Lepakshi - in the cusp of mythology and history

Murals and myths, history and legend crowd the walls of the forgotten temple of Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh, a treasure waiting to be discovered

A massive Bala Ganesha greets you as you enter. The deities Shiva and Vishnu face each other, while in the centre is Veerabhadra. I walk around, and the Natyamantapa lures me. This is where the gods make music. Brahma is on the cymbal, Narada on the tampura, and Shiva in his Nataraja avatar amongst other heavenly artists. Mesmerising us with their instruments, costumes and ornaments, they seem to create divine melodies. The sun’s rays touch the large sculptures in the temple’s unfinished Kalyanamandapam, or marriage hall.

I am in Lepakshi, a small village near Hindupur in Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh. I am looking at rare murals from the Vijayanagar era that adorn this ancient 16th century Veerabhadra temple. It is a late Saturday afternoon and, surprisingly, there are no tourists. A large joint family has just walked in and the children have discovered their playground amidst the pillars. The sun plays hide and seek and it looks like it will soon disappear amidst the clouds. 

I sit beside a pillar and take in the scene. Unlike any tourist spot, there are no vendors or shops that besiege the tourist here. A guide offers his services and, looking at his rather hopeful face, I decide not to disappoint him. And he plays rather to the gallery as the kids stop their games and listen to him as well.

“Le Pakshi, said Lord Rama to Jatayu the bird, asking it to get up,” announces the guide dramatically, narrating the episode from Ramayana. “Ravana had chopped off its wings and Lord Rama found the bird fallen right here in this village. That’s why it’s called Lepakshi. See this sculpture here. There are more stories,” his voice trails off.

Many-headed Naga Linga at Lepakshi. Photo: Lakshmi SharathThe temple, built in the Vijayanagar style, has an inscription stating that it was built by one Virupanna whose family deity was Veerabhadra. The temple, renowned for the largest monolithic Nandi sculpture, stands a few metres away from the main temple complex - a testimony to the building skills of our ancient artisans. It is carved out of a single rock and towers to 20 feet in height and is 30 feet long. A many-hooded Naga Linga stands opposite the Nandi in the main shrine. A group of children poses for a happy family photograph as I walk towards it.

Stories, myths and local lore resonate from every wall. For instance, the hill on which the temple is built is called Kurmasaila, as it resembles a tortoise. The giant multi-hooded Naga Linga was said to have been constructed out of a single boulder at such speed, apparently, even before the cook had finished cooking for the workers. But a crack appeared in the boulder that made it appear as if the sculpture were split in the middle, towards its base.

“The sculptor’s mother was so taken in by her son’s work that she praised him, but her words only awakened an evil eye and the crack appeared,” continues the guide as I smile at his superstitions.  The guide moves onto more legends. The unfinished Kalayanamandapam was built where Shiva and Parvati were believed to have got married. A large carved foot on the ground, filled with water perennially, is said to be the impression of Sita’s foot. “It is also said that it is Goddess Durga‘s footprint, when she visited here,” says the guide. He shows me the carved thali-like plates on the ground. “The locals were fed here,” he explains. They look more like giant palettes to me.

Tales of devotion are depicted on the bas reliefs or on the murals that adorn the temple. Some of the finest specimens of the Vijayanagar dynasty, the panels bring the Puranas alive as various forms of Shiva vie for attention. My guide narrates these stories of devotion etched and painted on the walls. In one, Shiva is a mendicant testing the devotion of Sriyala and his parents by asking them to kill their only son and feed him the flesh. Pleased by their devotion, he restores their dead son to life and returns him to them. Another mural depicts a just king, Manuchola, who grants justice to a cow at the cost of his son’s life.

While the panels, sculptures and paintings narrate stories from the Puranas and the epics, the heart-wrenching story of two red marks on the walls of the shrine tell a sad tale. Virupanna, a merchant and treasurer of the Vijayanagar emperor Achutadevaraya, decided to build a temple here when he found a sculpture of Veerabhadra. He used the money from the treasury for this purpose when the king was away. The temple was almost completed, except for the Kalyanamandapam. When the king returned he found his treasury empty and the temple built without his permission. He ordered that Virupanna be blinded but the merchant decided to punish himself by banging his head against the wall near the Kalyanamandapa. The two red marks are said to be his bloodstains when the merchant gouged his own eyes out. The village, according to this legend, is said to be called Lepa-akshi, meaning ‘village of the blinded eye’.

The melancholy is a bit addictive, but then the beauty of the pillars takes you away from the tragedy. The silence is mesmerising and the solitude seductive. “You can still see Virupanna’s ghost here, the eyes bleed,” the guide’s voice trails off, but I am lost in the world of myths and epics.

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