Sodaratiratha : Myth, Legend and History

By Dr. Ramesh Kumar

Background:

For Kashmiri Hindus all the images erected by the sages and all the great lakes in Kashmir are holy. Regular pilgrimages to these places have formed an integral part of their socio-religious history.

Naran Nag, located at the foot of steep Butsher mountain leading to Gangabal pilgrimage, has from times immemorial remained a site of pilgrimmage, enjoying a very high degree of popular esteem. It is ten miles away from Kangan, the last major town on Srinagar-Sonamarg highway. In ancient times, it was called Sodaratiratha.

The sanctity of Naran Nag is derived from the existence of a large spring, Sodara Nag. Around it have been built two, actually three groups of temples in east and west directions. In terms of antiquity, these temples have been erected around the same time as Sankaracharya temple and Bumuzuv temple, near Mattan on Pahalgam road. Only the temple remains of Payech seem more ancient.

The importance of the pilgrimage to Sadaratiratha continues to the present times, but more as an extension of Gangabal pilgrimage. Pilgrims after consigning the ashes of their dead relatives to the Gangabal (Uttaramanasa) lake, make it a point to offer worship here, by staying overnight. The myth, legend and the history of Sodaratiratha indicates that it had an importance of its own, rivalled by few pilgrimages.

The Sodaranag has been lost in the tradition of Purohitas as well as in the religious lore of Kashmiri Pandits. Pandit Sahibram, that careful scholar on Kashmir’s socio-religious history, in his monumental work Tirtha Samgraha, refers to the antiquity of Naran Nag. In his notes on Harmuktaganga pilgrimage, he writes.

Tatah (the Harmuktganga Lake) Pratyavrtya Vangatakhyapradese (Vangath) Prathamam Bhutesvara Pujam Vidhya Sodarnage Yastim (viz. the long stick used on the mountain pilgrimage) Ksiptra Visrjya Pratyayat.

Nilmatpurana mentions Sodaranaga in connection with the shrine of Bhutesvara (Buthsher) and Kankavahini river. Ablutions in the Sodara spring are recommended to the pilgrim visiting the tirathas of Bhutesvara, Jyesthesa and Nandin.

The particular region around the spring of Sodaranag was also known as Bhuteshvara or Shiva Bhutesha-the lord of beings. This entire area is clad by dense pine and fir forests. Roaring stream of Kanakvahini (present Kanaknai/Kankinaz or Karanknadi of Harmuktganga Mahatmya), flows to the south of Sodaratiratha. It is formed from the tributaries, which flow out from the sacred Nundkol (Kalodoka) and Gangabal lakes. Temple ruins are seen on the right bank of Kanak Vahini.

Wangat (Vangat), the nearest village with human habitation is five kms. away and gives the name to the temple ruins as “Wangat Temples”. Wangat is ancient Vashisthasrama, named after sage Vashistha. He, as per tradition, stayed here while consecrating Linga called Jyesthesa at Naran Nag.

Sodaranag:

Sodara Nag spring lies to the north of the temple complex and is a oblong-rectangular structure. Its northern side is a rocky area and the original spring has been camouflaged with a drain chamber. The other three walls are built in dressed and polished masonry in a stepped fashion. In the rocky surface a few lingas are also carved in the rock face. RC Agarwal believes that these lingas date to fifth-sixth century AD. About the spring, he remarks that in the early historical period it was properly channelled and a tank was scooped out for storing the spring water. The tank is lined with ancient slabs.

The sanctity of the tank-spring has also aroused much interest among the archaeologists. RC Agarwal comments, “the sanctity of the tank or Pushkarni was so overwhelming that in the later period it was used for performing rituals and became a tirtha, which in subsequent historical writing came to be known as Sodaratiratha.” In the opinion of Pandit RC Kak, the pioneer archeologist of Kashmir, “its cool, delicious water, perhaps contributed to some extent to its sanctity”.

The spiritual merits of taking bath in Sodaranag have been enumerated at length in Nilmat, our principal source for studying significance of Sodaranag. It says that one may obtain prominence among the ganas by seeing Hara Bhutesvara, Jyesthesvara and Nandi after taking bath in the holy Sodara. The merits of taking bath in the Sodaranag and Uttarmanasa (Gangbal) lake are same i.e. one thousand cows. In fact, Uttaramanasa is believed to be the abode of Sodaranaga and the linga Jyethesa at Naran Nag is washed with water from Uttaramanasa lake. One can also attain the merit of performing Rajasuya and Asvamedha by taking a dip in the Sodaranag.

