The grandeur of the Vijayanagar era temple at Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh

Print edition : March 12, 2021

This impressive sculpture of Nandi, carved out of a single rock, faces the main shrine of the Lepakshi temple complex. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The unfinished kalyanamandapa. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A view of the Natyamandapa, or mahamandapa. The paintings are found here and on the ceiling of the verandah around it. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Five-headed Sadasiva. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Curious devotees check the “Hanging pillar” theory by running a piece of cloth under it. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Cow, calf and bulls in the natyamandapa. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Columns featuring musicians, including Nandi, playing the mridangam. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Heavily armed ganas dominate the columns. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Purushamriga (Indian sphinx) depicted worshipping a Siva linga. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

An elephant performing “abhisheka” (ritual bath) to a Siva linga. This part of the monolithic boulder that also has carved out of it a Ganesha shrine and seven-headed serpent with a Siva linga. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Siva linga being guarded by a seven-headed serpent, another side of the monolithic boulder with the Ganesha shrine and the elephant perfoming “abhisheka”. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Ganesha shrine carved in the same monolithic rock that has a Siva linga being guarded by a seven-headed serpent and the elephant performing “abhisheka”. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Some of the murals have faded or look smudged. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A panel depicting Dakshinamurthy. Parvathi can be seen holding lotuses and with hands folded in “anjali mudra” (salutation). Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Parvathi’s toilet. The seated figure is male while a group of elegantly dressed women gaze at him. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Maids of honour at the marriage of Siva and Parvathi. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Siva and Parvathi playing a game of dice while Nandi (bull’s head on human body) looks on. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The mural depicting Kiratarjuniya, an episode from the Mahabharata. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The mural depicting Kiratarjuniya, an episode from the Mahabharata. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The ASI has restored the paintings several times since 1979, but many details were lost because of neglect before that. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A panel showing the rescue of Markandeya by Lingodbhavamurti. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Tripurantakamurti, a manifestation of Siva holding a deer (mriga) and an axe (parashu) in two hands. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Built in the 16th century, the golden age of the Vijayanagar empire, the Lepakshi temple in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh boasts impressive sculptures and exquisite murals portraying stylised versions of scenes from Hindu lore on its ceilings.

A hundred odd miles from Bengaluru, hidden away from all but the most determined and curious of seekers, stands a magnificent temple built during the golden era of the Vijayanagar empire, which ruled the Deccan from 1336 to 1646. While the sprawling architectural marvel that is Hampi, Vijayanagar’s capital, is known for its exceptional town planning, excellently executed temples and exquisite sculptures, the Lepakshi temple’s salience lies in the elaborate and detailed paintings on its ceiling panels. Embellished with ground natural dyes, these murals speak eloquently of a distant past when mythical and legendary beings—gods, asuras, rishis and apsaras—populated the popular imagination and dominated art, architecture, music and culture. Indeed, in almost all cultures, religion has often inspired the finest examples of human creativity in the fine arts and literature; this is very much in evidence in Lepakshi too.

Lepakshi today is a nondescript and sleepy village tucked away in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, bordering Karnataka. But in its heyday, its cobbled streets must have rung out with the sounds of chariot wheels and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and pulsated with the rhythm of everyday life, and its squares must have resonated to the sounds of chisels and hammers. But in 2020, during my first visit to Lepakshi just after the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted, I found the place to be deafeningly silent and eerily empty. I wandered through Lepakshi’s serene, silent and hallowed precincts free from the crowds that usually throng places of worship in India. The road to Lepakshi winds between rocky outcrops and hillocks lush with dense vegetation. As you approach the village, a grand stone bull (Nandi) greets you. It is an impressive animal carved out of a single rock, seated with one leg folded. It is heavily bejewelled and gazes blithely towards the main shrine of the temple complex. Ceremonially decorated in rings, chains, bells and garlands all etched in painstaking detail, the Nandi is your first introduction to the grandeur that awaits you inside the complex.

