The Veerbhadra temple in Lepakshi village of Andhra Pradesh is a fine example of Vijayanagara art with carvings, murals and frescos. The 16th-century temple boasts an amazing hanging pillar that is a marvel of architecture and engineering of ancient India.
The Veerbhadra temple was constructed in 1530 AD by two brothers, Viranna and Virupanna. They were governors during the reign of King Achutaraya under the Vijayanagara Empire.
The presiding deity of the temple is Lord Veerabhadra, a fiery avatar of Lord Shiva.
Beautiful sculptures adorn the walls of the temple, which have 70 stone pillars with beautiful carvings. One of the pillars hangs from the ceiling. There is a gap between the pillar’s base and the ground. Thin objects like a piece of cloth or paper can be passed under it.
Many have tried to unravel the mystery of how the hanging pillar was constructed but have failed.
It is said that once a British officer tried to move the pillar to find out how it was built but the entire structure started shaking and he abandoned his plan.
The temple is divided into three sections – the Mukha Mandapa, the Artha Mandapa and the Kalyan Mandapa. The sculptures and mural paintings in the Mukha Mandapa and the Artha Mandapa are exceptional in their skill and beauty.
The Artha Mandapa has sculptured pillars with life-size musicians and dancers. Most of the sculptures and mural paintings in the Artha and Kalyana mandapas portray mythological stories like Ananthasayana, Dattatreya, Narada, Chaturmukha Bramha and Rambha.
The entrance to the garbha griha or sanctum sanctorum is richly decorated with sculptures and paintings on the pillars and ceiling. The sculptures are of gods and goddesses, demigods, saints, musicians, and dancers.
One of the pillars has 14 avatars (incarnations) of Lord Shiva. The paintings on the ceilings of the Mandapas have figures of gods and goddesses, stories from the epics and religious texts and the social life of that time. The surface was first coated with a layer of lime mortar over which the paintings were made. Vegetable and mineral colours, primarily yellow, ochre, black, blue and green have been used. The background is generally painted in red. Many of the panels are severely damaged though the ASI has been carrying out renovation work.
The courtyard of the temple has a large footprint measuring 2.5 feet.
The popular legend is that the footprint is that of Goddess Sita, the wife of Lord Rama. It is said that Ravana, the demon king of Lanka who abducted Sita, rested at this spot en route to Lanka.
Another legend goes that Lepakshi is the place where bird Jatayu fell after a battle against Ravana when he was going to Lanka after abducting Sita. When Lord Rama saw the bird, he said “Le Pakshi”, the Telugu for ‘rise, o bird!’
In the temple complex, there is a separate chamber with Shiva and his consort Parvati carved on a boulder. Another shrine chamber houses an image of Lord Vishnu.
About 500 metres from the temple is a huge sculpture of Nandi, the bull vehicle of Lord Shiva. The Nandi is made from a single boulder of granite rock. It measures 20 feet in height and 30 feet in length. The Nandi statue is decorated with a muvvala haram (necklace) and a bell chain with small horns.
On the outer enclosure of the temple, there is a huge boulder of granite which is carved into a coiled serpent with seven hoods, known as Nagalinga. The Nagalinga provides a canopy or shelter over a Shivalinga made of black granite.
The monolithic structure stands 15 feet tall. Legend has it that this sculpture was created out of a single granite boulder by workers in one hour while they were waiting for their lunch to be served.
The Lepakshi temple is a treasure-trove of legends and stories, which add to the mysteries of the 16th-century architectural marvel.