Stone carving showing serpent form of Shiva and goddess Shakti at Srisailam temple,
Andhra Pradesh state, India
Located on the side of the ancient sacred hill of Srigiri, in the Nallamalai range of Andhra Pradesh, is the exotic temple of Srisailam. The temple complex, whose existing buildings date from the 2nd century AD, is one of the twelve Jyotir Linga Shiva shrines as well as one of the eighteen most sacred goddess shrines, or Shakti Pithas. This unique combination of major god and goddess shrines at the same site makes Srisailam one of India's most holy sites. Shiva is worshipped here in his form of Lord Mallikarjuna, and Shakti, his consort, as Sri Bharamaramba Devi. The images of these deities, both extremely old, are enshrined in the more recent temple built by the Vijayanager king Harihara Raya around 1404 AD. The temple, whose popular name is Sriparvata, is surrounded by a great fortress-like wall, which is 20 feet high, 6 feet wide and 2120 feet in circumference. Built in in 1520 AD, the wall has 3200 stones, each weighing over one ton, and is decorated with fine relief carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.
Goddess worship occurred in India since deepest antiquity and clearly predates the Indus Valley Harappan civilization (3000 BC). Worship of the goddess in her many forms occurs all over the sub-continent and in many places she is more popular than the gods Shiva or Vishnu. All the goddesses of Hinduism are considered to be manifestations of the multi-faceted personality of the one great Mother Goddess of creation. According to certain Hindu myths, the goddess is the combined energy of all the gods, who created and then equipped her with weapons so that she might destroy a demon whose power was greater than theirs. Different temples will enshrine different images of the goddess, from her peaceful aspects of Parvati, Lakshmi, and Saraswati, to her fearful aspects of Durga, Chamunda and Kali; she is both the gentle giver of life and the terrible mistress of death. Worshipped by particular sects of Hinduism known as Tantric, the goddess encourages meditation on yantras (visual mantras considered to be magic diagrams), erotic sexual practices, and the ritual slaughter of animals. Before her shrines at many Shakti Pitha sites are large, two-pronged forks for securing the heads of animals being sacrificed. In the active Shakti Pitha shrines at least one goat will be sacrificed daily and on major festival days several hundred goats and many buffaloes will be slaughtered. Pilgrims passing the place of sacrifice will dip a finger in the blood and touch it to their lips and foreheads. The background idea here is not that the goddess is cruel, but that she is looked upon as the protectress from all evil, ailment, danger and death. She should frighten away the demons and sorcerers of misfortune. In her terrible aspects she also confronts pilgrims with the transience of life and death, thereby encouraging them to seek eternal wisdom and enlightenment.
The primary sacred places of the goddess are the Shakti Pithas and they are variously described in different texts as being 18, 51, 52 or 108 in number, each of these sites being associated with a particular part of Shakti's body. A fascinating legend (recounted from Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition, by Alan Morinis) gives insight into the miraculous healing powers of the Shakti Pithas. Shakti is the daughter of Daksa and Prasuti, and the wife of Shiva. Daksa once decided to hold a great sacrifice to which he invited neither his daughter nor son-in-law. Shakti was offended by this slight and attended the sacrifice uninvited. There she was insulted by Daksa and, thus humiliated, she took her life. On hearing this news, her husband Shiva hastened to the house of Daksa, disrupted the sacrifice, killed Daksa, and claimed the body of his wife. Inconsolable at his loss, he placed Shakti's body on his shoulder and began a mad dance through the three universes. His dance threatened to destroy all creation and the gods became distraught at this prospect. One version of the story has it that the gods approached Vishnu to restrain Shiva. Vishnu sent arrows or his discus to dismember the body of Shakti limb by limb. An alternative version states that Brahma, Vishnu and Sani entered Shakti's body and caused it to disintegrate. When Shiva was thereby deprived of the body, he ceased his mad dance. The parts of Shakti's body fell from Shiva's shoulders to the earth, and the places where they landed became the sacred Shakti Pithas. For countless centuries these sites have been visited by women having ailments in certain parts of their bodies - the temple enshrining a particular part of Shakti's body is believed to have the miraculous capacity to heal that same part of a woman's body. Some of the Shakti Pithas are also called Siddha-Pithas because they are considered highly effective for the acquisition of spiritual powers; at these sites, Srisailam being one of them, the goddess is known to confer wisdom, bliss and enlightenment.
The names and locations of the Shakti Pithas are too long to give here. Readers interested in learning more about these places can consult books by Bagchi, Housden, Morinis, Sastri, and Sircar listed in the bibliography. A good listing of the 51 Shakti Pithas is given in Travels through Sacred India by Roger Housden, and directions to these shrines may be found in the guidebook entitled India, by John Howley.