Mathapalli-Lakshmi Narasimha Temple

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The thick forests of Andhra Pradesh seem to be the natural abode of the Lion-God Narasimha. MAYA NARASIMHAN writes about the five manifestations.

EACH REGION of India has a special place for its own God. Although temples abound for all deities of the Hindu pantheon everywhere in the country, a regional inclination is clearly visible. Thus we have the adoration for Krishna in Uttar Pradesh, the affection of Maharashtra for Ganesha, the reverence for Hanuman in Karnataka, the love of the Tamils for the "Tamil God" Muruga.

The presence of large tracts of forest and hills uninhabited for the most part, areas where lions would have freely roamed once, may be the reason why Andhra Pradesh seems to have evolved a distinct worship of Vishnu's fourth avatar, Narasimha. The paradox, a raw ferociousness suffused with an imponderable gentleness, is perhaps, what draws one again and again to the shrines of Narasimha.

It is not too long after our inspiring visit to Ahobilam that we decide to visit the temples of Narasimha near Vijayawada. As we thunder over the last bridge to the city 350 km from Chennai, water-starved souls that we are, we drink in with our every nerve the serene overflow of the river Krishna. Truly blessed are those who live on the banks of a river!

Our programme for the first day is Mattapalli, a temple to Narasimha, on the banks of the Krishna, 150 km from Vijayawada. Mattapalli, not very well-known some years ago, was made popular by the late Sri Mukkur Lakshminarasimhachariar, who unfailingly spoke about the Lord in all his discourses, and as those who had attended his discourses say, the Lord, too, spoke through him.

As we cross into the temple, we see the Krishna on our left. Like many a Narasimha temple, the one in Mattapalli is a cave. We file through a short narrow passage and face the God immediately. A bas-relief, the silver kavacham, displays a fierce lion form with tribal overtones, moustache and all. On the wall, next to the main deity is his consort Rajalakshmi. On her right can be seen a passage in the rock face, leading out, now blocked. This is the way to the river, through which the sage Bharadwaja is believed to have come every day to worship the deity. "A few years ago, the river in spate came in through here and engulfed the Lord," says the priest. "We have photographs."

The auspicious rituals are conducted and the priest continues with his story: "As you can see, this is a remote place. The Lord was worshipped only by the rishis and the devas. He then, appeared to a local, Masi Reddy, in a dream, told him the location of his abode which could be identified by the tree "the vedapatri," and instructed him to open up the cave so that human beings could also worship him.

``Masi Reddy could not find the tree at first. In his second attempt he saw a refulgent bird seated on it, and a monkey led him to the exact place in the face of the mountain that needed to be opened up.'' The temple closes at 12.30 p.m. and opens briefly before 1.30 p.m. for a final aarthi and distribution of prasadam. Suddenly, there are around 30 to 40 people there. The temple does not open in the evenings for they are held sacred for worship by the rishis.

We learn of other Narasimha shrines nearby. Mattapalli is actually the centre and in all four directions, there are other temples - Vedadri, Vadapally, Vethapuram and Mangalagiri - the pancha Narasimha kshetras.

Vedadri is only a short detour of 10 km on the way back to Vijayawada. A conventional temple, the deity has its own charm. The utsava idols are extraordinarily high and impressive. The dwajasthamba is of imposing girth and height. A rock , which is actually a Narasimha in shalagrama form, can be seen in the waters of the rivers.

Mangalagiri: Devotees know the place as the abode of Panaga Narasimha, seated on a hill, the deity for whom panagam - the jaggery beverage usually made for Sri Rama Navami and Narasimha Jayanthi - is the preferred offering.

It is early morning. As we ascend the shallow steps, 350 in number, the suburb of Mangalagiri, 10 km outside Vijayawada, reclines in soft monsoon green. Wherever we turn, the green rests our eye and the Cambodia like spire of the temple in the town seems to follow us on our climb.

This, too, is a cave temple. Hardly four can stand near the deity, that is enveloped in darkness for the most part, the single lamp suggesting rather than enlightening. All of us have opted for the jaggery panagam (Rs. 60) as against the kalkandu panagam (Rs. 40). The priest pours half of the panagam into the mouth of the deity. The deity does not accept more than half of what is offered.

Our rational minds quickly find an explanation for the happening. What is far more interesting is to see the deity without his silver armour. Here is no idol nor even a bas-relief. All we see is a ragged aperture in the cave face, and on either side are seen the ammonite- like whorls of the discus and the conch. Are these natural, or have they been carved in the remote past by some devotee - a tribal, a chieftain, a king?

Strange, Primordial. Our questions no longer have any relevance. Reason has no standing before faith.

We have a glass each of the other half of the panagam that is returned to us, to take home, if we so wish. "Though the outside teems with ants and flies, none can be seen where the offering is prepared," says our guide. That is an undeniable fact.

Another thirty steps take us up to the back of the cave where a charmingly animated Ranganatha with folklore features reclines. Another few steps and we are with Rajalakshmi, Consort of the Lord.

A certain commercialism hovers in the air - panagam Rs. 60 or Rs. 40 archana Rs. 10, darshan of the Lord without the kavacham Rs. 5. Yet, there would have been no rancour even if we had declined all the methods of pleasing the Lord.

With a last photograph of the gentle Garuda underneath the dwajasthamba itself, of pleasingly ancient and weathered wood, we wend our way to the temple of Sri Lakshminarasimha at the foot of the hill.

Several gopurams including the Angkor Wat-like one punctuate this traditional structure of Vijayanagar patronage. The sanctum is minimalist in tone and tenor, a refreshing change from garbagrihas in most temples. The Lord is supposedly ugra, angry and violent, yet it is a sense of shanti that one gains from him, perhaps because of Lakshmi seated on His lap, and who, unlike in other representations, looks not towards the devotees but towards the Lord in order to pacify Him.

The elderly priest performs the archana with sincere devotion. With genuine interest, he shows us the fabulous collection of shalagramas, indicating the individual markings that differentiate the Matsya from the Varaha, the Varaha from the Narasimha and all from the Anantha and Krishna. The temple also possesses a great valampuri shankhu, the second largest in India.

The idols of the Azhwars in the prakaram outside also possess special aesthetics, particularly Thirumangaiazhwar and Andal. The Bhattar follows to point out to us the original painting of the deity by Ravi Varma. Apparently the artist king had visited the temple in 1890. and had been so enamoured of the deity that he had immediately taken up his oils to enshrine his vision.

Lakshmi as Rajyalakshmi blesses devotees from Her own sanctum. As it was the auspicious Friday in the month of Adi, a group of women had brought what seemed to be 1,008 lotuses to decorate the Mother. In this small secondary shrine, beauty, peace and faith emanate from the gentle face of the Goddess.

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