Sri Nrsimha Worship in Puri

BY: PROF. PURNA C. MOHAPATRA

Lord Nrsimhadev
Orissan Pata-chitra Painting


Jul 21, 2012 — JAGANNATHA PURI, ORISSA (SUN) — A three-part exploration of the worship of Lord Nrsimhadev in Jagannath Puri.

Even though Puri is a famous Vaisnavite center, there is no other Vaisnavite shrine worth the name except the Temple of Jagannath and minor Vaisnava shrines of other incarnations of Visnu. The worship of Lord Visnu is very much popular among the Hindus. He is the Protector who rescues humanity at the time of distress. The time when the evil prevails upon the truth, Visnu takes different incarnations to annihilate the evil and rescue the saints and truthful.

The Vaisnavas worship the ten incarnations of Visnu. His fourth incarnation is the great god Narasimha, Who has the body of a man and the body of the lion. Similar combined forms are to be noticed in the icons of Varaha, Daksya Prajapati, Ganesha, and Gomukhi Keshaba.

The image of Narasimhanath of Paikamal, in Baragarh district, is Marjara Keshari. The image of Sarabha is illustrated in the composite of a man, bird and beast. Evolved as one of the Avatars of Visnu, Lord Nrsimha grew into prominence and was worshipped independently, considered as the full incarnation of the Lord.

In the Sakti Sangama tantra it is mentioned that Visnu assumed the Narasimha Avatar in the Kritayuga, Angira year, Madhav month and 14th day in the Swati Nakshatra. In the Skanda Purana it is written that Narasimha appeared on the lunar 14th day of Baishakha in Swati Nakshatra, on Saturday during dusk.

We do not find the name Narasimha in the Vedic period. The Name is only found in Atharvaveda, where Narahari is worshipped by Ganadeva. Astadhyayi of Panini did not mention the name. However, the epic Mahabharata (Harivamsa), Puranas like Matsya, Padma, Kurma, Visnu, and Visnu Dharmottara, associate Narasimha with Visnu. Based on these, K.C. Das believes that all these Puranic references to Narasimha were known during the Gupta period.

There are two broad types of Narasimha images, i.e., Ugra and Saumya. But T. Gopinatha Rao has divided the images of Narasimha into three groups: Sthauna, Girija and Yanak. The word "Sthauna" refers to Narasimha coming out of the pillar; "Ugra" and Girija coming out of caves (yoga). Some call it Keshava, and Yanak is seated on Garuda or Shesha, with five hooded canopy held like an umbrella.

When Laxmi is on the left lap, the image is called Laxmi-Narasimha. The deity sitting in Utkutikasana with Yogapatta and Laxmi on the left lap is very common and popular in Orissa, and Oriyas worship Him as the embodiment of valour, vitality and virtue. The popularity of the Lord is evinced from the hymns and Suktas composed for him, including Stotram, Puranas and Upanisads.

Not only in literatures, but also in epigraphic records and sculptural art are found references of Narasimha worship. There are 105 Narasimha temples with land endowments in Orissa. A list was prepared by G.C. Tripathy, out of the materials collected by H.V. Stietencorn. Besides this, there exist many more temples scattered through out the State. In addition, a large number of detached images find a place in other temples, such as Parswadevatas.

The worship of Lord Narasimha was sanctioned in western Orissa during the Gupta era. In the research article of scholar Sasanka Sekhar Panda, "Purusottama Jagannath is Purusottama Narasimha" published in Orissa Review, Ratha Yatra Special Issue, June 2006, it has been mentioned that three Narasimha images are found at Podagarh, Sarguli and Parwa in Nabarangapur district, which are believed to be images of the Vakataka period, who conquered Puskari (Podagarh) of the Nala kings in the 5th and 6th century A.D.

Another image of Narasimha of Maraguda, now in Khariar Branch Museum, is believed to be of the period of the Sarabhapuriyas. In Sirpur Inscription, Queen Vatasa, mother of King Mahasivagupta Balajurna of Pandu dynasty, had paid her homage to Lord Purusottam and sought the blessings of Narasimha. During the Somavamsi rule, Narasimha worship got a new impetus afterwards. Some of the ruling dynasties like Kadambas of Goa, the Imperial Gangas of Orissa and the Vijayanagar kings in India have Narasimha as their tutelary Deity.

From the Dasagoba copper plate of Rajarajadeva, it is revealed that Sri Laxmi Narasimha was the tutelary Deity of the Ganga. In the Kaleswar Siva Temple Inscription of Anangabhimadeva III, the Ganga ruler Chodagangadeva is compared with Narasimha. Four of the Ganga kings bore the title of Narasimha, which proves the popularity of Lord Narasimha of that time. As found in the Dynasty Ganga Vamsanucharita, from among the 27 kings of Eastern Ganga, seven kings before Chodaganga had the word Narasimha added to their names. Narasimha temples and Narasimha sculptures of large varieties of this time (10th to 13th c. AD) found in every nook and corner the State, prove the patronization of the cult by the ruling dynasties.

