The sentinels at Vishnu’s door, Jaya and Vijaya were cursed by Narada to be born thrice as Rakshasas for their discourtesy towards him. When they begged his pardon he mitigated the curse by stating that Lord Vishnu would vanquish them in each of their incarnations and after the third they would regain their status. They were thus born as Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu, Ravana and Kumbhakarna and finally as Kamsa and Sishupala. Each time they met their end at the hands of Vishnu and finally attained salvation.
Hiranyaksha kidnapped Bhumidevi and hid her in the ocean and Vishnu took the form of a boar and searched for her. He brought her to safety by placing her on his snout and then fought and killed Hiranyaksha. Hiranyakashipu the younger brother then performed great penances and desired the boon of immortality from Brahma. When the Creator said that was not possible, Hiranyakashipu prayed for the boon that he could be killed neither by living tissue nor weapon, neither at night nor during the day, neither by man nor beast, neither on earth nor in the sky and neither indoors nor outdoors. Armed with this boon he became the master of the three worlds. Much to his sorrow, his son Prahlada was born as a die-hard devotee of Vishnu. This was owing to Lilavati or Kayadu, his wife having been looked after by Narada when she was pregnant. The angry Rakshasa tried to make his son see sense and when he proved obstinate tried his level best to have him killed only to fail in all his attempts. The final denouement took place in the throne room where Hiranyakashipu threatened to kill his son himself and mocked him by asking him if Vishnu would now come to the boy’s rescue. The Lord did and he came as a half-man half-beast. Having picked up Hiranyakashipu he took him to the portal of the palace (neither indoors nor outdoor), placed him on his lap (neither on earth nor in the sky) and tore him apart with his nails (neither living tissue nor weapon). It was the twilight hour (neither day nor night) and so the boon of Brahma was fulfilled. Prahlada was made king of the Rakshasas and Vishnu as Narasimha retired to perform penance and rid himself of the anger he had exhibited in killing Hiranyakashipu. He was pacified by Prahlada and Goddess Lakshmi.
Various manifestations of Narasimha exist in temples all over India. In the South, they are popular particularly in the Andhra region, though several temples exist in Tamil Nadu as well. Narasimha shrines are usually rock-cut cave temples perhaps in keeping with the deity’s leonine character. The deity is usually depicted in one of three forms – ugra or angry wherein he is either in the process of slaying Hiranyakashipu or has just completed the deed, yoga where he is in deep meditation and the third is where he is in the company of his consort Lakshmi.
The powerful imagery of Narasimha has exercised a fascination over seers, philosophers, hymnodists, composers and singers. Even Nammazhwar who never stirred out of the tamarind tree which he made his home and to whom the deities of 37 great temples manifested themselves so that he could sing on them, composed on Narasimha. In his unique style, he composes of a maiden pining for Narasimha in his Adi Adi Akam Karainthu. The romantic side of the lion-faced God as depicted by Nammazhwar was used once again many centuries later by Bangalore Nagarathnamma in her Matada Baradeno which depicts a maiden yearning for union with the Narasimha of Namakkal. Adi Sankara composed the Lakshmi Nrsimha Karavalambana Stuti. Legend has it that Padmapada, one of Sankara’s four chief disciples would often be a medium for the manifestation of Narasimha and on one occasion saved Sankara from being sacrificed by a Kapalika. Vedanta Desika, the great Vaishnavite scholar composed his Kamasikashtakam on Lord Narasimha enshrined at the temple of Velirukkai in Kanchi. This is a divya desam as it was sanctified by Azhwars and the Lord here is referred to as Kamasika Narasimhan as he is said to have settled (Asika) here to meditate of his own free will (Kama). The deity is in yogic posture and has three eyes, a feature that is also seen in the Narasimha at the Singaperumal Koil near Madras.
Dikshitar’s Naraharim Ashrayami (Jayashuddhamalavi) is traditionally believed to be a part of his suite of songs composed in the 72 raganga ragas as part of his teaching music to the Tanjavur quartet. It is therefore likely that it is composed on the Narasimha shrine (Tanjai Yali) in Tanjavur. Sholinghur is yet another holy shrine dedicated to Narasimha who is here seated in yogic posture atop a hill called the Ghatikachala. It takes its name from the legend that Narasimha at the end of his incarnation stopped here for a second (ghatika) to bless the seven sages. Opposite the hill is yet another with a shrine for a four-armed Anjaneya, also in yogic posture. Muttuswami Dikshitar composed twin kritis on the two shrines. His song Narasimha Agachcha is in Mohanam and has a fast-paced madhyamakala sahityam which almost evokes a picture of Narasimha bursting forth from the pillar. The song on Anjaneya which has many lyrical similarities to that on Narasimha is in Nata. Tyagaraja is also believed to have visited Sholinghur during his travels. His songs on Narasimha (Narasimha Nanu Brovave/ Sri Narasimha Mam Pahi) do not mention any kshetra by name. It is however significant to mention that among the two operas by Tyagaraja, the Prahlada Bhakta Vijaya extols the virtues of Narasimha’s greatest devotee.
The Ananthpadamanabhaswami Temple in Tiruvanantapuram houses a shrine for a powerful manifestation of Narasimha and it is therefore but natural that Swati Tirunal, the ruler and composer should dedicate songs to this deity. His Narasimha Mamava (Arabhi) is one such creation. Pallavi Sesha Iyer, a composer of the 18th century created Dalachi Dalachi in raga Kiravani on Narasimha. Mysore Sadasiva Rao, one among the great composers in the Wallajahpet lineage of Tyagaraja’s disciples, was a Narasimha upasaka. It is said that when he once sang his kriti Narasimhududayinche in Kamalamanohari, the picture frame of the deity was shattered indicating that the Lord was listening to the kriti with enjoyment. Bangalore Nagarathnamma has gone on record stating that when she first had a vision of Tyagaraja in her dreams, this was the song she sang in gratitude. Her illustrious contemporary Mysore Vasudevachar created Manasa Vachasa in raga Begada in praise of the deity.