The Painted Wonders of Lepakshi

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    The exquisite 16th century Virabhadra Templa, also known as the Lepakshi temple, is located in Lepakshi village in the Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh. It was built by the brothers Viranna and Virupanna, who were Governors in the Vijayanagara empire during the reign of King Achutaraya. The temple is renowned for being the repository of the finest mural paintings of the Vijayanagara period. Scholar Anna L. Dallapiccola takes us through the history, stylistic details and present condition of these murals.

    The ceiling paintings of the Virabhadra temple are justly celebrated as the most extensive and best-preserved examples of pictorial art in southern India under Vijayanagara. This is partly because virtually all other evidence of painting from this period have disappeared, including those in the courtly and religious monuments at the Vijayanagara capital, or have deteriorated so severely as to be almost unrecognisable, as on the ceilings of the Chenna-keshava temple at Somapalem and Chintala Venkataramana temple at Tadapatri. After many years of neglect, the Lepakshi paintings have now been comparatively well restored and in some sections illuminated by electricity. Though featured in a number of publications, they have not previously been fully described and mostly illustrated, as we have attempted here.

    The paintings cover the ceilings of many parts of the temple, as well as the walls of the Virabhadra shrine, the god to whom the temple is dedicated. Most compositions are laid out on long panels that conform to the columned bays into which the various mandapas, verandahs and corridors of the temple are divided. These very particular configurations have resulted in panels with different lengths, from about 5 metres to almost 23 metres, in heights ranging from 1.0 to 1.8 metres.

    Except for the corbelled dome that roofs its central hall, the ceiling of the natyamandapa preserves an almost complete set of paintings (Panels A1 to A11)...The mahamandapa ceiling is of exceptional interest for the size of its central composition (Panel C1), by far the largest at Lepakshi. This depicts the colossal figure of Virabhadra flanked by the temple donor, identified as Virapanna, and his wife, together with the ram-headed patriarch Daksha at the god’s feet.


    Studies of the Lepakshi ceiling paintings, such as that given by Kameswara Rao (1982), reveal the method of their execution. Before applying the plaster, the granite surface of the horizontal ceiling slabs was rendered smooth by rubbing. The plaster was obtained by mixing sandy clay gathered from river beds together with red-ochre and lime powder. These ingredients were finely ground and mixed with honey or liquid molasses before being applied to the granite surface to a thickness of about 3 millimetres, and given a final polishing with a trowel. This means that the paintings cannot be considered true frescoes, since the pigments were only added after the plaster base had fully dried. The preliminary sketches for the scenes were drawn first in red- ochre, then coloured, and finely finished with black outlines. The palette was extremely varied in tone, employing earth-red, black, green, yellow-ochre, different shades of white and grey, and occasionally a bluish green.

    The paintings have been restored several times since 1979, when the Archaeological Survey of India began rescuing the sculptures and exterior walls from accumulated moss, lichen and algae (Indian Archaeology A Review, 1976-7 to 1979-80). A thorough cleaning of the ceilings, which had been covered with cobwebs, insect nests, cocoons and dirt, as well as smoke due to burning of camphor and lighting of oil lamps continued until 1983, when the present conservation phase began, completed in 1986. Comparing the descriptions in the publications dating from those years with the state of the paintings today it is evident that many details, if not entire scenes, are now lost.

    While there may have been renovations of damaged paintings in the course of time, as for instance in some of the figures in Panel B1 and the tableaux of Panels F, the fairly consistent pictorial style observed in the majority of the murals suggests a limited time period during which all the ceilings were painted, but, as with the architecture itself, no precise dating is possible. As we have already observed, it is likely that the paintings in the mahamandapa and surrounding verandah were completed before those in the natyamandapa. Organised under the strict eye of a master, the artists seem to have enjoyed considerable freedom.

    (Cover image - Panel A7, Arjuna’s penance, Scene 12, detail, showing Parvati carrying lotuses in upper hands and lower hands folded in anjali mudra)

    Excerpted with permission from ‘Ceiling Paintings’, by Anna L. Dallapiccola, from ‘Lepakshi: Architecture, Sculpture and Painting’, by Anna L. Dallapiccola, Brigitte Khan Majlis and George Michell with John M. Fritz, Niyogi Books.

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