It is Monday – Lord Shiva’s Day! And therefore … we’re starting our series on impressive Indo-European holy sites around the world, with this frankly amazing Shaivite place of pilgrimage – the ShivLing of Kinnaur Kailash, in Himachal Pradesh, India. We’ll also be taking a brief look at how this site relates to comparable Western Indo-European religious conceptry.
Now, despite the name, this should not be confused with the Kailash (Shiva’s main abode, in the manner of Mt Olympus for Zeus) – which lies over the border in Tibet. Instead, Kinnaur Kailash is customarily regarded as Lord Shiva’s winter residence. Here are also to be found further religiously resonant sites, including a lake sacred to Parvati, and woodlands named for Ganesha. Interestingly, it is not only the Shaivite Divine Family Who are to be found in residence here around Winter. Shiva is believed also to have convened His Court here as well, and thus summoned the rest of The Gods here with Him. And, in addition to this, there is a local belief that the ‘haunting’ music often reported to be heard near the neighbouring summit of Rangrik, is as a result of the Spirits of the Dead of the Kinnaur congregating there. Which is as we should perhaps expect for the proximity of Shiva – as He is also Lord of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead, and would more usually be found amidst cremation grounds, the afterlife. In this situation, the Mountain has come to Mahadeva – or, rather come with Mahadeva when He has gone to The Mountain. [This is also a Parvati reference]. The music may also recall the last line of RV X 135, which speaks of the Highest Heaven, where Death Dwells amidst the Ancestors – “Here is the seat where Yama dwells, that which is called the Home of Gods: Here minstrels blow the flute for Him here He is glorified with songs.”
So, as we can see, there is a localized re-situation of what we should otherwise expect to be the standard Indo-European cosmological model here. A Mountain-range that is DevaLoka [‘Realm of the Gods’], Ruled by the Sky Father, accompanied by the Mountain Queen/Earth Mother, and where They Hold Court with the rest of the Gods; the High Afterlife located conveniently nearby. This is, as it happens, a fundamentally Indo-European thing to do – the ‘transposition’ of the eternal and supernal sites of our mythology ‘down’ onto more localized anchors for our belief. Hence why there are, for example, more than a dozen Mount Olympus sites dotted around the Aegean, many of which have quite prominent local mythological saliency in relation to Zeus et co; or, for further instance, why we may speak of both Mt Meru and Mt Olympus as humanly tangible and physically (rather than metaphysically) visitable mountains in the material world, that are also the Palace of the Gods, without either claim being inherently contradictory on either level. Because we know that what we are talking about are the earthy sites that are resonant with the Mythic one – and that it was quite a natural and normal process for the Indo-Europeans spreading out from the Urheimat to carry their Sacred Geography with them.
But why here? Well, according to local legend, an ardent Shaivite king of the area once petitioned Lord Shiva to assist His People, who were finding it impossible to make it all the way to the main Kailash for pilgrimage, to assist them in this regard. Hearing their prayer, Mahadev in His Great Merciful Compassion, responded that He would relocate for a certain portion of each year to be nearer to them. And so, in response, people both from the area as well as Shaivites from all over the rest of the Hindu world – make their way to this Kinnaur corner of Himachal Pradesh each year during Winter, to be nearer to The Lord. In this, you could perhaps say, they are engaged in an act of mythic resonance or mythic recurrence – as that is also what the rest of The Gods are said to do, to resume Their far more lofty stations in some ways rather closer by His Side.
On another level, it is a prominent holy-site specifically due to the ShivLing which is situated here. That immense free-standing stone that towers above the devotees who come to worship there, just as the mountain it stands atop towers over the surrounding valleys. 24 meters in height, even before we take into account its colour-changing property and its Trishula shape when viewed from the valley – it is seriously impressive!
One local myth as to the formation of this ShivLing holds that it was once a devotee who had performed penance here for quite some time, eventually resulting in Mahadeva appearing before him to afford him the opportunity to ask for a boon. So the story goes, whatever the boon was – it was displeasing to Rudra, and so the devotee was turned to stone as a result. Whatever the truth of its origins, the important point is that it is regarded as being a ShivLing today.
And in terms of what that is, what it means … a ShivLing is an aniconic representation of Mahadeva, of His Power. Most usually, it takes the form of a reasonably large black smooth river-stone, which is also utilized as something of an altar. We pour milk offerings upon it, pile high leaves of particular varieties at its top and anoint its side with various kinds of paste. We also perform parikrama [processional around] as an act of devotion. It can take other forms, as well – with the justifiably famed Amarnath Jyotirlingam [‘Lingam of (Star)Light’] spontaneously forming from ice in a high mountain cave in Jammu & Kashmir, for instance. And with the “Shankara Stones” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom forming an immediately recognizable example (as well as one of the few areas wherein said movie actually managed to represent a Hindu concept with something approaching decency – although “Fortune And Glory” is certainly a rather interesting translation for “Shankar”).
