Introduction – The first reference of Lepakshi is found in Skandapurana as ‘Lepakshya-Papanasanah’ among the 108 Shaiva scared places of southern India. Sthalamahatmyam mentions that sage Agastya stayed here, in a cave on the Kurmashila hill, during his visit to scared places in the south of Vindhya mountain. He built a small temple dedicated to Papanasheshvara. This place is marked with a natural rock shelter over a hill and still revered by the locals.
The town is variably called as Lepaksha, Lepakshi, Lepakshipura in inscriptions found here. The etymology of the name, Lepakshi, is not very certain. Gopala Rao suggests that it could be Lepa + Akshi meaning ‘embalmed eye’. Few locals try to assign it with the eyes of a figure in a painting inside the Veerbhadra temple however the paintings are of very late period in comparison to the name of the town. The place was known as Lepakshi even before the construction of the temple as the father of Virupanna (Virapanna) is referred as Lepakshi Nandi-Lakkisetti in an inscription.
It is hard to derive the importance of this place during the ancient times. It is located not very far from Siddapura, Jatinga Rameshvar, Brahmagiri, Yerragudi, all places connected to the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. This suggests that Lepakshi was under the Mauryan rule and from them it passed to the Satavahanas. After the fall of the Satavahanas, it came under the Chutus, the Gangas, the Chalukyas of Badami, the Nolambas in respective order. The Nolambas were in possession of it till the 10th century CE.
From the Nolambas, it passed to the Chalukyas of Kalyani and then to the Hoysalas who ruled till the first quarter of the 13th century CE. In 1346 CE, Harihara constructed a fort at Penugonda and made Lepakshi his second capital marking the start of the Vijayanagara rule over the town. During the rule of this dynasty, Lepakshi was benefited with multitude of construction activities, centered around this temple only.
The place was insignificant before the construction of the Veerabhadra temple. Though it is not certain when this construction took place, however it may be said that it was constructed before 1493 CE which the date reflected in the earliest inscription found here. During the Vijayanagara period, the temple grew horizontally and vertically. Major activities took place during the reign of king Achyutaraya (1529-42 CE). Virupanna was an officer in the personal staff of Achyutaraya and he played instrumental part in the extension of this temple complex.
Veerabhadra Temple – This Vijayanagara period temple is the biggest temple in the town. Though the direct evidences in form of inscriptions with regards to its beginning are practically nil, but many traditional legends are in vogue. As per a legend, it was constructed by Virupanna using the state treasury. The king came to know about it and announced the punishment that Virupanna to be blinded. When Virupanna heard this order, he executed it on his own on the same spot. Local guides will show you the place inside the temple where they say Virupanna threw his eyes.
The temple is executed in trikuta fashion, however the third shrine dedicated to Raghunatha was added later. Originally there were two shrines sharing the same mandapa and platform, the main shrine dedicated to God Veerabhadra facing north and a lateral shrine dedicated to Lord Papanasheshvara, an aspect of Shiva. At some later point of time, another lateral shrine, opposite to that of Papanasheshvara, was added sharing the same mandapa and platform. This shrine was dedicated to Raghunatha. These three gods are also referred as Viresha, Papavinashah, Ranganatha in the inscriptions found here.
The temple is constructed over a low rising hill, referred in inscriptions as Kurmashila. An inscription (number 572 in South Indian Inscriptions vol IX Part 2) refers this Kurmashila as Dakshinakailasa which suggests that this area was considered as sacred as the Kailasa, the original abode of Shiva. The earliest inscription dated Saka year 1415 (1493 CE), during the reign of Saluva Immadi Narasimha (1490-1506 CE), found at a natural granite rock adjacent to Rangamandapa mentions a donation to Papanasheshvara Devara without mentioning other shrines. This probably suggests that the shrine for Papanasheshvara is the earliest. Another inscriptions of the reign of Achyutaraya dated 1531 CE refers to all the three gods of the temple.
