Vedic religion seems to have been mobile, or at least lacking in lasting monuments and mausoleums, and because Veda doesn’t make explicit statements regarding religious pilgrimage, it’s hard to say whether Indra had any cult centres in the Vedic lands. That doesn’t mean that nowhere was sacred to Him; it’s just a little harder to find those places than with sites like Delphi, whose history is intimately intertwined with a particular God. So let’s do a little virtual traveling and see what we find, hmm?
Of course Indra was worshipped by the Vedic folks in the lands where they lived, but the location, timing, and boundaries of their residence provoke much argument. Some of the places called out in Ṛgveda don’t exist anymore; that is, they’ve either changed in character or else can’t be identified with certainty. (1) The general consensus, however, is that north India is included in this territory. Here’s one proposed map, provided under the aegis of Wikipedia:
We may also look to places whose people remember specifically Indra as creator, and these are three:
- The city of Bangkok: I haven’t yet found any legend to explain this, but Bangkok’s origin is preserved in the city’s full formal name, which translates to “City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Viśvakarman at Indra’s behest.” Whatever the story, it’s a history that the city celebrates, placing Indra’s image (with Airāvata, who is Erawan in the Thai language) at the heart of the official flag and seal:
He is also the patron of city services and is planned to be installed as a statue in front of the City Hall. And there is a shrine to Him at Ratchaprasong, where His image rests, beautiful and peaceful, petitioned by devotees for all manner of aid:
- The temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia: The tale tells that Indra took a beautiful human prince to Heaven and had him taught all heavenly arts and graces, but the Apsaras complained about him and demanded that he be returned to Earth. To console the youth, Indra had a place built on Earth by his heavenly folk, as beautiful as Mount Meru itself. Today Angkor Wat is considered a world heritage site, and restoration efforts on the structure are ongoing.
Indra depicted at the Śiva temple of Bantãy Srĕi, in the Angkor complex.
- The sacred ghat of Tirtha Empul in Bali: Many hundreds of years ago, a power-maddened king named Mayadenawa became an evil magician and even destroyed all of Bali’s temples to prevent the people from worshipping Gods. When the people prayed for help, Indra led His heavenly forces against the king. Many of the king’s mortal army fled in terror, so that Mayadenawa became desperate; one night, he crept into Indra’s camp and created a pool of poisoned water there. Indra’s army awoke, drank of it, and became dreadfully sick. So Indra created the Tirtha Empul, a spring of purifying water that washed away all sickness and evil, and He was then able to rally his forces to defeat the evil king. The beautiful temple and spring that remain in Tampaksiring have great importance to Balinese Hindus, and the slaying of Mahadenawa is still celebrated as Galungan Day each year. You may see a video of the site here.
There are a few other places where Indra has walked – or still does; these are all in India and are as follows:
Himachal Pradesh: There is a Śiva temple in Kullu Valley, where the God is worshipped as Bijli Mahadeva. The temple is so named because of its propensity to lightning-strike; the temple’s legend is that lightning shatters the liṅgaṃ every few years, and the priest must paste it back together with ghee. If, like me, you believe Śiva and Indra are two sides of the same coin, then this lightning-temple on a hilltop is a very special place. If you’d like to see it, here is a lovely write-up of a visit to this temple, along with some gorgeous pictures.
Maharashtra: There is a hill here called Indragiri; a fortress upon it bears the same name or else is called Indrai. I have read that there are decayed images of Indra and Rudra within these caves.
Tamil Nadu: The temple of Suchindram (whose name indicates a place where Indra was purified) in Azhagappapuram town is reputed to be the destination where Indra practiced austerities after His affair with Ahalyā. It is said that Indra Himself performs the midnight pūjā of the deities within the temple, that the priest leaves all implements ready for His worship each evening, and that priests who serve there take an oath to reveal nothing that they might accidentally see.
There is also Thiruvannamalai or Annamalai Hill – better known as Arunachala, a site sacred to Śiva – which may once have been a site of Indra’s worship; there is a legend that a devotee who fasts there for forty days will have darśana of Indra. And Indra is still honoured there, for the mountain is surrounded by shrines devoted to the eight directional guardians (Aṣṭa-Dikpāla), with a liṅgaṃ installed at each; Indra’s may be found in the East.
History is recorded in nomenclature, and any place with a suggestive name – Indragiri (of which there is another in Karnataka), Amaravati, or Mahendraparvata, for example – could have been connected to Indra at some time in the past. Sanctified also are the places where Indra has appeared on Earth, for He is a God with many stories of manifesting to humans, walking amongst them, teaching or even tricking them. The folk of Tenganan village in Bali believe themselves directly descended from Indra, and He taught them their characteristic double-ikat weaving technique Himself. In Lampang, Thailand, a white rooster statue is displayed in the town because of a story that Indra turned Himself into a white rooster once, to ensure that people would rise early in the mornings. Finally, Suchindram is just one place associated with Indra’s penance – another being the temple of Indreśvara in Panauti, Nepal – and a devotee who tried to walk to every site where Indra purified Himself after the Ahalyā affair could travel for a lifetime to reach them all.
My own UPG tells me that the forested, lightning- and rain-prone areas of India, like Jharkhand, are special to Indra. I also see Him in the rivers Sarayu and Narmada, and there is small confirmation of both ideas. Bhāgavata Purāṇa (6.9.1-19) relates that Indra defeated the demon Śambara on the banks of the Narmada River; David Frawley suggests that the Vedic land once ended at the Narmada – marking it as a boundary – and that the river also led to the main trade route by sea from east India. (UPG associates Indra very much with the Sea.) And another page from the author’s Gods, Sages, and Kings suggests, “It appears that the Sindhu, Sarayu, and Rasa are compared here to the rivers of Heaven, the atmosphere, and the Earth….The Sarayu is the river that holds the rains, as the rains come from the heavenly waters (Purisha).” Those associations with the mid-air and the rains would indeed make the Sarayu Indra’s.
For those – including me – who live far from these places and can’t immediately travel to visit them, we might also consider geographically suitable areas for Indra’s worship. Any locale previously struck by lightning would seem an excellent (if potentially risky) choice. Indra, as intermediary between earth and sky, rules over the high grounds of mountains and hills, and as Lord of freedom could also be worshipped in places that heighten awareness of space, like clearings within woodlands. I associate Him, as Protector and Lord of Battle, with border-places and contested lands. And moving water brings to mind the Lord of the freed Waters – particularly waterfalls, with rainbows appearing in the mist around them. Not all such regions can be reached by all people, or are even appropriate for active worship, but such thoughts can inspire the devotee with simpler ideas; for example, an open, sheltered rooftop or a daily shower could be interpreted as “height” and “running water,” respectively.
Finally, as a quick reminder, the Indra darśana page on this site lists several temples in India where Indra’s image is installed and worshipped. He is not the main focus of devotion in these places, but any place that He is remembered and honoured becomes sacred therefore.
(1) To give one example: there’s a place mentioned in Ṛgveda (X.35.2) called Sharyanavat, where Indra is invited to take Soma. The commentator Sāyaṇa glossed this to mean a lake in the region of Kurukshetra; Frawley suggests that it may be Manasarovar Lake. But it’s also possible that it is a mountain, part of the Himalayas, and this is my own belief. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for anyone to truly confirm the identity of “Sharyanavat.”
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