The Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha temple, Simhachalam is a Hindu temple situated on the Simhachalam hill, which is 500 metres above the sea level in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. It is dedicated to one of the Hindu trinity deities Vishnu, who is worshipped there as Varaha Narasimha. As per the temple’s legend (which is divided into 32 chapters), Vishnu manifested in this peculiar form, with a boar head, human torso and a lion’s tail, after saving his devotee Prahlada from a murder attempt by the latter’s father Hiranyakashipu. Except on Akshaya Tritiya, the idol of Varaha Narasimha is covered with sandalwood paste throughout the year, which makes it resemble a Shiva Lingam.
Simhachalam is one of the 32 Narasimha temples in Andhra Pradesh which are important pilgrimage centres. It was regarded as an important centre of Vaishnavism in the medieval period along with Srikurmam and others. The temple has been recognised by historians with the help of a 9th-century AD inscription by the Chalukya Chola king Kulottunga I. In the later half of the 13th century, the temple complex underwent radical physical changes during the reign of the Eastern Ganga king Narasimhadeva I. It later received patronage from many royal families, of which Tuluva dynasty of Vijayanagara Empire is a notable one. The temple underwent 40 years of religious inactivity from 1564 AD to 1604 AD. In 1949, the temple came under the purview of the state government and is currently administered by the Simhachalam Devasthanam Board.
Simhachalam temple resembles a fortress from outside with three outer courtyards and five gateways. The architecture is a mixture of the styles of the Kalinga Architecture/Odishan(Orissan), Chalukyas and the Cholas. The temple faces west instead of east, signifying victory. There are two temple tanks: Swami Pushkarini near the temple and Gangadhara at the bottom of the hill. The temple houses a number of sub-shrines and a few mandapams. The religious practices and customs of the temple are formulated by the Vaishnavite philosopher Ramanuja. They are modelled based on the Satvata Samhita, one of the 108 texts of the Pancharatra Agama.
Simhachalam is the second-largest after Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh in terms of income earned. It is believed that the deity is capable of giving progeny to women and fulfilling wishes of devotees. Kalyanotsava and Chandanotsava are the two major festivals celebrated in the temple, followed by Narasimha Jayanti, Navaratrotsava and Kamadahana. The festivals celebrated in Simhachalam have an influence of the Dravida Sampradaya, the customs followed in Tamil Nadu. Apart from those by well known poets, the temple found many literary references and lyrical works dedicated by anonymous writers which are preserved in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Chennai.
Legends associated with the temple
The Sthala Purana (local legend) of Simhachalam consists of 32 chapters; the number denotes the manifestations of Narasimha. According to Dr. V. C. Krishnamacharyulu, the legends of Simhachalam and other Hindu temples in Andhra Pradesh were written in the 14th century after the attempted establishment of Islam in the region. He added that the writers wrote the legends inspired from the stories of Narasimha available in the Hindu puranas. Hence, Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana form the major sources. However, the legend of Simhachalam provides new information about the previous life of the temple’s founder Prahlada. The first four chapters of the legend cover the importance of Simhachalam, its deity and the principal water body Gangadhara.
Once, the Four Kumaras visited lord Vishnu’s abode Vaikuntha as children. Jaya-Vijaya, the demigod gatekeepers of Vaikuntha, failed to recognise them and denied their entry. In resentment, they cursed the duo stating that they would have to give up divinity, born and live the lives of mortal beings on earth. Vishnu failed to revoke the curse of the Kumaras and felt sorry. He later offered two solutions: either being Vishnu’s devotees in seven human lives or his enemies in three demonic lives. Jaya-Vijaya could not bear separation with Vishnu for a long time and chose the second possibility.
In their first demonic lives, Jaya-Vijaya were born as Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha to sage Kashyapa and Diti in an inauspicious time during a sunset. To tease lord Brahma and other gods, Hiranyaksha ensured that earth loses its vitality and sinks into the rasatala, the lowest level in the cosmic universe. Vishnu assumed the form of a boar referred to as Varaha and restored earth to its normal position. Varaha later killed Hiranyaksha in a war that lasted for thousand years. Hiranyakashipu vowed to seek revenge and prayed to Brahma. He gained a boon which made him invulnerable to death either by day or night, either in the morning or the night, and either by a human or a beast.
