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Dirgheshwari - the Second Most Important Shakti Shrine of Assam, India

Dr. A K Chatterjee is a seasoned writer with more than 330 blogs in English and Bengali and 10 books mostly on travel, trekking and temples.

Dirgheshwari temple, Guwahati, Assam

Dirgheshwari temple, Guwahati, Assam

Dirgheshwari temple, Guwahati, Assam

Key words (Vernaculars in italics)

ASI, Sitachal, co-ordinates, Brahmaputra, Ahom, temple, Shakti cult, Kamakhya, Dirgheshwari, Gupt Kashi, Markandeya, "Chiranjivi", "Daksha-Yagna", Shaktipitha, Pithasthana, petroglyphs, petrographs, rock, Japi, Vahana, Kalantaka, Yama, Durga puja.

Introduction

The Shakti worship is deep rooted throughout India and Assam is no exception. Actually, one of 51 most important places of Shakti worship called "Shaktipitha" or "Pithasthana" Kamakhya is situated in Assam. Kamakhya is also one of the 4 "Adi Pithasthan"-s ("Adi" means First).

Besides Kamakhya, Assam has at least 3 more temples which claim to be "Shakti Pitha"-s viz. Dirgheshwari temple near Guwahati and two other temples belonging to Uma and Chandi in Bishwanath Ghat in Bishwanath district, which is known as "Gupt Kashi" (Hidden Kashi) or the "Kashi of Assam".

In the present article a short discussion will be presented on Dirgheshwari temple.

Shaktipitha-s of Assam

Kamakhya temple, Guwahati

Kamakhya temple, Guwahati

Chandi temple, Bishwanath Ghat

Chandi temple, Bishwanath Ghat

The Legend of Pithasthana-s

In Hinduism, there is a well known story about "Daksha-Yagna" where it is described how King Daksha, father of Sati (Goddess Parvati, the divine consort of Lord Shiva in another form) once conducted a huge Yagna (a ritual by lighting a big sacrificial fire). Daksha did not like his son-in-law Shiva for the latter's bohemian lifestyle and did not invite him in the festival. It was an intentional insult to Lord Shiva. Sati was enraged by this heinous act of her father, and after a quarrel with him, committed suicide.

On hearing this, Lord Shiva was livid in rage and ordered destruction of Daksha's Yagna, and then began to dance Tandava, the Dance of Destruction carrying the corpse of Sati on his shoulder. Seeing this, gods became apprehensive that the Universe will be destroyed by Shiva's rage, and they asked Lord Vishnu to do something to save the Universe.
Lord Vishnu made a plan and he started chopping of Sati's corpse by his weapon Sudarshan Chakra. The corpse was chopped into 51 pieces, and those fell at 51 different places on earth. When Lord Shiva realized that Sati's corpse was no more, he stopped dancing Tandava, and returned to Kailash, his abode in the Himalayas.

The 51 places where the 51 parts of Goddess Sati's body fell became 51 "Peethasthana"-s, each having its own specialty. All those places are considered as the most venerable places for worshiping Shakti/Durga.

The legend of Daksha Yagna

Shiva carrying Sati's corpse; mural from Bhutnath temple, Ketugram, Purva Bardhaman district, West Bengal

Shiva carrying Sati's corpse; mural from Bhutnath temple, Ketugram, Purva Bardhaman district, West Bengal

Legends of Dirgheshwari

There are two legends associated with the temple of Dirgheshwari.

The first revolves around the story of Sati's body parts being scattered, as told above. As per the local tradition, Goddess Sati's thigh fell here. Inside the temple, there is a cave which houses that body-part as a piece of rock, just like in the Kamakhya temple, only on a smaller scale. It is even said that one has to visit this temple after visiting Kamakhya to get the full blessings of the Goddess.

The second legend speaks of another interesting story. According to this, Goddess Durga appeared here riding a tiger before Sage Markandeya. It is an interesting point that though Goddess Durga is normally seen as riding a lion (especially in the Eastern part of India), here we hear a story which states that Her Vahana is a tiger.

The usual picturization of Goddess Durga

The usual picturization of Goddess Durga riding a lion; terracotta; Damodar temple, Hadal Narayanpur, District Bankura, West Bengal

The usual picturization of Goddess Durga riding a lion; terracotta; Damodar temple, Hadal Narayanpur, District Bankura, West Bengal

The usual picturization of Goddess Durga riding a lion; terracotta;  Shiva temple, Bankati village, District Paschim Bardhaman, West Bengal

The usual picturization of Goddess Durga riding a lion; terracotta; Shiva temple, Bankati village, District Paschim Bardhaman, West Bengal

Where is Dirgheshwari temple?

