The Stone Sculptures of Veerabhadra Temple
The forecast for the weekend had been bleak. With frequent rains and cloudy days, I was a bit circumspect if we would eventually be able go down to the Veerabhadra Temple in Lepakshi, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Fortunately for us, it turned out to be a lovely sunny day.
The Veerabhadra Temple is popular around these parts for its outstanding sculptures and ceiling paintings which represent the climax of the Vijayanagar Art towards the middle of the 16th century. Built in the 1530 AD, the architectural features of the temple follow the Vijayanagar style to the detail with numerous carvings and paintings at almost every exposed surface of the temple.
We started from Bangalore at about 1 pm. The journey was uneventful as we passed by some fine stretches of flowering Gulmohar trees along the NH7.
After about an hour and half of steady driving along the national highway we reached a toll booth at the borders of Karnataka. They charged us Rs. 125 for the two-way trip. Immediately after the toll booth, we took a hard left into a branch road, from the highway, leading to Lepakshi. It is impossible to miss that turn, adorned with a huge gate and a big Nandi statue sitting in the center. From there Lepakshi is just about 12 km away.
Once we left the highway, the road became narrower but it was still properly maintained. I thanks the Andhra Pradesh government, who have done a great job for the many foreign and local tourists, who have no other way to reach this historical piece of art. After about 20 minutes we were in front of our first attraction of the evening – the colossal monolithic Nandi, carved from a single block of granite, said to be one of the largest of its type in the world.
Nandi of Lepakshi
Since I have relocated to Bangalore, this imposing sculpture of Nandi has been haunting me. Today, I find some solace as I stand in front of granite Shiva’s mount from the Vijayanagar era, seated peacefully in a lovely manicured garden facing the Shivalinga in the precincts of the Veerabhadra Temple. The statue is about 5 meter in height and 9 meter in length. Its neck is bedecked with finely carved garlands and bells.
I find it quite odd that this large Nandi bull is situated about 200 meter away from the temple. Generally every Nandi statue I have seen, is always accompanied by a Shivalinga before it.
In walks the local caretaker, with a large stick in his hand. He also doubles up as a guide and told us that the temple and the Nandi sculpture used to be part of the same temple grounds and once there used to be a clear view of the temple from here, however illegal encroachers have built many houses between them separating the Shiva’s mount with its master.
After taking a few pictures of the grand Nandi, we came out of the small garden, planning to head towards the Veerabhadra Temple. Before entering the temple, I stopped for lunch at the Andhra State tourism board run restaurant, just beside the Nandi sculpture. After a sumptuous vegetarian thali meal, we head towards the main temple.
Veerabhadra Temple of Lepakshi
The Veerabhadra Temple has been built on the southern side of Lepakshi town, on a low altitude granite hillock. The locals say this hillock was in the shape of a tortoise, and hence known as Kurmasailam – which translates to tortoise hill in Telugu. It’s hard to see much of the hillock now because of the numerous shops and houses built around the temple. There is a car parking charge of Rs. 40 for unlimited number of hours in front of the temple.
One has to remove their shoes to enter the temple. Beside the entrance, on the left there is a makeshift shoe rack, patrolled by a middle-aged lady holding a long wooden stick in her had, primarily I think to drive away the naughty monkeys in the area. The temple does not seem that special from outside the outer enclosure walls, but once you climb the fleet of steps and enter, you will begin appreciating the thorough artwork of the sculptors of that time. Not even at Hampi, in the historical temples at the core of Vijayanagar empire, can one find carvings of this stature.
History of Veerabhadra Temple
In 1346 CE, Harihara constructed a fort at Penugonda and made Lepakshi his second capital marking the start of the Vijayanagara rule over the town. During the rule of this dynasty, Lepakshi was benefited with multitude of construction activities, centered around this temple only.Construction of the Veerabhadra Temple was started in around 1530 AD by two brothers, Virupanna Nayaka and Viranna, who were Governors of Penukonda, under the Vijayanagar Empire during the reign of King Achyutaraya, the successor of King Krishnadevaraya. One interesting aspect of this temple is that it is North facing. Hindu temples are typically East facing, while there are some West and South facing temples too, while North facing temples are rare in comparison.
The main temple stands inside two concentric irregular enclosures. The outer enclosure wall is lined with shielded porches and corridors surrounding the temple grounds.
