Symphony in stone

Mythically mapped

sculpted The Kalyana  Mantapa; (below ) Nagalinga. photos by author

Lepakshi’s name is derived from an epic tale — Ramayana. When Sita was abducted by Ravana, the mythical bird Jatayu fought with Ravana in the place we now know as Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh, which is at a distance of about 125 km from Bangalore. Ravana cut off Jatayu’s wing and the bird lay here, injured.

When Rama found Jatayu, he said “le, pakshi” (rise, bird) and the bird rose. Hence the name Lepakshi. Upon hearing this anecdote, I nodded happily — the day certainly held the promise of many such interesting tales.

I found myself here one mundane weekend, itching to escape city life for a day, to enjoy some things that I admire: architecture, paintings, tales and folklore, sculptures and people.

A friend had suggested Lepakshi. I don’t think I could have chosen better.

This gem of a temple is so beautiful that you have to try really hard to not be in awe. To understand the history of the temple, I hired a guide who explained everything; beginning with how the temple actually has seven layers in its design.

The outer layers of the temple complex are apparently now occupied by people who have set up shops and houses within the colonnaded pavilions.

So, houses of the poor may have up to 10 columns within them, while larger houses supposedly have up to 200 columns! The temple complex currently occupies about five acres of land.

The tortoise-shaped rocky hill is where it all began. It is presumed that a small shrine installed by sage Agastya already existed here when Achyutaraya (Achyuta Devaraya), the ruler of the Vijaynagara Empire, came upon it in the 16th Century.

This temple was planned and begun by Virupanna, Achyutaraya’s trusted treasurer, in 1530 AD. He was assisted by his brother Veeranna. It was built in the Vijayanagara style of architecture, using brown and grey granite. The temple construction continued till 1542 AD, when a few enemies of Virupanna complained to the king that the treasury funds were being embezzled by him. 

The temple is today known as the Veerabhadraswamy temple, Veerabhadra
being the wrathful form of Shiva. This is said to be the spot on which Shiva threw a clump of his hair, when he found that his beloved Dakshayani had died, insulted by her father. She was reborn as Parvati and married Shiva once again.

Besides Veerabhadra, there are shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu too. There is a pavilion connecting all three shrines as well as a hall for ritual dances (Natya Mantapa) as you enter the temple.
 
Wandering inside the Natya Mantapa, I tore my eyes away from the life-size sculptures to look up, only to have lovely paintings vie for my attention. These paintings have been coloured using vegetable and natural dyes.

For the next hour, all I did was to walk with my head turned upwards, bumping into columns and people. But, people were strangely indulgent of me. This is also when I met and almost trampled my guide, seated as he was near a column for some rest. Had he not said, “That’s Rambha” in time, I would have stepped over him. Instead, I hired him to guide me around the temple.

I turned my aching neck downwards to focus on the statue that he was pointing to — the Apsara, the celestial nymph; dancing as the gods watched. Rambha mimicked her three-legged dance teacher, whose statue was also present there. The gods had arrived to watch the spectacle and play an instrument or two.

I turned my attention back upwards to admire more paintings: Parvati grooming herself and peering into a mirror; Baby Krishna, with his eye following you all around; Ravana with his Shivalinga and many more such mythological depictions. Looking down once more, I was stunned to see the ‘hanging column’, a column that does not touch the floor.

Apparently, the British were equally stunned by the column and had tried to find out how the column stood. In doing so, they moved it slightly, resulting in the re-alignment of  columns and beams around. Scared that the temple would collapse, they let it be and carried out no further investigations. It was obvious to them that this was a very crucial column, probably one that lent the main support.

Venturing into main sanctum and circumambulate, the ceilings of the smaller chambers reveal other breath-taking paintings, slightly worn out with time. The main sanctum itself has a large, splendidly painted ceiling which is unfortunately faded and sooty. But, I am happy that it has been left as it is and not been subjected to shoddy re-painting under the guise of restoration. At least I can spot glimpses of the original craftsmanship, which has no parity.

Tall tales
The afternoon sun did not dampen my enthusiasm to walk around the complex. Luckily, the monsoons had made it a warm but bearably hot day. Visitors seeking shade rested in the dance hall, escaping the heat outside. I walked on to find a large footprint in my path, filled with slightly green water, an effect of algae.

I was told that this was Sita’s footprint, one that  was a perennial source of water, of the holy variety. As if on cue, devotees appeared and cupped some water in their hands, drinking or sprinkling a little over their heads. A couple of steps ahead, there were curious circles scooped into the rock. A colour palette? No…my guide informed me that it was a thali (a plate with multiple bowls), where workmen sat for lunch and food was served in these various ‘bowls’.

As we approached the Nagalinga — a Shivalinga shielded by a coiled seven-headed snake — my guide told me stories of how it was built. During lunch break, a group of brothers waited outside the kitchen at this spot, as their mother hurried to cook their meal. Not wanting to waste their time waiting, they built this in the 30 minutes that it took their mother to prepare the food. When she came out to call them, she was surprised to see this and the power of the surprise she exuded through her sight was so strong that the sculpture cracked in two places.

Lepakshi, it seems, was quite the cradle of art and craft in the region. I noticed
various repetitive motifs that are reproduced on fabrics even today (in bed covers, mostly) — Lepakshi prints. In the Lata Mantapa or the ‘hall of creepers’, each of the 42 columns are embellished with a unique creeper design on every face. These are popular as ‘border’ designs, apparently a favourite with Kancheepuram sari makers even today.

An incomplete marriage
As I stood in the Kalyana Mantapa, I marvelled at what my guide called ‘special effects’: two monkeys that would appear as four. And, a three-headed cow that, depending on which head you focussed on, looked like it was standing, grazing or licking itself. My guide then pointed out to two reddish smear marks on a stone wall nearby.

He went on to tell me that this was the blood from Virupanna’s eyes, when he threw them here. “And why would he do such a thing?” I asked, aghast. Well, apparently, when the king received the embezzlement complaint, he ordered that Virupanna’s eyes be gouged out, as was the customary punishment in those days. When the loyal Virupanna heard this, he decided to carry out the task himself.

The Kalyana Mantapa remained unfinished. It was the last part to be built in the temple complex. I gazed at the ornate columns of this Kalyana Mantapa, built at the spot where Shiva and Parvati were supposedly married many yugas ago.

The sculptures of all the guests, the bride and the groom are exquisite. Had it been completed, it might have even had a roof. Maybe, vibrant paintings as well. Or domes, perhaps? One can only speculate. Today, I had a brilliant blue sky with dramatic clouds providing the perfect cover.

I stopped at Nandi on my way out of Lepakshi. It is India’s largest Nandi, carved out of monolithic granite. The second largest is at Tanjore’s Brihadeeshwara Temple, and the third is at Chamundi Hills in Mysore.

The Nandi is in the middle of a garden — a favourite haunt of the locals. There’s never a free moment and it is quite a challenge to photograph the bull without people or with the subjects you want. It’s a beautiful piece of work, characterised by lovely doe eyes, a benevolent countenance and a hint of a smile.

Admiration-worthy are the neck, ear ornaments and the saddle on its back. I left Lepakshi just as the sun hinted at setting, happy with my day.

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