RAVANA’S mother was a devotee of Shiva and worshipped a sivalingam. One day the lingam was stolen by Indra. Upset at this, she embarked on a relentless fast. Alarmed at this, Ravana promised to get back the lingam if she stopped fasting.
Ravana went to Mount Kailasa and decided to undergo austerities. After fasting for ten thousand years, Shiva was pleased and appeared before him, asking him what he wanted. Ravana asked for the gift of immortality, the atmalingam for his mother, and a wife as beautiful as Uma, Shiva’s own wife. Shiva granted the first two boons. ‘But I cannot fulfil your third wish, for no woman or goddess in the three worlds is as beautiful as Uma,’ he said. But Ravana was adamant. In the end, much to his dismay, Shiva had to surrender his lovely wife to Ravana, who set off for Lanka, gloating at his good fortune.
He had not gone far when the sage Narada appeared before him and convinced him that not even Shiva could grant immortality to a rakshasa. Furious at having been cheated, Ravana returned to Mount Kailasa and began to tear up the mountain. Now, this was against Shiva’s orders that Ravana should not harm him in any way, and so his gift of immortality became void. Meanwhile, Uma was praying to the gods to save her. Seeing her distress, Vishnu appeared before Ravana in the guise of an old sadhu. He asked Ravana why he was carrying an old hag on his shoulders. Ravana hauled down his load to take a look. To his horror, he saw that the woman he was carrying was indeed an old, shriveled bag of bones. Uma had worked the magic herself at hearing the sadhu’s words. Cursing his luck, Ravana dumped the woman on the road and continued on his way.
Shiva had also warned him not to let the atmalingam touch the ground during his journey. Near Lanka, he felt an urge to answer a call of nature. He asked a herd boy to hold the precious object while he went behind a bush. But this herd boy was Ganesha, and the moment Ravana was out of sight, he dropped the lingam and vanished. When Ravana returned, he tried to retrieve it but it was already sinking into the earth. Soon, it was no longer a lingam but the ears of a cow. Ravana gave up the attempt and returned to Lanka empty-handed.
The place where the cow’s ears were jutting out of the earth became the site of a famous temple called Gokarnam where pilgrims journey to this day to worship Shiva’s atmalingam.