The main temple is laid out in three parts:
- The assembly hall known as a central pavilion (Mukha Mandap) with a pavilion for dance performances (Rang/Natya Mandap)
- an intermediate hall called the Ardha Mandap or antarala (worship chamber)
- Garbhagriha, the innermost sanctum sanctorum
Mukha mandap, Veerabhadra Temple, Lepakshi
As I entered the inner sanctum, I was awed by the profusion of sculptures and paintings over every inch of space on the columns as well as the ceilings. Karnataka and several parts of Andhra are blessed with abundance of granite hills and our ancestors have used it smartly so what they created hundreds of years back can still be enjoyed by us and I hope numerous generations.
Inside the Mukha mandap, there are about 70 pillars at this fabulous 16th-century temple of stone in Vijayanagar style. The carvings on these 15 foot pillars constitutes of divine beings and the avatars of Shiva. I felt the cold stone through my naked feet as I walked along the figurines of the goddesses Ganga and Yamuna at the entrance to the sanctum.
The central space is surrounded by many pillars with sculptures of divine beings. The first to catch my attention was that of the Nataraja, standing over the demon named Apasmara. Nataraja sculpture is almost the same pose as Natesha, the difference being Shiva has his left leg raised unlike Natesha who has his right leg raised in the same pose.
Beside him lies a sculpture of Brahma playing the Mridanga. The Mridanga is a percussion instrument from India of ancient origin also known as ‘Deva Vaadyam’ or the instrument of the Gods.
In an adjoining column one ca see the lovely Rambha, a celestial nymph, in a dancing posture created with the minutest of details. In Hindu mythology she is the Queen of the Apsaras(nymphs), the magical and beautiful women of Devaloka, the city of the divine gods.
The column at the southwest part of the hall has an image of Parvati, Shiva’s consort, feeding her husband, disguised as a beggar.
Beside her statue on another pillar one can see the three-legged Bhringi. If you notice carefully, he has 3 legs. Wondering why? read on..
Bhringi was an ancient sage who would not worship Parvati and took forms such as a snake or a bee to be with only Shiva and trying to drive a wedge between them. Annoyed by this, Parvati cursed Bhringi and he became so weak that he could not dance anymore. Shiva seeing his pain, granted him an additional, third leg and since then Brungeshwara is always seen dancing with 3 legs .
Musicians and ascetics adorn the intermediate pillars.
The Natya (dancing) and the Ardha(worship) Mandaps are the most interesting parts of the temple in terms of architecture.
The mystery of the hanging pillars of Lepakshi
The peripheral columns called the Aakaasa Sthambha, are slightly elevated on an ornate basement, with blocks carved of horses and warriors, a tribute to the engineering genius of ancient and medieval India’s temple builders.
How such a heavy pillar stays hanging just about a centimeter above the basement is truly a mystery. it is said that during the British colonisation, a British engineer had tried to uncover the secret of its support in an unsuccessful attempt.
Ceiling paintings of Lepakshi
As I searched for answers to the secret of the hanging pillars, my eyes were drawn towards the ceiling. The fresco in the ceiling of ardha mantapa is said to be Asia’s largest, measuring 23 by 13 feet with depiction of all the 14 avatars of Lord Shiva as: Ardhanarishwara, Andhakasurasmahara, Bhikshatana, Chandes Anugraha Murthy, Harihara, Kalyanasundara, Tripurantaka, Nataraja, Gouriprasadaka, Lingodhbava and Yogadakshinamurthy. The frescoes are also beautiful and show an impressive attention to detail with colors strikingly contrasted — black limework against an orange-red background with some green, white, black, and shades of ochre-gold and brown mostly applied to a stucco surface blended with lime water.
Apart from paintings of gods and goddesses, in the presence of the devotees arranged in rows, the frescoes also depict the incarnations of Vishnu.The paintings are in striking compositions where the particular emphasis is on the period costumes and facial expressions depicting the grandeur of Vijayanagar pictorial art. The fresco paintings are particularly detailed in very bright dresses and colors with scenes of Rama and Krishna from the epic stories of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. However, these frescoes are peeling off in many places and in need of better maintenance and expert restoration.
The ceiling in the sanctum above the deity has paintings of the builders of the temple, Virupanna and Viranna, regally dressed and crowned with headgear. They are depicted, with their entourage, in a state of reverential prayer, being offered sacred ashes of their family deity.
The temple’s main deity is Veerabhadra, the fiery god created by Shiva in his rage after the Daksha Yagna and the immolation of Parvati. The presiding deity in the sanctum sanctorum is a near life-size image of Veerabhadra, fully armed and decorated with skulls. There is a cave chamber in the sanctum where sage Agastya is said to have lived when he installed the image of the Linga here. I would recommend the caretakers to install softer yellow lights to preserve the ancient feel of the place when it used to be lit up only with diyas, rather than the intrusive white bulbs.
