Hoards of rhesus monkeys accord you a noisy welcome, as you alight at the quaint little town of Hindupur with its duty roads and leisurely tempo. About 136 km from Bangalore, this town in the Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh is five hours by train from Hyderabad. Fourteen kilometres from Hindupur and well-connected to it by buses and trains, is the village of Lepakshi, famous for its Shiva temple and the largest monolithic Nandi bull, it makes for an ideal day trip from Hindupur.
An interesting legend is associated with the name of the village. It is said that the giant bird, Jatayu, on hearing Sita’s cries for help when she was being abducted by Ravana, came to her rescue and in the combat that ensued, was grievously wounded. When Rama, on his mission to rescue his wife, found the dying Jatayu, he granted the bird salvation and bade him rise. That is how, apparently, the name le pakshi ( Telugu for “Rise, bird”) was born.
Built by the loyal treasurer, Veerupanna, between the 15th and 16th centuries during the reign of Achyut Raya of the Vijaynagar dynasty, the temple squats upon a hill like a tortoise. The bus from Hindupur to Lepakshi stops at some distance from the temple, hidden from view by a cluster of houses. A walk through the village, away from the main road, leads one to the temple. Approaching its ruins, we stumble upon a flight of stairs cut into the rock. A local offers to act as my guide and during our exploration of the temple’s interiors, regales me with its history, its legends and the fascinating stories behind each one of its wonderful sculptures.
What is so unique about Lepakshi’s Shiva temple is the absence of gopurams, so characteristic of the temples of South India. The main temple was once protected by seven tall boundary walls of which only three survive. They carry inscriptions in Kannada pertaining to the various activities undertaken by the Vijaynagar kings. Moving from the first to the second boundary wall, one comes across the huge figure of the god, Ganesha, all six feet of it hewn out of a rock. Sculpted on a rock alongside is the figure of the devotee, Kannappa, along with the likenesses of a snake, a spider and an elephant worshipping a Shivalinga, an indication that this temple was built before the one at Sri Kalahasti came into existence.
Built on a sprawling terrace, the Lepakshi temple has three sections: the main pavilion or mukhya mandapam (also referred to as the natya mandapam), the artha mandapam and the kalyana mandapam. Within the premises is a huge seven-headed figure of a coiled snake that holds in its centre a Shivalinga.
The kalyana mandapam, resting on 38 monolithic pillars, is incomplete. The Pallavas built this mandapam in the 15th century, conforming to the Vijaynagar style of architecture. The tale goes that, Veerupanna, falsely accused of fraud, strove to prove his innocence by tearing his eyes out of their sockets and hurling them at the wall. The two small holes visible on the wall of the mandapam are accepted by the locals as the eyes of this ardent devotee. On the pillars of the mandapam are depicted the various activities associated with the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. Hence the name kalyana mandapam. Some of the pillars here are adorned with a variety of floral and geometric patterns.
The natya mandapam has 70 exquisitely carved pillars. Among the figures in the center of this mandapam, is that of the celestial nymph, Rambha, frozen in a dancing posture. It is accompanied by representations of celestial beings playing musical instruments. Across the ceiling sprawls a 100-petalled lotus, sculpted out of 12 stones called the shata patra kamalam. Nearby is the antariksha pillar, an eight-foot structure suspended from the ceiling without touching the floor.
The mukhya mandapam containing the main temple is dedicated to the god, Veerabhadra. The temple’s ceiling and walls are adorned with beautiful paintings in natural colours depicting tales from Hindu mythology. The sanctum sanctorum features figures of women and among others, the architect of the temple, Natya Ganapati (Ganesha in a dancing pose)., Durga, Navagraha, Vidya Ganapati, Parvati and Bhadrakali. The figures of Shiva and Vishnu face each other. The presiding deity is called Veerupanna Veerabhadra, after the builder of this temple, and the ceiling carries a huge painting of the god, Veerabhadra.
My guide stops here to pause for breath and I am free to explore the huge figure of Nandi on my own. Some distance down the main road, away from the temple, I come across the massive monolithic figure of the bull, all 15 feet of it carved with bells and shells, facing the Shiva temple. I can only marvel at the proportions of this sculpture which seems to dwarf everything in sight. And aptly so, considering what an important part it plays in the life of the village over which it presides.
As I retrace my steps to the bus stop. I notice to my delight that the weekly village market is in full swing. I give in quite willingly to the persuasion of a bangle-seller who is more that eager to sell me his wares. The journey back is made in silence. For all its decay and ruins, Lepakshi’s Shiva temple has that effect on you.
(First published in The Sunday Statesman, 1 January 2003)