It’s not unusual to find a holy site in an Indian river. You may have heard of The Ganges, for instance, which is sacred to Hindus and is a site of frequent pilgrimage. Some waterways are less obvious in their importance, however. For hundreds of years, the River Shalmala was hiding a stunning secret. But after a long drought, what was once trapped below the current emerged in all its glory.
So, just where is the River Shamala? Well, it flows through the state of Karnataka, which is in the south of India. The place is known as Sahasralinga – meaning “thousand Shiva lingas” in Sanskrit – because the artifact on the river bed is supposed to be sacred to the God Shiva. Experts think it has been sat under the water’s surface since the late 1600s or maybe the early 1700s, but it could not be seen until the hot weather caused the river level to drop.
Shiva, you see, is one of the most important gods in Hinduism, and shrines in his honor can be found all across India. As for the relic in the river, however, it is simply remarkable in its scale. And it sheds light on the humans who lived there hundreds of years ago and the importance that they placed on a god that is still worshipped today.
Of course, Hinduism isn’t the only religion that is practiced in India. That’s right: it’s also the birthplace of Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism – and it is home to significant populations of Muslims and Christians, too. As we’ll find out, the interplay between these religions is a major part of how India became what it is today.
India’s first great civilization was built in the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan – but we know little about this society. This means that as well as not understanding its language and culture, we don’t have much knowledge on its religion, either. Therefore, we can’t be sure if the practices of these people went on to influence the development of Hinduism. There do appear to be similarities, though.
It is generally thought, then, that Hinduism is the oldest and most popular religion in India, with about 80 percent of the modern population identifying as Hindus. Yes, the Indus Valley period was followed by the Vedic Period that began around 1500 B.C. and continued until 500 B.C. And archaeological evidence from the time suggests that the people spoke Sanskrit and practiced various forms of sacrifice.
What’s more, sacrifice in this context doesn’t just mean that ancient Indians were killing animals and offering them to the gods. Practitioners, you see, would also use products like butter and milk as part of a sacrificial meal. These would then be placed on a fire and, in turn, shared with the gods.
Interestingly, there’s no one person whom you can call the founder of Hinduism and no single book that sets out its fundamental principles. The religion is a collection of philosophies and traditions that have developed over thousands of years, with many different branches and sects coming under its banner. For instance, even the term “Hindu” was given by outsiders, rather than being a moniker created by Hindus themselves.
Common concepts in Hinduism include karma, samsara, moksha and dharma. Karma is a kind of cosmic cause and effect, while samsara is a belief that a person’s soul (atman) is reincarnated into a new body when they die. The soul eventually aims to reach moksha, which is effectively a state of salvation. And dharma is the moral code that governs Hindu life.
Most Hindus view Brahma as their main god, but they also believe that he is surrounded by lesser gods and goddesses. Brahma is the creator of the universe while Vishnu is its preserver. In some forms of Hinduism, though, they are considered part of a trinity with Shiva, who is the god of both destruction and rebirth. And as you may expect, different gods have varying forms of worship.
As well as the trinity, gods with popular sects include Krishna, the god of love and compassion, and Devi, the goddess in charge of preserving dharma. Traditionally, Hindus are also divided socially into a caste system based on both dharma and karma. But this is no longer as strict as it was many years ago.
The different castes are given different prominence, with the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the Brahmin caste being the most highly regarded. Then, they are followed by Kshatriyas, who protect and serve society. After that comes the skilled workers who are known as Vaisyas. Shudras, on the other hand, are unskilled workers, while Dalits are at the lowest level because they are outside of the caste system.
While some Vedic sacrifices still form part of modern Hindu rituals, the years after this period also saw a rise in the amount of devotional worship happening in temples. Sanskrit epics such as the Mahabharata, which includes the Bhagavad Gita, and Ramayana were composed between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 – and they tell some of the most important stories in Hinduism.
Other texts composed in this time period include the Dharma Sutras and Shastras. These are what helped to establish the concept of dharma, you see. This is a central tenet of Hinduism, and it comes in three aspects: law, duty and truth. Dharma can be found in the Veda in the form of revelation, tradition and good custom.
Hinduism, it seems, continued to spread from A.D. 320 onwards, as this is when the Gupta Empire started to grow in power. Worship began to divide into several sects that focused on different gods. Vaishnavism was the following of Vishnu, Shaktism honored Devi and Shaivism concentrated on Shiva. And the little kingdoms that emerged when the empire later collapsed were also divided among multiple gods.
