Lepakshi – Unexplored Architectural Gem of India
There are several architectural wonders in India, some well known while many of them unknown to Indians themselves. One of the unknown wonders of India is the Lepakshi Temple, located less than 100 kms from the Bengaluru International Airport and about 50 kms from Puttaparthi, which attracts lot of tourists. Though I have lived in Bengaluru for a decade and a half, somehow I never made it to Lepakshi until I started doing some research on the “unknown gems” of India.
The drive to Lepakshi is just under 2 hours (including a break of 30 mins), from Bengaluru city if it happens to be early Sunday morning. Located in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, Lepakshi is almost a border town. You will cover most of the distance on National Highway #7 and just 15 kms on the State Highway. The entire stretch is simply superb and you may stop by to have breakfast on the way.
Ramayana and Lepakshi
Lepakshi finds an important place in Ramayana and not many will know that it was here that Sita stepped on the ground creating a “Sita Padam” or Sita’s Footprint, when Ravana had abducted her. Jatayu, the King of Vultures, fought fiercely to protect her and in the end Ravana chopped off his wings. Sita prayed for Jatayu’s life even when she was being flown away in the Pushpaka Vimana. Heavens opened up and it rained, thereby filling up the “Padam” filled with water and Jatayu could quench his thirst to survive till Lord Rama came to him. Lord Rama uttered the word “Le-Pakshi”, meaning “Arise-Bird”, which enabled Jatayu to attain “Moksha” or salvation. Such is the marvel that even today, the “Padam” or giant footprint measuring about 2 feet long is always filled with water even during the driest of summer months. The water comes from a small hole and nobody knows the source.
Architectural Gem of India
What impressed me most about Lepakshi is the architectural grandeur of the Veerabhadra Temple premises. I was wondering if the Temple had been located in Europe or the Americas, it would have certainly found a place in the 7 wonders of the world. Why am I saying this? Well read on…
Largest monolithic Nandi in the world
About 500 metres before you enter the town of Lepakshi, you will come across Nandi (the giant bull) about 27 feet long and 15 feet in height built out of a single granite stone. You cannot miss the idol of Nandi before entering any Shiva temple, but this huge idol at Lepakshi, is the largest monolithic statue of Nandi in the world.
Architectural splendour of Veerabhadra Temple
The Veerabhadra temple at Lepakshi was built on a tortoise shaped hill or “Kurma Saila”, which was formed as a result of volcanic eruption. The Temple was built around 1540AD by Virupanna, who was managing the State Treasury and his brother Viranna, under the Vijayanagara empire during the reign of King Achutaraya. Virupanna had built the temple using the Vijayanagara style of architecture, without the King’s knowledge by diverting money from the State coffers. Ofcourse he had to pay a price for the non disclosure (details given elsewhere). According to Skanda Purana, the temple is one of the “Divya-Kshetra” or an important pilgrimage site of Lord Shiva. Though the temple is dedicated to Lord Veerabhadra, the fearsome form of Lord Shiva, it also depicts the various Avatars of Lord Vishnu and thereby blends in both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite styles.
Hanging pillar (Engineering marvel)
What strikes you the most as you enter the Temple is the majestic row of about 70 Pillars with intricate carving of Gods, “Apsaras” or Nymphs and Musicians in the main hall called the “Natya Mantapa” or Dance Hall. It’s not just the carvings, even the fresco or painting on the ceiling will leave you spell bound. It’s like a grand concoction of the famous Ellora (Kailasa temple) and the frescoes of Ajanta caves, at one location. One of the pillars stands out among the rest because it is hanging in the air!! Now you will realize, why I felt this Temple should have found a place among the 7 wonders of the world. You can easily pass a piece of cloth or even a stick from the base of the pillar known as “Aakaasa Sthambha” or floating pillar. It is indeed an engin
eering marvel and to unravel the mystery of this pillar, a British engineer named Sir Hamilton tried to rectify this architectural aberration in 1910 using iron rods. In the process many pillars developed cracks and lost their balance and you can see atleast 4 of them bent at the top. This could also mean the hanging pillar balances the entire dance hall ..… We should indeed by thankful for the divine intervention; else the entire structure would have collapsed thanks to the foolish misadventure of Hamilton.
The pillars depict a marriage scene wherein Lord Shiva ties the knot with Parvati witnessed by Brahma, Vishnu, Lord Indra and other Gods amidst dance performances by Rambha, the 3-legged Bhringi (dance teacher of the Apsaras), 14 avatars of Lord Shiva including Natesha (another form of Lord Shiva) to the tune of drums, cymbals and other musical instruments. It is like watching a live performance on stone and you are one of the invitees to the marriage function.
Frescoes of Veerabhadra Temple
The frescoes or painting on the ceiling of the dance hall will just blow your mind. It has withstood 450+ year of its existence and the colors used are all organic in nature, made out of vegetable and fruits extract. There are tiny holes on the floor where the vegetables were ground to make the dyes. The painting of Lord Krishna mesmerizes you, as if he watches you from any which direction you see him. The paintings of Parvati being attended to by her maids, Ravana handing over the Shiva Linga to Ganapathi, Lord Vishnu’s various avatars etc will make you spell bound. In spite of the forces of nature and Mughal invasions very little damage has been done to the frescoes and the stone carvings on the Pillars of the Temple. The paintings look fresh even today.