Veerabhadra shrine is at the southern end and have a rectangular cell preceded with an antarala. Papanasheshvara shrine is at the eastern end and its back wall is shared with a huge granite boulder. On this boulder is carved a marvelous bas relief of Bhikshatanamurti. Raghunatha shrine is at the western end. It differs in many respect with the other two shrines, which suggests that it was constructed later thought it shares the same platform and mandapa.
Many later additions were made during the reign of Achyutaraya, however no specific record is left about the construction of these additions. The main shrine of Veerbhadra acted as the nucleus around which various structures were added and named after. A store room, Parvati shrine and a shayanagara on the east and a rectangular cell on the west of the Veerbhadra shrine, Bhadrakali shrine and Hanuman Linga shrine attached to Raghunatha shrine and Navagrha-pitha on the north of Papavinasha shrine are among the later structures added to the temple complex.
Natya mandapa is attached to the Maha-mandapa common to these three shrines. This is the most ornate structure of the temple. Its roof is profusely painted with murals depicting scenes from Mahabharata, Ramayana and other Puranic legends. Roof of the Maha-mandapa, Raghunatha shrine, shayanagara are also painted with murals depicting scenes of religious themes. The roof of Raghunatha shrine has various incarnations of Vishnu.
There are three enclosure walls, however it said that there were seven at a time but there are no evidences of the same. The innermost enclosure encompasses all the above mentioned structures. This prakara has only one entrance on north. The second enclosure wall encloses kalyana mandapa, bali pitha, vahana mandapa, homa mandapa etc. This enclosure covers almost the eighth times of the area covered by the innermost prakara and has two entrances, one on north and one on south.
At some later point of time, the temple complex was further extended by construction of water cistern, Somavara mandapa, Yaga mandapa, Uyala mandapa and all this is enclosed in the third prakara. This third enclosure covers two and a half times the area covered by the second prakara. The third prakara has three entrances, one on north, one at east and one at west.
Paintings – These paintings were first noticed by A H Longhurst in 1912-13 however no proper attention was given to these resulting in deterioration by leakage and damp. C Sivaramamurti writes that the whole series of paintings at Lepakshi gives the best report on Vijayanagara paintings in the sixteenth century CE.
Paintings of the Natya Mandapa – The first panel at the entrance is a large panel depicting the Manu Needhi Cholan Story. This long panel, measuring 18.5 m by 2 m, depicts the story of a legendary Chola king named Manu Needhi. The events of this story took place at Thiruvarur. A calf was crushed by a horse-cart driven by a prince. The cow, mother of the calf, rang the bell at the court of the king. When the king came to know about it he enquired about the events. Thus he came to know about the calf which was crushed under the chariot of his own son.
Manu Needhi consulted his gurus and decided to punish his son in the same manner. Hence, he ordered his son to be crushed under the wheels of that same chariot which will made the king also to suffer in the same way the cow is suffering at the moment. This event of rare justice was witnessed by the celestial bodies. Shiva and Parvati also witnessed it and came down to earth to restore the life of the prince and the calf and to give their blessing to the righteous king.
In the above picture, the dead-body of the calf is placed above a horse-cart having six wheels and driven by two horses. The mother of the calf, the cow, is standing behind the cart. The cart is driven by a charioteer holding a whip. The prince was made to lie in front of the cart and got crushed beneath the wheels. Right next, Shiva appeared with Parvati riding over Nandi. The cow and the calf and the king and his queen are standing in front of them.
The central portion of the Natya-Mandapa roof is divided into many sections which are painted in the following order, starting from left to right.
The section on the leftmost position depicts the scenes of Draupadi’s svamvara. On leftmost side is shown Kala-Bhairava depicted with eight arms holding a severed human head and a bowl. Two persons, one short and one big are shown in front of him, one of them would be Drupad worshiping his tutelary god. Next on right is Drupad seated with his daughter, Draupadi, in his lap. Next on right, in front of Drupad, Arjuna is shown shooting the matsya-yantra (fish dial) with an arrow looking its reflection in the water below the dial. This follows by the marriage of Arjuna with Draupadi.