Then, great temples were built to honor specific gods, and these went on to become seats of political power. And gurus and poet-saints began to develop religious philosophies in their own languages rather than just in Sanskrit. They also challenged the ideas of newer but growing religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.
But it wasn’t until the eighth century that Islam first traveled to India, and thanks to the founding of the Turkish Sultanate, the religion’s political power was firmly established by 1200. So, as Hinduism continued to develop in the south of the country, Muslim armies were conquering territory in the north. In 1526, then, the Mughal Empire ruled a significant area of land.
The Mughals were Muslims, and to begin with, they allowed Hindus to practice their religion freely. Unfortunately, Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was less tolerant and had many Hindu temples destroyed during his rule. But that’s not all. In 1757 the British Empire defeated the Mughals and, in turn, established Western dominance on the subcontinent.
Christian missionaries followed the British as attempts were made to westernize Indian religion and culture. Naturally, this led to new Hindu philosophers trying to challenge the British ideas. Indian nationalists and independence campaigners such as Gandhi would adopt these beliefs, too.
Gandhi, you see, was a firm believer in non-violence, and he based his teachings on the Hindu faith. What’s more, he dreamed that an independent India would be a united India. But rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims instead led to the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state in 1947.
Partition was a violent and bloody business that helped exacerbate the tensions that it was supposed to solve. Indian and Hindu nationalists continued to target non-Hindus living in India, whilst other religions also tried to convert Hindus to their faiths – sometimes violently, too. And given this complex and rich history, it’s no surprise that religion is still a defining feature of Indian life today.
Yes, thanks to the many Indians who have immigrated to Europe and North America, Hinduism has now spread around the world. And this means that the religion has continued to grow and change, too. Westerners have come to borrow aspects of Indian spirituality such as yoga, for instance.
Pilgrimage is a particularly important part of the Hindu religion, and there are several sacred sites in India. One of these, for instance, is where the River Shamala runs through the town of Sirsi. There, you see, the rock of the riverbed is carved with more than 1,000 incredible artifacts. These are called lingas, and they are holy symbols that are dedicated to Shiva.
The lingas are all different sizes, and a combination of time and flowing water has worn many of them down. Unfortunately, this means that not all of the carvings are crystal clear. Shiva can be seen, however, as can the white bull known as Nandi. In the legend, Nandi is considered to be Shiva’s main attendant and provides him with a vehicle to ride.
But before we find out more about these mesmerizing relics, it’s important to learn about the extent of Shiva’s significance in the Hindu religion. The name Shiva – sometimes Śiwa or Śiva – comes from Sanskrit and means “Auspicious One.” He has many meaningful epithets and nicknames, you see. Others include “Great Lord,” “Great God,” “Benign” and “Beneficent” – to name a few. He’s one of the most prominent gods in Hinduism, and the Shaivite sect worships him as the supreme god.
Just as Shiva has many names, he is also visually represented in a variety of ways, too. Indeed, he can be portrayed as a beggar, a holy man, a father, the cosmic dancer or as an androgynous body in which he is combined with his consort. His sons are Skanda, who has six heads, and Ganesha, the god with an elephant’s head.
Shiva may have one, human-like head, but he still has a very distinctive look. His body is smeared white with ashes from cremated bodies, while his neck is blue where it once contained poison. In his matted hair you can see a crescent moon and the Ganges. In the legend, the god was said to have used his hair to carry the river from the sky to the land, you see.
Shiva’s third eye can look both inwards to provide insight or outwards to cause destruction. Many aspects of Shiva show him embodying opposites, too, whether as the master of both medicine and poison or as a master of fertility who is also an ascetic denying himself physical pleasures. This, it seems, is all part of his role as both destroyer and creator.
If you’ve seen illustrations of Shiva, you may have also noticed that sometimes he has two hands, and other times, he has four. Either way, they are used to carry important objects, including a small drum, a trident, a deerskin and a club topped with a skull. That skull is what earned Shiva the nickname “Skull-bearer,” and he carries it in honor of the time he decapitated one of Brahma’s heads.
Elsewhere, Shiva’s affinity with medicine and poison comes from his association with snakes. He wears a serpent necklace as well as a garland of skulls, you see. This image seems to resonate with another of his nicknames, which is the slaughterer of souls. And given that cows are sacred in Hinduism, it’s unsurprising that Shiva is a herdsman known as the “Lord of Cattle” and that his main consort is a bull named Nandi.
