sins committed by them in the Kurukshetra war. Standing on the banks of the river Mandakini, it is the highest temple. The temple is accessible by a trek of 15 kilometres up a rocky mountain. One of the 12 jyotirlingas of Shiva, it remains closed for six months during winter due to heavy snowfall.

3. Tryambakeshvara

Ambikanath lokesh nasik-tryambakesh paahi maam!

(Consort of Ambikadevi, god of the Universe in Tryambakeshvara, Nashik, protect me!)

Nashik is a sacred city on the banks of the holy Godavari, the longest river in south of the Vindhyas. A jyotirlinga, this ancient temple attracts devotees of Shiva who believe a dip in the Kushavarta Kund after the rites for their ancestors, or after the death of their near relative, will grant them salvation. According to scriptures, Gautam Rishi and the Godavari river pleaded with Lord Shiva to make his home here and hence Shiva appeared in the form of Tryambakeshvar to make this holy temple his abode.

Unlike the other eleven temples, the jyotirlinga here has a different shape. There is no shrine at the temple, but there is a void with three pillars representing the trimurti– Maheshvar Shiva, Brahmadeva, and Vishnu. This temple was built by Bhima, the son of Kumbhakarna.  The stone facade of the building is covered in Nagara architectural patterns.

4. Kalahasti

Kaalakoota-bhaya-nivarana parvatisha kalahastisha paahi maam!

(O lord of Kalahasti, remover of fear of death, o consort of Parvati, protect me!)

Situated on the way to Tirupati, Shri Kalahasti temple is known as one of the Panchabhoothastahalams, with Vayu or wind as its element. Also known as Dakshina Kailasam and Rahu-ketu-kshetra, the temple was first built in the 5th century, and was later expanded in the 12th century by Chola kings. Among the many legends associated with this temple is the story of Kannappar Nayanar, a hunter devotee of Shiva who offered his own eyes when the lingam began to bleed.

5. Kanchipuram

Lokanatha chandrashekhara devadeva ekambaranatha paahi paahi maam!

(O lord of the universe, the one with crescent moon on his locks, o Ekambaranatha protect me!)


Located in the famous city of silk saris and ancient temples, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, this Shiva temple is one of the five elements also known as panchabhoothasthalam, as the Prithvi or Earth lingam. Parvati is called Gauri Amman; and saints have sung Tevarams dedicated to Ekambaranatha.

6. Thiruvannamalai

Karunakara phalaprada bhootesha arunachlesha paahi maam!

(O merciful one who grants our desires, lord of the beings, Arunachalesha, protect me!)

Thiruvannamalai or Arunachaleshvara temple is considered the most sacred soil in the country. One of the panchabhoota-sthalam, this temple is associated with fire. Shiva manifested himself as a pillar of fire on this spot.

The temple is one of the largest in India and was built in the 11th century. There are beautiful sculptures and carvings around the temple walls. There is a mystical mountain in the centre of town where siddhas are believed to live and meditate. Giri valam or a fourteen kilometre walk around the mountain is considered a pious rite which showers blessings.

7. Chidambaram

Ambarakesha shivakami mamana artihara chidambaresha paahi paahi maam!

(O lord of the cosmic space, o beloved of Parvati, destroyer of the pains, chidambaresha protect me!)

Chidambaram is the temple where Shiva as Nataraja danced the anandatandavam and is also known as Thillai. ‘Chit’ means consciousness and ‘ambaram’ is atmosphere. The temple is considered the centre of the geomagnetic equator of our planet. A Chola temple built in the tenth century, the sculptures of dancing figures on the temple doors and pillars is evidence of our country’s heritage of highly developed arts and culture.

8. Ujjain

Brahmaadideva-sevita vatukanatha mahakala paahi paahi maam!

(O Mahakala, the one worshipped by Brahma and other deities, o Vatukanatha, protect me!)

In Madhya Pradesh we have two of the sacred sites, Mahakaleshvara and Omkareshvara. The deity in this temple is self-manifested and is not man-made. Its power is invested from within and not gained by the energy of prayers, chants, and rituals. This the only temple where the idol faces South. Omkareshvara is installed above the lingam and is believed to protect devotees from untimely death. It is no wonder Markandeya chose this temple.

