"Every visible surface of the temple features carved or painted artwork, from the moldings of each platform, along each pillar, and upon each ceiling; the stories of a bygone era have been set into its stone," writes Devi Sastry .
It is a warm, cloudy morning towards the tail end of June. Hills in the distance are hidden by far fog, dissipating just enough for me to catch glimpses of the scenery as I hurtle down the highway. About two and a half hours from the center of the city, a grey stone gate featuring carved sculptures of Nandi and Jatayu welcomes me. A few more turns past the bright red fields of Rayalaseema, and I have arrived at the Lepakshi temple, armed with a volume to guide me.
“Dedicated to Virabhadra, a fierce form of Shiva, the Lepakshi temple is of outstanding interest for its beautiful stone carvings and painted ceilings, among the finest and best-preserved examples of these arts from the Vijayanagara era.”
In this detailed coffee table book, experts Anna L. Dallapiccola, Brigitte Khan Majlis, and George Michell provide an informative and well-illustrated account of the Virabhadra temple at Lepakshi, with an entry by John M. Fritz and photographs by Surendra Kumar. The book is divided into sections describing the architecture and sculpture, and ceiling paintings of the temple, including a brief section outlining the details of textiles featured in the ceiling paintings. This follows an introduction highlighting the religious, historical, and mythological significance of the temple. In spite of the temple’s beauty and notability, there is a lack of historical sources about the site, and this volume aims to supply the information necessary to fill this gap in knowledge.
Upon my arrival at the site, I realized what a monumental task this must have been. Each aspect of the temple has been meticulously recorded and described, from the stone carvings of the north entrance, to the systematically numbered columns of the mandapas, to the paintings on the running panels of the ceiling. The physical setting of the compound has been mapped and equipped with a key, making is easy to follow the narratives presented in the art of the temple. I personally found the book to be useful in framing my visit of the site, its clear and comprehensive explanations allowing me to orient myself on the premises. Separate maps at the beginning of each section outline the column and sculpture positions, as well as organize the panels of the ceiling paintings.
The layout of the temple consists of an inner enclosure, comprising the natya mandapa, the kalyana mandapa, and the maha mandapa with access to the shrines, as well as an outer enclosure complete with various stone structures and running colonnades along the four sides. A detailed rendition of the plan of the temple is included in the first section by George Michell, along with a history and chronology of its construction.
While the volume retains its function as something of a guide book, I found it enjoyable to read through it even before I visited the site. In addition to discussions of the technical aspects of the art and architecture, the book features scene by scene descriptions of the stories depicted on the walls and ceilings of the temple. Every visible surface of the temple features carved or painted artwork, from the moldings of each platform, along each pillar, and upon each ceiling; the stories of a bygone era have been set into its stone. Accounts of each representation are accompanied by corresponding photographs of the sculpture or painting described, allowing for an easy understanding of the tales that have been represented in the space of the temple. Recurring tales include that of the king Manunidi Cholan who sacrificed his son in the name of justice, and that of the Kiratarjuniya, or Arjuna’s penance, from the Mahabharata.
“The overarching theme of the iconographic programme is bhakti, unconditional surrender to the deity, and the conviction that, after enduring many trials, divine salvation will be bestowed upon the devotee.”
I was astounded by the level of attention paid to every detail of the art of the temple. The carvings on every column have been recorded and identified, and where figures are unidentified, the experts provide their best guess as to which deity might have been depicted. An especially intriguing part of the temple is the unfinished Kalyana Mandapa, with sixteen free standing columns at its center, each featuring carvings of divine figures along with various surrounding icons and motifs. I found myself grateful that there was no ceiling above the pillars; the outdoor setting and open sky only added to the ambience. With the benefit of light adequate to view the details of the elaborate carvings, I admired the craftsmanship of the sculptures, particularly those of column two, depicting the wedding of Shiva and Parvati.
A distinct feature of the temple is its ceiling paintings, which, though neglected in the past, have been restored many times, most recently in 1986. In the second section of the book, Anna L. Dallapiccola describes and illustrates these depictions.
“The paintings cover the ceilings of many parts of the temple, as well as the walls of the Virabhadra shrine, the god to whom the temple is dedicated. Most compositions are laid out on long panels that conform to the columned bays into which the various mandapas, verandahs and corridors of the temple are divided.”
The panels feature pivotal moments from well-known tales, from Draupadi’s swayamvar to Rama’s coronation, as well as local myths and narratives such as the story of Kannappa. A particularly entertaining scene on panel A9 depicts Shiva and Parvati playing dice, in which Parvati seemingly objects to a move that Shiva has made.
One of my favourite sections of the book was the description of the ceiling painting depicting fourteen aspects of Shiva (and one of an unidentified goddess). On one running panel, each aspect of Shiva is flanked by rishis whose gazes direct a viewer’s eyes to subsequent depictions, from the killing of the demon Andhaka, to Ardhanarishvara, a figure whose body is composed of Shiva and on the right side and Parvati on the left. At the temple, in spite of the damaged state of a couple of the paintings, I was able to distinctly identify each aspect featured on the panel. In fact, while some of the panels have been worn or damaged, information from the book provides the missing links to these paintings, allowing a viewer to imagine the complete artwork.
The last section of the book by Brigitte Khan Majlis provides an insight into the costumes and textiles features in the paintings. The attire differs between different figures on the basis of gender and role, and the chapter categorizes the patterns prevalent on the clothing, accompanied by close-up photographs of these details in the ceiling paintings. An especially striking and heavily featured aspect of the textiles is checkered patterns on sarees and other garments. The author relates the attire of the artwork to clothing styles prevalent during the period and in the region.
While the style of the writing can be technical at times, the content is accompanied by adequate contextualizing material, as well as a glossary of terms, and the photographs are a guiding force too. I imagine that the book would be a special treat for architects, artists, and historians, but as a reader and layperson, I still found it to be enjoyable and informative. Above all, the work is thorough, and succeeds in the aforementioned goal of filling a gap in recorded knowledge about the temple. Whether you want to skim through the pages sipping on afternoon coffee, delve into the history and significance of the temple, or utilize it as a guide on site, the book is both educational and entertaining.