In Hindu mythology, there is a concept of trinity, consisting of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. While Lord Brahma is considered as the creator of the universe, Lord Vishnu is the preserver of all the living essence of the universe and Lord Shiva is the destroyer or cosmic transformer as per Hindu philosophy. It is believed by the Hindus that, whenever humanity is threatened by chaos or the evil, Lord Vishnu descends to the earth in one of his incarnations to protect the devotees from the evil and to restore righteousness, order and peace. The incarnations are called Avatars and the Hindu scriptures speak of ten incarnations or Dashavatar.
As Lord Vishnu killed the demon king Hiranyaksha during his third incarnation as the Varaha avatar, his brother Hiranyakashipu was determined to take revenge by destroying Lord Vishnu and his followers. In the process to fulfill his desire, he impressed Lord Brahma by his penance and Lord Brahma offered him anything he wants. Hiranyakashipu was aware that the Gods rarely granted immortality. However, he took the opportunity and prayed for a tricky boon. As a result, he gained special power by which he could not be killed on earth or in space, neither during the day nor at night, neither inside nor outside of a house, neither by fire nor by water or any weapon and finally, nor by a human, animal or God.
Empowered with the divine blessings and virtually without any fear of death, Hiranyakashipu unleashed a reign of terror. He declared himself as the only god and instructed people not to worship any other god and utter no other god’s name in his domain. However, his son Prahlada, a devoted worshiper of Lord Vishnu, refused to obey his father’s order. As repeated warnings and pressurization yielded no results, Hiranyakashipu finally took the decision to kill his son. He arranged to poison Prahlāda, but he survived.
He had arranged to throw the boy before a mad elephant, but he was miraculously saved, as the elephant refused to trample him. He put Prahlāda in a room with venomous snakes and the snakes made a bed for him with their bodies. The failures made Hiranyakashipu desperate and he instructed to throw Prahlada from a valley into a river, but again he was saved by the mystical power of Lord Vishnu.
Finally, Hiranyakashyapu turned to his sister Holika, for help. He knew that Holika was blessed with a boon, which made her immune to fire. He asked Holika to enter a lighted pyre with Prahlada in her lap, as he was sure that, this time the arrogant boy would be devoured by fire and his sister would come out of the pyre safely. Legend says, at the end, Prahlada came out of the burning fire unharmed, while Holika was burned to death, because her boon was that she would be untouched by fire, only if she was alone. Hiranyakashyapu was out of his wits, as he saw the boy coming out of the fire unharmed , while chanting the name of the god.
As the enraged father asked to know the whereabouts of his god, the boy bravely declared the omnipresence of Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu pointed to a pillar and asked, if Vishnu is present in it and as Prahlada nods in affirmation, he forcefully kicked the pillar and shattered it into pieces. In that moment, Narasimha, the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, appeared from the broken pillar, took Hiranyakashipu on his lap and killed him during the twilight, which is neither a day nor a night, and killed him with his sharp nails.
There are seventeen versions of the story of Narasimha, found in a range of Puranas, such as the Matsya Purana, Padma Purana and Harivamsa. However, old versions are silent about the episode containing Prahlada, Hiranyakashipu and appearance of Narasimha out of a broken pillar, which appeared only in the post-Gupta period.
The word Narasimha is made up of two words, Nara or man and Simha, which means lion. In legends, Narasimha is depicted as a god with the face and claws of a lion with a human torso and lower body. There are nine forms of Narasimha, which are widely described as Ugra, Krodha, Malola, Jwala, Varaha, Bhargava, Karanja, Yoga and Laksmi Narasimha.
Narasimha is widely worshipped in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States in numerous temples and in numerous forms. Ahobilam temple in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh contains nine temples of Narasimha dedicated to the nine forms of Narasimha. Another important Narasimha shrine is the Panakala Narasimha Swamy temple at Mangalagiri in Andhra Pradesh. Famous Narasimha images can also be found in the Ellora caves in Maharashtra and Badami caves in Karnataka.