An introduction to some of the many deities of the Lord’s half-man, half-lion incarnation found throughout India.
By Dhruva Dasa
A fond attachment to Lord Narasimha formed in childhood leads to an adventurous search for many of His out-of-the-way temples in India.
Adapted from Narasimha: the Divine Protector, Volume 1: The Lost Temples. Copyright 2017 The Narasimha Foundation. All rights reserved. Available at narasimhathelosttemples.com.
The text of this excerpt is essentially the Introduction to the book and retains the book’s style for spelling Sanskrit words. The two-page spreads showing the deities are just as they appear (though smaller here) in the 12″ x 15″ book. While we’ve chosen to show only one spread for each deity, the coverage in the book may sometimes extend to two or three spreads.
Each of the deities shown here is in the Indian state of Karnataka. The name of the town or village of the deity appears with the deity’s name. For example, “Mogarnadu Laxmi Narasimhadeva” means Lakshmi Narasimhadeva in the village of Mogarnadu, Karnataka.
Lord Narasimha is known as the divine protector and remover of all spiritual obstacles. He appeared in the form of a half-man, half-lion incarnation of Vishnu to protect and save His devotee Prahlad, who was only a young boy at the time. Prahlad’s father, Hiranyakashipu, was perhaps the most heinous demon-king that ever lived, and Narasimhadeva’s destruction of this demon speaks to the power of good over evil, or righteousness over iniquity.
Although I’m now a young man, my childhood was anything but ordinary. Unlike most Western youth, I grew up in an ashram in middle America, where my parents embraced the teachings of India and her eternal religion of the soul, which included reverence for Lord Narasimha. In the ashram, I used to serve His deity form on a regular basis, creating a connection of loving attachment to Him. His protective nature captivated my mind and heart, especially since, like Prahlad, I was only a child and knew that He would show compassion to me as someone who was completely dependent on Him.
As I grew older, my attraction for Him grew more and more, eventually developing into an intense desire to search out His many temples in India. When the chance finally came, I seized it and ended up going to Ahobilam (where He is said to have manifested on earth), on the southeastern coast of the country.
After that first experience, I knew I just had to find more Narasimha temples and document them for posterity – to show the world.
Narasimhadeva is worshiped and celebrated throughout India, mainly due to the fact that He is considered the supreme divine protector, something appreciated by all traditions regardless of sectarian affiliation. Although Hindus tend to create a hierarchy of gods and often debate who among them is actually the greatest, Narasimhadeva is respected by all Indic traditions equally, both in India and in other parts of Asia. As the divine protector and remover of obstacles, He is seen as Ganesh’s supreme counterpart. While Ganesh removes material obstacles, Narasimha can even remove spiritual ones.
For the past 16 years I have been traveling around India in search of the lost and unknown temples of Lord Narasimha. When I began my search, many told me that His temples were only located in one particular region of the subcontinent (Andhra Pradesh). While this initially seemed to be true, I gradually found out that He revealed Himself in many forms and temples throughout the country. From the Himalaya mountains to the deepest, dangerous jungles of South India and the deserts of Rajasthan – there He was in all His glory.
After each amazing temple, I would have to search out another and find Him, yet again, in a new form, or in a new manifestation. At times I would forget to sleep or eat – so passionate was my search, my obsession. I continued on like a madman or like a desperate child in search of his lost father. The different forms of the deities were spectacular, each one driving me further, virtually forcing me to move forward to locate the next and the next and the next and the next. They were all unique, expressing various characteristics of Lord Narasimha: Some were ferocious, awesome, gentle, huge, tiny, smiling, peaceful, yet all so brilliantly attractive in Their diverse ways.
Some of the temples were difficult to find. But I was determined to not give up and always prayed to Him for direction. While on buses, trains, rickshaws, or walking on the road, I would follow any and every lead, however slight it might have been. Sometimes I would meet someone who spoke just enough English to tell me about a temple they knew, or they would take me to someone who they thought could help me. It was as if the Lord Himself was mapping out my path through all these wonderful, kind people that almost mystically came my way.
The temples were often in out-of-the-way place, too. Most of them were on top of hills or mountains or in caves surrounded by jungles that were home to tigers, bears, and cobras. Though I sometimes succumbed to fear, I never doubted that the Lord would protect me.