The next section shows two scenes. Left side is showing Vatapatrashayi Krishna depicting baby Mukunda lying in a reclining posture on a Pipal leaf, floating on primeval waters. Krishna is suckling his toe holding his foot with both hands. On the right of this scene is shown Virupanna’s Retinue. Virupanna and Viranna are shown worshiping their tutelary deity, Veerbhadra, with their family members.
The next panel depicts a single large story showing Shiva’s Marriage. Parvati is shown seated on a raised seat, accompanied by six maidens. She is depicted in green having her hair in a long plait. The maidens are all shown wearing various ornaments and their hair either tied into a huge bun or as a long plait. None of these wear blouses. Parvati is seated facing two ladies, both holding tamburas. Next we see a large scene depicting 28 figures delineated graphically across the roof. Shiva and Parvati takes the central stage, standing facing each other holding hands.
Sitting on their left is Brahma, the priest officiating this wedding. On Brahma’s left are standing ashta-dikpalas, eight directional guardians, with their usual attributes. Himavat and his wife are standing behind Parvati in the act of kanyadana ceremony. On their right are shown few ladies holding flower plates and raising their hands to bless the newlywed couple. On their right is standing Vishnu, depicted with four hands holding his usual attributes. On his right is shown Shiva in his Sada-shiva form. Sada-shiva is shown with five heads having a third eye on each of these. On his right are standing various rishis and saints.
Kiratarjuniya occupies the three sides of the centre of the Natya Mandapa. Dharmaraja (Yudhishthir) is shown seated in his court accompanied by his three brothers, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. Arjuna is shown standing in front of him, taking leave to start his journey to get weapons from Shiva. Next is shown Arjuna on his journey to the Himalayas where he was assisted by some gandharvas. Indra came to know about his mission and came to meet him and guided on how to get the weapons.
Arjuna went into deep and hard penance. Next is shown Shiva’s place where various gods came to meet him and informed about Arjuna’s penance. Shiva and Parvati appears in form of a hunter and huntress near the place where Arjuna was engaged in penance. A demon took the form of a wild boar and appears at the same spot. Arjuna and Shiva both shot their arrows and a duel broke over the claim of the hunt. While fighting, Arjuna realized that it is not a human being in the dress of a hunter and he went prostrate in front of the hunter. Shiva transformed into his real form and granted the weapon ‘Pashupata’ to him.
The centre of the Natya Mandapa roof is decorated with a mural depicting King Muchukunda. He was the monkey-faced legendary Chola king who is attributed to have established Lord Thyagaraja at the Tiruvarur temple from the heavens. The section on the right of the centre shows Shiva and Parvati playing Chess. Shiva and Parvati are seated on a pedestal and playing the game of chess. They are accompanied by several gods and rishis. In the next scene on the same section is shown Shiva as Dakshinamurti aspect.
The section right next to the above one displays Nataraja, dancing inside a prabhavali. Ashta-dikpalas and various demi-gods are shown playing various musical instruments on either side of Nataraja. The last section on the rightmost of the Natya Mandapa roof shows the Coronation of Rama. This ruined painting depicts the coronation of Rama when he returned from Lanka after victory over Ravana. Hanumana is also seen in front of him. Sage Vashishtha is seated next to Hanumana. On the right of Rama are standing Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna. Sita is seated on Rama’s left sharing the same pedestal. Several monkey chiefs are also standing witnessing the event.