When the gods headed by Brahma visited Vaikuntham to tell an account of the happenings to Vishnu, a guardian named Sumukha obstructed them. They manage to meet Vishnu and also convey the misbehaviour of Sumukha. Vishnu assured that Hiranyakashipu shall be killed and Sumukha would be the serving cause. Sumukha pleaded for a pardon but Vishnu denied, saying that an offence against his devotees is inexcusable. As per Vishnu’s orders, Sumukha was born as Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlada.
Prahlada displayed staunch devotion towards Vishnu in his childhood. As a result, he had to face many death trails. In one such instance, Hiranyakashipu’s soldiers threw him from the top of a hill and placed the mountain on him. Vishnu jumped over the hill and lifted Prahlada from the sea. Prahlada asked Vishnu to assume a deity form where the avatars of Varaha, who killed Hiranyaksha and Narasimha, the one who would kill Hiranyakashipu soon, can be seen together. Vishnu assumed the form of Varaha Narasimha, for whom Prahlada built a temple after Hiranyakashipu’s death. Worship was conducted and the place was named Simhachalam (lion’s hill). This is covered from 5th to 29th chapters of the legend.
Reconstruction by Pururava
At the end of the life cycle, the temple Prahlada built was neglected and subsequently decayed. The moolavar of Varaha Narasimha was covered with crests of earth. In another life cycle, king Pururava of lunar dynasty acquired Pushpaka Vimana (divine air car) from Brahma as a boon. He saw Urvashi, an apsara at the Kailasa mountain and both fell in love. They visited Simhachalam and settled here for a while. Urvashi recollected a dream and located the idol. Pururava performed penance at Gangadhara for the same. They unearthed the idol and consecrated it after renovation.
Despite his best efforts, Pururava could not find the idol’s feet. A divine voice consoled him, saying that he need not worry about that, adding that the deity can provide salvation in its current form. Urvashi was instructed in the dream that the idol of Varaha Narasimha should be covered with sandalwood paste for the whole year except on the third day of the Vaisakha month. This custom is practiced strictly even today. The reconstruction of the temple by Pururava is covered in the last four chapters of the legend.
In the 11th century AD, after winning a debate at the Puri Jagannath temple, Vaishnavite saint and philosopher Ramanuja visited Srikurmam and Simhachalam temples. Simhachalam’s deity was believed to be Shiva due to some reasons. The notable ones were the unusual position of the deity’s idol, the gate at the lower terrain named Bhairava Dwaram, and the second temple tank being referred to with the name Gangadhara. The annual celebration of Kamadahana, a tradition usually observed in Shiva’s temples, was practiced here which added strength to the beliefs.
Ramanuja argued that the idol of Varaha Narasimha is in a posture in accordance with the Pancharatra Agama rules. He added that Kamadahana is celebrated here for the temple’s purification as per the Sishtachara traditions. Ramanuja pointed out that Shiva’s manifestation Bhairava is neither the guardian of the Bhairava Dwaram nor worshipped as one. Ramanuja was able to defeat the scholars at Simhachalam and converted it into a Vaishnavite temple.
Varaha Narasimha’s idol, when covered with sandalwood paste, resembles a Shiva Lingam. Ramanuja took personal possession of the temple and ordered the priests to remove the paste. The conversion work began and before completion, the idol started bleeding. Feeling the deity’s anger for violating the rule, sandalwood paste was applied again which stopped the blood stream. They presumed that the deity wished to look like a Lingam and continued the tradition except for one day. Few Vaishnavites oppose this legend, calling it a deliberate attempt to “debase the prestige of Vaishnava shrines in general” and of Ramanuja in particular.
