Wildlife & Biodiversity

A leonine tale for Holi: Could the Asiatic Lion have inspired the figure of Narasimha?

Religious iconography cannot be mapped onto modern taxonomy, say experts

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 08 March 2023
A leonine tale for Holi: Could the Asiatic Lion have inspired the figure of Narasimha?
A popular representation of Narasimha disemboweling Hiranyakashipu with his nails on the walls of the ISCKON Temple in Pune. Photo: iStock A popular representation of Narasimha disemboweling Hiranyakashipu with his nails on the walls of the ISCKON Temple in Pune. Photo: iStock

It is Holi time again. Most of us today usually know the festival for its colours and sweets. Of course, the more spiritually-oriented do remember the Puranic legend on the basis of which it is celebrated: The story of Prahlada. Central to that tale is the character of Narasimha.

Narasimha, as I discovered while researching for this piece, is somewhat of an enigma in the Hindu pantheon. He is half-man, half-lion. The only theriomorphic deity that is popular across India, especially south of the Narmada.

But why a lion? Even more importantly, could He have been inspired by what was India’s National Animal till 1972: The Asiatic Lion?

The Asiatic Lion’s cultural impact on South Asia is well-known. Terms like Simhanada and Simhasana are derived from the Sanskrit Simha (‘Singh’ in Hindi and Punjabi, used mostly by Rajputs and Sikhs). The Buddha is known as Shakyasimha or ‘Lion of the Shakyas’. The island of Sri Lanka’s dominant ethnic group, the Sinhala, derive their name from Simha.

But there lies the catch. The Asiatic Lion’s range in ancient India was the northwest, north, west and central parts of the subcontinent. It was not found east of Palamu in Jharkhand and south of the Narmada (though some new studies dispute that).

How did the legend of Narasimha then come about?

Of lions and men

John S Guy, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City writes in his 2016 paper, Roaming the Land. Narasimha’s Journey from Mythic Hero to Bhakti Devotion: The Lion Avatar in South Indian Temple Drama:

His (Narasimha’s) origins are ancient, obscure and likely tribal. He emerges (or merges) first in the Mahabharata (400 BCE-200 CE) and then most clearly in the Puranic record as Narasimha, the ‘man-lion’, as one of Vishnu’s divine descents (avatars) to earth to restore order to the world of men.

Lavanya Vemsani in her 2017 paper, Narasimha, the Supreme Lord of the Middle: The Avatāra and Vyūha Correlation in the Purāṇas, Archaeology and Religious Practice notes that the story of Narasimha is mentioned in the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa and the following Puranas:

  • Vishnupurana
  • Bhagavatapurana
  • Agnipurana
  • Brahmandapurana
  • Vayupurana
  • Brahmapurana
  • Vishnudharmottarapurana
  • Padmapurana
  • Matsyapurana

Among the earliest sculptural representations of Narasimha is the one from Kondamotu in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh dating to the 4th century Common Era. It shows a theriomorphic lion holding a mace and a discus (emblematic of Vishnu) and surrounded by five heroes (Panchaviras) of the Vrishni clan — Balarama, Krishna, Samba, Pradyumna and Aniruddha.

However, Guy notes that there are sculptural representations of lion-headed beings that predate the Kondamotu relief.

“Yet evidence appears earlier in northern India for a lion-headed anthropomorph in the form of Narasimha’s female aspect, Narasimhi, included in one of the earliest ensembles of seven mother goddesses (Saptamatrikas), presided over by Skanda, from Kushana Mathura,” he notes.

Statue of Narasimha in Hampi, Karnataka. Photo: iStock

The presence of the lion-headed female form implies the presence of Narasimha in 2nd century north India, though his earliest appearance in the sculptural record appears to be the Mathuran Narasimha slaying Hiranyakashipu, likely dating to the 3rd/4th century, Guy says.

The lion as a motif in Hindu iconography may be ancient but Alexandra van der Geer, Dutch paleontologist, notes an interesting fact in her 2008 book, Animals in Stone. Indian fauna sculptured through time:

Many Indian lion sculptures thus bear features that cannot directly be traced back to a living lion.

Van der Geer makes this observation having enumerated the various styles of representation of the species across the subcontinent: As royal emblems; as statues; in reliefs; as mounts of Hindu gods and goddesses; depicted along with Buddhist Bodhisattvas and of course as the Lion Capitals, one of which is the Republic of India’s national emblem.

Well-known environmental historian Mahesh Rangarajan agrees. He says that animals have been icons in areas that lie far beyond their historic range.

For instance, the lion has been a royal symbol of England since the establishment of Norman rule during the Middle Ages though it is not native to the land. The snow lion is the national symbol of Tibet, where the snow leopard is the extant cat.

Lions are also the symbol of Singapore though it may be possible that the animal that Malay prince Sang Nila Utama saw on being shipwrecked on the island may have been a Malayan or Sumatran tiger. And of course, we have the lion of Prince Vijaya emblazoned on the standard of Sri Lanka, thought to be based on a banner that Vijaya himself brought to the island.

“The animal represents certain ideas or forces and is not to be seen in narrow zoological terms. Religious iconography or legend are not mapped on to modern taxonomy. It is not advisable to read off them as every animal may be an allegory,” Rangarajan told Down To Earth.

Vemsani interestingly notes that Narasimha is worshipped in forms other than a lion or a man-lion in the Telugu regions of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh:

Although literary evidence is lacking for the identification of Narasimha and his portrayal in the image of the cat, this motif finds expression in folk tales, sculptural depictions and practice. Narasimha is depicted as a cat on one of the pillars of the mandapa in the Narasimha temple at Simhachalam in Andhra Pradesh.

“Therefore, given the changeable identity of Narasimha he might be worshipped in regional religious practice as a lion, man-lion and also a cat,” she adds.

Aloka Parasher Sen, Professor Emerita, Department of Sanskrit Studies, University of Hyderabad, sums it up. “There is a network of ways in which myths have been spread around the subcontinent. The representation of Narasimha may not always have been based on a human observing a lion in its natural environment. Rather, I would say graphic descriptions like Narasimha disemboweling Hiranyakashipu get reflected more in art,” she told DTE.

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