Like most Vijayanagar architecture, Lepakshi too is a synthesis of many architectural styles of southern India. The Chalukya, Hoysala, Pandya and Chola styles have found happy expression in the many pillars and carved statues of Lepakshi and set it apart from the other temples built in the region during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings. New technologies brought by overseas commerce enabled harnessing of local water sources and made innovation possible in the apparently arid regions of the Deccan.

Inscriptions on the site tell you that the brothers Virupanna and Viranna, two Veerashaiva merchants, built the temple around the late 16th century. Of course, like most temples, there are many legends explaining why this particular site was chosen. One of them says that this was the spot where Rishi Agasthya meditated on a hilltop, called Kurmashaila, and had already attained sanctity as a site appropriate for a grand temple. Another legend says that the original temple on this site was dedicated to Papanasheswara (Destroyer of sins) and that Rama himself installed the Siva linga to atone for having killed Ravana in battle. According to folklore, when Ravana was carrying Sita away to Lanka, the bird Jatayu fought him and was slain by Ravana. Rama exhorted the bird to rise up, which translates into “Le Pakshi” in Telugu. Not long ago, a big statue of Jatayu was prominently placed on the outskirts of the village, which gives credence to this lore.

In present times, the principal deity worshipped in this temple is Virabhadra, a ferocious form of Siva, armed with a sword and other fearsome weapons. In the same complex, there are shrines dedicated to Papanasheswara, Raghunatha and Durga Devi. One is struck by the dominant theme of aggression in the sculptures. Menacing yalis with ferocious miens, fangs, fearsome paws and protruding eyes dominate the 16 columns that hold up the main mandapa. While there are occasional dancers and musicians portrayed in exquisite detail, most of the figures are armed and poised to strike.

Anna L. Dallapiccola, a well-known expert on the art traditions of Vijayanagar currently an honorary professor at Edinburgh University and lead author of the excellent book Lepakshi: Architecture, Sculpture and Painting (2019), surmises that Virupanna chose this particular form of Siva to demonstrate the contempt the Veerashaiva community had for the caste-bound, rigid hierarchical order of society prevalent then. The shields, daggers and assorted weaponry of the figures sculpted all over the temple complex suggest also the militant aspirations of this community, which Basavanna founded in the 12-13th centuries as a protest against the rigidly casteist order of the day. Being merchants, Veerashaivas also needed protection to conduct commerce and transport merchandise.

Impressive as the Lepakshi temple’s sculptures are, it is the murals on its ceilings that are the big draw, especially since these are probably the last surviving paintings of the era that time and the elements have not fully effaced. Much of what we know of the provenance of the ceiling paintings at Lepakshi comes from the writings of Anna Dallapiccola. Lepakshi: Architecture, Sculpture and Painting contains exquisite photographs of the paintings and sculptures, and painstaking research informs the detailed text.

The paintings are found both in the mahamandapa and on the ceiling of the verandah around it. Featured in 11 long panels (A1 to A11), some as long as 23 metres, these paintings portray stylised versions of scenes from the Kiratarjuniya, the Sivapurana, the Ramayana and many more stories. Thematically rich, they bring alive legend and lore in vivid detail. The story of Kiratarjuniya, which is prominent among the panels, narrates how Arjuna undertook penance to win the magic weapon from Siva, and it is depicted both as sculpture and ceiling painting. The ceiling panel contains several episodes from this legend: the first shows Arjuna, with his four brothers (the Pandavas) standing behind him, being advised by Sage Vyasa to seek the magic weapon from Siva; the second part shows Yudhistra instructing Arjuna to undertake penance in the forest to propitiate Siva; the subsequent panels show Arjuna performing the penance, Siva disguised as boar charging at Arjuna and the rishis, and so on.