As for Nandi, he is a gatekeeper as well as a vehicle, and as such his statue or image appears in many Shaivite temples. He is often depicted as a great white bull but also has a human form not unlike Shiva’s. He has three eyes, too, and his matted hair contains the moon. One of his hands contains a battle axe, and another contains an antelope. But he also has two more arms that are frequently held together in worship.
Sometimes Nandi also carries a golden staff to show his role as Shiva’s chief attendant. And it is Nandi who plays the music when Shiva performs the cosmic dance of creation. Interestingly, though, Nandi also has an independent role as guardian of four-footed animals. What’s more, he is also said to have killed an elephant demon so that its head could be given to Shiva’s son Ganesha.
One holy text called the Saura Purana describes Nandi as “adorned with all ornaments, glowing like a thousand suns, holding a trident in his hand, three-eyed, adorned with a sliver of the moon, a thunderbolt in his hand, four-armed, like a second Sankara [Shiva].” And in Shiva’s temples, he sits at the entrance so that he can look in and see the sacred lingas.
Lingam or linga is Sanskrit for “distinguishing symbol,” and in Hinduism they are pictures that represent Shiva and his creative power. Many private and Shaivite shrines have their own lingas at their center, where they are often surrounded by sacred images. The oldest known Shiva linga comes from as early as the third century B.C.
A linga comes in a smooth, cylindrical shape that is considered to represent masculinity. When placed in a feminine yoni, which is a disk dedicated to the goddess Shakti, it represents the unity between a male and a female. Cylinders similar to lingas have even been found in ancient cities of the Indus Valley, although they probably had nothing to do with Shiva.
Lingas in southern India often show Shiva emerging from flames in reference to a popular story where the god proved he was superior to Brahma and Vishnu. In the tale, the two gods were arguing over who was more important when Shiva appeared. He turned himself into a pillar of fire, and even when Brahma flew up as an eagle, or Vishnu turned into a boar to dig into the ground, they could not find the top or bottom of the flames.
When pilgrims visit these symbols, water, milk, grass, flowers, fruit, leaves and rice are all considered suitable offerings. But the most important lingas out there are those that are believed to have formed naturally at the beginning of time. Across India, then, there are roughly 70 places where rocks on the ground or in caves take the form of lingas and are venerated as such.
And as for Sahasralinga, pilgrims visit on Maha Shivaratri, which is a feast day that is dedicated to Shiva. It marks the time of the flaming linga and is celebrated with fasting during the day and prayer during the night. Worshippers of Shiva hope that honoring the god in this way will bring them good fortune.
What’s more, historians believe the lingas at Sahasralinga were carved during the reign of Sadashiva Raya, who ruled the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India between 1678 and 1718. He was known as the King of Sirsi, and according to one legend, he hoped that the carvings would help him produce an heir who could one day reign over his kingdom.
But India, it seems, is not the only place where Shiva lingas can be found. That’s right: a man called Jean Boulbet discovered some in Siem Reap in Cambodia in 1969, but a bloody civil war made it too dangerous to explore the site for another 20 years. And despite its remote location, the area is a popular tourist spot today.
This isn’t the only time when dry and hot weather has helped to uncover an incredible section of history, however. In the summer of 2018, for instance, Ireland experienced a heatwave that led archaeologists to make a rather spectacular discovery about the country’s past.
During the summer of 2018, Ireland was subjected to unusually severe weather. While the island typically experiences moderate temperatures and lots of rain, this particular season actually brought about drought. But although the heat and lack of precipitation may have caused worry among the country’s farmers, they provided just the right conditions for historians to discover something special.
On July 10 of that year, Anthony Murphy and Ken Williams sent their drones hovering over Brú na Bóinne in the country’s east. This area is home to some spectacular ancient monuments – arguably the most famous of which is Newgrange. And owing to the Brú na Bóinne region’s historical significance, UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status in 1993.
Today, evidence of Brú na Bóinne’s past can be seen in the remains of tombs, stoneworks and henges. A henge is a sort of ancient modification to the land that consists of a circular bank and a trench. And such ditches were actually dug out within the earth berm – suggesting, then, that they weren’t created for protective purposes.
Yet while people are thought to have inhabited Brú na Bóinne for 6,000 years or so – perhaps even longer – the structures seen in the area today are thought to have been erected around 1,000 years after humans first settled there. This would mean that the remains’ origins date back to the Neolithic era of Irish history.
The Neolithic era is best characterized as the concluding stages of the Stone Age. In Ireland, then, this period is said to have lasted from 4,000 B.C. up until around 2,500 B.C. And it’s thought that farming practices first started to develop on the island during this time.
