A Detour into History and Mythology
Some of the best discoveries are made not at one’s destination but on the journey. And so it was during what was otherwise a rather uneventful drive down from Hyderabad to Bangalore last week. The monsoons haven’t arrived yet in this part of the country but they have been threatening to do so for the past few days – dramatic cloudy skies, blustery weather and the smell of rain in the air – and I thought maybe, just maybe, I would take that detour off the highway and visit a place I had heard about but never had the opportunity to visit. I had time on my hands, it was approaching late afternoon, the weather was being cooperative and, as always, I had my trusty Nikon with me. By the time I had approached the turn off the highway I had made up my mind, Google Maps helped me with the rest, and before long I was at Lepakshi, a remarkable 16th century temple complex dating back to the Vijayanagar Empire.
The Veerabhadra temple is located on a hill called Kurmasaila (more a gigantic rock really, so named because it resembles a tortoise) overlooking the town of Lepakshi, about 15 km west of the NH44, the main highway between Hyderabad and Bangalore and just north of the border between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. I parked my car nearby, duly removed my footwear by the stone steps leading up to the temple and went in and found myself transported to a different world, a different time. The temple complex, built in the 1530s, is enclosed within high walls that seal it off from the sights and sounds of the town just outside, adding to the feeling that I was cocooned in a time capsule far removed from the modern world I live in.
I was happy to note that the place was clean, quiet and well looked after, without the hordes of devotees and tourists that are a prominent feature of most other temple sites in India. There were a couple of guides showing people around but there must have been no more than 20 or 30 visitors there at the time I went. Perhaps because it was a Friday afternoon, perhaps because it was still summer and still sweltering, but I wasn’t complaining. The exposed stone ground in the open courtyards was blisteringly hot on the bare soles of a city slicker like me and I found myself hurrying into the shade of the temple and its corridors after every few shots.
The exposed stone ground in the open courtyards was blisteringly hot on the bare soles of a city slicker like me and I found myself hurrying into the shade of the temple and its corridors after every few shots.
The intricate carvings on the temple walls and pillars depict scenes from the Ramayan and the Puranas. Legend has it that this is the place where the valiant Jatayu fell after his battle with Ravan while trying to rescue the abducted Sita. He was later found wounded and bleeding by Ram, who healed him with his divine powers and then revived him with the words “Le Pakshi”, which in Telugu means “Arise, bird”, giving the place its name.
I made my way over to the entrance to the main temple, and found the head pujari sitting amongst the pillars off to one side, deep in thought. I didn’t want to disturb him in his pensive state of mind, but he must have sensed my presence and turned to look towards me just as I pressed the shutter. The spontaneous smile he gave me right after the shot was taken came as a bit of a relief because I was worried I might have been intruding on his privacy.
My favourite part of the temple complex, by far, was not the main temple itself, or even the massive monolithic seven-headed serpent shading the Shivalingam, but the ruins of the Kalyana Mandapam that sit on a raised platform at its highest point. Only the pillars and a few stone crossbeams remain, giving the place an otherworldly Stonehenge-like appearance. I should find out whether the temple is open in the middle of the night. I’m sure it would make for some spectacular nighttime photography with the ruins in the foreground and the stars behind.
With the setting sun and a gorgeous sky providing a backdrop to the Kalyana Mandapam, I started rattling off a few shots when a companion of the four-legged variety decided to join me. He regarded me carefully as I took his picture too, decided I came in peace and meant no trouble, and settled down beside me. He appeared to be familiar with the place, seemed content and at ease with the world, and didn’t seem to want anything more from me than a few moments of quiet companionship and a scratch behind the ears. He followed me around for a little while, then left as he came, quietly, unhurriedly, seemingly aware of his place in the world as just another visitor. It was a welcome experience and I was thankful for it.
I was happy to see several Muslims within the temple complex, quietly and respectfully taking in the sights in their salwar-kameezes and skull-caps. They felt comfortable being who they were, and the others at the temple felt comfortable with their open admission of their religious identity that in no way detracted from the Hindu identity of the place itself. Perhaps, like me, there were Christians too amongst the visitors. It is heartening that in these disturbing times of ethnic and religious divides and fundamentalist ideals, there are still pockets where the lines are not clearly drawn, where people from different communities and faiths just get along with each other and respect each others’ way of life.
As in the case of Ajanta and Ellora earlier, I’m glad I took this little detour to Lepakshi to experience a little piece of history, heritage and culture. And as I got back in my car and headed off towards Bangalore, I knew I would come back here again someday.