Killing An Asura In Style

by Swarajya Staff - May 6, 2015 11:00 PM +05:30 IST
Killing An Asura In Style

Hiranyakashipu-vadha. In all its gory detail.

Hiranyakashipu, to avenge the death of his brother, vows to kill Vishnu. He performs austerities and penance to appease Brahma and be blessed with a boon of immortality. Learning from Brahma that what gets created must have an end; Hiranyakashipu asks a boon of reaching his death in a scenario that is most improbable.

The asura asks and gets from Brahma a boon by which he cannot be killed by any creation of Brahma –man, woman or animal, by Gods or demons, with any weapon neither indoor nor outdoor, neither at day nor night; on earth or in space. Hiranyakashipu had it all thought through and there was no one who would dare to question his supremacy – except for his little son Prahalada.

When the demon king was in his penance, the Gods took it as an opportune moment and attacked the Asura kingdom. Sage Nerada took Hiranyakashipu’s wife Kayadu who had no faults and who at the time was pregnant with Prahalada under his protection. The early association with the sage results in Prahalada growing up as an ardent devotee of Vishnu.

Hiranyakashipu’s hatred for Vishnu overpowers the fatherly love for his own son. The fact that Prahalada, his son, considers Vishnu, the sworn enemy as the supreme lord infuriates the demon to an extent where he is prepared to kill his own son. Many attempts go futile as Vishnu time and again rescues his devotee.  One evening in an altercation Hiranyakashipu asks his son why he considers Vishnu supreme. To this, his son’s response is that his devotion persists because Vishnu is the caretaker of the universe, who is omnipresent and the one from whom everything starts and ends. The Asura announces that he is stronger than everything and everyone and asks whether if Vishnu is really omnipresent, whether he’s present amongst them at the moment in the pillars of the palace. Prahalada answers in the affirmative.

The legend is that a livid Hiranyakashipu smashes a pillar with his mace and cracking open the pillar Vishnu appears in form of a roaring Narasimha (Nara = man, Simha = Lion) – an angry and powerful creature that has body of a man with head and claws of a lion.

As dusk approached, a raging Narasimha is said to have sat on the threshold of the palace with Hiranyakashipu on his lap and split open the asuras’s belly using nothing but claws – fulfilling all criteria of a highly improbable scenario that Hiranyakashipu had envisaged.  Narasimha was not a man, woman or animal created by Brahma, no weapons were used, a threshold is neither indoor nor outdoor, dusk is neither day nor night and being on a lap is neither earth nor space.

In this episode of poetry in stone we look at sculptures that communicate the end of Hiranyakashipu (Hiranyakashipuvadha) in vivid detail.

Simhachalam, Vishakhapatnam

Simhachalam is a temple dedicated to Narasimha located near the city of Vishakhapatnam. According to Wikipedia, the oldest of the more than 252 inscriptions dates back to 1098 AD of the Chola King Kuloththunga.

Killing An Asura In Style

The statue here has Narasimha in a standing posture with four arms, two of which have their fingers inside the belly of Hiranyakashipu, tearing it open. The lion face is fiery and has a flared up mane with eyes popping out in anger. The mouth is open, ready to eat warm flesh that the fingers are clawing out from the torn belly of the Asura.

Narasimha is almost three times the size of the demon with the torso that is well built which signifies the disparity in strength between the two.

Hiranyakashipu is shown with his limbs and head hanging in air while the back is supported by the left thigh of Narasimha. The left foot is raised up and placed on a threshold that has a lotus design.

Chennakesava Temple, Belur

Belur was the early capital of the Hoysala Empire and the Chennakesava temple dedicated to Vishnu is the main attraction of this town. Chennakesava (Chenna+Kesava) means “Handsome Vishnu”.

The “Hiranyakashipu vadha” sculpture at Belur is the best in depicting the carnage. Narasimha is shown with eight arms in a sitting posture with the demon on his lap. Two arms are clawing out the insides of the demon. The artist has shown it in such great detail that one can see intestines slipping out from where the hands are tearing open the belly.

Killing An Asura In Style

Hiranyakshipu is lying on his back with one leg dangling in the air while another is held by one of the arms of Narasimha. Sharp teeth, which make up for the lack of a mane, symbolize the lion face and the expression which doesn’t depict the emotion of an animal ready to eat its prey, but depicts an expression of anger, disgust and resentment.

The arms and fingers holding the multiple weapons are delicately carved out. Narasimha is also depicted with a larger size in proportion to the demon

Thirukkurungudi Temple, Tirunelveli

Located in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu this temple is one of the 108 divya desam temples sacred to Vaishnavites.

From this temple we see two sculptures – one depicting the capture and another which depicts the slaying of Hiranyakashipu. In both Narasimha is more than twice the size of the Asura and has eight arms.

Killing An Asura In Style

In one of the sculptures, Hiranyakashipu is being taken captive by the multiple armed Narasimha. One arm is strangling the neck while another is locking his waist and two others are clamping the legs. Hiranyakashipu is shown with a dagger in his hand trying in vain to attack Narasimha. In the other, Narasimha is in a sitting posture with Hiranyakashipu on his lap and one of his hands is ready to claw into the belly another is holding the demon in position.

In spite of carrying the same mythological story, it is easy to notice that they do not represent the same level of gore as the one’s seen in Simhachala and Belur.

Kailasanatha Temple, Kanchi

Killing An Asura In Style

Located in Tamil Nadu, the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple is one of the oldest structures in Kanchipuram. This temple was built between 685-705AD by a Pallava dynasty ruler named Rajasimha.

The depiction here is that of an ongoing fight between Narasimha and Hiranyakashipu. Though not very clear, Narasimha seems to have multiple arms. However two arms can be seen clearly – the right arm lifted above and the left arm holding the right arm of the demon.  The thick swinging Yajnopavitamas of both adds to the drama of the fight. Lion face is evident though not very articulate.

Dilwara Temples, Rajashthan

Dilwara temples are jain temples located near Mount Abu in Rajashtan. Built by Vastupal Tejpal between the 11th and 13th century, they are world famous for their use of marble. A depiction of Hiranyakashipu Vadha can be found here also.


Killing An Asura In Style

The scene is depicted on a panel that has a lotus at the centre and an intricate floral pattern on all sides. Narasimha is depicted as sitting on top of Hiranyakashipu’s chest who uses a few of his multiple arms to hold and tear the demon apart. The lion face lacks a mane but has tiny ears and a tongue jutting out.

Banteay Srei, Cambodia

Banteay Srei, as we have introduced earlier in this series is a 10th century Shiva temple built in red sandstone located near Angkor in Cambodia. A portrayal of Hiranyakashipu Vadha can be seen in one of the pediments here.


Killing An Asura In Style

Though the pediment is filled with designs, the elements related to this story are minimal yet intricate. In the centre is Narasimha with mount open, ready to bite into the belly of Hiranyakashipu. The demon is depicted inverted to suggest that he’s lying on the lap of Narasimha. Pay attention to the earrings worn by the demon to appreciate the attention to detail of the artist.

The main characters are surrounded by floral designs that have devotees with folded hands.

The story of Hiranyakashipu is yet another from the many in our mythology that corroborates the cycles of life and the ills of not being righteous irrespective of who you are. According to legend the brothers Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu are actually Jaya & Vijaya, the dwarapalakas of Vaikuntha cursed to be born as enemies of Vishnu – because they disrespected the Four Kumaras. Hiranyakashipu was born to none other than sage Kashyapa, one of the Saptarishis – all because the sage engaged in intimate activities at an inauspicious time.

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