Lord Veerabhadra, the presiding Deity
The presiding deity in the sanctum sanctorum is a near life-size idol of Lord Veerabhadra, fully armed and decorated with skulls. There is a cave chamber in the sanctum where sage Agastya is said to have lived when he installed the Shiva Linga here. The ceiling in the sanctum, above the deity, has paintings of Virupanna and Viranna, the builders of the Temple.
Multi hooded Serpent guarding the Shiva Linga
Within the temple precincts, to its eastern side, there is huge boulder of granite stone, which has carving of coiled multi-hooded serpent providing an umbrella cover over a Shiva Linga. You will also notice a stone carving of Shri Kala Hasti, which means the temple was built much later than the famous Shri Kalahasti Temple near Tirupati. Besides the coiled serpent you will notice stone carvings of 7 Goddesses. What is very intriguing is that the engineers used blocks of rocks that were cut from the same mountain and transported them to various parts of the temple. Another interesting fact to note is that the entire structure does not use any binding materials like cement and probably they employed a locking technique between the layers of rocks, which is yet to discovered.
Lape-Akshi (village of the blinded eye)
Virupanna had built the Temple without the King’s knowledge drawing funds from the State Treasury. The nobles poisoned the King that he built the Temple using the state’s coffers to outshine his majesty. Outraged, the King ordered for Virupanna to be blinded. But disturbed by the false accusation and determined to prove his honesty, Virupanna forestalled the punishment by gorging his eyes out and throwing them at the temple wall. The reddish marks left by his bleeding eyes are still present on the wall. A British scientist tried removing the blood stains from the wall using chemicals etc. but failed in his attempt. It is also believed that Lepakshi got its name from Lape-Akshi (village of the blinded eye) after this tragic incident.
The unfinished Pillars and other wonders
On the exterior of the Temple, you will notice several pillars with extricate carvings of various Gods, who have come to attend the Marriage ceremony of Lord Shiva with Parvati. The decorations are in the form of blocks of carved images of horses and soldiers. Some of the key sightings, are as follows:
- A large stone carving of Lord Ganesha
- What will strike you the most is the carving of “Darpana Sundari” or “Beauty with the Mirror, who is busy adorning herself with a mirror in one hand.
- Virupanna also built a Yagna shala for performing yagnas and you will notice a chimney at the top for the smoke to escape from the chamber.
- He also built chambers for sculptors to take rest
- You can also find 2 huge plates carved on the rock with multiple cavities as you see in modern day “thali”. It is believed that food was served to the sculptors on these 2 giant thalis (each about 2 feet in diameter).
- A giant Tulsi katte made from granite sto
ne (where Tulsi plant is grown and worshipped) adorns the Temple exterior
- The Archeological Survey of India have carefully preserved ancient scripts engraved on stone. It consists of Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu scripts perhaps engraved more than 450 years ago.
Lepakshi and Saree designs:
The name “Lepakshi” is synonymous with handicrafts showroom. The Government of unified Andhra Pradesh used such an appropriate name and there is a reason too. You may find it difficult to believe that most of the saree designs have been borrowed from the pillar carvings of Lepakshi.
The famous Dharmavaram silk sarees, Lepakshi and Hindupur silk and handloom sarees use designs from these pillar carvings. You can thus imagine how intricately these designs have been carved on granite stones. How much skill and patience must have gone into these carvings…this is indeed another wonder.
Conclusion and my take
While conversing with the Guide I gathered from him that the tourist footfall has reduced after foreigners stopped coming to Puttaparthi, post the death of Shri Sathya Saibaba. The tourists are mostly locals and some coming from Bengaluru. After visiting so many sites of archaeological interest all over the world, I found something very interesting about Lepakshi. It is a perfect blend of mythology, history, architecture, designs, paintings and of course Spirituality. How come this site has escaped the attention of Indians ? Why is it, that a site which can easily boast of few wonders, is still not on the must see or bucket list of Indian tourists ? I am sure as more and more foreigners start coming to Lepakshi, Indian tourists may follow suit. It took me more than 15 years to visit Lepakshi, just a 2 hours drive…. while commuting in Bengaluru from one end to other end takes as much time. Is it because the place was not advertised enough or perhaps not researched enough even by an ardent traveller like me? After visiting Lepakshi I felt it’s my duty to write a blog even if it’s a lengthy one so that more and more people visit the architectural grandeur called “Lepakshi”.
- Hire a guide for sure. They can speak multiple languages and can make your trip memorable. Thanks to the guide I could jot down lot of things about Lepakshi and write this blog. (Contact Raghu Guide: 90306 70262)
- Start early from Bengaluru, have breakfast on the way and return back for lunch at Bengaluru. This way you can beat the heat and view all the important sites with much comfort and ease
- There are no good Restaurants at Lepakshi so pack some food if you do not plan a breakfast stopover on the way
- Though Lepakshi sarees are famous, you will not find showrooms selling these sarees in the vicinity
- If possible visit Vidurashwatha near Gauribiddanur, should you return via Hindupur from Lepakshi. This place has a Naga Temple and is also called the “Jallianwalla Bagh of the South”. There is a memorial as a mark of respect for freedom fighters, who lost their lives as a result of firing by the British.
About the Author:
Arvind is an avid traveller and he is passionate about blogging. Some of his blogs have won awards and have featured in leading newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. This article on Lepakshi was written after a long hiatus of 2 years and incidentally on Ram Navami day, due to the linkage of Lepakshi with Ramayana. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
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