Dirgheshwari temple is situated in north Guwahati on a small hill called Sitachal. It is situated on the north bank of the river Bramhaputra. It's geographical co-ordinates are 24 degrees 14' 33.3" North, 91 degrees 44' 57.8" East.

Sitachal Hills

Sitachal Hills 1

Sitachal Hills 1

Sitachal Hills 2

Sitachal Hills 2

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History of Dirgheshwari temple

Probably there was an ancient temple here upon which the present day temple was built by the Ahom king Swargadeo Shiv Singha who reigned between 1714-1744 AD. The temple was constructed under the supervision of Tarun Duwarah Barphukan, the Viceroy of Guwahati and Lower Assam region of the Ahom kingdom. Later, Ahom king Swargadeo Rajeswar Singha granted land, money and many more to the temple, including a silver head-gear (called "Japi" in local language) which is still used to cover the Durga idol in the temple.

History of Dirgheshwari temple

A picture of an Ahom king on the wall of Dirgheshwari temple in Bas-relief. Note the "Dragon', the Royal Emblem of the Ahom dynasty.

A picture of an Ahom king on the wall of Dirgheshwari temple in Bas-relief. Note the "Dragon', the Royal Emblem of the Ahom dynasty.

A journey to Dirgheshwari temple

Good motorable road passes by the Sitachal hill. Near the hill, there is a decorated gate and a signboard placed by The Directorate of Archeology, Government of Assam stating that Dirgheshwari temple and the hills containing several rock arts are under Government protection.

As one enters through the gate, a flight of stairs welcomes the visitor. On either side of this path, there are several petroglyphs (inscriptions engraved in rocks) and petrographs (pictures engraved in rocks) which are collectively called "Rock Art".
Of the petroglyphs, there are geometrical designs and some linearly cut small rectangular holes in the rock. Besides this, there are several rock cut figures of gods, mainly Ganesha, though there are rock cut images of Lord Shiva and His consort Goddess Parvati, Vishnu and Hanumana.
One rock cut figure is highly intriguing. It shows a deity on a bovine Vahana (vehicle). The animal shown has no hump, which is the hallmark of Nandi the Bull, who is Lord Shiva's Vahana. Can it be a water buffalo with Lord Yama on it's back? Presence of Lord Yama, the Lord of Death, is not very unusual here, as the place has also the story of Sage Markandeya associated with it. Incidentally, the story of Sage Markandeya involves Lord Yama, who when came to take away Markandeya at the end of his given short lifespan, was punished by Lord Shiva Himself in the form of "Kalantaka" to protect Markandeya who was an ardent follower of Lord Shiva. Thus Markandeya became a "Chiranjivi", one who has no death.

At the top of the hill, there is the main entrance gate. The temple wall near the gate bears an inscription giving the short history of the place with a royal figure, presumably that of King Swargadeo Shib Singha of the Ahom dynasty who is credited with the foundation of the present temple.

A journey to Dirgheshwari temple

The board put by ASI

The board put by ASI

Main gate of Dirgheshwari temple

Main gate of Dirgheshwari temple

Steps to the temple 1

Steps to the temple 1

Steps to the temple 2

Steps to the temple 2

Ancient and abandoned steps to the temple

Ancient and abandoned steps to the temple

Near the entrance to the temple proper

Near the entrance to the temple proper

One of the rocks bearing petroglyphs, now covered with vermillion; Sitachal Hill

One of the rocks bearing petroglyphs, now covered with vermillion; Sitachal Hill

Linear box like holes in a rock; Sitachal Hill

Linear box like holes in a rock; Sitachal Hill

A piece of  rock art; Sitachal Hill

A piece of rock art; Sitachal Hill

Rock cut Shiva-Parvati; Sitachal Hill

Rock cut Shiva-Parvati; Sitachal Hill

Rock cut Ganesha; Sitachal Hill 1

Rock cut Ganesha; Sitachal Hill 1

Rock cut Ganesha; Sitachal Hill 2

Rock cut Ganesha; Sitachal Hill 2

Rock cut Hanumana; Sitachal Hill

Rock cut Hanumana; Sitachal Hill

Rock cut god; Sitachal Hill ; is it Yama?

Rock cut god; Sitachal Hill ; is it Yama?

Rock cut god; Sitachal Hill; is it Vishnu?

