The Magnificence of Lepakshi – Part 3

Text by Beloo and Suhas Mehra; some photos by Suhas Mehra, some taken from the website of IIACD (International Institute for Art, Culture and Democracy).

Continued from Part 2

In this final part of the series, we zoom in on the magnificent mural paintings of the Veerabhadra Swami Temple at Lepakshi. Many of the murals found primarily in the natya mandapa of the temple portray interesting stories from our itihāsa-s and purāna-s. These fine pieces of art not only continue to mesmerise us with their aesthetic appeal even after 500 plus years, they also become our means to get acquainted with some of the social-cultural-political practices of that time. Looking carefully at these paintings we also get a good idea of the contemporary fashion trends.

The magnificent paintings at Lepakshi express a continuation of the long and glorious tradition of painting in India.

The Origin of Painting 

According to art historian Stella Kramrisch, since ancient times painting played a big role in life of the Indian people leading to legends being invented to explain the origin of this art. The Vishnudharmottara, an appendix to Vishnu Purana, links the origin of this art form with the very act of creation by Narayana, who on discerning the motive of apsaras who were trying to distract him when meditating, extracted the juice of a mango tree and drew the most beautiful female figure with it on the ground. Having seen her, the apsaras went away in shame. The woman came alive and was named Urvashi.

Citralaksana is one of earliest treatises on Indian painting. Unfortunately the only surviving copies of this text are in Tibetan language. According to a legend recorded in Chitralaksana, a King and his kingdom were steeped in sorrow at the death of the high priest’s son. Every day the king prayed to Lord Brahma who moved by the prayer asked the king to paint a portrait of the boy on the floor so that he could breathe life in to it.

Both the above tales underline the belief in the life-giving power of this art form.

The Motive of Indian Painting

“Painting is naturally the most sensuous of the arts, and the highest greatness open to the painter is to spiritualise this sensuous appeal by making the most vivid outward beauty a revelation of subtle spiritual emotion so that the soul and the sense are at harmony in the deepest and finest richness of both and united in their satisfied consonant expression of the inner significances of things and life.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 302).

Indian painting has travelled from the earliest stone age rock paintings to the patterns found on excavated seals and pottery to modern-day rangoli and kolam patterns, from Bhimbetaka cave art to classical frescoes of Ajanta, from the bold and beautiful Thanjavur or Mysore styles to richly detailed Vijayanagara style, from delicate lines of Pahadi and Rajput miniatures to the imitative Company school, from the academic realism of Raja Ravi Varma to the search for a new nationalism in the Bengal school of Abanindranath Tagore, from the culture-specific modernism of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kala Bhavan to Progressive school of Raza, Hussain, Ram Kumar and to some of the present-day artists inspired by modernism of Baroda school and a few more.

Throughout its long history, Indian painting has understood that to illustrate life and Nature is only the first and primitive object of art. In great hands Indian painting has risen to a revelation of the glory and beauty of the sensuous appeal of life or of the dramatic power and moving interest of character, emotion and action.

It must be remembered that Indian painting over the ages was not only based on religious themes. It was always reflective of the culture that existed at each point of time, be it in the prehistoric age of spearmen, or the monks of Buddha’s tutelage or the elites of Ashoka’s empire or the indomitable chieftains of the hill kingdoms.

But even from behind the most mundane or the most profuse depictions of human nature and culture, the Indian painter attempted to convey a deeper significance, a spiritual flavour, a hint of the unseen.

The true appreciation of Indian painting must, therefore, be in the light of its second and more elevated aim, which is in fact the starting-point of the Indian motive of art. That aim is the interpretation or intuitive revelation of existence through the forms of life and Nature, described by Sri Aurobindo as “to spiritualise the sensuous appeal.” Only when an inner psychic or spiritual vision is awakened in us that we can truly appreciate the classical Indian art in all the depth of its significance.

Our ancients saw the potency and value of painting – it was not merely an art form to illustrate life and nature; it was at its highest a means to connect with the unseen, create a bridge between the known and the unknown, a way to express the unseen.

Indian Treatises on Painting

According to the Vishnudharmottara, paintings instruct and enliven the mind of the people as permanent or temporary decoration on the floors, on the walls and ceilings of private houses, palaces, temples, and in the streets.