The idea for the book came about gradually. After finding the first 100 temples, I realized that this could be an important service to Lord Narasimhadeva. If I could find His most obscure temples, catalog and photograph them, get all the details and history from the locals and the temple priests, others might be able to retrace my steps in the future, thus bringing them to the feet of the Lord. Photographing all the art, paintings, carvings, temples, deities, temple grounds, priests and just anything to do with Him, I knew would be extremely valuable to my peers and future generations. My mission became clear: To write about these wonderlands of Narasimha and create a book of all His temples, His devotees, His ritual and His art – a book about Narasimha culture.
Though the beginning years were some of the most memorable and incredible times of my life, this last year, traveling with my friend and photographer Damodar Rati, would no doubt influence how this book takes shape in a major way. In other words, the volume is largely a visual experience, even if it includes enough text to take the readers where they need to go. I have not labored to document details of history and outer specifics. Rather, I try to give the reader a brief visceral experience with as few words as possible and allow the form of the Lord to speak for itself. May Lord Narasimha protect us always.
Gulante Yoga Narasimha
This Yoga Narasimha Deity holds a special place in my heart. The first time I found this temple I was driving up the coast of Karnataka with a friend of mine looking for another Narasimha temple I had heard about some years before. As we were driving I looked out the window and there was a sign on the side of the road saying “Narasimha temple.”
“Wait!” I shouted. “There is a Narasimha temple back there.” I urged my friend to stop and turn around. He slammed on the breaks and we did a quick, dangerous U-turn in the middle of a bustling road, full of people, animals, and cars.
Pulling up to the temple, I jumped out of the jeep with crazy excitement, as I always do when I stumble onto His temples by accident. For me, it is the highest rush imaginable and always fills me with excitement.
Running towards the temple, dashing around a sharp corner, I witnessed the most amazing Yoga Narasimha Deity I had ever seen. Even to this day, that particular deity holds a special place in my heart — His mood and visage touched me deeply. I prostrated myself before the Him and as I was getting up I noticed a friendly looking man walking out of a door, coming towards me. By now my friend had joined me and, luckily, he spoke the local language. So when the man introduced himself as the priest of the temple, I asked him to tell me the story of this deity and His shrine. My friend translated for me as the priest was talking.
He began by saying that many hundreds of years earlier, one of his great saintly ancestors was walking through the jungles with some disciples and they suddenly heard a powerful roaring sound. The saint perceived this as “very auspicious roaring” and led his followers to seek out where it is coming from. They all followed the sound and came to the base of a small hill. Climbing upward, they came to a cliff where they found a cave, noticing that the roaring was coming from inside.
The saint entered the cave alone, leaving his followers outside, but when he emerged, they saw that he was carrying this beautiful Narasimha deity. They all shouted “Jai! Jai!” which means, “spiritual victory!” and together they walked back to the village, enjoying a sense of accomplishment and spiritual fulfillment. Once in the village, they engaged in a huge celebration until late that evening, formally if enthusiastically inviting the Lord into their midst.
One addendum to the story: That night the saintly man and his family, said the head priest, were attacked by tigers. Fearing for their lives, they took shelter of the Lord in the form of that Narasimha deity, and He dutifully protected them. After the incident, that same night, Narasimha appeared to the saint in a dream and asked that, in reciprocation, His worship always be steady and never stop. There would be harsh reaction, said the Lord, if it did.
I interrupted the priest and asked if the worship had ever declined after hearing the Lord’s warning. He indicated that it had — he opened his cloth at that point and showed me his leg. There were bite marks and claw marks. He said that when the worship slackened, a tiger attacked him, seemingly out of nowhere. The Lord saved him and, like his ancestor, he devoted his life to the temple from that time forward.
I went back to that temple after some time, and I was very happy to see the priest still there worshiping his Lord. Local legend also has it that a tiger guards the temple, even today, and has attacked thieves who have tried to rob the temple at night.
Marvantee Shanti Narasimha
What I love about this temple is that it is situated in such a beautiful location, between the beach and a fresh water river. It was one of the first temples I visited when I was a young man in search of Lord Narasimha.
It is believed that Lord Shiva and countless saints, kings and yogis worshiped this deity over many centuries. They say it is over 2,000 years old and holds special significance for the local people — this deity is said to remove all the inappropriate desires that hinder us from practicing a more spiritual life. The faith of the devotees who worship this deity is palpable.
