Early Narasimha sculptures from Karnataka

Narasimha, the fourth incarnation of Vishnu, is an important form in Indian sculpture and painting. The zoo-anthropomorphic form has been a popular divinity.

Published: 23rd December 2021 01:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd December 2021 07:48 AM   |  A+A-

Narasimha sculpture in kevala (benign) form found at Halasi, Belgaum district (Kadamba, datable to early 4th century CE)

Narasimha, the fourth incarnation of Vishnu, is an important form in Indian sculpture and painting. The zoo-anthropomorphic form has been a popular divinity. The form of Narasimha was exclusively manifested to punish Hiranyakashipu to protect his child devotee Prahlada. The Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana have elaborate accounts of the narration of this incarnation of the God to protect Prahlada from his father Hiranyakashipu. The death of Hiranyakashipu at the hands of Narasimha has been vividly narrated in Indian mythology and lore. There are many mantra-stutis done by various seers and saints in ancient India: Child devotee Prahlada, Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya have written stutis to please the mighty God. In their prayers, Narasimha’s person, mane, anger and sharp nails have been praised. 

It is interesting to note that we are only aware of this Ugra (fierce) form of Narasimha in most of early literature, while his kevala/girija (benign) forms are scarce. However, in early Indian sculpture, images have been surprisingly only seen in the latter form. Early examples of Narasimha began to be carved around the 3–4th centuries CE. The Guptas, Vakatakas (Vidarbha), Vishnukundins (Andhra) and Kadambas (Karnataka) are some of the rulers who patronised the Vedic faith during these centuries, and Hindu art and architecture began to flourish everywhere.

There are a good number of Narasimha images found in Karnataka that are datable to the 4–6th centuries CE. The Narasimha sculptures from the Kadamba period are undoubtedly the earliest examples in peninsular India. A majority of the images depict the God’s post-combat form and the physical features show that they represent the benign aspect of the deity. In this form, the deity is shown in seated or standing posture and sometimes with his ayudhas. The artists of the Kadamba period favoured the seated form of Narasimha. Before the introduction of the zoo-anthropomorphic form, they employed the zoomorphic form of the deity.

A zoomorphic stone image of Narasimha has been found in the Kodlu forest, near Tirthahalli in Shimoga district. The image is shown seated in a rampant position and is being worshipped even today by the locals. The zoo-anthropomorphic representation of Narasimha is also found in good numbers all over the Kadamba region. What we are generally acquainted with is the Ugra form of the God shown as tearing open the entrails of Hiranyakashipu. However, the early forms of Narasimha found in the Kadamba region are totally different. The figures are generally shown in seated postures in sukhasana or savyalalitasana. Three types of deities may be found in the region: Narasimha sculptures depicted without any weapons in the hands; sculptures with the bahubijaphala (auspicious seed, fruits) held in the right hand, while the left is again idle; Narasimha figures with either shankha or chakra as their attribute. Interestingly, the majority of the images found so far and datable to the Kadamba period have two hands. Most of them are simple in form; they have minimal decoration and in a noteworthy feature, the yajnopavita (sacred thread) is absent.  Interestingly, the lotus is invariably depicted on the head of the figure. In many examples, the lotus motif is shown like a crown (Padma Sirsha), with a central projection and petals spreading evenly all around. The lotus symbolises the samyak jnana (supreme knowledge) of a person.

Narasimha in kevala form found at Halasi (Belgaum district) has simple features. The image, about two feet in height, is depicted as seated in sukhasana and holding a saligrama (auspicious stone) in the right hand, while the left hand is kept on the thigh. The details of the face are very much lion-like. The mane is shown in circular form as freely spread around the neck. The physique of the deity is realistically rendered. A lotus is carved over the head and the deity wears a dhoti up to the knees. The sculpture is dated to the early 4th century CE. Its typology may also be compared with its counterpart in Ramtek near Nagpur. 

The deity’s images found in Kubaturu and Kuppagadde in Shimoga district,
Basruru in  Uttarakannada district and Nilogal in Koppal district
(Kadamba, later partof 4th century CE) 

More refined features in Narasimha sculptures may be seen in the images found at Kubaturu and Kuppagadde (Shimoga district), Basruru and Mugduru-Sampikeri (Uttarakannada District), and Nilogal (Koppal district). The Narasimha sculptures are depicted as seated in sukhasana. The bodily details are better rendered. The torso, arms, legs and facial details are carved realistically. The deity also has a lotus crown, shown projected upward. The mane is divided into wavy locks and spread evenly on either side of the face. The deity has a coiled armlet, bangle-like wristlets and twisted, thick rope-like waistband. These Narasimha images are more developed in their physical modulation than the Halasi sculpture and may be dated to the later part of the 4th century CE. All the images found in the Kadamba region have been carved in local stone. A terracotta image of Narasimha from Nilogal is the only sculpture found so far in that medium. The face and left side shoulder are badly mutilated, but with its existing features, it may be confirmed to be the imagery of Narasimha. The images developed as independent sculptures with two arms, without or with weapons, and exhibit early features. Stylistically and formally, they are coeval in date and iconography to those found in North India and Vidarbha. The tradition of similar image-making was later inherited by the early Chalukyas of Badami.

Narasimha as an early avatara of Vishnu became very popular among the Bhagavatic practitioners. The benign form of Narasimha was developed with a great sense of devotion. Perhaps the earliest example of Narasimha in combat can be seen only in 578 CE at Cave 3 in Badami. In the post-Chalukya era, Narasimha developed as an independent cultic deity, venerated by a large number of people.

R H Kulkarni
Professor, Dept of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath



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