Among the Śilpa Shastras, we have Narada Śilpa Shastra (chapters 66 and 71 are dedicated to painting), Saraswati Śilpa Shastra which describes various types of chitra (full painting), ardhachitra (sketch work), chitrabhasa (communication through painting), varna samskara (preparation of colours).

Treatises codified after Ajanta experience (earliest paintings at Ajanta were made circa 2nd century BCE) include:

  • Brihat-samhita (6th century)
  • Kamasutra (6th century)
  • Vishnudharmottara (7th century)
  • Samarangana-sutradhara (11th century)

Kamasutra speaks of ‘Sadanga’ or Six Limbs of Painting, which are found to be common elements in all great works.

  • Rūpabheda – the distinction of forms
  • Prāmanam – proportion, arrangement of line and mass, design, harmony, perspective
  • Bhāva – the emotion or aesthetic feeling expressed by the form
  • Lāvanya – infusion of grace the seeking for beauty and charm for the satisfaction of the aesthetic spirit
  • Sādrysam – resemblance, truth of the form and its suggestion
  • Varnikābhangam – the turn, combination, harmony of colours

These are the first constituents to which every successful work of art reduces itself in analysis. But as Sri Aurobindo explains, it is the turn given to each of the constituents which makes all the difference in the aim and effect of the technique and the source, and the character of the inner vision guiding the creative hand in their combination which makes all the difference in the spiritual value of the achievement.

“Indian painting, sculpture and architecture did not refuse service to the aesthetic satisfaction and interpretation of the social, civic and individual life of the human being; these things, as all evidences show, played a great part in their motives of creation, but still their highest work was reserved for the greatest spiritual side of the culture, and throughout we see them seized and suffused with the brooding stress of the Indian mind on the soul, the Godhead, the spiritual, the Infinite.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 227-8)

The Murals of Lepakshi

Ten painted panels adorn the ceiling of the natya mandapa of the Veerabhadra temple; six of these panels are oriented north-south. Panel number 9 is circular in shape and is located at the center of the north-south panels. The circular panel is circumscribed in a rhombus, which in turn is contained in two concentric squares. The following figure gives a layout of the various panels.

1 Screenshot 2020-05-28 at 4.52.27 PM

“The materials of the art of painting are unfortunately more perishable than those of any other of the greater means of creative aesthetic self-expression and of the ancient masterpieces only a little survives, but that little still indicates the immensity of the amount of work of which it is the fading remnant.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 298)

Unfortunately, murals being delicate works of art are highly vulnerable to damage, both caused by the human and natural factors. Several of the paintings at Lepakshi temple have been damaged due to neglect, vandalism, over exposure to strong sunlight, as well as unethical or improper methods of conservation such as water seepage, insects, bat infestation, white washing, sandblasting, etc. Yet, whatever remains is sure to make the interested visitor stand in awe of the great spread of beauty that surrounds.

In 2011, the Department of Science & Technology, Cultural Heritage and Tourism Studies, and IIACD launched a multi-institutional initiative called Indian Digital Heritage (IDH) with an objective to document, research and digitally archive the murals of the Virupaksha Temple at Hampi and the Veerabhadraswamy Temple at Lepakshi.

The overall light conditions in the mandapa provides a challenge when it comes to photographing the ceiling murals. Some of the photographs used in this post are taken from the website of IIACD, while others are taken by Suhas Mehra, one of the Matriwords authors. Another more important reason in using the IIACD pictures is their greater clarity, given the project’s more sophisticated camera and editing equipment.

Draupadi Swayamvara (Panel 1)

This panel tells the story of Draupadi from the Mahabharata, starting from her divine birth to her marriage with the five Pandava brothers. The story is presented in 3 scenes, from right to left. In the first scene, King Drupad is seen worshiping to Kalabhairava to bless him with children who will help avenge the disgrace he had experienced at the behest of Dronacharya.

In the next scene, we see King Drupad seated with Draupadi on his lap, and his wife and son standing on his left watching Arjuna pierce the eye of revolving fish with his face down looking at the reflection of the fish in water. The third and final scene portrays Sri Krishna, Drupad and Dhristadyumna (Draupadi’s brother) blessing the five Pandava brothers.

This is one of the most well-preserved panels, but unfortunately due to some reason we missed photographing it. The following three photos are taken from the website of IIACD.

1 Drupad praying to Kala
King Drupad praying to Kala Bhairav
1 Draupati Swayamwara 2
King is seated with Draupadi on his lap. Also seen are Drupadi’s mother and brother.
1 Draupati marriaged to the five Pandava
From right to left: Krishna watching Draupadi adoringly, Draupadi with King Drupad and five Pandavas.