Furthermore, some of the Neolithic constructions found in Brú na Bóinne date to as far back as the 35th century B.C. – making them older than even the pyramids of ancient Egypt. And just as with the pyramids, these Irish monuments suggest that the people who built them had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics.
The clearest indication of this ability is perhaps seen at the Newgrange monument. Newgrange is an elaborate tomb comprised of a broadly circular structure that encloses approximately an acre of land. There, a central alley lined with stone leads into a series of underground rooms.
And during the annual winter solstice, beams of sunlight travel through a passage in Newgrange to light up its interior. Nowadays, this event occurs some four minutes after the sun appears over the horizon; experts have calculated, however, that when the monument had been first built, the chamber would have been illuminated precisely at sunrise.
This in turn indicates that the people who designed Newgrange had quite astute understandings of both astronomy and math. It seems, too, that some individuals chose to demonstrate their artistic talents at the site, as Newgrange is also home to a variety of stone carvings that have been shaped in a number of different patterns.
But Newgrange certainly isn’t the only attraction to be found at Brú na Bóinne. You see, the area also plays home to the Neolithic monuments known as Dowth and Knowth. Like Newgrange, these two sites were both seemingly designed with sophisticated astronomical factors in mind, and the pair are also known today for their works of art.
In fact, the Brú na Bóinne region as a whole is said to possess one of the most extensive collections of Western European prehistoric stone art. And this shouldn’t be surprising given that there are around 90 other monuments in the area besides Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth.
Thanks to the ample evidence of its rich history, then, Brú na Bóinne has been a focus of contemporary archaeological works since 1960. In that year, a tomb within an area known as Townleyhall was first scrutinized. And although the monument turned out to be a relatively modest construction, it nonetheless seemingly sparked a great deal more archaeological interest in the region.
Indeed, over the subsequent decades, a series of additional archaeological probes have been undertaken throughout Brú na Bóinne. Numerous discoveries have been recorded in the process, too, with historians subsequently attempting to make sense of them all. And in more recent times, the works have been extended to even the edges of the area.
Yet although Brú na Bóinne has already told us a little about life in Neolithic Ireland, there are nonetheless still aspects of the period that remain obscure – meaning further study is necessary. And any new discoveries in the region may just help in this regard.
Journalist Anthony Murphy has certainly proven keen to investigate Brú na Bóinne. In fact, such is his passion for the region’s history that he frequently sends a drone up into the skies there – hoping, perhaps, to observe something new that may yet reveal more of the past.
And during July 2018, Murphy felt particularly compelled to investigate the lands of Brú na Bóinne. At the time, Ireland and the neighboring British mainland were experiencing unusually high temperatures and low rainfall. Plant growth was thus suffering under these harsh conditions, although there was at least one consequent benefit.
You see, hot and dry weather is actually extremely conducive to allowing so-called crop marks to stand out. Visible from above, crop marks are lines or patterns in the ground that indicate a construction has been buried beneath. As archaeologist Louise Barker explained to Wired magazine in 2018, “It’s like a painting that comes out into the fieldscapes.”
Certain prehistoric constructions – such as henges – would have been defined by man-made channels dug into the ground. And while these ditches would have been plugged up as the centuries passed, some of them may still retain extra nutrients and moisture upon which plant life depends.
And in extremely hot and arid conditions, plants will take their necessary nutrients from deeper underground than usual – meaning those that are positioned above nutrient-rich trenches will grow better than those that are not. Yes, while some flora will stay healthier and verdant, other examples will wilt and wither.
Furthermore, it appears that this is exactly what came to pass in the U.K. during the summer of 2018. In an area called Langstone in southern Wales, you see, an ancient farm was revealed by crop marks in the ground. And though it wasn’t initially clear when the farm had been in operation, the find was nonetheless significant.
Certainly, archaeologist Louise Barker seemed to be thrilled by the discovery. “We’re seeing new things with all of these crop marks,” she told Wired in the wake of the find. “We probably haven’t seen anything like this since the 1970s – the last time there was a really, really dry summer like this.”
When Anthony Murphy caught wind of new archaeological finds in Britain, then, he reasoned that the heatwave engulfing Ireland may reveal interesting etchings in the ground, too. So, over the course of a couple of days, he sent his drone over Brú na Bóinne.