There are several forms of Shiva here — a majestic Kankala Murthi, Dakshinamurthi (Guru of Gurus), Tripuranthaka or Tripurasurasamhara (vanquisher of demon Tripura); Ardhanareeshwara (the half-female, half-male form, where Shiva and Parvati are equally represented in one body), etc. Another shrine has the fiery goddess Bhadrakali, though bearing an uncharacteristically serene expression. Photography is not allowed inside the garbhagriha.
Kalyana Mandap, Lepakshi
After paying our respects we came back out into the Mukha mandap and headed left towards the marriage hall. We slowly walked out of the shadows of the temple porch into the now blazing sun.
But as I got up the stairs, I was surprised to see the structure in an unfinished state. There are 38 pillars in this Mandap. The peripheral columns looked completed, but the columns towards the center of the altar were standing bent with no ceiling. Parts of the ceiling joints lay at the base of the column.
The theme of these carvings is the marriage of Parvati and Shiva. Inside the Mandap the pillars are arranged in the form of a circle, with the Gods and Goddess who attended the wedding also carved on the pillars.
Parts of this temple complex and some structures within never got completed. Why? that is another story in itself. Virupanna had grand plans for the temple. It is said, in his blinded pursuit, the treasury got emptied and the architect met with a gory fate because of his financial embezzlement. As the story goes, the construction was stopped as it is and his eyes were gouged out as was the customary punishment for cheating in those days. The beautifully crafted pillars of the unfinished wedding hall still lie out in the open air with no ceiling.
Even though it is unfinished, it won’t fail to amazing you with the fine craftsmanship of the sculptors. In fact in the radiant sun, this section of the temple impressed me even more than the main mandap. I rested for a minute on one of the fallen pillars for the day was warm even though bearable.
From the marriage hall we took a left towards a mammoth Ganesha – hewn in stone and leaning against a rock. This giant monolithic Ganesha carved in to the side of the bolder is also one of the attractions of Veerabhadra temple. Lord Veerabhadraswamy inside the Garbhagriha is ugraroopi meaning he is in an angry state. It is considered that the teekshna drishti (angry eyes) of Lord Veerabhadraswamy is too powerful for mere mortals and one should pray to Lord Ganesha before entering the sanctum.
Perpendicular to the Ganesha, is a massive Naga(serpent) with three coils and seven hoods. The monolithic Nagalinga, approximately 12 feet in height, forms a sheltering canopy over a black Shivalingam. It’s reckoned by many as the largest Nagalinga in India.
Legends and Myths of Lepakshi
According to legend, the Kalyan Mantapa has witnessed the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvati many yug’s (era) ago.
One of the legends gives the town a significant place in the Ramayana. It is said that this was where the mythological bird Jatayu fell, wounded after a futile battle against Ravana who was carrying away Sita. When Lord Rama reached the spot, he saw the bird and said compassionately, “Le Pakshi” which in Telegu translates to – “rise, bird”. The temple also contains a said to be right footprint of Sita in its precincts.
The Sthala Mahatyam or local legends mention that sage Agastya stayed here, in a cave on the Kurmasailam hill, during his visit to scared places in the south of Vindhya mountain.
Hanuman temple at Lepakshi
Sita’s Footprint at Lepakshi
In front of the Hanuman Temple lies a large footprint craved in the rock, whose big toes are always filled with water. I was told that this is Sita’s footprint and the devotees around cupped some water with their hands, drinking it, and then sprinkling a little over their heads.
On the way back, we stopped for a few minutes at the Nandi sculpture, which is the 2nd largest monolith in India after the statue of Gomateshwara Bahubali in Shravanbelagola. The crowd had grown in numbers, in the lovely evening weather. The grandeur of Nandi certainly makes it a popular photo-op with visitors. I had to wait for about 20 minutes as a stream of selfie takers kept photo-bombing my composition. In India, I have learnt to be patient 🙂
Even though some structures within the temple complex lie incomplete, Lepakshi will surely amaze you. As you enter inside the Veerabhadra Swamy temple, you will be mesmerized by the intricately carved pillars in the main “mukha mandap”. The Lepakshi temple also has the finest specimens of mural paintings of the Vijayanagar Era. Being just a couple of hours ride away from Bangalore, I would highly recommend you to go and witness this amazing creation from the yesteryear.
Thanks for reading. Drop your thoughts in the below comments section.