Saturday 23 September 2017 News Updated at 03:09 AM IST
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Built of stones, big on stories - Deccan Herald
Built of stones, big on stories
Hema Anand,
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Mural Paintings
After a pleasant two-hour drive, as we reach the small village of Lepakshi, situated in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, the first sight that catches our attention is the gigantic statue of Nandi, standing tall in all its grandeur. This statue, 17-ft high and 27-ft long, is carved out of a single granite rock, and is adorned with beautiful jewellery. It’s also believed to be one of the largest monolithic statues of Nandi in India.

As we ascend the flight of stairs leading to the main temple, little do we know that we are about to see a masterpiece of engineering skills of the ancient and medieval India’s temple builders. The main temple, dedicated to Lord Veerabhadra, is constructed over a tortoise-shaped low-rise hill called Kurma Sailam, meaning 'tortoise hill’ in Telugu. The temple, which dates to 1538 A D, is said to be built by two brothers, Virupanna and Viranna, in the court of King Achutaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire; hence the temple has Vijayanagara style of architecture.

There is a natya mantapa (dancing hall) in front of the main temple dedicated to Lord Veerabhadra, the fierce form of Lord Shiva shown after Daksha Yagna and the self-immolation of Goddess Parvati. The temple is functional even today.

Musical ensemble

Our guide shows us around the natya mantapa, which consists of 70 beautifully carved pillars, 12 of which form the main dancing hall. Each pillar has carvings of different gods. Celestial nymph Rambha is seen dancing on one pillar. On the other pillars, there are sculptures of gods and also Nataraja playing musical instruments like the drum, veena, flute and tambura. There is also a sculpture of Rambha’s dance guru Bhringeshwara, who has three legs and dances with two legs while he rests one of his legs alternatively. Both Rambha and Bhringeshwara are seen in the same dance pose. The mantapa also has a carved ceiling comprising a 100-petalled lotus carved out of 12 stones, called the shathapatra kamala.

"And now,” exclaims our guide, "I’ll show you the most astonishing structure in the temple.” On the north-eastern corner of the natya mantapa stands the famed 'hanging pillar’ of Lepakshi. This pillar, (moola stambha or antariksha stambha) does not touch the ground, instead it grazes the ceiling, defying all laws of gravity. There is a small gap between the base of the pillar and the floor through which one can pass a twig or a piece of cloth. The pillar is slightly dislodged from its position now, and touches the ground on one end.

We are informed that in 1902, a British engineer tried to investigate the mystery behind the hanging pillar by putting an iron rod under it, which consequently led to the shifting of all the other pillars and columns fractionally. Scared that the temple might collapse, he stopped his investigation.

The ceiling of the temple is covered with beautiful murals depicting mythological stories from the puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The guide shows us small holes in the floor, which he says were used as palettes for making colours from natural ingredients.

On the back side of the main temple is a massive nagalinga carved out of a single stone. This seven-headed serpent, with its body coiled in three layers, has a shivalinga within its coils.

This is the fourth shivalinga in the temple premises. The guide informs us that pooja is not performed here as the nagalinga has cracks. The story is... when the sculptors were hungry, they came to the kitchen for food, but the mother of the chief sculptor told them that the preparation of food would take longer. While they waited, they saw a granite boulder and decided to carve something out of it. When the mother came out of the kitchen, she could not believe that a huge nagalinga could be carved in such a short time. She cast her eyes on it, resulting in it developing three cracks.

Next, we are led to an incomplete mantapa, a kalyana mantapa. But why was only this mantapa left incomplete? There’s a tragic story... Virupanna, who was the royal treasurer, was accused of drawing funds from the royal treasury without the king’s permission, for building the temple. When the king found his treasury empty, he ordered that Virupanna’s eyes be removed. Virupanna was so hurt that he plucked out his eyes and hurled them at a wall, which formed two holes there. Even today these holes are visible, with stains under them.

Origin of 'Lepakshi’

Located next to the kalyana mantapa is the latha mantapa (the hall of creepers). It has 36 pillars and all the four faces of each pillar have a different design, used as border designs for saris and dress materials. Here, the fifth shivalinga in the temple complex is known as Tandaveshwara.

There are resting halls built at many places within the temple premises. Opposite these, there are also plates with many compartments carved on the ground itself. These plates were used by the labourers to eat their meals. One also gets to see inscriptions in old Kannada at many places inside the temple.

Locals say that Lepakshi Temple has a connection to the Ramayana. There’s a
two-and-a-half-feet-long footprint of Sita known as Sitamma padalu, believed to be a perennial source of water.

Our guide tells us during Lord Rama’s times, all gods were 28-30-ft tall, which explains the size of Sita’s footprint. When Sita was abducted by Ravana, Jatayu tried to save her, but Ravana cut off his wings and the bird-man fell at this place and kept drinking water there to stay alive till Lord Rama came. Lord Rama helped him attain moksha by uttering the words 'le-pakshi’, which means 'rise, bird’ in Telugu. And thus the village came to be known as Lepakshi. Every stone in Lepakhi has a story behind it!