“I was flying my drone over the Boyne Valley, as I do on regular occasions,” Murphy later wrote on his website Mythical Ireland. “I had it in the back of my mind that some previously unrecorded archaeological sites had been revealed due to the drought conditions in Britain – but I hadn’t the faintest expectation that I would find anything new.”
So, on July 9, 2018, Murphy sent his drone up to the sky in order to survey the ground below. By the end of this relatively short flight, however, he wouldn’t have much to show for his efforts beyond a small number of photographs. Indeed, on this occasion, his aerial survey had discovered little of particular interest.
Yet Murphy’s instincts told him that he needed to try again. “Something was nagging at me [the day after the first attempt],” he wrote on his website. “My own thoughts were niggling at me. ‘I will have to go out and fly again tonight,’ I said to myself. Gut feelings and all that. I knew it was important.”
On July 10, then, Murphy prepared to send his drone skyward once again. But just before he could actually do so, his friend Ken Williams suddenly showed up. Williams had actually been photographing Newgrange using his own drone, and the two men ultimately decided to work together.
Murphy was first to send up his drone, with Williams following suit shortly after. And the two machines were both fixed above a location with a series of intriguing features – although nothing earth-shattering. After some time, though, the power in Murphy’s drone began to fade, and so he landed it to swap batteries.
Then, with the drone ready to go once again, Murphy decided to send it towards a different area. And as he directed his airborne device in this particular direction, he noticed something strange. Beneath his drone, there appeared to be a circle etched into the ground.
Intrigued, Murphy lowered the altitude of his machine in order to get a better view of what lay below. And as a result, a series of other circles aside from the one he had initially sighted came into focus. This time, it transpired that Murphy’s drone had caught sight of something truly significant.
Murphy subsequently alerted Williams to his find, leading his companion to send over his own drone to the area. Careful not to crash their devices into each other, the two men set their drones to hover above the site, where they spent up to 15 minutes snapping photographs. And soon the pair were noting some additional features that they hadn’t previously spotted.
“Immediately to the west of the new henge was what appeared to be another large enclosure, and in the far northeast of the field [there were] some more circles,” Murphy later recalled on his website. “And close to the lake and trees – just to the north of them – [there was] a mottled landscape of dark and bright features.”
All in all, the two men were aware that they had managed to capture images of something significant. As a result, then, the pair both grounded their drones and subsequently sent out the photos of the markings to the archaeological community. And in turn, these people appeared to be just as enthusiastic about the discovery as Murphy and Williams were themselves.
In fact, Steve Davis, an archaeologist from University College Dublin, has implied that the find is potentially momentous. “This is internationally significant, and we now need to figure out what it means,” he told the BBC in 2018. “It has some characteristics that we’ve never seen before – for example, the very odd double-ditch sections that make up its circumference.”
“It’s one of a series of large monuments near Newgrange,” Davis continued. “We don’t know what the henges are for, but it’s thought [that] they were meeting places. The confusing thing is why there are so many [henges] in one area. Nowhere else in the world has so many in one spot.”
And fellow archaeologist Dr. Geraldine Stout gave her own opinion on the matter to the Irish Independent in 2018. She told the newspaper, “I think there was a whole series of facilities built for the pilgrims coming to Newgrange in prehistory. Generally, we believe these henge monuments were built up to 500 years after the main use of Newgrange.”
Meanwhile, according to World Heritage Ireland, the warm conditions of summer 2018 brought about further discoveries. It seems, for instance, that the crop marks noted by Murphy and Williams were not the only ones to be recorded. During that period, you see, Ireland’s National Monuments Service decided to conduct a survey of its own from above Brú na Bóinne.
What’s more, the pictures taken as part of this National Monuments Service search revealed features that had formerly been missed, while some added details were also acquired relating to established sites across Brú na Bóinne. Perhaps, then, the otherwise severe Irish climate conditions of 2018 were something of an archaeological blessing.
At the very least, the plethora of visual data gathered during the prolonged dry spell seems set to keep the experts at the National Monuments Service busy with analysis for years to come. Already, the new aerial images of Brú na Bóinne have proved essential in both identifying new features in the area and gleaning fresh insights. And while there is naturally still some mystery about the region and its history, things may now prove a little clearer.
The sheer significance of Murphy’s discovery has not been lost on him, either. “In all honesty, it’s going to take some time to process this,” he wrote on his website. “Archaeologists are calling it a once-in-a-lifetime find.”
Murphy added, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be involved in a revelation of this magnitude in the Boyne Valley – right there in the UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been under so much scrutiny from archaeologists for decades. Never in a million years would I have even thought it possible.”