Veneration of Veerabhadra and Vatapatrasayi Krishna (Panel 2)

In this interesting panel one quarter of the painting – from the south end – portrays Vatapatrasayi Krishna, Krishna on banyan leaf, and the remaining three quarters are dedicated to the principal deity of the temple, Swami Veerabhadra who is being worshipped by his devotees.

1 Vatapatrasayi Krishna and Veerabhadra 2 c
Panoramic view of the complete panel
Vatapatrasayi Krishna and Veneration of Veerabhadra Swamy

The story goes that Rishi Markandeya once visited Narayana and sought the vision of the form of the Divine Maya. Narayana showed him the illusory vision of deluge. Narayana then appeared in the form of an infant floating on a banyan leaf. Seeking refuge from the deluge Markandeya entered into the mouth of the infant, where he saw the entire Existence, the Vishwaroopam of the Divine. In ecstasy he started singing the Balamukundashtakam.

In the rest of the panel we see Lord Veerabhadra accompanied by his consort Bhadrakali being venerated. Daksha is depicted with a ram’s head, wearing a dhoti and uttariya, worshipping Veerabhadra. Behind Daksha are five noble or royal ladies, richly draped and bejeweled. Behind the ladies is a man wearing a long-sleeved upper garment and a knee-length bottom. His head gear appears much different from the kullavi which was popular among the people with a higher social standing such as those working for the royalty or other rich noblemen.


A clearer image from the IIACD website shows us distinct patterns of the headgear of the noblemen.

Vatapatrasayi Krishna and Veerabhadra Panel 2

Here we see the embroidered kullavi-s of the two noblemen dressed in Indo-Islamic attire standing in front of Lord Veerabhadra holding pranamanjali mudra. The higher or perhaps royal status of these two men is also depicted with the help of two smaller male figures standing behind them, reverently with crossed arms. Behind these two smaller male figures we see another man in Indo-Islamic clothing with a different headgear, showing the cosmopolitan character of the contemporary polity and society.

While all the kullavi-s are finely detailed with intricate motifs, the kullavi-s of the two members of the royalty standing in front of Swamy Veerabhadra appear to be much grander than those of the others. As per the temple priests, local tour guides and some scholars, the two noblemen depicted prominently are King Achyutaraya’s treasurer Virupanna and his brother Viranna, the duo in-charge of the Veerabhadra Temple’s construction. Several inscriptions from the period of the reign of King Achyutaraya (1530-1542 AD) mention the grants and offerings made by the brothers for this temple.

Girija Kalyana (Panel 3)

The panel titled Girija Kalyana presents in beautiful colours and forms the timeless story of  the marriage of Devi Girija (another name for Parvati, daughter of the mountain Giriraj / Himavant) with Lord Shiva as told in Shiva Purana. Kalidasa in his Kumarasambhava speaks of the grace of Himavant’s daughter and her complete dedication and love for Shiva.

A Warrior God had to be born to destroy the demon named Tarakasura. Only the progeny of Mahadeva Shiva could have the right valour needed to kill the powerful demon. The Devatas concocted a plan with the help of Madan, the God of Love to awaken Lord Shiva who was in deep meditation so that from his union with Devi Girija a warrior god could be born.

Notice the detailing of the panel with elaborate designs on the borders

About three fourth of the panel depicts the auspicious occasion of the panigrahana – marriage between Shiva and Girija. The Devatas assembled at the ceremony include Ishana, the guardian of the north-east direction; Agni depicted with two heads, the guardian of the south-east direction; Indra; and Lord Brahma, the purohita of the marriage ceremony.

1 Girija 1
Devatas assembled for the wedding

Shiva is seen wearing the lion-skin, and near the Lord’s feet we see a small Nandi looking adoringly towards Parvati. Parvati is accompanied by Shri, her attendant, and standing slightly behind them are her parents, Giriraj and Mena.

1 Girija 2

Vishnu, seen next to five-headed Vishwakarma, with his raised arms is blessing the divine couple.

1 Girija 3
At the middle is Vishnu and standing on his left is five-headed Vishvakarma

Moving left from Vishnu as our vision proceeds, the direction of the faces changes indicating the change of scene. At the far left of the paining sits Girija getting ready for the marriage with the help of several female attendants.

