Stories came crowding in, jostling, shoving, pushing one another out of the way as I approached a little village in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district. Ghosts of lost legends cleared the way for my car, mythological figures escorted me in. “Lepakshi,” one whispered in my ear. “The name comes from two words Lord Ram uttered to the dying Jatayu, who had collapsed right here. ‘Le pakshi (Get up, bird)’, he had exhorted. And the name stuck.”
The mascot of Lepakshi, however, isn’t Jatayu, or even a bird. It’s a massive Nandi bull, 4.5m high and 8.23m long, carved out of a single piece of granite, which presides over the entrance to the village. The bird and elephant motifs on the chain around its neck give away its provenance: This spectacular artwork dates back to the Vijayanagar empire, best showcased in the ruins of Hampi. Just how prodigiously talented were its craftsmen? Well, this Nandi was apparently created by an artisan in his downtime!
Downtime from what, exactly? The answer lies less than 0.5km away.
Past a narrow lane and a set of steps, on the little hill of Kurmasaila (literally, tortoise hill), is the 16th century temple complex to which the giant Nandi plays gatekeeper. If my hopes were raised by the sight of the bull, they were immeasurably let down as I looked upon the rough, stone-hewn steps leading to the nondescript entrance topped by a very modest gopuram (a tower-like structure at the entrance of a temple).
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But as I stepped inside, I did an Alice and left the world behind. A sense of peace stole in to fill the empty spaces, playing hide-and-seek behind the innumerable stone pillars of the running veranda, unperturbed by the presence of a few locals busy in their business with God: The central temple, dedicated to Virabhadra, an avatar of Shiva, sees as much devotion today as it presumably did in the 16th century.
Over the centuries, echoing among the stones, the breeze bore hints of tales of everyday life—of love and betrayal, spiritual devotion and megalomania, of trying to appease the gods with the fruits of thievery, blood and gore, art and beauty, myth and reality, all blending seamlessly. All etched in stone, on stone.
Stone sentry: The 4.5m-high bull sculpture, carved from a single rock, watches over visitors as they approach the Lepakshi temple complex (top and below). Photographs by Anita Rao Kashi
“Where are you from?” a voice asked suddenly. As the tumult in my ears faded and I spun around, the corporeal form took the shape of a kindly priest. “Let me tell you a bit about this place,” he added understandingly.
The temple complex was built during the rule of king Achyuta Deva Raya of the Vijayanagar dynasty in the mid-16th century by the brothers Veeranna and Virupanna, Nayak chieftains and governors of Penukonda (the name now describes only a small town nearby). The architecture is typical of the time, distinguished by a profusion of gopurams, vimanas (temple towers), apsaras (celestial dancers), half-relief carvings, sprawling structures with wide spaces and courtyards.
The main temple, facing the entrance, has many shrines, but the central one belongs to Virabhadra or Virabhadreshwara— Shiva’s irate avatar—while two others are dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva. This is the only complete part of the complex.
The devout, like my friendly priest, may look no further, but my lay eye was immediately enraptured by the hundreds of carved pillars—a heavenly dancer here, a mythical animal there, Nataraja striking a supremely difficult pose and, next to it, Brahma playing the cymbals and Narad, the tanpura. It’s a symphony in stone and only the most inured of ears can fail to hear the music.
But there’s a bigger story up there, right on the ceiling. A fading yet still brilliant mural, considered to be Asia’s largest—almost 23ft by 12ft—depicts Virabhadra afloat in the sky, attended by the entire pantheon and surrounded by pictorial representations from the Puranas, epics and mythology. The natural pigments have succumbed in part to time and neglect, yet their magnificence is unmistakable.
Currently under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, the paintings brought to mind another spectacular ceiling the world converges to see, in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.
There were no awestruck crowds here, though, and it was not the “hand of God” that grabbed attention, but the handiwork of a mother.
In the temple courtyard stands a giant comparable to Nandi, a many-hooded naga protecting a huge lingam. The sculptor’s mother apparently praised her son’s artistry to the skies, but the nazar (evil eye) caused the work to spontaneously split right down the middle.
The mortal-celestial mix survives in the unfinished Kalyana Mantap (wedding hall) as well: This is where Shiva is actually supposed to have married Parvati. Right next to it is the Lata Mantap, the hall of creepers, named after the distinct creepers entwining every single pillar.
Everything is a story tinged with romance. Like the giant footstep. Legend says it’s Sita’s. I thought the size indicated Gargantua’s wife! Or the series of thali-like carvings around the perimeter. Locals say the cursed were fed here. I thought they could have been the muralists’ palettes. But the tale was so much more, well, satisfying.
Like the story of the temple’s creation. According to the priest, Virupanna—one of the two builders of the complex—was also the treasurer of the Vijayanagar empire and, to fund the temple, he dipped liberally into state funds. Halfway through construction, word reached King Achyuta, who summoned him to court. Fearing the worst, Virupanna punished himself by ripping out his eyes and dashing them against the temple wall.
“The place where they hit the wall bleeds even today,” the priest said, adding as an aside that the name of the village could also come from lep (painted) plus akshi (eye).
“Virupanna’s ghost is known to wander around the place, tortured that he could not fulfil his dreams; the two indentations bleed even more profusely on certain special days.”
Last Dussehra, considered to be the most special occasion for the temple, I was there. The complex was sooty from the oil lamps, the floor slippery from a combination of spilt oil and wet feet. And true enough, the eye-marks were bright red. It looked suspiciously like kumkum. But I preferred the priest’s story.
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