9. Tirupattur

Brahmapurisha paahi maam!

(O brahmapurisha, protect me!)

You can change your fate, believe the devotees of Shiva at the Brahmapurishvara temple at Tirupattur near Tiruchirapalli. Brahma, the Creator in the trimurti had begun to feel pride in his power of creation. To teach him a lesson, Shiva cut off his fifth head and cursed him. Brahma went on a pilgrimage of Shiva temples, and it was here that he was forgiven. Just as Brahma’s fate was changed, so too his devotees believe Shiva can remove their sorrows and change their life.

9. Pashupatinath

Deva-munigana-sevita pashupatisha devakshaveya tavanesha paahi paahi maam!

(Worshipped by gods and groups of sages, Pasupatisha, adored by all, protect me!)

There are some unique features in the Pasupathinath temple at Nepal. The temple is on the banks of Bagmati river. The lingam here has four sides and the stone lingam has a silver snake. The deity itself is a five-faced with each face having two arms holding rudraksha and a kamandalu or water -pot.


A golden Nandi is placed in front of this pagoda style temple. The temple is constructed in wood, so it has been destroyed and reconstructed many times.

10. Deogarh

Hridayajanita-roga-mochana bhavatarana vaidyalinga paahi maam!

(O destroyer of diseases rising from the heart, the one helping to cross over the world, o Vaidyalinga protect me!)

Vaidyanath is located at Deogarh, Jharkand. The deity here is Shiva the healer and therefore this name Baidyanath meaning healer or doctor. The main temple is surrounded by twenty-one other temples.

11. Mayiladudurai

Kayaklesha-sakala-mochana kamahara mayuranatha paahi paahi maam!

(O remover of all bodily pains, o destroyer of desire, O Mayuranatha protect me!)

Mayil means peacock or peahen. Parvati worshipped Shiva here as a peahen. Her name here is Abhayambal. The lingam is a natural phenomenon and not man-made. Besides deities like Brahma, Sage Agastya, and the flora and fauna of the area are also worshipped here.

12. Thiruvidaimarudur

Madhyadhya-antarhita neelalohita madhyarjunesha paahi maam!

(O deity of fire, o red- blue one, Madhyarjunesh, protect me!)

This temple is a jyotirlingam built in the 9th century CE by the Chola dynasty. The deity is Mahalingasvami and the temple has four gates around the precincts. There are around 150 inscriptions on the walls, giving a list of contributions by the various dynasty kings.

13. Kumbhakonam

 Jambari-varadayaka krittivasa kumbhesha paahi maam!

( O god with elephant skin, o jambari, o Kumbheshvara, protect me!)

Kumbakonam Kumbeshwara Temple

The deity here is Adi Kumbheshvara and his consort Mangalambigai. Kumbha is the kalasham or sacred pot held by Brahma. During the great floods or pralayam, it was displaced and rested here where the temple is now located. Every twelve years a grand Mahamaham festival is held to commemorate this event.

14. Tiruvaiyaru

Panchavaktra papamochana vishnuvallabha panchanadisha paahi maam!

(O five-headed One, destroyer of sin, beloved of Vishnu, o Panchanadisha protect me!)

A small town surrounded by five tributaries of the Kaveri river, The temple is a vast structure with the main deity named as Panchanadishvara. These rivers are considered as holy as the Ganga and devotees believe that they are potent enough to wash off their sins of this life.

15. Manamadurai

Kanjalochana-pujita anandavalli Tanjapurisha paahi maam!

(O dweller of Tanjapuri , worshipped by the golden eyed Anandavalli Devi, protect me!)

Situated near Madurai, the temple is on the banks of the Vaigai river.  The deity here is Somanatha with his consort Devi Anandavalli. The temple complex houses the Samadhi of Sadashiva Brahmendra, the famous saint -poet.

16. Thanjavur

Guha-ganesha-charitramodita dinadayala Brihadisha paahi maam!

(O father of Guha and Ganesa delighted by their activities, protector of the weak, O Brihadisha protect me!)