Paintings on the outer Maha-Mandapa – The starting section at the entrance of the Maha-Mandapa is decorated with a very large panel displaying fifteen various forms of Shiva. These forms are, from left to right, Lingodbhava-murti or Markandeyanugrahamurti as explained by C Sivaramamurti, Andhakantaka, Yoga-Dakshinamurti, Chandesha-anugrahamurti, Bhikshatana-murti, Harihara, Chandrashekhara, Ardha-nareeshvara, Kalyanasundara, Tripurantaka, Gangadhara, Nataraja in bhujangatrasita psoture, Vrishabharudha-murti and Parvati.
Stepping ahead, the roof is divided into various sections. Sections on the left of the entrance are mostly ruined. However, it seems that these depict some scenes from Ramayana as the sections on the right of the entrance continue over the stories from Ramayana. First section on the right of the entrance shows king Dasharatha seated on his throne. On its right is a panel divided into three rows, depicts the scene of the putra-kameshti yajna performed by Dasharatha, departure of Rama and Lakshmana with Vishvamitra. The rightmost section panel is also divided into three rows, depicting the events related to the marriage of Rama and Sita.
Paintings of the Maha-mandapa – The open portion of the Maha-Mandapa is covered with many paintings. Just after the entrance, there is a Cheetah hunt scene displayed in a large panel. In the other paintings we see Ardha-nareeshvara, Shiva , Vishnu, Veerabhadra, Nataraja, abduction of Sita by Ravana, Uma-Maheshvara, Ashta-dikpalas on their mounts, Kanappa’s story, king Muchukunda and a royal procession.
The center of the roof of the Maha-Mandapa carries a large painting of Veerbhadra with Virupanna and Viranna standing on his either sides as devotees. C Sivaramamurti writes that this magnificent large panel, probably the largest painting anywhere that represents Veerbhadra, is even larger to an extent than the largest painting of Shiva anywhere in any temple, larger even than that of the Tripurantaka in the Brihadishvara Temple at Thanjavur. Gopala Rao mentions that it is the largest mural in Asia, measuring 7.7×4.3 m.
Paintings of the Raghunatha Shirne – The roof of this shrine has three rows of paintings having three panels each. We see here Narasimha, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi-Narayana, Kurmavatara and Matsyavatara.
Paintings of the Shayanagara – The roof of this structure is divided in three panels. We see here Uma-Maheshvara, Shiva seated in sukhasana posture and a temple enshrining Shiva-linga.
Paintings on the circumambulatory path around the Veerbhadra shrine – Paintings are found on the circumambulatory path in between the Veerbhadra shrine and Raghunatha shrine. Following scenes can be found here, Uma-Maheshvara, Shiva on Kailasha, Narasimhi, Venugopala, Durga as Mahishasuramardini, Bhairava, Sada-shiva, Kaliya-mardana and Ganesha.
Inscriptions: About 20 inscriptions are found in and around this temple. Majority of these are from the reign of the Vijayanagara king Achyutaraya (1539-42 CE).
- On the rocky floor of the second prakara – No. 535 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part, II (A.R. No. 579 of 1912) – This is damaged and dated Saka 1453, Khara, Sravana, ba. 8, corresponding to A.D. 1531 August 6, Sunday (not verifiable), in the reign of Achyuta. After giving the genealogy of the Vijayanagara kings in Sanskrit verses it records that at the request of Virapanna, son of Nandi-Lakkisetti and Muddamamba, the king made a gift of the village Chelavindla, surnamed Achyutendrapura, in the presence of the god Virupaksha on the bank of the Tungabhadra, for the service of the gods Virabhadra, Raghunatha and Papavinasa of Lepakshi.
- On the rocky floor at the foot of the east wall of the second prakara – No. 537 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 578 of 1912) – This is dated the cyclic year Khara, Sravana, ba. 12 in the reign of the Vijayanagara king Achyutaraya-Maharaya, corresponding to A.D. 1531 August 9, Tuesday (not verifiable). It records the royal order to the Gaudas of Cheluvindla stating that the king made a gift of the village Cheluvindla surnamed Komara-Venkatadriyapura to the god Papavinasana and Ganapatihalli to Virapanna of Penugonda and that the ownership of both the villages was given to the latter.