Sodara (Kashmiri) is derived from Sanskrit Samudra, meaning ocean. What expanse and depth of this spring impressed the ancient Kashmiris so much that they mistook it for Samudra’ Kashmir being far away from the sea, the expanse and the depth of blue-coloured Gangabal lake reminded Kashmiris of sea. And possibly for those who could not withstand the hazardous mountain journey, mini-Gangabal was created as Sodaranag at Naran Nag.

Siva Bhutesha Worship:

Nandiksetra or Nandisaksetra refers to the whole sacred territory from the lakes on the Harmukta down to Bhutesvara. Sodaratiratha lies at the outermost limit of Nandiksetra. Nandisa is the designation of the Shiva worshipped in the Nund-Kol lake (Kalodaka lake). The inner portion of the lake showing blue colour is supposed to mark the residence of Kala or Siva. The outer portion having light green colour is the place where Nandin lives. There is a legendary description of how Siva came to take up his residence in this area in the form of Bhutesa, in Nilmatpurana. The mountain spur, which stretches south-east from Harmukh peaks marks the residence of Bhutesa. It bears to the present day the name of Buthsher i.e. Bhutesvara.

Both Kalhana and Sir Aurel Stein have commented eloquently about the religious significance of this region. Kalhana says, “there even to this day drops of Sandal ointment offered by the gods are to be seen at Nandiksetra, the permanent residence of Siva”. Stein writes, “the worship of Siva Bhutesa, ‘the lord of the beings’ localised near the sacred sites of Mount Harmukh has played an important part in ancient religion of Kashmir”. In the Nilmat, Siva says to Nandi, “you shall live in my company in a place at a distance of one Yojana from here towards the east. O best of the ganas, I in the form of Hara Bhutesvara, shall dwell in your company. O Nandi, the gifted sage Vasistha on the earth shall erect your image and also mine at that place.”

At Naran Nag, there are temples erected in honour of Siva Bhutesa and Siva Ugresa. Bhairava together with a ‘circle of mothers’ (Matrachakra) is worshipped close to Bhutesa temple. As Bhairva is connected with bloody sacrifices, his shrines are kept some distance away from those of other deities. Matrachakra refers to the Saivite goddesses, the Sapta Matrka or seven mothers, representing Life and Death, radiant loveliness and hideous ugliness.

Jyestharudra Cult:

However, Sodaratiratha’s fame rests on its being the original sanctuary of Siva Jyesthesa or Jyestharudra. As per legend, Siva liberated Parvati (Jyestha) from Daityas here and on marrying her took the name of Jyethesa. In the Jyesthesa temple at Naran Nag, Siva is worshipped as linga. Nilmat says that the consecration and first worship of the Jyestharudra linga is distinctly attributed to Rishivasistha. When Bishop Cowie visited Naran Nag in late nineteenth century, he found the base of a colossal linga at the South-West corner of the enclosure of Jyestharudra temple complex. Stein comments that this remnant of linga which Cowie found, “belonged perhaps to the very emblem of Jyesthesa.” Linga was worshipped here under the name Svayambhuh i.e. natural stone and not sculptured symbol of god.

The similar lingas are worshipped at Sarikaparvat and Suresvari. There are basically three sites in Kashmir, where Siva Jyesthesa was worshipped under this name or its equivalents, Jyesthesvara and Jyestharudra. These are Mt. Harmukta in the sacred territory of Nandiksetra; near Tripuresvara (Modern Triphar) i.e. between Mahadev and Suresvar; and in the close neighbourhood of Srinagar.

Shrines at Sodaranag have enjoyed liberal patronage from successive Kashmirian Kings. For their abiding faith, they often retired to this place for offering penance. Since royal citizenry frequently visited this place, the locality has also been called ‘Rajdainabal’. Families of Asoka, and Kalhana had great reverence for the shrines of Nandiksetra. During Asoka’s time, Kashmir was overrun by Mlecchas (Greeks). He offered austerities to Siva Bhutesa and obtained from him a son, later named as Jaluka, in order to exterminate mlecchas.