When Damodar and I arrived at the temple — I had been there many times before — no one was anywhere to be seen. Somehow, we arrived when His many worshippers were out and about, doing other things. So we entered and went directly to see the Lord in this amazing form of Shanti Narasimha. Previously, whenever I had the good fortune to have darshan (“audience”) of this Deity, He was always covered by layers of flower garlands and elaborate dress, covering much of His form from public view.
To my astonishment, when we walked into the inner sanctum of the Lord’s chambers, there He was in all His glory, without any coverings — the priests must have just finished the morning rituals, bathing and cleaning Him to prepare for the day.
I jumped in excitement, explaining to Damodar how my wish had finally come true after so long.
Just then the priest walked in and I looked at Damodar and said, “Guess what his name is.”
“Narasimha,” Damodar replied. “Yes, indeed it is,” I said. “Narasimha worshiping Narasimhadeva,” Damodar mused. We laughed. “Yes,” I said, “he and his family have been doing the service here for many generations.”
The priest and I greeted each other after not seeing each other for some time. He then took us around the temple to show us all the new improvements and developments in taking care of the deity. It was so lovely to be back here again, sort of like coming home. Feeling emotional, I hugged the priest to let him know how close I felt to him, and soon we were saying our goodbyes.
As we headed out to the jeep, I was stopped by some young local girls who asked what we were doing there. I answered that I was searching for all the Narasimha temples in the region. They were excited and started telling me how their family Deity is Narasimha. They mentioned a temple that I hadn’t heard of. I was thrilled and thanked them profusely. Damodar and I then drove back onto the beach road in front of the temple and I immediately said, “First things first — let’s find this new temple that the girls told us about.” We admired the beauty of this sacred land and headed off to find yet another lost temple of Lord Narasimha.
Mangalore Bhadra Narasimha
The first time I visited this temple of Bhadra Narasimha more then 15 years ago, I knew I would never forget it. In fact, ever since then, I have had a special place for this deity in my heart, and coming back to Him again after so long was very precious to me.
This is a unique form of the Lord. He is standing, offering His full blessings and protection to His devotees. They say that if you approach Him, He will protect you and remove any and all suffering.
On my most recent visit, I was greeted by the actual family who runs and owns the temple. They informed me how this sanctuary was one of the oldest in Mangalore and how their great ancestors built it for their family worship, since Narasimha is their family God. To connect with these priests whose family had been worshiping this deity for over a thousand years felt humbling, for one could sense that they carried both love and awe and reverence in their blood line. Damodar and I relished their company for as long as we could and, in the end, when we had to leave, we thanked them for their time and hospitality.
They asked us if we would come back again. I smiled in response and replied, “Yes, I must — there is no way I can stay away from this place!” They were happy with that response, and they left us with these words: “May Narasimha bless you on your search — take Him with you wherever you go.” We then headed out to find another temple, one that I had heard about and which was close to this one. Feeling fortunate for the blessings of the Lord’s devotees, we left not only with a sense of mission but with glee in our hearts.
Hanagarakatte The Three Deities of the Saint
I have been looking for this temple for over ten years. I reminded myself of that fact as we pulled up to its front doors.
“Finally, what a relief,” I confessed to Damodar.
The reason it was difficult to find was because very few people knew about it. The structure is hidden deep in the jungles of Karnataka and very well protected by the ashram that surrounds it. When we parked the car, we were immediately greeted by a nice, elderly man who spoke English. I explained to him why I was there and he responded favorably, inviting me to meet “Swamiji.” We gladly accepted the invitation and followed him to the master’s quarters.
Entering Swamiji’s room, the benevolent saint looked up at us with an innocent smile, exuding great kindness. “Please sit,” he encouraged us. “What may I do for you?” I explained my intense search for the Lord, and how excited I was to be at this particular temple, how I wanted to document its deity and history. He looked up and revealed there was not just one deity there, but three. “Three!” I said, obviously shocked. He then told us how these deities are believed to be several thousand years old and were worshipped by many saints in their ancient lineage.
We then went to the temple proper and, although warned, I didn’t expect to see what appeared before us: a most beautiful, elaborate silver altar with three Narasimha deities. I was thrilled and more excited than words can express. I shouted enthusiastically to Damodar, who was lagging behind. “Damodar get over here — they are out of this world!!”
When he approached the altar area, I grabbed him and brought him closer still: “Look, look — aren’t they awesome!”
