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Simhachalam temple — magnificent architecture and sculpture

The temple at Simhachalam is rich in its architectural beauty and sculpture which is a combination of the Konarak's Sun temple and the styles of the Chalukyas and the Cholas. R. KRISHNAMURTHY writes...



The main gopuram of Sri Narasimha Swamy temple ... in a beautiful background.

A TRIP to Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh stands incomplete without a visit to Sri Lakshminarasimha Swamy or Varahanarasimha Swamy temple at Simhachalam, also known as Ahobilam.

Simhachalam, 15 km from Visakhapatnam in the north-west direction, is situated atop the thickly forested Ratnagiri hill. Buses ply from Visakhapatnam up to the foot of the hill. From the foot of the hill to the top, there is a separate bus service run by the Andhra Pradesh State Transport Corporation. The ghat section runs over a distance five five kms. Only car and buses are allowed on the ghat section. Since we hired an autorickshaw from Visakhapatnam to Simhachalam and back, we had to leave the autos at the foot of the hill, and board the bus. Similar to Tirupati, here too, there is a long queue of passengers waiting to visit the temple.

The temple faces west. With its hilly backdrop covered with verdant vegetation, it looks resplendently beautiful, with a five-tier Rajagopuram and a white coloured sikara rising over the sanctum sanctorum. A flight of steps leads to the northern gateway, an elaborately decorated three-tier gopura, which gives access to the visitors to the side entrance of the ardha mantapa. The icon, a combination of Varaha and Narasimha is always anointed with sandal paste in order to mitigate its `ugra'. It is believed that the presiding deity was originally Shiva, but He was replaced by the incarnation of Vishnu after the Vaishnavite apostle, Shri Ramanuja visited the place in the 11th century.

The cubical shaped sannidhi is centrally located in the quadrangle. The dwajasthamba, a metallic piece with an artistic design, is in front of the maha mantapa. The walls of the garbagraha carry fine sculptures in the niches, which have been sculpted in Hoysala style. Lord Narasimha in a standing posture tearing open the entrails of Hiranyakasipu with ferocity by placing him on his left thigh is well delineated in a sculpture on the southern wall of the garbagraha. While His fore arms are laid on Hiranyakasipu, the rear right and left arms hold the ghatyam and conch respectively. Prahalada is found beneath the panel supplicating to the Lord. Just above this is a beautiful panel of Kalinganardhanam of Lord Krishna. The delineation of Narasimha is rather unique in this temple. Another piece of sculpture, on the northern wall, is that of Varahamurthy, which attracts attention with its sculptural delineation, similar to that of Belur and Halebedu. Just above this panel is that of Lord Krishna holding aloft the Govardhanagiri over the herd of cows which seek protection from the torrential rain caused by Indra.



A unique statue of Lord Narasimha ... in a standing posture.

The architecture of the temple is a combination of that of Konarak's Sun Temple, those of Chalukyas and the Cholas. In fact coastal Andhra — from Visakhapatnam to Srikakulam — was under the Gajapathis of Orissa (1470-1541 A.D.) As in Konarak, the three-tier sikara rising over the sanctum sanctorum is shaped like a stepped pyramid, and is profuse with ornamentation. The temple was built in the 9th or the 10th century, and was extensively rebuilt in the 13th century. There are 525 inscriptions in this temple, and the earlier one dates back to 1087 A.D.

The corners of the base of the sikara bear lion statuettes symbolising Lord Narasimha. On the eastern face of the sikara are found the sculptures of Indra on his mount, Iravatha, and lower down Gajalakshmi. Capping the sikara is the gold plated dome with the Vaishnavite symbol held aloft.

Around the inner prakara is found the 96-pillared Kalyana mantapa. The shape of the pillars, the ornamentation on them, and the cornices stand on a unique pedestal. To the right of the northern entrance is the 16-pillared natya mantapa. These pillars carry simhalalathas or lion's head at the base. While the `jagatti' or the railed parapet around the ardha mantapa carries a row of well-sculpted elephants, which denotes strength, the inner `jagatti' around the garbagraha carries a row of swans. Just above this is the scrollwork with sculpted figures at intervals. Then above this is a row of smaller simhalalathas interspersed with other figures. By the side of niches are the simhalalathas riding over elephant on the supporting pillars. The capital, architrave, frieze and cornice of the column are beautifully shaped. In between the pillars is the convolution carrying figures. The eaves of the sidewalls carry excellent filigree work in stone. A study of the pillars in the Kalyana mantapa and the sculptures in the niches reveals that basalt and schist appear to have been the media with which the artisans worked.

Devout pilgrims have their heads tonsured as a sort of offering to the Lord. Since Simhachalam was for sometime under Vijayanagar empire, its influence is also felt on this temple. In fact Krishna Devaraya of Vijayanagar captured Udayagiri (Nellore district) in 1541 A.D. and Kondavidu (guntur district in 1515 A. D. from Prataparudra Gajapathi of Orissa.

In the following year he advanced as far as Simhachalam and erected a pillar of victory.

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