The Yali is also called Vyalam or Sarabham in Sanskrit, with Lord Shiva in this form being identified as Sarabhesvara in the language and as Yaliappar in Tamil. While references to the creature are ancient, its depiction is more recent, with South Indian temple sculpture of the last 500 years bearing evidence of this.
The Yali is seen as the guardian of sacred space or a refuge. It is depicted with the head of a lion, a body of a cat, the tusks of an elephant and the tail of a serpent. The creature is seen as more powerful than each of the animals making up its parts. Enigmatic and graceful like a cat, dexterous and venomous like a snake, mighty and brainy like an elephant, and fierce and aggressive like a lion – these are the attributes of a Yali.
Shaiva accounts speak of the Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu, half-lion and half-man, who manifested Himself in a cosmic rage so terrible (in order to annihilate the wicked Hiranyakasipu and save and bless the saint prince, Bhakt Pralhaad) that the only Being that could pacify and contain Him was a composite of the main creatures of the animal kingdom, prompting Lord Shiva to take the form of Sarabheshwara or Yali, thereby successfully absorbing the lion-man unto Himself.