All three deities were covered in silver kavacha (“body armor”), which was so beautiful I could stare at them for days. Still, I wanted to see their actual forms, so I asked the priest if he would take off the coverings. I needed to see them in all their glory.
Complying with my wishes, the priest gladly did so without hesitation. As each deity was uncovered and their true forms revealed, we were struck with awe. The beauty and power of the Ugra Narasimha deities were stunning. “It’s about time,” I said to myself. “I am finally here after wanting to find You for so long. Thank you.”
Thanking the Swamiji, too, for his kindness, we carried on with our journey surcharged by the energy of those Deities, who mesmerized us with their beauty and were fully empowering in their countenance and blessings.
Koodli Chintamani Narasimha
This very ancient temple goes back to the 12th century. As legend has it, it was built by one of the Hoysala Kings for this distinct self-manifested deity of Narasimhadeva. Local devotees believe that this deity, known as Chintamani Narasimha, has a special power to remove any mental illnesses. Moreover, they believe that the great child-devotee Prahlad actually worshipped this form himself.
When Damodar and I arrived at the temple, it was unfortunately closed. Nonetheless, we found an elderly cleaning lady sweeping outside the temple grounds, and we watched as she soon opened the front gates of the temple to clean inside. We followed right in behind her and were shocked as, within moments, we were in the presence of the amazingly beautiful form of Chintamani Narasimha.
I asked the cleaning lady where the priest was and she said that we should wait, that he’d be arriving after an hour or so. Consequently, Damodar and I wandered about in the general area, exploring the ancient bathing ghat in front of the temple. We were fascinated by the fact that this is where two sacred rivers — the Tunga and the Bhadra — meet, and how pious souls have been bathing here for centuries.
As we milled around, in fact, there were several pilgrims bathing and chanting mantras, offering oblations to the sacred waters. We joined them and soaked up the sanctified liquid, which was both cleansing and refreshing. And purifying too.
After some time, we journeyed back up to the temple. The priest was there and started his morning rituals and prayers to the Lord. He chanted numerous mantras as he prepared for the bathing and cleaning ceremony. A very kind looking man with a sort of power in him coming from years of service to the Lord, he asked us to sit and to let in this ancient and purifying ceremony. We did as he requested and watched the entire puja with rapt attention. It was an experience both Damodar and I will never forget.
Ganga Nadu Shanti Narasimha
A local in the village of Udupi directed us to a temple in the middle of nowhere — it’s at a place called Ganga Nadu, about two hours north of where we were. Damodar and I immediately jumped in our jeep to find this temple. The man also said it is a very special and rare place, and I reminded Damodar of this fact as we were weaving through the crazy traffic to get there. It was actually quite hard to find. We stopped a few times to ask a group of people on the side of the road — luckily, they all pointed in the same direction.
We drove off the main road on a very small back gutter for some time. That brought us to a railroad crossing with unclear directions on all sides. At this point, we both had serious doubts as to whether we were going to find this temple — we didn’t even know where we were or where to go from here.
All of a sudden, a man pulled up next to us on a motorcycle. He looked at us and inquired in perfect English, “Where are you guys going?” I excitedly replied we were looking for a Narasimha temple in Ganga Nadu. “Ah, yes,” he said. “That’s a very special place. You must drive in this direction for a while longer and you will come to a fork in the road. At that point, go right and continue until you come to the end. You’ll find Him there.” As the railroad crossing was opening, he grinned and said “Have fun,” which I took as a facetious remark. Still, we both waved to him and I floored it as I was on a mission to find this deity once and for all.
As we came down the last little hill, we could see a tiny temple surrounded by mountains in the most tranquil, divine spot you could ever dream of. There was a freshwater stream running in front of the temple and there were wild tulasi bushes growing everywhere, indicating the auspiciousness of the place. We were completely struck with wonder and taken aback by the mood and beauty of this sacred place.
Finally, we got out of the jeep and went up to the temple, but it was locked and there wasn’t a soul around as of yet. My gut (or something more divine) told me to look above the door and sure enough there was a key. It opened the lock and we swung the door open — there He was! Damodar and I both said the same thing, at the exact same time: “Gosh!”
This form of Narasimha was just so perfect — strong and noble and yet simultaneously peaceful and calm. I never want to leave this place, I thought to myself. I want to stay here forever, just to be with Him and to serve Him. We did a puja and offered flowers to Him which a group of small children had brought just for this purpose. It was like being in another universe or transported back in time. We felt the Lord’s presence.