Tall tales at Lepakshi

Tall tales at Lepakshi

Pasts Without Prejudice

Kalyana Mantapa. (DH Photo)

Our monuments invoke a sharp intake of breath for their scale, spectacular ornamentation, or sheer material lustre. But even the most well-read and prepared tourist would not deny the additional colour and romance that local guides add to our historical sites. With every retelling, this local lore achieves the status of truth; and today, on the internet and social media, such lore achieves unimpeachable veracity.

So it was with both anticipation and some dread that we placed ourselves in the hands of a local guide at Lepakshi recently – the famed temple town across the Andhra border from Bengaluru. With the spectacular monolithic bull, the three richly carved and painted temples, and the enigmatically unfinished ‘kalyana mantapa’ from the Vijayanagar times, it is a very special site indeed. Our guide introduced himself as Virupanna, echoing the name of the governor of Penukonda province under whose watch these temples were upgraded in the 16th century in the time of Achyutraya of the Tuluva dynasty.

Virupanna the guide was keen from the start on remaining contemporary: he described Brahma in a five-headed form as the ‘event manager’, the three-legged Bringeshwara, a sign of sculptural virtuosity, was a ‘choreographer’, and so on. He was relatively unhindered by scholarship on Lepakshi, whether in S Gopalakrishnamurti’s (SGK) excellent description from 1920, or more recent works by David Shulman and George Mitchell. Even when there were traces of historical knowledge to which he admitted – for instance, that there was a pre-Vijayanagar image which would have been built upon by Virupanna -- his graphic stories woven around the temples were what captivated his audience.

Just one example of the tall tales: while we were clustered around the massive carved pillars of the unfinished kalyana mantapa, an awestruck woman asked how such large pillars had been moved around at that time. Pat came the reply: people of the 16th century were very large (about 8.5-foot tall), requiring only four such denizens to install the pillars; when we reached the large-sized footprint carved in rock, said to be Sita’s, the tales got taller: Virupanna told us that in the Treta Yuga, people stood 35-foot high; Sita was on the smaller side, only about 25 feet; in Krishna’s Dwapara Yuga, humans had shrunk to 15 feet, and to just 8 feet by the time the temple was built in 1538!

Of the near-naked Parvathi figure that appears adjoining the Bhikshaatana Shiva, Virupanna quickly covered her up by drawing a parallel with Draupadi, who was not allowed to be disrobed by Dushasana. 

Such easy trafficking between forms of memory, contemporary compulsions, partial knowledge of the epics, etc., makes the tourist guide a very different entity from the historian. Art historians have shown that the three shrines – of Papaneshwara (the oldest), Virabhadra and Rameswara -- form a triangle with a common mantapam, with Shiva facing the shrine of Vishnu and framing Veerabhadra in between. On the representation of Bhikshaatana Shiva, SGK speculates that “Maybe the Bhikshaatana Shiva, on the eastern inner surface of the Papaneshwara sanctum, was carved playfully and, as in Kalahasti, someone might have built the temple to bring it to use.” Commenting also on the mystery of the Kurma Shaila on which the temple is built, SGK speculates on the family resemblance to “the usual haunts of Jains”, as indeed most Virabhadra temples are built on destroyed Jain temples, though this had not been established for Lepakshi.

Between the measured speculations of the scholar, and the dead certainties of the local guide, lies a dynamic interpretive space which we are in danger of losing today. Despite his factual infirmities, the local guide plays a very useful role, in our troubled times, of reminding us of how rich and varied the tellings of the Ramayana are. Which part of India does not have an imprint in stone, a pond, a literary reference, an old woman’s tale, a natural stone bridge that testify to Rama and Sita having spent time there, at that very spot? Were all these to be reclaimed as the exact sites of their travels, trials and triumphs, in the name of imagined historical wrongs, the loss is ours. For what we lose, among other things, is metaphorical speech, the beauties of literary, sculptural and artistic adventure and invention.  

According to scholars, Lepakshi means an ‘embalmed eye’ or ‘an eye drawn in paint’, even ‘the village of the temple of the exaggerated eyes,’ -- a reading that trounces the folklore of Rama trying to raise the wounded Jatayu by saying ‘Le Pakshi!’ As SGK asserted, Telugu as a language could not have existed in Rama’s time, “neither would Rama have known Telugu!”

By making a theme park out of this folklore, a new contemporary claim is made by the people of Lepakshi to the heritage of a rich and wonderful epic. Whether we approve of it or not, it teaches us that every historical site, even when it is carved of stone, has seen multiple layers of intervention and change. There is no ‘original’, as both history and Virupanna’s tall tales tell us, that did not succumb to the need of local powers to leave their mark.