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Shiva Temple Complex in Petra


The Khasneh or Treasury

While the architectural grandeur of Petra continues to captivate us, the mysterious religious beliefs of the Nabataeans have puzzled historians. Within the temple of Al Deir, the largest and most imposing rock-cut temple in Petra, is present an unworked, black, block of stone, like an obelisk, representing the most important deity of the Nabataeans – Dushara. The term Dushara means ‘Lord of the Shara’, which refers to the Shara mountains to the north of Petra. The symbolic animal of Dushara was a bull. All over Petra, Dushara was represented symbolically by stone blocks. At the entrance of Petra there are three massive standing blocks of stone, known as Djin blocks, which were sacred to the inhabitants. There are nearly 40 such Djin blocks present throughout Petra. In addition, at religious sites throughout the city, the Nabataeans carved a standing stone block called a baetyl, literally meaning ‘house of god’. A baetyl physically marked a deity’s presence. It could be a square or rounded like a dome. Some baetyls’ were depicted with a lunar crescent on the top. The Nabataeans also appear to be snake worshippers. One of the most prominent structures in Petra is the snake monument, which shows a gigantic coiled-up snake on a block of stone.


A dome-shaped baetyl


A baetyl with a lunar crescent on top


Snake monument at Petra

This unusual array of symbolic elements associated with the chief god of the Nabataeans, Dushara, may have confounded historians, but to anyone familiar with the symbolism of the Vedic deity Shiva, the similarities between Dushara and Shiva will be palpable. Shiva is still worshipped all over India in the form of a black block of stone known as a Shiva Linga. A Shiva Linga, which is essentially a ‘mark’ or ‘symbol’ of Shiva, sometimes appears as an unworked block of stone, much like the idol of Dushara in the temple of Al Deir; but typically it is represented by a smooth, rounded stone which resembles some of the rounded ,dome-shaped, baetyls that we find in Petra. Shiva is also associated with the mountains; his residence is supposed to be in the Kailash Mountain in the Himalayas, to the north of India, where he spends most of his time engaged in rigorous asceticism. His symbolic animal is a bull, named Nandi, which is commonly depicted kneeling in front of the Shiva Linga. Pictorial depictions of Shiva always show a crescent-shaped moon in his matted locks, much like the lunar crescent that appears on top of certain baetyls in Petra; and on top of the Shiva Linga is present a coiled-up serpent, bearing a strong resemblance to the serpent monument of Petra. It is evident that Shiva and Dushara are symbolically identical, leaving little scope for doubt that Dushara must indeed be a representation of the Vedic deity Shiva.


Black stone Shiva Linga in the coils of a seven hooded serpent. Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh, India, 16th century.


The 123 feet high statue of Shiva in Bhatkal, India, with snakes coiled around his neck and the crescent shaped Moon on his matted locks. At the foot of the statue is Shiva’s vahana (carrier), Nandi the bull.

The similarities, however, do not end here. The consort of Dushara was known to the Nabataeans as Al-Uzza or Al-lat. She was a goddess of power and a goddess of the people, and was symbolized by a lion. Lions are present at many sites in Petra. At the Lion Triclinium in Petra there are two massive lions protecting the doorway. Lions are also seen at the Lion Monument in Petra, a public fountain, where refreshing water for the perspiring pilgrims would have sprouted from the water outlet at the mouth of the lion. At the Temple of the Winged Lions, a considerable amount of material has been found, including feline statuette fragments, which emphasize the ‘feline’ association of the mother goddess. The supreme mother goddess was also symbolically associated with vegetation, grains and prosperity, and was frequently depicted holding cereal stalks and fruits.

Not surprisingly, the lion is also associated with the consort of Shiva, known as Parvati, Durga or Shakti. As per the Puranic legends, when the entire humanity was threatened by the evil Mahisasura, the goddess Durga, invested with the combined spiritual energies of the Hindu Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – and adorned with celestial weapons granted by the divine company of gods, rode her lion to battle this asura. The terrible battle raged over nine days, and on the tenth day Durga defeated and killed Mahisasura. Even now, the victory of Durga over the forces of darkness represented by Mahisasura, is one of the most widely celebrated religious festivals in India, known as Dussehra (or Dasha-Hara, Navratri, Vijaydashami) which is celebrated over a period of ten days.


Idol of Al-Uzza, found in the Temple of the Winged Lions.


One of the two reliefs of lion of the Lion Triclinium in Petra, Jordan.


Durga on a Lion, slaying Mahisarura who has taken the form of a bull. Aihole temple complex, Karnataka,

There are indications that the Nabataeans, too, may have celebrated this ancient festival. At Petra, an elaborate processional way leads from the center of the city to the temple of Al Deir. In front of the temple there is a massive, flat, courtyard, capable of accommodating thousands of people. This has led historians to suggest that the Al Deir temple may have been the site of large-scale ceremonies. It is possible that this was a celebration of Dussehra, since Al-Uzza was the ‘goddess of the people’ and Dussehra is the celebration of the victory of the goddess over the forces of evil. It is not unlikely that the presiding god of the Nabataeans, Dushara, may have obtained his name from the festival Dussehra. The cult of Shiva-Shakti represented the sacred masculine and feminine principles, and the worship of Shiva has always been inextricably linked with the celebrations of the divine feminine. Even now in rural Bengal in India, the final day of celebration of Dussehra (Basanti Puja) is followed by an exuberant worship of Shiva. For these people, it remains the most important festival of their annual religious calendar.

