The Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha temple, Simhachalam is a Hindu temple situated on the Simhachalam hill, which is 300 metres above the sea level in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.
Simhachalam is the second-largest after Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh in terms of income earned; as of 2013, the earnings stood at ₹60 crores (600 million). It is the first temple in the north coastal region of Andhra Pradesh and second in the entire state (after the Satyanarayana temple in Annavaram) to follow the cashless system. Point of sale systems. provided by the State Bank of India and Andhra Bank, are used for accepting donations and gifts from devotees.
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.
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.
Origins of the temple
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 religious practices and customs of the temple are formulated by Ramanuja and his followers like Anandalvan. They are similar to the ones followed in South Indian Vaishnavite temples such as Tirumala, Srirangam, and the Varadharaja Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram. The prayers are made as per the Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, Antaryami, and Archa traditions of Vishnu. The religious practices are modelled based on the Satvata Samhita, one of the 108 texts of the Pancharatra Agama. There are five metallic idols associated with the deity which serve as the substitute of the moolavar for certain practices. Yogananda Narasimha is the snapana bera (bathing idol), Govindaraja is the utsava bera (festival idol), and Sudarshana Chakra is the bali bera (guardian idol). Madanagopala and Venugopala, two forms of Krishna, are the kautuka bera (representative idol) and the sayana bera (sleeping idol) respectively.
The deity worship commences in the morning around 5:30 AM. The inner gates of the temple are opened and the Vayu mantra is recited. The priests chant the Suprabhatam for about an hour and half as a prelude to the regular worship activities. It is accompanied by people playing nadaswaram (pipe instrument). The laghvarchana (preliminary worship) is performed; priests offer jaggery and coconut after which the mangala harathi (incense) is provided to the deity. Devotees are allowed to visit the sanctum sanctorum from 6:30 AM for the next five hours. The actual worship continues up to 8:00 AM which consists of shodasha upachara (sixteen services). Abhisheka (anointment) is performed to the Yogananda Narasimha idol. The last phase of the morning worship is the Baliharana (pacification ceremony), where a portion of the consecrated food is offered to the spirits. Sudarshana Chakra idol is used in this phase. The morning rituals in the sub-temples follow a similar pattern, with the preliminary worship and offerings provided in each temple in succession.
After 11:00 AM, the temple’s mid day worship begins. After half an hour, rajabhoga (main offering) is offered to the deity. The pilgrims are not allowed to visit the sanctum for the next half an hour. Rajabhoga consists of cooked rice, dal, soup, cooked vegetables, ghee and curd. Another half an hour break is given to the deity at 2:30 PM. Devotees are then allowed to visit the sanctum up to 7:00 PM. In the evening worship, which begins at 6:00 PM, begins with the Divviti Salam (salute with torches) ceremony. Two men go round the temple; one holds a torch and the other plays a drum. The rituals offered in the evening are similar to that of the morning worship. The importance given to music is the major deviation. Night offering is provided to the deity. Devotees are allowed to have a glimpse of the deity for half an hour from 8:30 PM. At 9:00 PM, sayana seva (sleeping ritual) is performed and the temple is closed.
Devotees can take part in two special rituals that are conducted in the temple. One is the Nithya kalyanam (regular marriage) of the deity which is conducted everyday. The other one is the Swarnapushpa archana (worship with golden flowers). It is conducted along with the morning worship rituals on every Thursday. Other notable rituals of similar nature are the Sahasranama archana (recital of thousand names), Garuda seva, and cow worship to name a few.
Majority of the donations made to the Simhachalam temple are related to the conduction of festivals. The festivals are referred to with the name utsavas. Except for Kumara Punnami, almost all the utsavas are celebrated even today. The utsavas are divided into two categories: those governed by the Agama texts and the ones regulated by the customs and traditions (sishtachara). The performances and festivals are also classified into daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, and annual ones. These are meant for the material and spiritual progress of humans apart from their yogakshema (well being).
The festivals celebrated in Simhachalam have an influence of the Dravida Sampradaya, the customs followed in Tamil Nadu. The influence is observed in the way the deities are referred to as, and the usage of the word ‘Thiru’ for few things connected with the temple and its practices. Also, the celebrations take place at a time governed by the Suryamaana (sun-centric) system followed in Tamil Nadu, unlike that of Andhra Pradesh which follows Chaandramaana (lunar-centric) system. Kalyanotsava (celestial marriage) and Chandanotsava (sandalwood festival) are the two most important annual utsavas celebrated in the temple among others.