- On the north wall of the second prakara – No. 559 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 580 of 1912) – This is damaged at the end. The Kanarese statement at the beginning says that this is a copy of the copper-plate inscription registering the grant of certain villages for the service of the god Viresvara, i.e., Virabhadradeva of Lepakshi. The rest of the record is in Sanskrit verse giving the genealogy of the Tuluva line of kings and mentioning their various conquests and gifts. The numerous gifts made by king Achyutaraya to whose reign the record belongs are also mentioned. The verse that was recited by Oduva Tirumalamma about the gift of suvarna-meru in Saka 1455, Vijaya, is also found here.
- On the eastern wall of the second prakara of the Virabhadra temple – No. 572 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 575 of 1912) – This is damaged and dated Saka 1456, Manmatha (=A.D. 1535-36), in the reign of Achyutaraya. It records that the king made a gift of a village (name lost) for the service of the god Virabhadra at Lepakshi.
- On the east wall of the second prakara of the Virabhadra temple – No. 580 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 576 of 1912) – This is dated Saka 1459, Hemalambi, Ashadha, su. 12, Somavara corresponding to A.D. 1537 June 20, Wednesday, not Monday, in the reign of Achyutadeva-Maharaya. It records that Achyutaraya-Mallapanna purchased from Timmapa, son of Bhandarada Apparasa of Bharadvaja-gotra, Katyayana-sutra and Suklayajus-sakha and manya village, Nandicherla, and presented it for the service of the god Viresa. This village, surnamed Virupaksharayapura, is stated to have been granted as a manya to Timmappa’s grandfather Viramarasa by Virupakshadeva-Maharaya in Saka 1389, Sarvajit, Pushya, su. 2, Somavara corresponding to A.D. 1467 December 28 Monday. The sale price was fixed by the Madhyasthas. The record is damaged at the end.
- On a boulder to the west of the village Chautakuntapalli – No. 581 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 781 of 1917) – This is dated Saka 1459, Hemalambi, Asvayuja, su. 11, corresponding to A.D. 1537 September 15, Saturday (not verifiable), in the reign of Achyutadeva-Maharaya. It states that a copper-plate grant was issued recording the gift of Kanchakarahalli for the service of the gods Papavinasa, Viresa and Ranganatha at lepakshi by Virapannaya, son of Nandi-Lakkisetti.
- On the east wall of the second prakara – No. 582 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 577 of 1912) – This is dated Saka 1459, Hemalambi, Asvija, ba. 5, Somavara, corresponding to A.D. 1537 September 23, Sunday, not Monday, in the reign of Achyutadeva-Maharaya. It records that penugonde Virappanna purchased from certain Brahmans some vrittis in the village of Kalanuru, surnamed Triyambaka-Narayanapura, and presented them for the service of the god Viresvara of Lepakshi.
- On the southern wall of the prakara of the Lakshmidevi temple at Gorrepalli – No. 583 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 68 of 1912) – This is dated Saka 1460, Vilambi, Chaitra, su. 5, Mangalavara, corresponding to A.D. 1538 March 5, Tuesday, in the reign of Achyutadeva-Maharaya. It records that Virana-Nayaka, brother of Penugone Virapannayya, son of Nandi-Lakkisetti, constructed a canal called Nutana-Tungabhadra from a spring to the north of the village Modaya, surnamed Achyutarayapura which had been granted by the king for the service of the gods Viresvara, Papavinasadeva and Raghavesvara, and made a gift of the land under the new canal for the service of the goddess Mahalakshmidevi at Haruhe-Lakkhanapura.