According to Rajatarangini, Jaluka (137 BC) erected a stone temple at Nandiksetra for Siva Bhutesa and offered to the god a sacrifice of precious stones with other treasures. The offering of flowers made of precious metals and stones is mentioned in various Saiva Paddhatis still in use in Kashmir. This temple has been identified with Siva Bhutesa temple at Naran Nag.

Jaluka vanquished the Mlecchas, by defeating them at Ujjhatadimba. Having done this, the King through his queen Isanadevi founded Matracakras all over the Valley, particularly in the frontier region. He began regular worship at Sodara and other places as vying with Nandisa. It is said Jaluka would attend every day to worship of tirathas so distant from each other as Vijayesvara and Sodaratiratha. The journey from Vijayesvara to Jyethesa in Nandiksetra is nearly 100 kms. To rationalise this, Kalhana writes, “A Naga out of kindness would not allow him to ride in stages (four marches) with horses kept ready from village to village, but carried him always himself”.

Distance to Sodara made him uneasy. He created a shrine in Srinagar near Dal Lake, which rivalled Sodaratiratha. The shrine is located at Jyether village, adjoining the Sankaracharya hill. Fragments of a massive linga as big as ten feet in diameter have been found here.

While engaged in erecting Jyestharudra shrine at Jyether, Jaluka felt that without the Sodara spring, it could not rival Nandisa. There is a legendary account mentioned by Kalhana regarding the emergence and sanctity of Jyesthanaga (at Jyether), rivalling Sodaranag.

Once in his preoccupation with state affairs, he felt dismayed at not being able to take his bath in the waters of the far-off Sodara spring. He observed in a waterless spot water suddenly welling up which in colour, taste and other respects was indistinguishable from that of Sodara. After having a dip in this sacred bring, the King felt satisfied in his desire to vie Nandirudra (Nandisa). To test the identity of the new spring, he threw into the Sodara spring an empty golden cup, closed at its mouth with a lid. His doubts were removed, when the cup appeared two and a half days later in this new spring at Jyether. Kalhana magnifies importance of this miracle by saying, “It seems that the King was Nandisa himself, who had descended in an Avtara to enjoy the pleasures of the earth. Not otherwise could such a miraculous event take place before men’s very eyes.”

Patronage:

Sodaratirtha’s sanctity invited the attention of Kings and nobility of Kashmir. They raised temples and gifted wealth to the shrine. Temples were endowed with extensive estates and the priests incharge seem to have been a particularly influential body. The earliest evidence about the royal contribution to the shrine goes back to 253 BC, when King Narendraditya I alias Khimkhila was ruling Kashmir. He consecrated shrines of Siva Bhutesvara and founded a permanent endowment for feeding of Brahmans. His guru Ugra constructed shrines of Siva Ugresa and a ‘circle of mothers’.

In Jayendra’s time (61 BC), the three most famous shrines of Siva worship were Bhutesa, Vardhamanesa (Ganpatyar) and Vijayeya (Bijbehara). King Sandhimati (24 BC) alias Aryaraja (Vikramaditya dynasty) also used to worship at Sodaratirtha. About his devotion, Kalhana writes, “when he went about to beg his food, he was welcomed with much respect as a follower of the observances ordained by Siva. The wives of the ascetics vied eagerly in every hermitage to give him alms. But as his alms-bowl was filled with choice fruits and blossoms by the trees he, who deserved respect, had not to suffer the humiliation of mendicancy even when he lived the life of renunciation”.

The King had stood infront of the shrine of Siva Bhutesa at Sodaratirtha. In true fashion of ascetics he had covered himself with white ash, with his neatly arranged hair tied in a knot. He carried a rosary, marked with Rudraksa.

Lalitaditya (713-755) on return from his victorious expeditions presented huge sums (‘ eleven crores) of his war booty as an expiatory offering to the shrine. He erected a lofty stone temple of Siva Jyestharudra in close proximity to the shrine and also made a grant of land and villages.

Avantivarman (855-883), a man of wisdom and culture, made a pedestal with silver conduit for bathing of sacred image (snanadroni). He had similar conduits installed at Tripuresvara and Vijaysevara.

