Figure of Narasimha

From Tamil Nadu, southern India
Chola dynasty, around AD 950

Vishnu in his man-lion avatara

The fourth (of ten) avatara or 'descent' of the Hindu god Vishnu is Narasimha, the man-lion. The main story concerning Narasimha goes as follows: a devotee of Shiva named Hiranyakashipu had obtained the gift of immortality but with some conditions. He was safe except from a being that was neither man nor beast, at a time when it was neither day nor night, and in a place that was neither inside nor outside his palace. Hiranyakashipu's son Prahlada, however, was a worshipper of Vishnu and when Hiranyakashipu threatened his life, Narasimha came to save him. Narasimha is neither man nor beast, but both, and he seized Hiranyakashipu at sunset (neither day nor night) in the porch of the palace (neither inside nor out) bursting dramatically from a column of the verandah. Throwing the king across his lap he tore him apart.

Narasimha's bloodthirsty animal nature suggests that in origin he was a tribal deity. The myth, with each deity vying for supremacy, is also interesting as a record of rivalry between the worshippers of Vishnu and Shiva. In the Shaiva myth of Lingodbhava it is Shiva who is victorious, while in this myth it is Vishnu.

This sculpture of Narasimha from southern India follows typical Vishu images. The figure holds Vishnu's attributes, the conch and discus in his upper hands, while bestowing protection with his lower right hand. What distinguishes this sculpture is the lion's head. The rough base and back of this granite sculpture indicates that it was made as an image for a niche in a temple. In this it closely resembles the Linghodhbhava and Dakshinamurti sculptures of Shiva also in the British Museum.

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Height: 1.090 m

Museum number

Asia OA 1963.10-15.2


Brooke Sewell Fund


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