According to legend, an evil king named Hiranyakasipu performed tapas, or repentance, for a very long time and requested a boon from Lord Brahma - almost for eternity. He requested that he not die because of one or more men or creatures, nor by any weapon, nor at any time of day or night.
Hiranyakasipu is said to have gone out of control to annoy the divine beings after being given this shelter and feeling strong. To put an end to this, Lord Vishnu took the Narasimha avatar, a part-lion, part-man divinity, and murdered Hiranyakasipu with his sharp nails. There are 17 different versions of this story, and strangely, the account of Prahlada, Hiranyakasipu's Vishnu-adoring child, and the presence of Narasimha out of a column do not appear in the early versions.
In general, the underlying foundations of Narasimha love can be traced back to lion love in ancient India. A song (1.154) in the Rigveda (1500-1200 BCE) depicts Vishnu as a "wild monster, repulsive, sneaking, mountain-meandering." Vishnu was a minor god in the early Vedic period, compared to others such as Indra, Agni, and Vayu. Various gods' cliques, such as Nara-Narayana, Vasudeva, and Vishnu, consolidated over hundreds of years to form the Vaishnava faction.
Antiquarians such as A. Eschmann and others believe that Narasimha descended from a lion god worshipped by tribals in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The oldest known depiction of Narasimha can be found in a board in Kondamotu town, in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, dating back to the fourth century CE. It depicts a lion with two human hands holding the Lord Vishnu's gada or mace and chakra or plate. Its discovery in the territory is intriguing, as waterfront Andhra is still the actual centre of Narasimha devotion in India.
While the Kondamotu Narasimha dates back to late Satavahana times, it was during the Gupta administration (fourth to sixth century CE) that Narasimha love gained widespread popularity in large parts of India. Indeed, one of the Gupta head’s name was 'Narasimhagupta' (470-535 CE).
The narrative of Narasimha emerging from a column to kill Hiranyakasipu first appears in the post-Gupta period. Prof Suvira Jaiswal, an Indian antiquarian, discovered the origins of this 'column' association in her paper 'The advancement of Narasimha Legend and its Potential Sources' presented at the Indian History Congress in 1973. According to Prof Jaiswal, this image of the 'column' can be traced back to the command hierarchies revered by the clans that occupied the forests of Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Chattisgarh. In the long run, ancestral convictions were merged in the Vaishnava convention, giving rise to the legend that Narasimha arose from a column.
Surprisingly, they appeared as column goddess 'Stambheshwar' or Shiva as Stambeshwar Mahadev in Odisha, where ancestral convictions converged with Shakta and Shaivite custom. By the same token, very few people are aware of Narasimha's deep connection with the Jagannatha temple in Puri. The renowned Puri sanctuary was previously a Narasimha sanctuary, in the interim stage between its origins as an ancestral altar and its progression to the current Jagannatha sanctuary. Even today, Narasimha is the managing divinity of the holy place, and all functions begin with offerings to him. Similarly, the 'Narasimha mantra' is recited during the sanctuary's petitions and services.
Between the third and sixth centuries CE, the Vakatakas with their capital at Nandivardhan (present-day Nagardhan, Maharashtra) spread Narasimha love from Odisha and Andhra to large parts of present-day Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. The massive Narasimha at Nagpur's Ramtek Hill is strikingly similar to the contemporary Narasimha images found in Odisha.
However, Andhra Pradesh remained the heart of the Narasimha clique in India. Even today, there are over 350 Narasimha sanctuaries in Andhra Pradesh and approximately 169 in Telangana. The most notable are the Ahobilam, Simhanchalam, and Mangalagiri sanctuaries. Each of these prominent places of worship began as timberland sanctums of neighbourhood clans. The Narasimha Swamy temple in Ahobilam, Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, was previously the altar of the nearby Chenchu clan, which occupied the dense Nallamala woods. According to legend, after killing Hiranyakasipu, Narasimha wandered the Nallamala backwoods, where he married a local young lady from the Chechu clan, who was a reincarnation of Goddess Laxmi.
The third significant Narasimha shrine is the Panakala Narasimha Swamy sanctuary in Mangalagiri, Andhra Pradesh, which was originally a slope sanctum that was later expanded. A face of Narasimha is incorporated into the essence of the slope inside the sanctuary. According to local beliefs, the Mangalagiri slope is a torpid lava well, and contributions of 'Panakala,' or Jaggery water, through the mouth of Narasimha prevent the fountain of liquid magma from erupting.
Over hundreds of years, Narasimha's devotion spread from Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. Celebrated Narasimha images can be found in Maharashtra's Ellora caves and north Karnataka's Badami caves. The most well-known Narasimha sculpture in South India is the Ugra Narasimha or Lakshmi Narasimha sculpture at Hampi, Karnataka, which was built in 1528 during the reign of Vijayanagara lord Krishnadevaraya. Narasimha sanctuaries can now be found all over India, from Rajasthan to Kerala.
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