I don’t know the associated legend but there are spread across India 12 Jyotirlingams. One among them, is Lord Mallikarjuna at Sri Sailam. The other important deity here is Bhramaramba, probably another name for the consort of Shiva in his Mallikarjuna form.
I was impressed from the outset by the splendid location of Sri Sailam. It is set in the middle of a ring of hills, green and thickly forested. In my entire stay at this place, the sun was never harsh. The air was cool and gets colder once the sun has set. All in all, it is a pleasant place.
I was expecting a rushed affair as in my visit to Sri Kalahasti. It must be the time of day. Perhaps it is also not the high season for coming to Sri Sailam. Either way, the place was well below its planned capacity to handle pilgrims. As in many of places of pilgrimage, there are barricades, long winding railings, shut gates and guards. Likewise, there are free darshans for the patient and fast forward express darshans for those rich in cash and poor in time, strength or patience. In any case, when I reached the temple just after 1 pm the place was empty. The main deities could be seen but there were no pujas going on. It seemed that god too wanted an afternoon siesta.
In the evening, the same scene is very different. Long queues approach and snake into the temple. Ayyappa devotees keep up a steady chant to keep their spirits up. The temple lights are up. The sound of bells and temple drums sound the air. Flickers of light shine from the inner shrines. Doorways jambs, clad in silver, shine through the darkness. The four main gopurams in all four directions are lit brilliantly in colourless white. They stand out against the dimly lit temple walls. The walls make up a fort-like defence with crenellations at the top.
At about half five in the evening, just when darkness is getting ready, beggars gather outside the temple. Most are old but some are young. It is wrong to say they are unemployed. Begging appears to be their active employment. Everyone seems to have reserved place outside the temple. I became a curious witness to a fight between two beggar women about the seating arrangment. Once they have taken their seats, they while away their hours gossiping. It is only when a pilgrim passes by they spring into action almost.
‘Amma. Amma. Swami. Swami,’ they plead out of practice. Here everyone is Amma and everyone is Swami. In fact, all Ayyappa devotees call one another ‘Swami’. They do not use their real names. Perhaps it is a recognition of divinity in each of us.
When these terms didn’t work with me, beggars pleaded with new words, ‘Mallikarjuna. Mallikarjuna. Sivaji.’
Whether ‘Sivaji’ meant Lord Shiva or Chhatrapati Shivaji, I couldn’t say. History tells us that Shivaji was at Sri Sailam once. There is a large memorial hall that stands in dedication to him. It has printed panels recounting his life. I did not like the exhibition much. It kindled the old hate-war between Islamic Sultans and Hindu rules. Shivaji’s fight against Islamic rulers was presented as patriotic, something we cannot have in secular India. It seems secularism in India is only on paper.
The highlight for me at the temple were the sculptural reliefs on the walls. To do a close study of them will take hours. I must have walked by these walls many times admiring and studying the reliefs. A bottom frieze of elephants is generally accompanied by a second layer of frieze containing horse and horsemen. Scenes of war, procession of hermits, Puranic stories of gods and goddesses, hunting scenes, dancers and musicians make some of the themes in further reliefs. The legend of Kalahasti is represented beautifully in two different places. Lord Brahma rides his swan. Lord Indra rides his elephant. Lord Shiva and Parvati ride the Nandi. Lord Yama is on his buffalo while his demonic minions accompany him in train. The sculptures are finely done but the walls need to be cleaned to bring them out clearly.
On the inside, the shikara of Lord Mallikarjuna is clad in gold. It is resplendent in the afternoon hours. Architecturally it is an interesting temple. Passing beneath the gopuram one enters the couryard and is immediately closest to the dwajastambha. This points to the Nandi Mantapa with pillars and half pillars. This leads to the 16-pillared Navaranga. From here one passes two more than life-sized dwarapalakas into the antalara. Finally we reach the inner shrine of the Lord.
The temple of Bramaramba is artistically more interesting. Fine sculpted pillars surround the main shrine. The general scheme of these pillars is a mythical yali on top leaping over an elephant that stands on a plinth supported by a dwarfed full-breasted woman. In some cases, the yali has a trunk that winds around the elephants’s trunk. In some cases a lion is also present, clawing on the elephant. One pillar is special in that it is surrounded by 8 smaller pillars. The artistic excellence of these sculptures are of a high standard. The main doorway to the shrine is flanked by two excellent dwarapalikas. They wear beautifully designed sarees. They hold garlands. A banana plant stands tall to fill the background, with broad leaves and a complete bunch of the fruit. The lintel over the doorway has a garland sculpted fully in the round.
The temple is faily well organized. I deposited my backpack in the temple cloak room along with my cellphone and shoes. Although this is a free service, the keepers will ask for tips. I tried to find accommodation at Sri Sailam but in all the five places I approached I was turned down. There are plenty of rooms for pilgrims but they are not given for singles.
‘Which caste?’ I was asked at one place.
‘I am Hindu,’ I replied trying to look confused.
‘Yes, Hindu. But which caste?’ he continued to question as in a court.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied much to his disappointed.
‘Vaishnavaite?’ he asked trying to fill in the blanks.
‘Probably. Whatever,’ I said. I did not get the room. So it is time to skip Sri Sailam for the night and catch an overnight bus to Hyderbad. I could have got a room at APTDC’s Harita resort but I knew that it would be above my budget. I did have a wonderful lunch and a dinner at their restaurant.