Every day, a special train arrives in Kolhapur from Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, carrying hundreds of pilgrims, who make a beeline for the famous Mahalakshmi temple at the heart of the city. The 860 km journey from Tirupati to Kolhapur, they believe is critical because you can’t get Balaji to smile on you, unless his wife does too! In a land where myths, legends and connections abound, the Tirupati- Kolhapur link should come as no surprise!
According to legend once Rishi Bhrigu, one of the powerful ancient rishis or sages visited Lord Vishnu, who was resting on his Sheshnaag, the great serpent, with Goddess Laksmi at his feet. In anger, Rishi Bhrigu kicked Vishnu in the chest. To placate the angry Rishi, Lord Vishnu apologized and began pressing his legs, in a show of respect . This act of apology angered his consort Lakshmi, who left their abode ‘Vaikunta’ , in anger and settled down in Kolhapur, where she stays till this day. Interestingly, while this story seems to be very popular these days, it is important to note that this is of recent origin and finds no mention in any religious text.
Historic evidence and the practices followed at the temple, lead scholars to believe that the temple of Mahalakshmi is essentially a ‘Shakta’ shrine. In fact it is one of the 52 /108 major ‘ShaktiPeethas’ i.e. important shrines dedicated to Goddess Parvati in the form of Shakti. In Kolhapur, she is popularly known as ‘Amba‘ or ‘Ambabai‘ and as per the Kolhapur Mahatmya, a religious text composed around 1730 CE, the goddess arrived here to protect the locals from a demon named Kolasura, who was harassing them. The Goddess defeated the demon and it was his dying wish, that the place be named after him. Hence the name ’Kolhapur’.
Another clue that this Mahalakshmi temple probably has a Shaivite/ Shakti connection comes from the fact that there is a secret Shiva shrine, in the dome of the temple. This is said to be there to ‘balance’ the ‘Shakti’ of the Goddess. However, this Shiva shrine is no longer open to the public.
The Vaishnavite (Mahalakshmi- Tirupati connection) and Shaivite (Shakti) legends apart, what we do know is that the shrine was built around 634 CE, by a Chalukyan ruler named Karnadeva. However, it became prominent only centuries later around 1182 CE, when a branch of the Shilahara dynasty of Konkan, made Kolhapur their capital. The Shilaharas worshipped the goddess Mahalakshmi of Kolhapur and one of their titles was ‘Shriman Mahalakshmi–labdcavaraprasada’ i. e. ‘one who has obtained the favour of the boon from the glorious Mahalakshmi’.
Following the Islamic invasions, starting from the14th-century onwards, the main temple was abandoned and the deity was hidden in the house of one of the pujaris or priests, to protect it from destruction. It remained hidden for a few centuries, till the 17th century when Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Sambhaji, the son and successor of Chhatrapati Shivaji, ordered that the deity be reinstalled at the temple. He even presented the temple with a giant bell, captured during his Goa campaign in 1683. Interestingly the bell still sports a Latin inscription ‘AVE MARIA GRATIA DOMINOS TECUM HIS’’ (Hail Mary full of grace! The Lord is with thee). This Bell can now be seen at the Kolhapur town hall.
The city of Kolhapur and its famous Mahalakshmi temple entered a new phase of history when Queen Tarabai, the daughter-in-law of Chhatrapati Shivaji, established the Kingdom of Kolhapur in 1709 CE. The Maharajas of Kolhapur built a palace right next to the Mahalaxmi temple and made several renovations and improvements to the shrine. Thanks to the donations from the various members of the Maratha aristocracy, a large temple complex with elaborate gateways and several sub-shrines emerged.
One of the most prominent festivals at the temple is the ‘Kirnotsav’ or the ‘Festival of the Sunrays’, held twice a year, on 31st January and 9th November. On these days the first rays of the sun, fall directly at the feet of the goddess. Hundreds of devotees gather to view this spectacle.
Over 1400 years after it was built, the popularity of this temple seems to be ever growing. New legends have added new pilgrims. Who is to question any of the stories? It is faith that triumphs!
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