Storied stones

Storied stones

Temple visit

Storied stones
The historical stone temples of Lepakshi, in Andhra Pradesh, 
are richly complemented with legends from the epics, writes 

K Karunakaran...

Lepakshi is a small, dusty village which shelters a large, historic temple complex, where layers of time seem to have been compressed in graceful ruins, and where every stone has an interesting legend to tell us.

This archetypal village is located in the Anantapur District of Andhra Pradesh, about 120 km from Bangalore. A two-and-a-half hour road journey takes you through the expanse of rural landscape to this historic locale. Lepakshi looks quintessentially like a dust encrusted diamond, lying under an innocuous shroud of obscurity — the perfect blend of archaeology, history and art.

Grand welcomeAs you enter the village, just before reaching the temple, you will come face-to-face with the giant Nandi statue, which is considered the world’s biggest monolithic state of a bull. Its beauty and magnificence have to be seen to be believed.

Though historically and archaeologically very significant, Lepakshi lies very isolated, lonely and almost forgotten by time and people. There are only a few footfalls of tourists here, compared to its relatives like Hampi, Belur and Halebeedu.

It is difficult to believe that this remote hamlet, referred to in the Skandapurana as one of the 108 important Shaiva Kshetras (sacred pilgrimage centre for the Shaivites), was once a bustling locale for trade and pilgrimage.

There are various interesting legends and myths surrounding the naming of Lepakshi. According to one legend, the history of Lepakshi dates back to the days of the Ramayana. Among the many references to this village in the epic, the most significant one is the story related to the mythological bird, Jatayu, who served Sri Rama in his battle with Ravana.

As Ravana was abducting Sita in his Pushpaka vimana (flying chariot), Jatayu challenged him and fought valiantly with the intent of saving Sita, before succumbing to his injuries at this spot, as Ravana mercilessly cut off his wings.

When Sri Rama, on his way to Lanka, passed by this village and saw the dying Jatayu, he is believed to have said with compassion, “Le pakshi” (Rise, O Bird!) — thus giving the village its name, Lepakshi.

Another legend tells the sad story about Virupanna, who was the treasurer of King Achutaraya of the Vijayanagar dynasty.

Virupanna, along with his brother, spent a huge amount of money to build a temple for Lord Shiva on a hillock in this village, where his mute son regained his speech after playing near the Shivalinga.

Unfortunately, it proved costly for him, as he lost both his eyes at that spot. Thus, it is believed that Lepakshi derived its name from ‘lepa-akshi’, meaning ‘blinded eyes’. The temple complex is on a small hillock called Kurma Shaila (tortoise hill), on which the temples of Papanatheswara, Raghunatha, Sri Rama, Veerabhadra and Durga are located.

Temple architectureOf these, Veerabhadra Temple, built in 1530 AD, is considered the most important and sacred. The presiding deity is Veerabhadra Swamy, the irate form of Shiva. All the temples in the complex are notable examples of the Vijayanagar style of architecture and art. They are famous for their sculptures and are considered one of the best repositories of mural paintings (wall paintings done with natural colours) of the Vijayanagar era.

Also, many Kannada inscriptions (shila shasanas), dating back to centuries, are still visible on the walls. It is believed that the renowned Vishwakarma Amarashilpi Jakanachari was responsible for planning the architecture of these temples.Several legendary episodes are depicted in the murals on the walls of the temples. One notable mural is the vivid picturisation of the divine marriage of Shiva with Parvathi.

As per the legend, the marriage function took place in the mandapa, located in the grand courtyard outside the Veerabhadra Temple. This mandapa has innumerable pillars with beautiful sculptures of devas, who are said to have attended the function to bless the divine couple. Except for a few broken pillars that lay on the ground, the rest are still standing in their places in full majesty as mute witnesses to the divine function.

Adjacent to the mandapa, you can see the huge Nagalingeshwara statue, which is a unique sculpture of a giant seven-headed cobra shading the Shivalinga. Legend has it that the naga of the Nagalinga was carved out of a single rock by sculptors while they waited for their mothers to prepare lunch

 Behind this statue, on a huge rock, there are sculptures of a Shivalinga being bathed by a spider (Sri), the serpent king (Kala), and an elephant (Hasthi). There is also a large sculpture of Lord Ganesha on the right side of this rock.

Dancing hallAs you enter the Veerabhadra Temple, you will first set foot into the natyamandapa or dancing hall, which is located at the centre of the building. This hall leads to the garbhagriha or the sanctum sanctorum, where the deity sits. There are a hundred beautifully carved pillars in this hall, depicting divine dancers, musicians and even a dancing Parvathi, Brahma with cymbals, and Surya playing the nadaswaram.

Next, you perceive the magnificent carving of Nataraja in his typical thandava dance posture. One wonderful thing you should not miss in this hall is the hanging pillar, which weighs more than a couple of tons, with usual carvings on all sides.

On the four walls of the main temple, there are several sculptures and murals, each narrating some legends or stories from the Mahabharatha and Ramayana. The other notable architectural wonders that you could see in this temple are a rock chain (a look-alike chain cut out of stone), the large feet of a lady (believed to be the footprint of Devi, and known as Durga paadam), eating plates cut into rocks (with many cup-like depressions for separate dishes), and innumerable Lepakshi saree designs.

While returning to Bangalore, ruminating on the architectural splendours you just saw, and the fantastic legends you heard, you are bound to remember the bard’s famous quote: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety” — that is true of Lepakshi!