Sri Kantha Krishnamacharyulu was a poet and musician who composed sankeertanas in praise of Varaha Narasimha. As Narasimha danced listening to those songs, Krishnamacharyulu began showing offensive attitude towards others with arrogance. When Ramanuja visited Simhachalam later, Krishnamacharyulu did not treat him properly. Ramanuja wanted to know whether Vishnu would grant him salvation and requested Krishnamacharyulu to ask Narasimha about the same. He obeyed and asked Narasimha, to which the deity replied that Ramanuja is capable of giving salvation to others and hence can gain the same later.
Krishnamacharyulu requested Narasimha to grant him salvation. To teach him a lesson, Narasimha refused, saying that Ramanuja is the only one capable one to do so. Krishnamacharyulu was offended and cursed that the temple would be attacked in the upcoming days. It is believed that the attack on the temple in the 18th century by Muslim invaders was a result of the curse. Though this legend is considered imaginary, it is respected widely for emphasising the importance of teachers and spiritual masters over the divine.
Simhachalam temple has a past of nearly a thousand years. Epigraphists discovered nearly 500 inscriptions in the temple complex. Almost all of them were dana sasanas (donation records) which referred to the contributions made by the kings, their officers, and the citizens. Majority of the inscriptions are bilingual, written in Sanskrit and Telugu languages. While some are exclusively in Sanskrit, there are 46 Odia and three Tamil language inscriptions. As per the common acceptance of historians, Simhachalam temple has been recognised in the 9th century AD due to an inscription by the Chalukya Chola king Kulottunga I. The earliest inscription discovered in the temple, it belonged to the 11th century and was dated 1087 AD. It recorded the gift of a garden by a private individual. The temple functioned well during this period and received liberal patronage from the Chalukya Cholas.
After the Chalukya Cholas, the Eastern Ganga dynasty extended their patronage for the promotion and preservation of the temple complex. Their inscriptions ranges from 1150 AD to 1430 AD. In the later half of the 13th century, the temple complex underwent radical physical changes during the reign of Narasimhadeva I. Many additional architectural adjuncts were added to the temple which had a simple and modest look. An inscription dated 1293 AD refers to the addition of sub shrines by the Gangas in the temple, which were dedicated to manifestations of Vishnu: Vaikunthanatha, Yagnavaraha, and Madhavadevara. The renovators used the original slabs as much as possible and discarded a few of them. The removed ones were later used in the kitchen and other small shrines. The feudatory chiefs of the Ganga dynasty too contributed towards the temple’s architecture and made donations in various forms.
Four inscriptions of the temple recorded the donation of land, jewels, and villages by the kings of the Reddy dynasty, who did some substantial service to the temple. After the fall of the Eastern Gangas, the Gajapathis came into power. Nine inscriptions written in Odia language recorded the contributions by Kapilendradeva, Purushottama Deva and Prataprudra Deva. The temple received support from the Tuluva dynasty of the Vijayanagara Empire. Their inscriptions range from 1516 AD to 1519 AD. During his military campaigns at the Kalinga region, Krishnadevaraya erected a Jayastambha (pillar of victory) at Simhachalam. He gifted ornaments to the deity for the merit of his parents. His wives Tirumala Devi and Chinnamma Devi also gifted ornaments. The Tuluva kings supported the perpetuation of the property of Simhachalam up to 16th century AD.
After the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire, the Muslim states of Deccan asserted independence. The Qutb Shahi dynasty began its rule with Golkonda as their capital. A solitary inscription dated 1604 AD records gifting the lands and resources of Navara village as a sarvamanya by Sarvappa Asraraya with a view to restore the regular religious practices and offerings. Apart from mentioning the military achievements of Asraraya, the inscription confirmed 40 years of religious inactivity from 1564 AD to 1604 AD. In these 40 years, two inscriptions were found dated 1579 and 1597 AD; they registered the gifts donated to the temple. Apart from the above, 300 inscriptions in between the 11th and 18th centuries make a note of the contributions made by private individuals. The latest inscription of the temple is dated 1798 AD, which recorded a gift made by Chengalvaraya of the Gode family.
In 1949, the temple came under the purview of the endowment ministry of the State Government. The members of the Pusapati Gajapathi family of the princely state of Vizianagaram are the current hereditary trustees of the temple. The members of the family are serving the temple for the last three centuries.