Maṭhas (monasteries) and maṭhādhi-patis (pontiffs) have played a very signi-ficant role in spreading, consolidating and preserving Hindu religion and culture among the masses. A maṭha is more than just a monastery, though the residence of the monk or monks is an important and integral part of the same. A temple, an auditorium and a school for the pursuit of religious and philosophical studies exist invariably in any maṭha of repute.
Among the more well-known of such maṭhas, the Ahobila Maṭha of the Śrī-vaiṣṇavas which follows the Viśiṣṭādvaita school of philosophy propagated by Rāmānuja (A. D. 1017-1137) and others has carved out an important place for itself.
Ahobila is an important place of pilgrimage situated in the Vedācala hill range of the Eastern ghats. It is about 23 kilometers (15 miles) from Āḷḷagaḍḍa, in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. When Mahāviṣṇu manifested himself in the form of Narasiṁha (‘man-lion’) and killed the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu with his bare hands, the gods are said to have exclaimed ‘aho! balam!’ (‘Wonderful is the strength!’). Since many stone icons of this Narasiṁha aspect are found in the several ‘bilas’ or caves of this place, the place itself has been named ‘Aho-bilam.’
The founder-pontiff of the Ahobila Maṭha was Ādivaṇa-Śaṭhagopa-Yatīndra-Mahādeśikan, known as Śrīnivāsa in his premonastic days. Born in A. D. 1378 in Tirunārāyaṇapura (the present Melkote near the Mysore City of Karnataka) and brought up in a holy and scholarly atmosphere, Śrīnivāsa was commanded in a vision by Lord Narasiṁha to go to Ahobila and take saṁnyāsa (monastic order). Accordingly he went there and was initiated into saṁnyāsa by an old monk who appeared there mysteriously, enlightened him about the mission of his life and disappeared. Acting as the servant of Lord Lakṣmī-Nṛsiṁha whose image he used to carry, Śaṭhakopa established a chain of maṭhas wherein he arranged for the study of the works of Rāmānuja and Vedānta Deśika. He is said to have accorded some privileges to the lower classes in the temples he built at Kadiri (Andhra Pradesh) and elsewhere. He passed away in A. D. 1458.
Among his successors, called Jīyars, mention may be made of the 6th, Parāṅ-kuśa (A.D. 1499-1513) who was reputed to have acquired extraordinary yogic powers, the 33rd, Śaṭhagopa (the VI) (A. D. 1853-1879) who converted robbers into devotees, the 38th, Śrīnivāsa (A. D. 1905-1909) who proved to be an excellent administrator, and the 40th, Raṅganātha (the IV) (A. D. 1915-1923) who was a rare combination of scholarship and yogic powers.
Unlike the other maṭhas, the Ahobila Maṭha does not have a Headquarters. It moves along with the Jīyar, the pontiff. The deity worshipped is known as Mālola Lakṣmī-Nṛsiṁha, the image being of solid gold. Only the devotees of the Vaḍagalai (‘Northern’) sect of Śrīvaiṣṇavas are disciples and followers of this Maṭha.
See also ŚRĪVAIṢṆAVISM.