Andhra Pradesh’s Lepakshi temple: A marvel in stone

Every nook and corner of the temple in Andhra Pradesh, that features in the tentative UNESCO heritage list, celebrates the Vijayanagara architecture

Updated - May 06, 2022 01:50 pm IST

Published - May 05, 2022 06:34 pm IST

The hanging pillars at the Veerabhadraswami temple, Lepakshi.

The hanging pillars at the Veerabhadraswami temple, Lepakshi. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It’s a land strewn with as many stories and myths as beautiful sculptures and carvings. At every step a new sight, a new paradigm, a little anecdote, a pillar or a mantapa awaits the visitor.

Lepakshi in Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh, a marvel in stone, appeals equally to tourists and history and heritage enthusiasts.

The Veerabhadra Swami temple here, which has found a place on UNESCO’s tentative list of world heritage sites in India for 2022, is obviously the focal point. Situated atop the Kurmasailam (tortoise-shaped) hill, it is a glorious example of the much-celebrated Vijayanagara architecture.

Since it’s a hot rocky region, it is advisable for the visitors to reach the site early in the morning (the temple opens at 7 a.m. and one needs two to three hours to complete the trail).

The Ramayana link

The name of the place itself is linked with the Ramayana. Legend has it that Jatayu fell at this spot after Ravana cut its wings when he tried to prevent Sita’s abduction. Rama stumbled upon the bird when searching for Sita.

After the injured bird narrated what had happened, Rama coaxed him to rise again, “le, pakshi” (rise, bird in Telugu). A recent touristy addition to Lepakshi is a colossal concrete Jatayu statue (in flashy paint) on a hillock in Jatayu Park, just before you take a turn off the highway to enter the temple.

The iconic Nandi at Sree Veerabhadraswami temple, Lepakshi.

The iconic Nandi at Sree Veerabhadraswami temple, Lepakshi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The Jatayu looks over a marvellously sculpted six-metre tall Nandi wearing layers of bells and ornaments. It is said to have been carved out of a monolith. Like the temple, it dates back to the 16th century.

As you go around the Veerabhadra Swami temple, what catches the eye first are the long pillared halls. Intricate carvings of yalis, flowers, trees, animals, yakshas and yakshis can be seen on each pillar.

For every part of the temple, there are two layers of stories — one that links it to incidents in the Ramayana, and the other talks about life during the reign of the Vijayanagara kings.

The monolith nagalinga at Sri Veerabhadra Swami temple, at Lepakshi.

The monolith nagalinga at Sri Veerabhadra Swami temple, at Lepakshi. | Photo Credit: RVS Prasad/The Hindu Archives

The imposing Nagalinga statue, with the seven-hooded serpent coiled around a linga on a five-foot platform, is an awe inspiring sight.

One must stand and watch in silence the serpent rising against the sky. As you walk past it, in search of the famed Ganesha, you come across carvings of a spider-like creature, and a man performing abishekam to a lingam. Due to lack of documentation, one can interpret these carvings according to their imagination. And add to Lepakshi’s myths.

The nearly six-foot Ganesha behind the Nagalinga, and surrounded by an incomplete mantapa, reminds one of the Sasivekalu and Kadlekalu Ganesha statues in Hampi – the rocky terrain and the fact that it also belongs to the Vijayanagara empire establishes the link.

Legend and history

The entire temple complex was believed to be re-built by Virupanna, and his brother Veeranna under the rule of Vijayanagara king Achyuta Devaraya. The brothers were officers/governors in the Penukonda region.

The original structure is said to have been built by Sage Agastya, and finds mention in the Skanda Purana as one of the 108 Saivaite pilgrimage centres of ancient India. Again there are multiple stories and versions — Virupanna is said to have built the temple without the king’s permission to use the royal funds (when the king was away) and so the king upon his return ordered the construction to be stopped, and Virupanna be blinded. But Virupanna is said to have been so upset, that he plucked his own eyes and threw it at the temple walls that bear two red blotches. A man sweeping the temple complex points towards the ‘bleeding eyes’, else you can almost miss it.

As the construction was stopped abruptly, what you come across next is the unfinished kalyana mantapa on a raised platform, with over 30 carved sandstone pillars. Two covered pavilions look more complete and ornate. Legend says that Shiva and Parvati wedded here.

When you enter the main shrine, the 70-pillared nrutya mantapa, the detailed and beautiful carvings on them depict gods and artistes playing musical instruments and dancers in various poses and mudras. The high ceiling is filled with long panels of fresco paintings that you must crane your neck to see (details in box 1). There is also the hanging pillar, and I see a group of enthusiastic women trying to pass a dupatta underneath it.

Apart from Veerabhadra, there are shrines dedicated to Durga, Papanasesvara, Raghunatha, Parvati, Ramalinga, and Hanumalinga.

The priest is a jovial old man, who tells the story of the temple (in at least three languages) before he performs the puja. We leave reluctantly, realising how little we know about our own country.

How to get there: Lepakshi is about 123 km from Bengaluru (two-hour drive), and 390 km from Chennai (eight-hour drive).

Fresco paintings

Paintings on the roof of Sri Veerabhadra Swami temple at Lepakshi.

Paintings on the roof of Sri Veerabhadra Swami temple at Lepakshi. | Photo Credit: RAMESH SUSARLA/The Hindu Archives

The paintings are somewhat similar to the Ellora paintings in terms of the colour palette of brown, ochre, red, off-white and black, but the style is very different. The detailing of the jewellery, clothing, and hairstyle of the women are fascinating; the unique elongated headgear of the men, including gods, is another eye-catching feature. (I see resemblances to Kalamkari work.) The central portion of the roof near the garbha griha has a mural of Veerabhadra, flanked by Virupanna and Veeranna worshipping him. Measuring 23 feet by 13 feet, it is said to be one of the largest murals in Asia. There are also representations of at least 14 avataras of Shiva, as well as scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Interesting trivia

One level down from the kalyana mantapam is a slab with the image of Hanuman carved on it. At its base is what looks like a huge circular indent with several similar smaller indents around it This is supposed to be the plate the workers at the site used to eat food from.

The Bengaluru-based writer is a freelance journalist.

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