But what does it mean? Other than representing Lord Shiva Himself, a ShivLing is, in effect, a miniature Axis Mundi. It is also a resonance with the Sacrificial Pillars/Posts [‘Stambha’] of the Vedic age. And, of course, all at once – as I have previously argued, some of the ‘cosmological’ hymnals of the Rig and Atharva Vedas effectively make such a coterminous linkage between Axis Mundi, Sacrificial Post, and Great God … curiously enough, in terms that often appear to echo later Shaivite iconographic depictions, such as the Nataraja figure. We find further resonancy for this concept in the well-known Puranic accounts of Shiva manifesting as the Lingodbhava – the endless, infinite pillar of fire; that per my interpretation, would be the intersection of our universe of Rta/Brahman from above/beyond, in the same manner as the Bowstring of Brihaspati (a feature which also links the latter to another expression, weaponized, of the Axis Mundi – the Trishula; which, funnily enough, is also seen in the shape of the ShivLing atop this part of Kinnaur).
It is therefore understandable and appropriate that a ShivLing, especially a rather impressive one situated atop a mountain peak such as this [the mountain, in multiple senses, standing for Devi], would be the focal point for our devotions.
And this is not a uniquely Hindu custom, ether. We can also find mention of vaguely similar acts of devotion carried out with reference to the Herma pillars of Ancient Greece; although these also had an array of other functions to them, which means that even despite the significant and useful coterminity of Shiva and Hermes (more on that, perhaps, some other time), the parallel is an imperfect one. The best correlate, however, is to be found amongst the Nordic/Germanic Indo-Europeans – the Irminsul; which fulfils both a similar cosmological-resonancy role (it is a localized and ‘microcosmic’ representation of the World Tree) as well as, flowing from this, a similar function as votive offering focal point in pillar form. The Irminsul is even dedicated to the same Great God – the Irmin in question being Odin; Who also, as it happens, has a milk-flow point of coterminity via the Irmin’s Way (Galaxy – Milky Way), that may suggest a similar mechanism of use to the pouring of the milk oblation upon the ShivLing which we to this day engage in.
As applies the Parikrama element of ritual observance – the idea here is to engage in an act of contemplation while walking around the subject of veneration; and in mythic terms, it stems from the account of the contest between Lords Skanda and Ganesha to race around the world. Lord Skanda took the direct approach, and sped off to physically make His way all around the World and back. Lord Ganesha, by contrast, took a more metaphorical ambit, and walked in a circle around Their Parents, Shiva & Parvati. When asked why He did this, rather than rushing off after His Brother in the hope to catch Him, Ganesha thoughtfully replied that as His Parents were His World, by walking around Them, He had already won.
Now, in the course of the relatively short series of not-quite-circles of an ordinary ShivLing, we could say that this is simply an act of mythic resonancy – an expression of similar devotion to that displayed by Ganesha for His Parents, the expression of the centrality of the Gods in question to our world and lives. But in the course of the much more challenging and long-distance Parikramas out ‘in the wild’ wherein a distance of many kilometres must be covered in order to walk around the circumference of an entire mountain – there is far more time and scope for contemplation, and the gesture should almost certainly be thought of as meaning much more. It is, in effect, a pilgrimage (Yatra), and a ritual element, all in one.
So, there you have it. An immensely impressive Shaivite Hindu devotional site; but also, a brief comparative commentary upon two of the key trends which we see in Indo-European mythoreligion.
First, that of ‘movement’ and ‘adaptation’, ‘localization’ – for as noted above, Kinnaur Kailash is itself a localized re-situation of the great Holy Kailash, with direct Divine facilitation to make such a thing possible; and also the manner in which both physical Kailash mountains are, themselves, resonancies, emanations perhaps – of the mythic Mountain upon which the Imperial Court of the Ishvara is to be found. Part of a long-running trend whereby Indo-Europeans have brought their (our) mythology with them (us), and re-‘stablished it via affixing it to the localized environs they now find themselves amidst.
But second – the veer-y opposite to that. ‘Enduring’, ‘Permanency’. Fixed and constant principles which, while they might now differ somewhat in the location or the precise form and the minutiae of mechanism of their expression – are nevertheless recognizable and have retained their saliency down thousands of years and across thousand of miles; literally from one end of the Indo-European-Isphere to the other.
Just as it should be.
Shiva is a Wandering God; just as the Indo-Europeans were (and are) themselves, Wanderers. It therefore makes considerable ’emblematic’ sense to honour the site – the place where Lord Shiva also wanders to on a cyclical basis – via the act of Parikrama. That is to say, wandering around and in the process, finding one’s self coming Home. HIS Home.
After all, as a great man once wrote – “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”.
Jai Mahadev !