Six hours in Lepakshi

Influence of the Vijayanagar empire spread far and wide during the intervening years of 1300 to 1650 AD. For 300 years, the empire grew from strength to strength and during its zenith, their reign extended from the Bengal to Kerala. The magnificent murals of Lepakshi stands now a forlorn witness to the glorious heights the Vijayanagar empire achieved in the field of art and architecture.

May this New Year usher in lot of travel and loads of fun to your lives!

A marriage in the family and some more stuff beckoned me to Bangalore. I decided to give my Enfield Bullet 350 cc a bit of a run to Bangalore and back.  But it was almost a decade since I had ridden my motor bike for long distances. Srividhya and I used to bike in and around India but with the advent of our son into our lives, motorbiking got relegated to the background and then we graduated to car trips. 

 I did not cancel my train tickets till two days before the date of departure in case I chicken out!  See the thing is, ask anyone to do something today which they did ten years before without nary a thought. It can be playing cricket, running, even reading a book. You go out of touch with those kinds of activities, all sorts of ideas engulf you when you want to reactivate them. Moreover, it was the first time that I was embarking on a bike trip without Srividhya. 

D Day- I was up and away on my bike at about 5.15 AM with loads of trepidation. Familiar landmarks flashed by. The motorcycle was humming, but I was not, honestly. I was rubbing my back to make an imaginary pain go away. A cup of hot tea near Khopoli failed to recalibrate my compass. I rumbled hesitantly through Lonavla and was about to reach Talegaon and then it happened. Body and bike somehow managed to sync into a long forgotten rhythm and as if by magic, the road ahead became clear and inviting. The sound of wind squealing through the helmet and the joy of stealing glimpses of the rising sun through the helmet visor, as you ride on, is pure bliss. This is where the purity of road trips comes through. You enjoy everything in small and utterly delectable parts. Pune, Karad, Kolhapur whizzed by, and Belgaum loomed ahead. I decided to break for the night in Belgaum.

Hotel Sai Sangam is our usual halt whenever we go on road trips to Karnataka. The rooms are clean and economical. After a sumptuous breakfast of boori and masal (and not puri, mind it)the next day, at the venerable Hotel Uday Bhavan, I hit the road to Bangalore. The rest of the ride to Bangalore was uneventful but for the night ride on the NICE Road. Hair- raising for a biker or have I lost touch?! Ouch.

After a memorable family reunion, it was again time for getting on to the saddle. I was in two minds whether to go to Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh or to go to Gadag in Karnataka. I wrestled with the thought even on the morning of departure. My uncle enquired as to where my night halt would be. I mumbled that I have not decided. “ Not yet?” asked my uncle with a raised eyebrow. I just shrugged and promised that I would keep him posted and wheeled away from Jai Nagar. Suddenly, I started to crave for a cup of coffee. As I was sipping the brew, I finally homed in on Lepakshi. It is on the way to Anantapur, and at least I would come closer to Anantapur. What can I say…Man proposes…and on!

Two years ago, I chanced to see a photo of a giant sculpture of a snake made out of stone. On inquiry and investigation, I came to know that photo is from a place called Lepakshi and that it is in Andhra Pradesh. The distance from Bangalore and Lepakshi is only 130 km. I took the Bengaluru- Hyderabad highway which is in excellent condition. A lot of eateries dot the road. Hence don’t waste time packing any food and start early to beat the Bangalore logjam. Sincere advice. 

As I rode into the town of Lepakshi, I was stunned by the sight of a massive vulture on a rock. Many times, the beginning is a  sign of things to follow. I parked my bike in front of a house which prompted the lady of the house to inquire whether I have any eatables stored in the saddlebags. When I replied in the negative, she heaved a sigh of relief for it seems the monkeys, which are in abundance, ruling this part of the world are very aggressive. I picked up my camera bag and left all my belongings on the bike itself. I gingerly made my way up through the main entrance. A tall flagpole, glimmering in gold, welcomed me. On the left, you will find a long and wide verandah made of solid granite stone. You may use it to settle down and have a gulp of water.



We funnily identify the kingdom of Vijayanagara only with Hampi as if all they did was to live and die there. The influence of the Vijayanagara empire is spread far and wide especially in the arena of temple art and architecture.

Achyutaraya, who succeeded the great king Krishnadevaraya, ruled from the nearby town of Penukonda. The local chieftain and  treasurer Viruppanna, owing allegiance to the Vijayanagara kingdom, commenced building this temple in 1522 AD  and finally completed it in 1538 AD. Shiva occupies the temple in the form of Veerabhadra. The kingdom’s treasury funded the construction of the temple.

Viruppanna raised the temple on a five-acre monolith of a rock mountain. Can you believe that? No foundation was dug to build the temple. Large slabs of stone were interlocked with each other to form the outer perimeter of the temple. There was no requirement to quarry stones and transport them from long distances. The rock mountain was broken up, and the stone slabs were hewn from them. There are various inscriptions on the wall forming the 2nd perimeter around the temple. Alas, if only translations were made available on a plaque or a brochure. Till the time the authorities wake up to this requirement, one can only walk past with a wistful sigh! 