The pasapalli pattern of Girija’s garment pays homage to the Ajanta murals. The beautiful patterns of the garments worn by all the women can be seen to this day on the sarees woven in Lepakshi.

1 Girija 4
Devi Girija getting ready for marriage

Kiratārjuneeyam (Panel 4)

This unique panel includes four smaller panels which portray the entire narrative of the story of Kiratārjuneeyam beginning on the western side, running south to north. The story from the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata (further immortalised in Sanskrit kāvya by Bhāravi) is depicted in richly detailed landscapes filled with an array of flora and fauna. One can also see different attires for the characters in different scenes, giving a sense of motion to the story.

The narration on this four-part panel begins with Rishi Vyāsa advising the Pāndavas that given the certainty of the war with Kauravas they should begin the preparations and that Arjuna must seek celestial weapons from Shiva. As one walks through looking carefully at the paintings, one witnesses Arjuna doing tapasyā, Indra blessing him with the weapon Vajra, and finally Lord Shiva blessing Arjuna with the celestial weapon Pashupatastra, but not before testing him disguised as Kirata, the mountaineer.

In the finely detailed panel 4c, we see Shiva and Parvati in their court listening to sages describe the severity of Arjuna’s tapasya. Also shown are Bhringi, Nandi and Brahma. Moving from Brahma to left the direction of the faces indicates change of scene; here Shiva and his entourage are seen traveling. The panel also shows Shiva and Parvati disguised as Kirata and Kirati and demon Mukasura in the form of wild boar.

Panel 4c
1 Kiratarjuniya 4c
Panoramic view of panel 4c

The last of the four panels showing the killing of the boar Muka, duel between Arjuna and Shiva as Kirata, and Arjuna surrendering to Lord Shiva, is however badly damaged.

Nataraja/Anandatandavamurti (Panel 6)

Bits and pieces of this panel have been restored. Here one can see Shiva in various rupas including Nataraja and Ardhanarishvara.

1 Anandatandava Murthi panel 6
Anandatandava Murti

Other panels

Panel 5 shows Shiva and Parvati playing chausar. Panel 7 depicts Rama Pattabhisheka,  the coronation of Rama as King. Another panel depicts the entire story of Manuneeti Cholan in a continuous narrative. Unfortunately all these panels are badly damaged.

Appreciating the Details

Looking up at the painted ceilings of Lepakshi temple, and slowly walking through the mandapa one is awestruck at the rich details – the fine outlines, the subtle colours, the beautiful eyes, the curves of the hands, the ornate designs on garments, jewelry and head-gear. But in order to truly appreciate these details, we must recall the motive of Indian painting as presented earlier.

The Indian artist used everything at his disposal including his technique, skill and materials, to express through his art that deeper motive of art — to express the truth of the essence of the form, the likeness of the soul to itself. He was trying to reproduce not the exact likeness of any form – human, animal, or any object, but the subtle embodiment which is the basis of the physical embodiment, the purer and finer subtle body of an object which is the very expression of its own essential nature.

And how did he achieve this, particularly when painting the human form? We see plenty of evidence of this at Lepakshi.

“It is done by a bold and firm insistence on the pure and strong outline and a total suppression of everything that would interfere with its boldness, strength and purity or would blur over and dilute the intense significance of the line. In the treatment of the human figure all corporeal filling in of the outline by insistence on the flesh, the muscle, the anatomical detail is minimised or disregarded: the strong subtle lines and pure shapes which make the humanity of the human form are alone brought into relief; the whole essential human being is there, the divinity that has taken this garb of the spirit to the eye, but not the superfluous physicality which he carries with him as his burden. It is the ideal psychical figure and body of man and woman that is before us in its charm and beauty…The almost miraculously subtle and meaningful use of the hands to express the psychic suggestion is a common and well-marked feature of Indian paintings and the way in which the suggestion of the face and the eyes is subtly repeated or supplemented by this expression of the hands is always one of the first things that strikes the regard, but as we continue to look, we see that every turn of the body, the pose of each limb, the relation and design of all the masses are filled with the same psychical feeling…The same law of significant line and suppression of distracting detail is applied to animal forms, buildings, trees, objects. There is in all the art an inspired harmony of conception, method and expression. Colour too is used as a means for the spiritual and psychic intention… It is this common spirit and tradition which is the mark of all the truly indigenous work of India.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 308-309)


Have you seen Part 1 and Part 2?

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