Published in the April issue of ‘Windows & Aisles’, the inflight magazine of Paramount Airways…
Take a closer look at Lepakshi and discover a legend hidden behind every pillar
and every wall in the temple…
Lepakshi is a town that is fighting a hard and brave battle against obscurity. Despite being a contemporary of its more famous cousin of the Vijayanagara dynasty, Hampi, Lepakshi lies lonely and forgotten at the border between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. A reference is made in the Skandapurana to Lepakshi as one of the hundred and eight important Shaiva Kshetras (pilgrimage centres for worshippers of Shiva) though it is hard to believe today that that this remote town was once a bustling centre for trade and pilgrimage.
Lepakshi today is like any other small dusty town (or large village) in South India. There is one main road that passes all the way through the town, with shops and small businesses located on either side of the road. Apart from small children in bright blue and white uniforms and polished back shoes walking about briskly on their way to school, there is little activity to be seen on the roads. The town as such does not have any other attractions for tourists, but the temple, with its rich heritage makes it more than worth the trouble of visiting.
You turn off the main road into a dusty lane leading to the temple. Just near the car park are shops, similar to those found outside temples everywhere, selling everything from puja items like flowers and coconuts and incense sticks to polyester saris and plastic buckets! Tourist guides authorized by the Andhra Pradesh government are also available just outside the temple. It is best to hire a guide (some of them speak English, apart from Telugu and Kannada) so as to not miss on any of the finer details inside the temple.
The locals seem indifferent to the marvel from the past that lies in their midst, giving directions reluctantly and with a sense of surprise and even irritation as if to say, what’s all the fuss about? But prod a little deeper and the spirit emerges – the watchman at the temple told me, his eyes lighting up with pride, last month there was a film shooting here – people came all the way from Bombay to shoot here… Very famous temple! he ended, slightly wistfully. For famous, the Lepakshi temple is not, though Andhra Pradesh handicrafts has usurped the name for its showrooms across the state.
That isolation also perhaps explains why all the gods in the temple wear angry expressions on their faces. Although the guidebooks tell you a different story. The presiding deity here is Veerabhadra Swamy, an irate form taken by Lord Shiva. According to our guide’s version, when Parvati died during Dakshayagna, Shiva struck with grief and rage threw a clump of his hair on to the earth and the spot where it fell now houses the temple and the statue of the lord. And the statue of Parvati too wears a correspondingly sad and angry look. Indeed the entire temple abounds with legends about Shiva and Parvati and their royal wedding and separation later.
What is in a name?
There are also ample stories floating in the air inside the temple walls about the other divine couple Rama and Sita, and in fact, one of them relates to the suggested origin of the name Lepakshi. It is believed that when Ravana kidnapped Sita, the brave bird Jatayu fought against the evil king and died in the battle on this spot. As it lay wounded, its wings cut off by Ravana, Lord Rama said with compassion, “le pakshi” (rise, o bird!) – and so, Lepakshi. Look out for the imprint of the giant footprint just outside the kalyanamantapa, believed to have been left by Sita herself!
The other, and equally gory story about the name points to the brothers Veeranna and Virupanna, under King Achutaraya of the Vijayanagara dynasty who succeeded the famous Krishna Deva Raya. The latter who was treasurer of Penukonda province (where the town was located earlier as opposed to Anantpur district in modern times) spared no expense to have the temple built the way he wished, leading to suspicions from the king about embezzlement of money. In grief and in anticipation of royal punishment, Virupanna plucked out his own eyes and threw them against the wall, where the muted blood stains from centuries ago are believed to be visible even today. And thus, lepa-akshi (blinded eyes)
For all the blood that seems to have been spilled within these walls, the temple today bears no signs of a turbulent past as it sits in obscurity, an earthy brown edifice amidst the brown and dry landscape of rural Andhra Pradesh. The only sign that all perhaps did not go well is that the temple is incomplete in many places, especially the kalyanamantapa that was being built when Virupanna died.
