About the temple
A huge monolithic Nandi in couchant posture welcomes us at the entrance of the small village Lepakshi in Hindupur Taluk, Anantapur District, Seemandhra. The road leads us to a large temple complex on a small elevated hillock. Standing on the Kurmasila (tortoise shaped hill), as testimony to the generosity of the donations and grants of the Vijayanagara feudatories Virupanna and Viranna during the period of Achyutharaya Maharaya (1530 - 1542 AD), is the temple of Veerabhadraswamy, Papanaseswara (Shiva) and Raghunatha (Vishnu). Among the few historical records that mention the Papanaseswara cave temple on the Kurmasila in Lepakshi, the epigraphy dating to 1493 AD during reign of the Vijayanagara king Saluva Immadi Narasimha (1490-1506 AD) is an important one. The Veerabhadra and Raghunatha shrines as well as the present Papanaseswara shrine however, seem to have been built during the period of Achyutharaya in the 16th century. Virupanna and Veeranna may have enshrined Veerabhadraswamy as the main deity in the temple.
The temple also houses other sub shrines along with the most remarkable monolithic seven hooded Naga with three coils, inside which a basaltic Linga is enshrined. The huge west facing Nandi on the entrance of the village is looking towards this Nagalinga, from which we can identify the sacred geography of the temple. This can be compared with the Virupaksha and the monolithic Nandi in Hampi.
About the Paintings
The Lepakshi temple is renowned for its Vijayanagara style paintings, which are probably from the same period when the elaborate temple complex was built. In his book 'Lepakshi Temples' (2004), Hanumantha Rao dates the paintings as 16th century. Abundant in quantity, these rich narrative paintings are evidence of the expertise in the art of painting during the Vijayanagara period. Lepakshi paintings are stylistically similar to the ceiling paintings in the rangamantapa of the Chennakesava temple in Sompalem, Chittoor district, Seemandhra. The entire ceiling of the temple complex seems to have been painted along with some inner portions of the temple walls.
Most of the paintings seems to be in form of narratives, although some paintings of the deities stand independently. The image of Veerabhadra measuring 7.7 x 4.3 metres occupies the major space in the mukhamantapa and is said to be the largest single character painting of that period. The ceiling of the mukhamantapa also has the painted narratives of Bhaktha Kannappa, Kiratharjuniyam and other themes. The Raghunatha shrine houses the paintings of some of the avatars of Vishnu on its ceiling, but several avatars have been damaged or lost for ever due to damage caused by bats. The different forms of Shiva are painted in sequence on the ardhamantapa ceiling, while Ramayana scenes are depicted in the extended portion of the ardhamantapa, adjacent to the Raghunatha shrine.
The natyamantapa in Lepakshi is unique and exquisite. It is a treasure trove of various narratives painted on the ceiling. The cosmic lotus motif relief forms the centre portion of the octagonal architecture which transforms into a square as it unfolds down. The monolithic pillars in the centre have larger than life sculptures of various celestials related to music and dance and also the bhikshatana aspect of Shiva.
The Lepakshi panels depict various narratives from the puranas and epics. In the natyamantapa, the centre cosmic lotus medallion is surrounded on all four sides by the narrative of Kiratharjuniyam depicted in over fifteen scenes. The Girija Kalyana scene occupies more than three fourth of the panel. Another narrative is the Draupadi Swayamwara, which is shown in three scenes. Apart from these, we also find the badly damaged depictions of Rama Pattabhisheka and Nataraja dancing among the assembly of gods who accompany him with various musical instruments with gesture of worship or praise. The story of Manuneeti Cholan painted in an east west orientation in the natyamantapa is the longest single narrative panel in this temple. The divine characters painted in each segment of the rear prakara include figures like Ganesha, Kaliya mardhana, Kodandarama, Durga, Swabhishekamurti (Mrithyunjaya Shiva) etc, which are rendered very intricately.
The richness of the hues used by the Vijayanagara artists can be experienced in the well preserved colours of the natyamantapa paintings. Primary colours such as red ochre, yellow ochre, earth brown, lime white, black (probably lamp black) and green are seen. A few mixed colours such as grey are also present in the paintings. The colours are applied flat and finished with outlining in black or red ochre.
In Lepakshi, the figures are painted with utmost care and dedication to the core. The characters are displayed individually one after the other as in a stage with minimal overlapping so as to show a clear visual of each and every figure. Every character is rendered and differentiated by the body colour, dress, drape and the ornaments. Men and women are shown decked up according to their status. We are able to visualize the clothing, head gear, ornamentation and other aspects of the material culture of the royalty as well as the common people of the Vijayanagara period through these paintings. While some males are depicted in Indo-Islamicate type of clothing, most of the men are clothed in dhotis tied as panche. with a uttariya. Men and women are depicted with different hair-styles and ornaments. The divine or celestial beings are shown with flower garlands. Shika, jatamukuta, kirita or kullayi adorn the men, while women have braided their hair or tie them as dhammila. The goddess also wear the kiritamukuta. The rich fabrics and jewelleries depicted in the Lepakshi paintings are a testimony to the wealth and fashion of that period.
Each figure is painted with remarkable strokes by master artists and with a unique iconography. Every scene has a centre and the characters have a circular curvature corresponding to that centre, thus differentiating between each scene. The protruding second eye in every human figure in the Lepakshi paintings is of stylistic significance.