The worship of the Man-Lion incarnation or avatar of Vishnu is most common in Andhra Pradesh which also has almost all the temples dedicated to this Powerful aspect of the divine. One of the most prominent of such shrines is the cave temple of Yadagiri Gutta which is only 70 kms from the capital city of Hyderabad.
The temple has many unique features to it. One is that it is a cave temple that happens to be on the very summit of a hill. The conventional structure of a temple that is visible from the outside has been superimposed upon it. The second factor is that Yadagiri Gutta cave temple has five forms or Roopas of Narasimha, which is unusual too. And the third significant aspect is its fame as a spot for spiritual healing. All these factors have combined to make it one of the most popular pilgrimages in the state.
The origin myth of the temple is not too far from what is plausible and could even be the truth. Yadava, the son of the sage Rishyashringa, performed penance and mediation at this cave shrine and was rewarded with the blessings of the fierce Vishnu avatar. (For details on the Narasimha incarnation please look at our gods section.) That is quite likely how the place was discovered and became famous. Many generations of wandering sages would have come there to access the power inherent within the cave. Gradually, the living rock would be carved into the forms of the god.
Being perched on a mountain top in the midst of a forest would have prevented too much traffic. As modernization and road building techniques advanced, so did the popularity of the site. Only the very devout and traditional still take the old route from the bottom of the hill - it is a very steep climb on foot! The rest of us go up in vehicles and reach in ten minutes what would have taken at least two and a half hours. The temple authorities provide a regular bus service from the foot of the hill to the very gate of the temple.
The view from the top is indeed spectacular; the whole world seems to have fallen away, leaving you almost floating in a sacred space, unconnected with the mundane and the trivial. Temples were built on hills for precisely this reason and Narasimha, being a very volatile deity, was almost always isolated atop hills far from dense populations. Building temples over a secret, sacred cave was historically an instinctive human response. Even the great Pyramid of the Sun temple in South America is built over an original cave. This cave of Narasimha fulfils the normal criteria of being difficult to access, "Hidden" and overpowering. The cave actually forms a low arch almost grazing your head as you enter, believed to be the hand of the lord granting you Initiation by touching your head.
Yogis understand the touching of the crown of the head by the palm of the guru to be the most powerful form of initiation. To those open to such energy, it must have been an overwhelming infusion of Prana or Ki, blasting away one's accumulated patterns of habit and conditioning. That probably accounts for the fierce reputation of the resident Narasimha; the initiation would not have been a very gentle or enjoyable process, just hugely effective! In this case that is an especially valid consideration as the entire hill itself is supposed to be the body of the Ugra Narasimha, the Fierce Man-Lion.
Within the cave shrine, carved out of the living rock as are all the images, is the Jwala Narasimha, the Flame or Fire form which is difficult to see. Meditation upon this form is not easy, nor is it recommended, which explains why the sculptors made it especially difficult to access. Beside it is a very powerful Yoga Narasimha, the lord as a yogi, one of the popular representations. This form of Yoga Narasimha is both a granter of healing as well as spiritual benefits. It must have been the most popular aspect of the god when the shrine was visited only by wandering sadhus. Somebody carved a Hanuman beside the Yoga Narasimha too. Since Hanuman is associated with celibacy and the pursuit of spiritual knowledge, the original connection with yogis is strengthened. Hanuman is also regarded as the servant of Vishnu, so he deserves a place.
What attracts the pilgrim today however is the form of the Laxmi Narasimha, the Lord with his consort, the goddess of fortune. It seems to have been the last carved image, largest in size, and is overlaid with decorations as is the penchant in temples. His hand is raised in the Abhaya Dana Mudra, the granting of fearlessness. This hand has been given a golden glove so densely studded with diamonds you cannot put a finger nail between them. It is a strange sight in a cave that was once used exclusively for meditation but the pilgrims seem to like it. The fifth form of the god is invisible, as the nature of God will always elude human attempts to concretize it.
This form is called Gandaberunda, is supposed to be to be actually present in the ledge below the cave where an eternal flame burns with the power of the god. Apparently only great spiritual giants can actually have the vision of this form of Narasimha. I didn't. Given the conveyor belt worship organized by the authorities now, it is doubtful if anybody does.
The rest of the temple is unimpressive, even if the hall too is carved out of the rock. It has been decorated with paintings detailing the exploits of Narasimha and they are so exquisitely horrible that they charm. No photos are allowed, so take my word for it. There is a little independent shrine to Laxmi as well as to the Alwars who did so much to propagate the Vishnu cult in the south of India. The cave shrine itself has now been provided with electricity, a potential mistake. Lamplight flickering off the golden hue of the images of god would have provided a far more authentic experience. Pilgrims however come in swarms now and there is no time for niceties like waiting in meditation and allowing the lamp light to reveal the form of the Lord emerging in glittering awareness through the darkness of the cave. That was an allegory of the beclouded and darkened human mind suddenly bursting through to the truth because one has awakened the light.
There is a rest house of sorts organized by the temple authorities besides the shrine. This is for those who spend the traditional forty day retreat recommended for full healing of the body, mind and spirit. The rest of the hilltop is becoming the typical temple town trash, but that is understandable too. A temple without noise and shops would not be feasible in today's environment. Entry is now being regulated with fees for jumping the long snaking lines that form outside. That is not a bad idea actually, or the temple would be given over to chaos. The popularity of the temple is growing, but it has not yet peaked; visiting it soon would give you the only chance to have a reasonable darshan and enjoy the ambiance. In a decade it will be beyond all human control.