Rock cut god; Sitachal Hill; is it Vishnu?

King and Royal notice; Dirgheshwari temple

King and Royal notice; Dirgheshwari temple

Royal declaration; Dirgheshwari

Royal declaration; Dirgheshwari

The Dirgheshwari temple complex

On entering the temple premises one's attention is drawn towards the main temple on the left and a smaller temple-like canopy in front.

The latter is the spot where it is said that Goddess Durga appeared on a tiger before sage Markandeya. There are footprints on the rock which are said to be of the Goddess. In addition, the rock bears deep scratch marks said to be the claw-marks of the tiger.

The main brick-built temple has a Mandapa (hall) in front, then a vault-like ante-chamber, then a square sanctum topped by a Charchala (4-roofed) turret. One interesting thing to note here is the presence of a statue of a Royal Bengal tiger in the sitting posture on the roof the ante-chamber.

There are few ancient and heavily weathered stone statues and one what looks like a stone pillar with a tiger or lion's head atop outside the temple. Probably these are from a past era.

Inside, the ante-chamber houses a metal (Brass?) Durga idol on a wooden pedestal, which interestingly has two small wooden statues of tiger in the fore corners.

The real sanctum is in a cave, which is entered through a small door. The cave has now electric lamps, yet is capable of inducing claustrophobia to some visitors.
There are several idols of different deities including Shiva, Goddess Durga and a beautiful Ganesha. But the most sacred thing inside is a big piece of rock at one corner which is said to be the petrified thigh of the Goddess Sati. The rock seems to be continuous with the rock of the hill on which the temple stands.
It is interesting to note that even at Kamakhya there is a similar sacred piece of rock which is considered as the petrified private parts of the Goddess.
Incidentally, this type of rock-worship cult is an ancient custom in India.

Dirgheshwari Temple Complex

Structure with foot prints of Goddess Durga underneath

Structure with foot prints of Goddess Durga underneath

Foot prints of Goddess Durga with her tiger's scratch marks on stone

Foot prints of Goddess Durga with her tiger's scratch marks on stone

Foot prints of Goddess Durga with her tiger's scratch marks on stone; viewed from another angle

Foot prints of Goddess Durga with her tiger's scratch marks on stone; viewed from another angle

Foot prints of Goddess Durga

Foot prints of Goddess Durga

Main temple from side

Main temple from side

Main temple viewed from another angle

Main temple viewed from another angle

The statue of a Royal Bengal Tiger on the roof of the ante-chamber; Dirgheshwari

The statue of a Royal Bengal Tiger on the roof of the ante-chamber; Dirgheshwari

Durga idol on a wooden pedestal in the ante-chamber; Dirgheshwari

Durga idol on a wooden pedestal in the ante-chamber; Dirgheshwari

Durga idol on a wooden pedestal in the ante-chamber; close view. Note the wooden tigers; Dirgheshwari

Durga idol on a wooden pedestal in the ante-chamber; close view. Note the wooden tigers; Dirgheshwari

Ganesha idol inside sanctum; Dirgheshwari

Ganesha idol inside sanctum; Dirgheshwari

Cave entrance; Dirgheshwari

Cave entrance; Dirgheshwari

Inside the sanctum; Dirgheshwari

Inside the sanctum; Dirgheshwari

An ancient stone statue outside the temple; Dirgheshwari

An ancient stone statue outside the temple; Dirgheshwari

Ancient stone tiger/lion pillar outside the temple; Dirgheshwari

Ancient stone tiger/lion pillar outside the temple; Dirgheshwari

Festivals at Dirgheshwari temple


Though daily Puja is done here, still the temple organizes various Hindu festivals throughout the year (please see the accompanying photograph which bears the name and dates of these festivals), the biggest being the Durga Puja festival in the month of October when lakhs of devotees throng the temple.

The list of festivals; Dirgheshwari temple

The list of festivals; Dirgheshwari temple

Conclusion

It is already said that the common belief here is that one has to visit this temple after visiting Kamakhya to get the full blessings of the Goddess.

Though there is some scholarly debates about whether Dirgheshwari is a "real" Pithasthana as mentioned in the standard lists of 51-Pithasthanas, it has other importance as the place where Goddess Durga appeared before Sage Markandeya.
So, for devotees as well as for those who are interested in History &/or Rock art, visiting Dirgheshwari is really fruitful.

Reference

1. Different internet sites.
2. Personal communication with priests and local people.

All photos by the author.

© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee

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