Periya Kovil, Big temple, Brihadishvara temple, or Rajarajeshvara temple are all names for this world famous Chola temple. It was completed in 1010 CE. The Nandi and the lingam are among the largest in size.  Many magnificent architectural miracles can be seen in this temple besides murals, sculptures, and carvings.

17. Badami

Shambharaari-darpabhanjana umaramana jambulinga paahi maam!

(O beloved of Uma, remover of arrogance of Indra, O Jambulinga, protect me!)

Jambulingeshvara temple in Badami was built around 7th to 8th century CE. Though not well preserved, the walls have intricate carvings and sculptures. There is a Nataraja idol with Parvati and Nandi by his side. The architecture is Nagara style tower which has square slabs rising on each other in diminishing size.

18. Tiruchirapalli

 Gotrarishi-samsevita vishvanatha matrubhootesha paahi maam!

(O Matrubhootesha, worshipped by Gotra Rishis, protector of the world, protect me!)

The Thayumanavar temple is so named because Shiva appeared in the form of the mother of a woman who was in the throes of labour pain. The mother was caught in the floods of the Kaveri and could not come in time. The woman prayed fervently to Shiva who came to her help.

19. Madurai

Chandra-shakala-jata-shobhita meenakshinatha sundaresha paahi paahi maam!

(O Sundareshvara, with the moon as ornament for your crown, O consort of Meenakshi, protect me!)

Meenakshi Sundareshvara temple is a vibrant centre of dance, music, and literature since the Sangam age. Shiva Nataraja danced here in Velli (silver or Rajata) sabha with his right foot raised. Legend has it that Shiva’s leelas or cosmic dramas were played out here. The temple has a magnificent spread of sculptures and vast halls with ornate pillars.

20. Tirunelvelli

Kinkara-aartirharana sharvaniramana shankaranarayana paahi  paahi maam!

(O destroyer of the pains of his followers, O consort of Sharvani, O Shankara-narayana, protect me!)

A unique temple which represents both Shiva and Vishnu, Shankara-narayana temple was built in 900 CE by a Pandyan king.

21. Hampi

Vardhita-dharmasakala virupaksha ardhanarisha paahi paahi maam!

(O Ardhnarishvara, o Virupaksha, the one who upholds Dharma, protect me!)

The deity here is a lingam with a face carved in metal and imposed on the lingam. The Virupaksha temple has a temple tank named Manmatha. There are shrines for Vishnu and Durga. Hampi was destroyed in 1565 and this temple complex is the only one which survived, and continues to attract devotees for Mahashivaratri and the annual chariot procession.

22. Papanashanam

Rama-pujita-padapankaja vamadeva ramalinganatha paahi maam!

(O Ramalinganatha, whose lotus feet are worshipped by Rama, o Vamadeva, protect me!)

It is here that Rama prayed to Shiva to atone for his sins, Paapanashanam, of killing Khara, a cannibal cousin of Ravana and his brother Dushana in the war. Rama installed 107 Shivalingas here and one was brought from Kashi by Hanuman to make it 108. The deity is therefore named Ramalingasvami. Unusually, The main shrine and the lingam face west. There are other smaller shrines to Nandi, Kamadhenu and Murugan.

23. Tirukadaiyur

Bhosale-shahendra-devata bhogibhushesha tyagesa paahi maam!

Vimarditaari-samuha gangadhara amrutaghatesa paahi paahi maam!

(O deity of Bhosale Kings, o bhogibhushesha, tyagesha, the one who has crushed hoard of enemies, O Gangadhara, Amrutaghatesha, protect me!)


Destroyer of Death is the epithet given to Shiva in this temple town of Tamil Nadu, near Mayiladuthurai. This is where Markandeya embraced the lingam to save himself from Yama, god of death. Shiva manifested himself from the lingam and kicked Yama for his grave offence of trying to take away a devotee while he was in deep prayer. The deity here is known Amritaghateshvara and Abhirami his consort. The temple’s praises were sung by the saints called Nayanars in 7th century CE.

Let us embark on this journey together with Markandeya and may Shiva bless us all with a long healthy life.

(The paper was presented at the Yatra Conference jointly organized by Indic Academy and Bharat Adhyayan Kendra, BHU, at BHU, Varanasi during 15th-17th November, 2019.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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