It is unclear to historians whether all the representations of the female goddess found in Petra refer to Al-Uzza or to the Nabataean goddess triad of Al-Uzza, Al-lat and Manat. Although it is has been supposed that the consort of Dushara may be Al-Uzza, the depictions of Al-Uzza in other places of Arabia do not support such an association. Al-Uzza (the ‘Strong One’) was the goddess of the morning and evening star. Isaac of Antioch referred to her as Kaukabta, ‘the Star’. She was sometimes depicted riding a ‘dolphin’ and showing the way to sea-farers. She is, thus, the counterpart of the Indo-European goddess of dawn, Ostara, and the Vedic ‘Usas’. In the Rig Veda, there are around 20 hymns dedicated to the Usas, the goddess of dawn, who appears in the east every morning, resplendent in her golden light, riding a chariot drawn by glorious horses, dispelling the darkness, awakening men to action, and bestowing her bounty and riches on all and sundry. The phonetic and symbolic associations between ‘Uzza’ and ‘Usa’ indicate that they are derived from the same source. Al-lat, on the other hand, was widely regarded as ‘the Mother of the Gods’, or ‘Greatest of All’. She was the goddess of fertility and prosperity and was known from Arabia to Iran. It is more likely, therefore, that the consort of Dushara at Petra, symbolized by the lion, was Al-lat and not Al-Uzza. However, it has been observed by historians that Al-Uzza and Al-lat were used quite interchangeably by the Arabs, and sometimes one gained prominence over the other. It is worth mentioning in this context, that the Hindu goddess of death and destruction – Kali – bears stark resemblances to the third goddess of the Nabataean triad – Manat – who is generally represented as the terrible, black goddess of death.

Certain rituals associated with Shiva-Durga worship can also be found reflected in the religious practices of the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans ritually made animal sacrifices to Dushara and Al-Uzza, at the ‘High Place of Sacrifice’ in Petra. The Suda Lexicon, which was compiled at the end of the 10th century, refers to older sources which have since been lost. It states: ‘Theus Ares (Dushrara); this is the god Ares in Arabic Petra. They worship the god Ares and venerate him above all. His statue is an unworked square black stone. It is four foot high and two feet wide. It rests on a golden base. They make sacrifices to him and before him they anoint the blood of the sacrifice that is their anointment.’ The practice of anointing the Shiva Linga with red vermilion powder (Kumkum) continues to this date in India. It has also been noticed that most of the Djin blocks at Petra are located close to sources of running water, a fact which has left historians in a dilemma. However, such a peculiar alignment of Djin blocks can be easily explained once we remember that one of the most common practices of Shiva worship is to pour a kettle of water (or milk, curd, ghee, honey etc.) over the Shiva-Linga. This act is symbolic of the sacred river Ganges, which, after emanating from the toe of Vishnu, flows down the matted locks of Shiva. This is the reason why nearly every Shiva temple is also associated with a natural well or spring or a source of running water.

The worship of Shiva-Durga, the sacred masculine and feminine principles, is as old as time itself. The presence of sacred pillars and dolmens, the ancient snake cults, the symbolism of the trisula / trident, the crescent moon etc. found at various archaeological sites across the world suggests that the worship of Shiva-Shakti was one of the most deeply entrenched belief systems of the ancient wisdom traditions. Among the ancient Semites, a pillar of stone was a sacred representation of a deity. In many texts, the ancient Hebrews are recorded setting up stones as monuments. Jacob set up a pillar and anointed it, in a manner starkly reminiscent of the Shiva worship rituals:

"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had set up for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. (Genesis 28; 18-19). 

"And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon (Genesis 35; 14).

Pillars and Dolmens (stones arranged one on top of another) also constituted an essential part of Druidical worship, among the Celts of ancient Britain and France. In the Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions (1894), James Bonwick mentions that the Irish venerated their lithic temples. They not only anointed them with oil or milk, but, down to a late period, they poured water on their sacred surface so that the draught might cure their diseases. Molly Grime, a rude stone figure, kept in Glentham church, was annually washed with water from Newell well. The ‘cup symbol’—observed on stones at Fermanagh, and in the west of Kerry—may have confused scholars, but to anyone familiar with the symbolism of Shiva, it can be immediately recognized as the ‘crescent moon’ present on the matted locks of Shiva.

The geographical distribution of stone monuments extends from the extreme west of Europe to the extreme east of Asia, and from Scandinavia to Central Africa. In spite of centuries of destruction, stone monuments of every type abound in the British and Irish Islands, and some of the most remarkable structures in Europe are found there. In France some 4000 dolmens are present. In Northern and Central Europe they occur in Belgium, Holland and in the northern plains of Germany. They have been found in large numbers in Denmark and the Danish Islands, and also in Sweden. ‘Meteoric stones mounted on carved pedestals’ have been found in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, and one such piece is, at present, on view at the Etruscan Museum in Vatican, Rome.

Although this ancient cult was worshipped in large parts of the world since time immemorial, there appears to have been a renewed westward thrust of this faith, soon after the conquests of Alexander, which invigorated the ancient land and maritime trade routes, popularly known as the Silk Route, which connected India and China with the western world.


Silk Route

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