The Vijayanagara architecture style
The temple at Lepakshi has several characteristics that are unique to the Vijayanagara style of architecture – the most striking being giant monoliths; in Lepakshi the nagalinga and the Nandi are both the largest such statues (other monoliths from the period being the Ganesha temples at Hampi and the Gomateshwara statue at Karkala).
You enter the temple at the mukhamantapa (main hall) directly into the natyamantapa (dancing hall) that is at the centre of the building and leads into the garbagruha or the sanctum. This hall has pillars depicting divine musicians, Parvati dancing, Brahma on the cymbals and Surya on the nadaswaram and finally, Nataraja himself, leg raised in the classical nartana position. Walking along the side of the temple on the outer prahara, you then come to the giant statue of the seven-headed cobra Nagalinga and further down, Ganesha (also in an angry pose but that is another long story) etched into the wall.
This walk leads to the other important structure within the building, also an essential element of Vijayanagara architecture, the open-air kalyanamantapa (wedding hall). This kalyanamantapa has been depicted as the site of the celestial wedding between Shiva and Parvati, and each of the pillars is a celebration of this – drummers and musicians adding to the atmosphere and lesser gods and goddesses blessing the couple. Close by stands the Latamantapa, with its 42 pillars, each carved with intricate motifs of birds and flowers, used to this day as designs on sari borders, and the reason why AP handicrafts chose this name.
After you have finished looking around you, stop at the natyamantapa and look up to find the most fascinating feature of the temple, the murals that adorn the ceiling. Although a lot of it has now been eroded by the harshness of time and neglect, the vibrant colors of natural vegetable and flower dyes still catch the eye of the visitor. Each of them depicts a story from mythology; here is Ravana handing over the Shivalinga to Ganesha dressed as a Brahmin (the lingam now found at Gokarna in coastal Karnataka), there you see the divine wedding, the couple seated on a swing and the guests sitting or standing close-by. And some interesting history lessons too, a peek into the society and culture of the times when the temple was built, the hairstyles and clothes and accessories of the women, the postures of saints and hermits deep in penance. And on the ceiling of the inner sanctum is what is considered to be the largest mural in Asia, a panel about 7 by 4 meters depicting Lord Virabhadra with his retinue and devotees. Although much of this has been dimmed like the rest of the murals, it is impressive in sheer size and detail.
The monolith Nandi
Half a kilometer from the temple, just by the main road stands the statue of Nandi carved from red granite. At 4.5 meters height, this is the largest monolith Nandi in the world. Yet for all its imposing size, the carving is intricate in places, especially around the neck where a chain hangs bearing the royal insignia of the Vijayanagara dynasty. This Nandi, like the Nagalinga inside the temple (which this faces directly) is believed to have been carved by a craftsman in his leisure time!
And just like with Hampi, each stone, each pillar and wall has a story to tell, if only you have the time and patience to listen carefully. The temple here is built on a tortoise shaped hillock – kurmasaila; between all the straight lines and sharp angles of the walls and pillars, there is a smooth rounded rock (the back of the tortoise) in the outer prahara. As I leave the temple, I say a small prayer for this slow tortoise to finally win the race. For, what will make the authorities sit up and take notice of the decay facing this glorious temple town?
Getting there and away
It is best to do this as a day trip from Bangalore, take the NH 7 towards Hyderabad and turn left near the check-post between the two states. Lepakshi is 15 km down this road. From Hyderabad, the journey into Lepakshi is long and tiring; cross Anantpur and turn right either near Hindupur or further down the highway near the check-post.
Stay and food
Lepakshi has nothing much to offer by way of food or accommodation; the government-run Punnami guesthouse is close to the temple but is badly maintained. If you wish to stay over, Hindupur 20 km away has a Tourism Complex with clean rooms and a restaurant as well as a few budget hotels.
If you are driving from Bangalore, you could stop at Nandi Hills on the way, just outside the city for fresh air and great views of the valley and city far below, The curving roads up the hill are a pleasure to drive on and for those with sight-seeing needs, the Yoganandishwara at the top (attributed to the Chola rulers) and Bhoganadishwara temples at the foot of the hills are worth visiting.