- On the wall of the verandah round the Virabhadra temple – No. 587 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 88 of 1912) – This is dated Saka 1460, Vilambi, Sravana, ba. 10, So[mavara] corresponding to A.D. 1538 August 19, Monday in the reign of Achyutadeva-Maharaya. It records that penugonde Virapannayya made a gift of the village Chikkanandichervu, surnamed Devarayapura, which he purchased from certain Brahmans (named), for the service of the god Virabhadra of Lepakshi. The village is stated to have been granted as a sarvamanya to an ancestor of these Brahmans by Praudha-Deva-Maharaya.
- On the wall of the verandah round the Virabhadra temple – No. 588 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 89 of 1912) – This is of the same date and reign as No. 587. It records that Penugonde Virapannayya purchased from certain Brahmans (named) half of the village Sadasivapura, surnamed Devarayapura for varahas 108 and made a gift of it for the service of the god Virabhadra of Lepakshi. The village is stated to have been granted to Devara Somayaji by king Praudha-Deva-Maharaya.
- On the wall of the verandah round the Virabhadra temple – No. 590 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 90 of 1912) – This is dated Saka 1460, Vilambi, Margasira, ba. 3, so[mavara] corresponding to A.D. 1538 December 8, Sunday (not Monday), in the reign of Achyutadeva-Maharaya. It records that Penugonde Virapannayya along with his brother Virana purchased some vritti lands from certain Brahmans and made a gift of them for the service of the god Viresvara of Lapakshi. The vrittis are stated to have been situated in Nagaragere, surnamed Krishnarayasamudra, which was situated in Tumbekalla-sthal in Rodda-nadu, a sub-division of Penugonde-rajya.
- On the wall of the verandah round the Virabhadra temple – No. 591 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 794 of 1917) – This is damaged and dated Saka 1459, Vilambi, Magha, su. 2, Bu[dhavara] corresponding to A.D. 1539 January 22, Wednesday, in the reign of Achyutaraya-Maharaya. It records that Chikka-Narasappayya, aliya (son-in-law) of Ananta-Ayya, repaired the tank at Budali and, purchasing some land under the same tank, made a gift of it for the service of the god Kesavadeva of the village, consecrated at the time of Narasana-Nayaka.
- On the Nagalabanda rock near the Peddacheruvu tank at old Lepakshi – No. 631 of South Indian Inscriptions VOLUME IX, Part II (A.R. No. 583 of 1912) – This is damaged and dated Saka 1471, Kilaka, Bhadrapada, su. 1, corresponding to A.D. 1548 August 4, Saturday (not verifiable), in the reign of Sadasiva-Maharaya. It registers a gift made for the merit of the Mahamandalesvara Ramaraja-Vithaladeva-Maha-arasu Ramarajaya-Ranagaraja and the donor’s (name lost) parents Kondamarasaya and Narasamma. Mentions Hiriya-Limga-Bova.
Basavanna – This colossal monolith is a remarkable piece of art of the Vijayanagara period. It is among the largest Nandi monoliths found in India, others are at Bull Temple Bangalore, Chamundi Hill Mysore, Brihdeeshvara Temple Thanjavur. It is 15 feet high and 27 feet wide. It is said that this Nandi faces the Naga-linga of the Veerabhadra temple.
Ganda-Berunda, which later became the state emblem of Karnataka, is found carved on the neck of this Nandi monolith.
How to Reach – Lepakshi comes under Andhra Pradesh and Anantpur district. It is located about 15 km from Ananthpur town and 120 km from Bangalore. Coming from Bangalore, when you cross the Andhra Pradesh border, just after that crossing there is a left turn to Lepakshi town.
- Rao, D Hanumantha (2004). Lepakshi Temple – A Cultural and Architectural Study. Bhartiya Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. ISBN 8180900266
- Sivaramamurti, C (1968). South Indian Paintings. Publication Division, Government of India. New Delhi. ISBN 8123000529
- Sivaramamurti, C (1985). Vijayanagara Paintings. Publication Division, Government of India. New Delhi.
- Sivaramamurti, C (1968). Indian Paintings. National Book Trust. New Delhi. ISBN