Did you know that the word ‘Lepakshi’ means painted or embalmed eye? A famous temple commonly called by this name is at a village, 15 km from Hindupur in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh in south India. The other significance of this place is also that it is believed that in Ramayana, the great Indian epic, the bird Jatayu trying to save Devi Sita from being carried away, was wounded by Ravana and fell here. When Lord Rama found him he said – ‘’le pakshi’’ which means arise oh bird in Telugu. The temple in question at Lepakshi, is the Veeradhadra temple complex, an excellent example of Vijayanagara art, of an illustrious ruling dynasty of south India. The main centres to study, reflect upon and admire their art and architecture are at Hampi, Lepakshi, Tadipatri, Melkote, Kolar, Bellary, Chikballapur and Chamarajnagar. The area of Lepakshi is part of the Mysore plateau and is flat, made up of granite rocks. The rocks are seen in clusters and the area is surrounded by hills. This area was under the Mauryas in 3rd century B.C., later on the Satavahanas, then the Chutu kings…. on to Chalukyas of Badami, Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas of Kalyani and by the end of the 13th century when the Delhi Sultanate tried to control the whole of Deccan, they appointed two brothers Harihara and Bukka, sons of Sangama to control the political situation at Kampile. However, they declared their independence and founded Vijayanagara, a new city on the southern bank of Tungabhadra opposite Anegondi. They brought many adjoining areas under their territory. They made a fort at Penukonda and made it their second capital. Lepakshi bacame part of their empire. The art and architecture of a powerful empire in south Indian history is well lauded since the style resonates with beauty and freshness. There are some gigantic sculptures inside the temple complexes which include mandapas (halls) with pillars which are richly carved. Themes from the epics and Puranic stories are depicted. Musicians, dancers. flora, fauna, contemporary society have been carved or painted.
The Veerebhadra Temple
The Lepakshi temple is synonymous with the Veeabhadra temple complex. The temple is situated on a Kurma-saila (resembling a tortoise back). The temples are the Papanaseswara and Raghunatha shrines. It is unclear about when this complex was started. The brothers Virupanna and Viranna took keen interest under ruler Achyutaraya to develop the edifice into an outstanding example of Vijayanagara art. The temple complex was developed over a period of time (1100 A.D to 1800 A.D) and made of granite. The structures are at three levels of the hillock, each one having an enclosure or prakara. The Papanaseswara shrine is the earliest one in the complex. Initially there were two shrines Veerabhadra and Papanaseswara, sharing a common platform with a mandapa around it. The Raghunatha shrine was added later was added to the western side of the prakara. The Veerabhadra shrine has its entrance to the north; the inner prakara in 432 square metres, mainly developed 1350 to 1600 A.D; several shrines and mandapas were added.
The temple complex is an amazing planet of sculptures. The high relief sculptures are large and mostly depict Gods and Goddesses and the pillars of the mandapas. The low relief sculptures are done on walls, door frames and smaller compartments; demi gods, fauna, flora among others.
Lord Shiva in different forms like Sadashiva, Dakshinamurti, Nataraja, Bhiksatanamurti, Kalyanasundaramurti, Devisahitamurti, Bhairava, Gajantakamurti, Andhakasura samharamurti, Veerabhadra is depicted in different places like pillars. Lord Vishnu has been depicted as Narasimha, Kondandarama, Vamana, Kurma and Sri Krishna as Kaliyamardana and Balakrishna. Lord Hanuman has been carved at many places. Garuda is found at different points, Goddess Lakhsmi, as Gajalakhsmi is also seen. Lord Brahma, Dattatreya, Surya, Chandra, Indra, Agni, Yama, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ishana, dikpalas. Goddess Saraswati, the saptamatrikas have all been depicted. Among the demi-gods, the ganas, rishis,pitris,dwarapalas,apsaras,gandharvas,kinnaras,nagas have been carved. In addition devotees, ascetics, warriors, musicians and acharyas (teachers) too find a place in the temple carvings. Also common people like shepherds, priests, wrestlers, potters et al. Some stories from the Puranas have been carved as well. The decorative motifs include geometric designs, kalasa,chakra,conch,shivalinga and nandi. The bull at some distance is an amazing monolithic sculpture, Basavanna.
Murals at the temple complex
Besides being a sculptural marvel, the temple complex is well known for its murals which cover the ceilings of the mahamandapa and various shrines, illustrating a range of themes from mythology and courtly life. These include scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the Puranas. The subject of the paintings is thus diverse and depict scenes from the epics and legendary stories.
During the heydays of the temple the paintings were there in many places like the entire ceiling of the structure and walls of main shrines. After the fall of Vijayanagara Empire they got neglected and did not receive any attention. Many of the paintings were affected by the ravages of time and nature. At present, the natya-mandapa including beams and cross bars, the ceiling of the outer verandah around the inner enclosure, the entire mahamandapa, the walls of the Veerabhadra and Ramalingeswara shrines, the mukha mandapa or Raghunatha shrine have the paintings. Some are however severly damaged. The temple has been under the Archaeological Survey of India and there have been restoration efforts since 1976 which has helped to an extent to preserve this amazing treasure for posterity.
Technique of making the paintings
The Lepakshi murals were made by using the method of fresco secco. The surfaces were first plastered with clay from riverbeds, red ochre and lime powder mixed with liquid molasses. The plastered area was then sketched upon with the mythological and other scenes using red ochre, which were later coloured and polished with fine black outlines. Most figures are depicted with sharp features and look strongly projected. The colours used are red, black, green, yellow-ochre, hues of white and grey, and some blue-green.
Paintings document history
The Lepakshi murals document the social and religious life of the period, depicting a variety of occupations. People are shown in different costumes, jewellery, and headgear. The murals serve as an important source of information on Vijayanagara art and culture with different styles of dress, jewellery and sari drapery, including floral, striped, and checked textile designs. There is mural in the natyamandapa which depicts a group of men engaged in worship, dressed in white tunics with tall conical caps. These items of clothing show Persianate influence, which reflects a composite culture during the period.
The murals have been painted as long panels that are in sync with the columnsof the temple’s mandapas and corridors. Let us see some murals or parts of them since some form a series or depicting a story.
Thus we see an amazing heritage site full of sculptures and murals which depict not just aspects of HIndu mythology but reflect a society and culture of a time gone by its very illustrative and detailed paintings.
- Lepakshi temple: a cultural and archeological study/Rao, D. Hanumantha,Delhi : Bharatiya Kala Prakashan,2004.
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- https://www.academia.edu/8770525/Paintings_in_Vijaynagara_Empire (accessed 07.12.2023)
- https://www.peepultree.world/livehistoryindia/story/monuments/the-painted-wonders-of lepakshi(accessed 08.12.2023)
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