Jayasimha also consecrated a linga of Siva called Bhutesvara here. His Prime Minister Srngara, son of Sajjaka would spend great sums to make available at shrine ample provisions for celebration of full moon day of Asadha. This festival (Devas Vapana), mentioned in Nilmat, would be celebrated over ten days. Writing about Srngara’s arrangements, Kalhana says, “in recent times even Kings could not have imitated. He had been directed there by Canpaka (Kalhana’s Minister-father) and others. Thereby he obtained subsequently prosperity for five-six years”.

Sumanas, brother of Rilhana, another minister of Jayasimha built a matha or congregation hall here. RC Kak says, “It is possible that the pillared hall is the same matha. Further excavations may throw light upon this question.”

Nobility and Kings often desired to retire to Sodara tiratha. Queen Ratnadevi, after erecting matha at Ratnapora, retired to Nandiksetra. King Kalasa (1063-1089) is quoted by Kalhana as having said, “After completing the foundation of my town, I shall throw upon you the burden of the crown and go as an ascetic to Varnasi or Nandiksetra”.

Kalhana’s family was equally devoted to Sodaratirtha shrine. His father Canpaka paid frequent visits to the shrines of Nandiksetra i.e. Buthser and made rich endowments there. Every year he would spend seven days at this tiratha and utilise his entire sayings. Ultimately he retired to Nandiksetra. Kalhana’s uncle Kanaka also used to frequent this shrine. In fact, the nearest town of Kangan (old name Kankanpora) is named after him.

The lavish gifts and treasures bestowed upon the shrine led to its plunder from time to time. A powerful Damara from Lahara (modern Lar), Dhanova in the time of Avantivarman plundered the villages attached to the shrine. Once Avantivarman had come to worship at Siva Bhutesvara. After having presented on his own behalf sacrificial apparatus, which was in keeping with his royal dignity, he noticed that the temple priests had placed on the base of the god’s image as an offering a wild growing vegetable with a bitter estate, Utpalasaka (Wopal hakh). When King asked the priests the reason for such an offering, they threw themselves on the ground, and spoke with hands folded. The Purohitas of the shrine wanted to demonstrate to King the poverty to which they were reduced by placing before the image, instead of proper offerings, leaves of Utpalasaka i.e. a present of no value. The King left the worship, feigning colic, making it appear as if he had not heard what he had heard. His minister Sura understood and went to Bhairava temple near Bhutesa. He tactfully ordered off the assembled crowd. Having done this, when only few attendants remained, Sura asked Dhanova to present himself. He appeared after repeated calls from Sura. Minister’s armed men were ordered to decapitate Dhanova near the image of Bhairava temple, located higher up to Sodaranag. The body of the Dhanova was thrown into the basin of Naran Nag, the pond close by. Kalhana writes, “the wise Sura, who had thus removed the King’s displeasure, went outside after having the body, from which the blood was pouring forth, thrown into the tank close by”.

Bhadreshvara, Minister of King Sangramraja (1003-28) also committed a similar hateful deed in plundering the treasury of Bhutesvara.

The shrine was burnt during the reign of Uccala (1101-11) by a sudden conflagration. The King rebuilt it a fresh, finer than before. During the rebellions under Jayasimha (1128-55), the temples were sacked by the marauding hillmen (Khasas) at the instigation of rebel baron Haya Vadana. Shrine of Bhutesvara seems to have escaped the sacrilegious confiscations of King Harsa. There are no records available which speak about vandalism or consecration of new temples at Naran Nag during the Sultanate rule or later Muslim period.

Post Script:

As pilgrims failed to reach distant Sodaratirtha, they created its replicas close to their homes. Near Hazratbal on the deep inlet of Dal (Sudrkhun) lies the village Sudrabal. Stein believes that both Sudrkhun and Sudarabal are linked to Sodara spring. There are also two pools fed by perennial springs near the lake shore and close to the mosque of Sudarabal. There is a definite tradition which says that these springs were visited by numerous pilgrims. Infact, a portion of Sudrabal village is called Battapor. This points to a former settlement of Pandits.

In North Kashmir, there is a village, Sudrkoth (Srivara mentions it as Samudrakota) near northeast shore of volur. Sudr’mar is the quarter in which lies Somatirtha of Rajatarangini, built by queen Samudra of King Ramadeva in 13th century. It was also called Samudramatha.