The association of Narasimha with Puri is unique. Puri is a recognized Vaisnavite centre of India, in the Province of Orissa. Puri came to prominence, not as a political centre but as a socio-religious and cultural centre. It has not been the capital of the kingdom at any point of history of Orissa. Therefore, the rise and fall of the dynasties in its long history have no role in the tale of the sanctity of the city. Puri is the site of the gods from time immemorial. Puri, the city of gods, was the land of Narasimha at one time, the land of Purusottama at other times, and finally the land of Lord Jagannath today.

With scanty historical sources, it is very difficult to reach a positive conclusion. Puri was under the domain of different dynasties ruling over the kingdom in different periods of history. We don't find any specific historical references about this place during the rule of the Chedis, Murundas, Matharas, Pitruvaktas, Vigrahas, Sailodvabas or the Bhaumakars. But during this period, Puri had gained a remarkable popularity as a place of religious importance and there are literary and archaeological references of Madhava worship by the tribals at this place. This led Dr. S.N. Rajaguru to justify that Madhavaraja II of Sailodvaba dynasty had established the shrine of Madhava at Puri and entrusted its management to some of his kinsmen, who were supposed to be tribals.

During this period the philosophy of Vaisnavism was divided into two sections, namely (1) Vaikhanasa School and (2) Pancaratrika School. The Vaikhanasa worshipped Visnu in three phases, namely Purusa (Omnipotent), Achyuta (imperishable), and Anirudha (unconstraint), while the later Pancaratrikas followed Chaturvyuha cult and worshipped Vasudeva, Sankarsana, Pradyumna, and Anirudha.

The Pancaratrika school might have gained popularity in Kalinga, Kangoda and other neighbouring tracts as long as the Sailodvabas continued their rule in that region. The Sailodvabas were the followers of Saivism. They must have constructed a large number of temples of Lord Siva in their dominion, surrounding all sides of Chilika Lake.

Srikshetra (Puri) was topographically a religious centre of Kangoda, where some muni-asramas were established in the temples of Markandeya (Markandeswar Sahi near Markanda temple and Markanda Tank), Angira (Dolamandap Sahi), Pandu or Kandu, (Gaudabada Sahi near Jameswar temple) and Bragu.

According to a system, introduced in Puri temples, the image of Sudarsana is carried to visit those risi-asramas on the auspicious days of Radhastami, Kumarotsava and Gamha Purnima. Sudarsana is to honour each sage at his temple or Asrama. That old system is still practised in Puri. According to Mahabharata (Banaparva), the Pandavas were advised by Lomasha-muni to visit some sacred places after they crossed the river Vaitarani on their way to Kalinga. Again, Pandit Nilakantha Das states that the Jinasana brought back by Kharavela in the 1st century B.C. was worshipped as Purusottama Jagannath at Puri. But for want of any convincing evidence, we are not able to accept it, although Puri was an ancient Tirtha where Tapasvinis were dwelling in the hill caves.

Some inscriptions of later Sailodvaba kings of Kongoda narrate the following verse, expressing that a king of that province could earn similar religious glory at his own capital as what the yogis and munis could achieve by performing hard austerity in mountain caves. Most probably, those hermits who lived in Kangodamandal were worshipping either Visnu or Siva in the coastal tracts, while in the hill areas, i.e., the western part of Kongoda, there lived Tantri yogis who were worshiping Devi (Durga) in the form of Stambheswari.

In the Bhagavata Gita, Sri Krisna says, "I am Visnu among the Adityas" (Adityanam aham Visnuh)". It is therefore presumed that Puri, the seat of Madhava-Narasimha-Purusottama, might not have experienced the apathy of Bhaumakaras who were not hostile to Brahmanism, though they were Buddhists. During the Somavamsi rule, the epoch-making event was the coming of Sankaracharya to Puri. The visit of Sankaracharya inspired Narasimha worship to be popular in this locality. It is believed that Sankar had the blessings of Laxmi-Narasimha and wrote Sri Laxminarasimha Pancharatna Stotram, Sankatanasan Laxmi-Narasimha Stotram, and the Bhasyas of Narasimha Tapini Upanisad.

Narasimha worship in the Govardhana Math and the figure of Sankar beneath the sculpture of Laxmi-Narasimha in the Jagamohana of Sri Laxmi temple of Shree Jagannath temple of Puri also associate Narasimha and Sankar. This fact is supplemented in the Skanda Purana (narration of Indradyumna) and the Narasimha temple construction near Gundicha temple.

A Telegu inscription of Chodagangadeva at Narasimha temple refers to Lord Narasimha worship in the pre-Ganga period. During the Ganga rule, after the coming of Sri Ramanuja of Sri Sampradaya, a devotee of Narasimha and promoter of Bhaktimarga, Narasimha Worship reached its climax. Narasimha worship reached every doorstep of Sakalautkala in general, and Puri in particular. It led Sena King Laxman to adopt the title of "Paramanarasimha."

Lord Narasimha became the Khetrapala, or the guardian Deity of the kshetra. At present, we find a dozen Narasimha temples in the city, with many more in the Maths of Sankar, Ramanuja, and Madhugaudeswara order, as well as in the Jagagharas. We also find Narasimha as Parswadevata in Vaisnava, Saiva and Sakti temples.

In tomorrow's segment, we will summarize twenty-three present day Narasimha temples in and around Jagannath Puri.


Adapted from an article by Professor Mohapatra in 'Orissa Review'.


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