 A figure of a perfect man and woman is housed inside the sanctum sanctorum. A big mural of Veerabhadra adorns the central ceiling.  No photography is allowed in the  sanctorum. So certain things can be captured and enjoyed by our eyes only.

Just outside the sanctorum, there is a verandah called the Ardhamantapa where two magnificent examples of Vijayanagara ingenuity awaits us. One, the hanging pillar of Lepakshi is a wonder by itself. In its glorious days,  it would’ve been suspended from the top with its base inches away from the ground and keep in mind; it is a weight-bearing pillar. The local lore is that the British could not believe a possibility of its existence and tried to move it. They did succeed in pushing it a couple of inches, But alas, there was a rumble, and all the adjacent pillars shifted to shoulder the additional burden. Now the hanging pillar base touches the ground on one side! I saw a family trying to pass a thin piece of cloth underneath the pillar. It does not pass through entirely and gets stuck. 

The second and most under-appreciated aspect is the Lepakshi paintings which I would like to focus on. Information on them is scarce. Though the paintings are not as old as Ajanta, the complexity of paintings is second to none. The vegetable colors used are about 500 years old. In Ajanta, scenes from the Jataka tales are painted on the cave ceilings while in Lepakshi, scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas are depicted. Since the temple’s main deity is Shiva, his various forms are depicted.  The expressions of the characters and the colors used to highlight them are superb. There is a painting of Virupanna and is brother Viranna and their progeny receiving holy ash from Shiva.  Behind the two boys stand the artisans of the temple- Hampanna and Jakanna.

Viruppanna & Viranna 

Bhikshatana is a term I was introduced to recently, where Shiva is seen begging for alms. What struck me was the trident which is held by his left arm and goes behind is neck and extends to the extreme right! This is the first time I see this image. I was wonderstruck. In the same picture, a deer is leaping in mid-air which he is feeding. In another panel, Shiva can be seen sitting on a hillock, surrounded by sages,  with a thin band around his right leg. It is a variation of the form of the ultimate Guru- Dakshinamurthy.

Shiva in Bhikshatana pose. Note the trident and the deer!

Dakshinamurthy aka Shiva. I loved the lazy right hand on the right knee.

There is a panel from the Mahabharata where Arjuna is shooting down a wild boar and so does Shiva in the garb of a hunter. The painting of the hunting party is so elaborate and stunning.

Shiva and Arjuna from the Mahabharata

The hunting party- continuation panel from above

Harihara also makes his presence where dark half is Vishnu, the Creator, and the other half Shiva, the Destroyer. A line is passing through the center to make the distinction clear. The beauty of the painting is the alternate dark color on the crown and that on the body.

Harihara-Half Shiva & Half Vishnu

Arjuna’s excellent archery skills of hitting the Pisces stuck on a wheel above his head while looking at its reflection on the water is captured vividly. The next panel, I think, is that of Dushasana disrobing Draupadi. I might be wrong on this. I love to stand corrected.

Arjuna is on the extreme left. Note the arrow on top and is that Draupadi on the right?

Shiva can also be seen killing a demon – Apasmara, a metaphor for ignorance. There is a painting of Shiva emerging from a Shiva Linga and beside him stands a young boy. I presume it might be Markendaya – the boy blessed with eternal youth.

Shiva slaying the demon of ignorance- Apasmara

Young Markendeya on the left

My favorite painting is that of Parvati. I have yet to see a more beautiful rendition of Parvati. This painting is located in the innermost and dark part of a verandah. The panel has deteriorated beyond recovery and only a tiny part of the painting survives.

My favourite- Parvati

As readers might have guessed by now, Lepakshi is a traveler’s delight. Photography is challenging but a time-consuming process. The paintings are showing signs of deterioration on account of the passage of time. Some of them are located in deep dark recesses and hence the degree of difficulty increases. Tripods are not allowed. I do not have any idea why the Archaeological Survey of India has this rule. Thus, most of the images were taken by lying flat on the ground. Hilarious sight for an onlooker, but satisfying when I saw the pictures in the safe confines of my home. 

Google will tell you that the temple is open for entry from 5.00 AM to 12.30 PM and reopens at 4.00 PM and closes at about 8.30 PM. False.  You read it here first. 

The temple opens at 6 AM and closes at 6 PM. 

I entered the temple around 10 AM and by the time I came out it was almost 4 P.M. I chose to stay back at a hotel operated by Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department which is located about a kilometre from the temple.  An unplanned stay at an unplanned destination. Perfect.

While I have tried to cover the paintings in the Ardhamantapa, you are yet to see what lies out the temple. That will form part of Six hours in Lepakshi Part -II which will follow shortly.

Till then, happy viewing.

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