Of course, not all the panels are clear, and I had to strain to capture some of them with my lens. Another panel shows Manu Needhi Cholan, a renowned king known for his fair play in dispensing justice. A cow whose calf was run over by his son’s chariot is shown ringing the bell outside Manu Needhi Cholan’s palace seeking justice for her slain calf; another panel celebrates the marriage of Siva and Parvathi with the entire entourage of ganas, rishis and bridesmaids in attendance in full regalia. There is a delightful portrayal of Siva and Parvathi playing a game of dice. There is a panel depicting Arjuna winning Draupadi with his unmatched marksmanship: hitting a revolving fish target. Another depicts Durga killing Mahishasura. The panels are a delight for those well-versed in ancient Hindu lore.

While some paintings on the ceiling have faded or look smudged, many have survived intact, enabling you not only to admire their ethereal beauty but also get a glimpse of the apparel, ornaments and hairstyles of the day. In fact, what comes across strikingly is the variety and style of apparel, the rich tapestry of textile designs, and so on, that to some extent find expression in the Kalamkari fabrics that are made even today in other parts of Andhra Pradesh and sold by an eponymous outlet run by the State government and private retailers.

Textiles of the Vijayanagar era

Brigitte Khan Majlis, co-author with Anna Dallapiccola of the book mentioned earlier, has an exclusive chapter on textiles of the Vijayanagar era. She finds that virtually all figures, whether god, human or beast, wear three to four pieces of differently patterned fabrics. “The lower long waistcloth, corresponding to present-day dhoti, is usually white with stripes, tiny dots or of a chequered material. Some of the small embellishments might be embroidery. A second, more ornate cloth is worn on top of the dhoti encircling the hips at least twice, with the ends flowing gracefully in the air or partially tucked under one arm in a big loop…. All adult males wear headgear indicating their status, such as conical golden crowns, high cloth caps or turbans. Exceptions to these are the rishis who follow their own rules, as well as persons of lower classes such as hunters.… Virupanna and his courtly retinue wear white long-sleeved tunics, a courtly costume that accorded with the sultanate influenced dress adopted by the elite of the Vijayanagara capital.” She further observes that the wavy contour lines of the sleeves indicate that the material is exceptionally thin, implying that the empire had skilled weavers who produced fine fabric. Even today, the regions around Lepakshi are known for traditional weaves.

According to Kameshwara Rao, who studied these paintings in great depth and detail and whom Anna Dallapiccola cites in the book, sandy clay obtained from riverbeds was mixed with honey or liquid molasses and used to form a plaster that was then applied to the granite slabs. He believes that these cannot be called frescos because pigmentation was added only after the plaster dried. Anna Dallapiccola says that the Archaeological Survey of India has restored the paintings several times since 1979, but many details were irrevocably lost because of neglect prior to that period.

Anantapur is a boulder-strewn region, and the ancient sculptors seem to have practised their skills on many rocks, which have been turned into Ganeshas, nagas, Siva lingas, and so on. Apart from the Nandi referred to above, shrines within the temple complex have been created in such a way that they embrace the boulder rather than cut it away. One particularly massive monolithic boulder incorporates altars, statues, pillars and columns. On one side of this boulder is a naga shielding a Siva linga. There are numerous minor and major deities of the Hindu pantheon strewn around the complex. A huge but unfinished kalyanamandapa occupies the south-west corner of the temple premises. Anna Dallapiccola describes the structure thus: “The Kalyanamandapa is raised on a basement… the mouldings comprise a sequence of padma with jewelled undulating profile, jewelled and ribbed kumuda, petalled kapota and foliated kudus.” According to her, this structure may have been a latter-day addition. The columns of the kalyanamandapa exhibit considerable variety with rishis, dancing apsaras, lotuses, looped stalks, foliage, and so. But the roof is missing.

In the temple premises is a pillar referred to as the hanging pillar because it is claimed that its base does not touch the pedestal. Curious devotees run a piece of cloth under the pillar to check this. On my second visit to the temple, there were a few devotees about and some of them decided to test the “hanging pillar” theory. A cloth was passed under the base of the pillar and pulled on the other side, but it got stuck at one corner. Hanging pillar or not, Lepakshi does dazzle.

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