The only temple to the Kurma Avataar of Vishnu, is in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh.
It was known as kurma kshetra or kurma sthana which means, the place of the kurma, the tortise. It is also called kurmaachala. (The mountain (unmoving place) of the kurma).
Star (nakshatra) tortoises have been conserved and cared for at this place over the years.
- Nilssonia gangetica (Cuvier, 1825) (Plate 8.1 G and H). This species is found in most of the rivers and reservoirs in Orissa, specifically in the Mahanadi, Ramiala, Tel, Brahmani, Baitarani, Budhabalanga, Devi, Chitrotpala rivers; Chilka lake, Hirakud, Indravati and Balimela reservoirs. Nesting takes place during winter and hatchlings were seen during monsoon period. This species nests in the sandy bank and also in sandy loam soils near ponds and other water-bodies. A clutch of 30-85 round eggs are laid by digging a deep pit. This species is worshiped in many of the temple ponds in Orissa.
- Nilssonia hurum (Gray, 1831) (Plate 8.1 I and 8.2 A): This species is found in Mahanadi river, specifically at Satkosia gorge, Kantilo and Naraj area having deep water and also reported from Nemala area of Chitrotpala river and up streams of Brahmani, Baitarani and Dhamra rivers near Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary. The juveniles of the species are worshiped due to the prominent eye-spots resembling the eyes of Lord Jagannath.
- Community conservation efforts : Many of the large fresh water turtle species are protected by the cultural and religious systems of the local community belief. Nilssonia gangetica is protected by the local community in Champeswar Temple near Baramba and in Maneswar temple of Sambalpur (Surakshya se Samrakshyan, Vasundhara, 2007). In Parelakhemundi many temples also serve as rescue centres for species like Geochelone elegans (E). When people find turtles in their agricultural fields during forest fires, they bring them to the temples and later release them into the wild after a few months. In some of the areas along the Mahanadi river and its distributaries from the stretch from Gania to Paradeep, where there were reports of rampant poaching and trade, the local communities are now protecting the turtles after the initiative taken by the Wildlife Society of Orissa, a non Government Organization based at Cuttack.
Siva? Vishnu? or Kurma?
Some people are of the opinion that Srikurmam was originally a Siva Kshetra since the “tail” of Sri Kurma is a saligrama presented by Adi Sankaracharya, without which what you have are swayambhu Siva Lingas. They also cite some carvings on the prAkAras (surrounding structures) as proof of this idea – they say these are edited from siva to vaishnava images. prAkAras are always later additions to any divya kshetra and we need not give too much importance to that idea.
To my eyes the deity looked far more like a large turtle shell than like a traditional sivalingam, but that could be the view of one person.
If we look to tradition, we see that turtle worship is strong in orissa and that turtles are often identified with jagan-nAth – the lord of the moving world – ie, Krishna/Vishnu in those parts.
My reason says that this place was always a Kurma Sthana or place of tortoise conservation and worship.
The Sons of Rama, Sri Kurmam Temple and Kurmi caste :
Temple tradition records the visit of the sons of Rama, Lava and Kusa, to this kurma kshetra. We also know from the Uttarakanda of the Valmiki Ramayana that Kusa ruled in Dakshina Kosala, where Chhattisgarh is today. SriKurmam is quite close to south chhattisgarh. Kurmi Jati of Chhattisgarh traditionally hold that they are direct descendants of Lord Rama. Among Kurmi jathi are several more kulas or clans. (It is presently considered an agricultural caste, but is held by the kurmis to have been originally a kshatriya caste).
Tradition says that Kusa and Lava offered worship at the Kurma Kshetra. And there is one theory that Kurmis worship Kurma and that the kas’yapa gotra in that context refers to kacchap or tortoise. Kasyapa Prajapati was of the south east coast near Ahobilam, and one of the meanings of kas’yapa is tortoise (also fish and deer)! (At present kurmis may hold other religious beliefs!)
Use the following map to see the distances between Puri, Srikurmam, Simhachalam and Antarvedi.
Ramanujacharya, Puri and Sri Kurmam :
It is well known, that it is Ramanujacharya, who brought fresh life into many punyakshetras, with his research, meditation, tireless efforts and support from kings.
Sri Kurmam too has a connection with him. You can read the legend here : http://vaadinen.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/puri-jagannath-and-sri-ramanujacharya/
Though the king of Puri, ‘Ananta Varman Choda Ganga Deva’ (Chodaganga), was greatly impressed by Ramanujacharya, the priests of the Jagannatha temple wanted to retain their own traditions. And he established a mutt outside the temple.
At Srikurmam, “He could sense that he was in a divine sthala, and noticed that he was near a temple tank. He explored the temple to find out that the inner sanctum housed a black stone which seemed to be Linga…The deity at the sanctum sanctorum was a swayambhu – or naturally occurring stone. It has a distinct shape, of the fossilised structure of a turtle. The lord appeared in the Acharya’s dreams to inform him that the deity was none other than the manifestation of the Kurma avatara of the lord. Sri Ramanujar also discussed it with the locals and was surprised to note that many of them already considered the stone as Sri Kurma, based on ancient stories. Even from a geological perspective, the temple is not too far from the sea, which supports the fossilised structure of a turtle theory. Interestingly there is also another stone – apparently a Sudarshana-saligrama which had been placed earlier by Adi Sankara’s disciples at the tail end of the turtle-structure.” (Source)
Final Ideas :
Srikurmam, was originally a kurma kshetram where people have cared for and worshiped tortoises as has been the tradition in many places in Orissa. Tortoises have long been considered auspicious and an emanation of Vishnu and continue to be thought so. Even in other ancient cultures, tortoises have held a special place of sacredness and worship. An idealized turtle divides the celestial equator into 6 equal areas (60 degrees), Varahamihira and others have referred to this cosmic turtle in this astronomical sense.
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