As home to one of twelve self-emanating lingas (a representation of Shiva as a stone) and a major center for Shakti (a manifestation of female power as a primal Goddess), it is one of India’s holiest temples. Siva is commonly visualized as a forest-dwelling ascetic, and even the name of his representation at Srisailam, Lord Mallikarjuna, (mallika = jasmine), echoes the integration of the natural and spiritual worlds.
From the 7th century through the medieval period, Srisailam became a major destination for Virasaivites, a sect of Siva worshippers who renunciated society and adopted a severe life. The panels of the temple’s outer wall (c. 1456 A.D.) appear to be a manual of sorts about the lives of devotees and a visual confirmation of stories the pilgrims, literate and illiterate alike, had learned in the course of their pilgrimage.
“There were ascetics who performed incomparably terrible austerities. There were good sages who looked like mountains because they had anthills growing over them. There were good sages who looked like black mountains because their unkempt hair grew so long. There were good sages who ate handouts from trees and gained indestructible bodies. There were good sages who ate handouts from mountains and lived lives of bliss. [p.125]
The Virasaivas came from the artisanal caste groups (weavers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and carpenters) whose skills allowed mobility. A powerful counter-culture voice, they disavowed conventional caste and temple hierarchies and sought to build egalitarian communities of Siva worshippers. They espoused a radical democracy and autonomy for every devotee, animate and inanimate.
“The mountains said, ‘lord of mountains, grant us refuge,’ and they worshiped mountain lingas in mountain caves.”
“The animals said, ‘lord of animals, grant us refuge,’ and they worshiped animal lingas in the lairs of animals.”
“The serpents said, ‘lord of serprents, grant us refuge,’ and they worshiped serpent lingas in serpent holes.”
“The sages said, ‘lord of sages, grant us refuge,’ and they worshiped sage lingas in the villages of sages”
Fig.1. Pilgrims at the Srisailam temple outer wall during the annual Shiva-Ratri festival.
Prominent Hindu rulers visited Srisailam for religious ceremonies and as strategic rest stops during military campaigns. Foremost among these was the powerful Vijayanagra king, Krishnadevaraya (1515 AD) and Shivaji(1677 AD) who was apparently so moved after ten days of worship that he had to be restrained by his advisors from offering his head as a sacrifice.
A feature unique to Srisaialm is the repeated inclusion of the Chenchu tribals in the temple traditions, where until recently, they had a significant role. In numerous wall panels, they are depicted not only as hunters and model devotees. In addition to their role in the Saivite tradition, they play a prominent role in the Vaishnavite tradition as well. The myth of ChenchuLakshmi describes Lord Vishnu, in his enraged half-man/, half-lion Narasimha form, coming to the Nallamala forests where his heavenly consort, Lakshmi comes to Earth in the form of a Chenchu maiden. Only after falling in love with this Chenchu Lakshmi does Lord Narasimha’s anger fade away.
Today, it is easy to imagine the temple and its communities as isolated from wider social and cultural systems of peninsular India. On the contrary, Srisailam and its surrounding forests were part of an East-West highway traversing South India, a crossroads of trade, empires, and religious networks between the Western and Eastern Deccan. on the contrary, the devotional communities as well as the Chenchus of Srisailam were integrated into the wider networks of trade and politics.