Monday, 23 April 2012

Travel: Lepakshi ~ Of vanishing murals

At Lepakshi in 2000
 (I wrote this piece in 2000)

It's a long and winding journey to Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh, about 15 km from the railway station at Hindupur. But it's a revitalising trip for those who believe in heritage sites, for those who marvel at the art of our ancestors, and those willing to get away from the routine multiple-destination tourist routes. 

At the height of its fame during the 16th century, Lepakshi was a centre of pilgrimage and trade. Its main claim to fame was its striking temple on the small hillock of Kurmasaila, which grew to its present dimensions when the brothers Viranna and Virupanna, both Nayak chieftains under Achyutaraja of the Vijayanagar kingdom, enlarged the shrine of Papanasesvara.

Virupanna, as the king's treasurer, had vast sums at his disposal, which he spent on making Lepakshi a magnificent temple. It consists of three shrines -- dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Virabhadra -- around a central pavilion with an intermed iary hall and a hall for ritual dance. Virabhadra, a wrathful manifestation of Shiva, was the patron deity of the Nayak rulers.

The temple core is surrounded by a large open court entered from the east with large gopuras to the north and west. A monolithic Nagalinga -- the largest of its kind in India -- and Ganesha in the second interior court entice the eye by their sheer scale and perfection.

The temple interior boasts of imposing sculptures in half-relief on each of its granite pillars. These depict dancers, drummers and divine musicians -- such as Brahma playing the drum and Tumburu playing the veena. The celestial nymph Rambha is depicted in dance, while Shiva is captured for posterity in the throes of the ananda tandava. In the intermediary hall, one frieze is especially striking -- a long line of geese with lotus stalks in their beaks. No detail has been spared even i n the central hall between the three shrines, adorned with flawless carvings of Gajantaka, Ganapati dancing, Durga and a hermaphrodite. 

A mural on the wall

Artistically, the Lepakshi temple is most celebrated for its paintings, though some have vanished while others are palpably weathered with time. A colossal painting of Virabhadra is almost hidden in the central hall. On the ceiling of the hall of dance, eight panels depict Puranic legends. One greatly humane panel captures the story of the Chola king Manunitikanda, who loved to dispense justice even to animals like the cow!

The use of natural pigments and ancient mural arts makes Lepakshi a remarkable storehouse of skills on the verge of extinction. The birds, beasts and foliage depicted in its paintings and carving have spawned a style often found today in block-printed Indian textiles and rugs, popularly referred to as the Lepakshi motifs. 

The giant Nandi bull

Today, the temple remains the town's main draw, though maintenance is poor and its priceless works of art have been ravaged and weathered by the years. Its inhabitants are used to visitors from afar who descend on them out of the blue and then are seen no more.

Lepakshi's restaurants are small and offer only standard thali meals or parathas with sabji. All around the dusty bus stand -- from where vehicles ply with indeterminate frequency -- we find an abundance of scattered baskets. On closer inspection, we find that they contain silkworms gorging on mulberry leaves!

Our visit was during the Dasara festival in October, when the sanctum sanctorum was ablaze with oil lamps, the air acrid with their smoke, the floor slippery from the hundreds of bare feet that had preceded us.

Further reading, on our return to Bangalore, revealed that Lepakshi is typical of the Vijayanagar style, as seen in the architecture of the famed Vitthala temple at Hampi or the portraiture in stone at Chidambaram. History books tell us that the Vijayanagar style was notable for its huge gopuras, multiple vimanas, large mandapas and generous courtyard space. In retrospect, we find that Lepakshi is true to this tradition, though perhaps as a scaled-down model.

A wonderful granite bull of gigantic dimensions a short distance from the temple enclosure is closely associated with Lepakshi in the minds of visitors. It is said to be the largest sculpted Nandi bull in south India, even larger than the famous one on the Chamundi hill in Mysore. 

The pillars in the temple courtyard

Lepakshi is a treasure trove for historians, art connoisseurs those interested in the preservation and restoration of traditional Indian art. Even as a single-site town, it rewards the determined visitor.

But it left us with many questions that haunted us for months afterwards. Can't concrete steps be taken to preserve what remains of its priceless murals? Why aren't the surroundings of the Lepakshi temple in better shape? Isn't it time that tourist literature on the Lepakshi heritage was made easily available to visitors, to keep them from falling prey to unlicenced guides who lurk at every turn in the premises?

Perhaps the answers are shrouded over in the mists of time. 

(The Hindu Business Line, 2000)

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