Gokarna town is the seat of highly sacred Mahabaleshwar Temple whose presiding deity is the Atmalinga of Lord Shiva. The region of Gokarna is located in western ghats, between a cow ear-shaped confluence of the Rivers of Gangavali and Agnashini (Go - cow; Karna - ear). The sacredness of the Gokarna Temple is considered on par with the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. Hence, Gokarna is also known as Dakshina Kasi (Southern Kasi) and as the Bhookailasa.
The region of Gokarna and its religious importance is mentioned in several Puranas like the Bhagavata Purana, Sthala Purana, Guru Charitra and the Skanda Purana. The legends related to the region and the existence of the Temples has been mentioned in the epic Ramayana.
The main Atmalinga is enshrined in a square shaped Saligrama Peetha with a small hole on the top. One can view the top of the Linga from the hole. A carved image of Lord Shiva is kept near the Linga. The image represents Lord Shiva in a standing position and is believed to be 1500 years old.
Open Atma Linga Darshan
The actual Athmalinga can be seen in whole only once in 40 years during the Ashtabandana Kumbhabhishekam. During that time Atma Linga will be taken out from Saligram and shown to the people. Next Open Atma Linga Darshan will happen around the year 2020.
Legend / Sthala Purana
Ravana went to Mount Kailash and performed severe penance to impress Lord Shiva. Eventually, Lord Shiva granted him a wish. Ravana asked for the Atma Linga from Lord Shiva as well as a wife as beautiful as Goddess Parvati. Lord Shiva then took out the Atma Linga from his heart and offered it to Ravana but placed a condition that the Linga should not be kept down until he reaches his destination. If the Linga is kept down, the Linga will become affixed and nothing can separate it. He also asked Goddess Parvati to accompany Ravana as he considered no one more beautiful than the Goddess herself. Ravana agreed and started proceeding southwards towards his kingdom. All the other Lords were disturbed by the occurrence as they were sure that Ravana will misuse the Atma Linga to create havoc in the world.
Lord Vishnu interrupted Ravana's journey after disguising himself as an old Brahmin. He enquired about the beautiful woman accompanying Ravana. When Ravana started boasting about how he received the Goddess as a boon from Lord Shiva, the Brahmin created an illusion in which the Goddess turned into an old and frail lady. Humiliated, Ravana left the Goddess and proceeded with the Atma Linga.
Narada approached Lord Ganesha to request help for interrupting Ravana's journey. Lord Ganesha was aware of Ravana's daily rituals especially about the evening bath Ravana would take. With the help of Lord Vishnu, who blotted out the Sun to give an appearance of dusk, Lord Ganesha turned himself into a small boy. Ravana wanted to take a bath but could not put down the idol. Lord Ganesha disguised as a boy passed him. Ravana called him and passed on the idol to him giving instructions that the idol must not be placed on the ground. The boy placed the idol on the ground before Ravana returned from his bath. Lord Vishnu unblocked the sun and it was daylight again. The place where Lord Ganesha placed the idol is known as Gokarna.
Ravana became furious and tried to uproot the Linga but he could not accomplish it. He threw the case covering the Linga which fell to a place called Sajjeshwara. The lid of the case which held the Linga fell in a place called Gunavanthe and the string covering the Linga fell at Dhareshwara. The cloth covering the Linga fell in Murudeshwar.
When Lord Shiva learned of this, he visited these five places and worshiped the Lingas there. He declared that these places will be known as the Pancha Kshetras and anyone who worships here will be free from all their sins.
Other Important temples
There are around 86 temples present in Gokarna. The important shrines among them listed below.
The Maha Ganapati Temple
Sri Maha Ganapati temple is located just a few metres away from the Mahabaleshvara Temple. devotees generally visit this temple first before proceeding to the Mahabaleshvara Temple.
The Bhadrakali Temple
Sri Bhadrakali temple is a popular place of worship that is located at a distance of 1 kilometer from Mahabaleshvara Temple. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Uma, the wife of Lord Shiva and the protector of Gokarna.
The Tamra Gauri Temple
Sri Tamra Gauri temple is one of the must visit temples in Gokarna. Situated to the north of the Mahabaleshwara Temple, the Tamra Gauri Temple is dedicated to Goddess Parvathi. Devotees flock to this temple as it is believed that the reigning deity of the temple fulfils wishes of marriage, health and long life.
The Venkatramana temple
Sri Venkata Ramana temple is located at the eastern end of Gokarna. The temple is dedicated to Lord Venkatarama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Koti Teertha, is a sacred temple tank is situated at a distance of just 100 m from the Venkatramana temple.