The Virabhadra Temple in Andhra Pradesh’s Lepakshi is famous for its Vijayanagara period architecture and mural paintings. The town was an important trade and cultural centre in its heydays during the sixteenth century CE and the credit goes solely to the two enterprising brothers, Virupanna and Viranna, officers in the court of the Vijayanagara king Achyuta Deva Raya (1529–1542 CE). Being ardent Shiva devotees, they extended the marginal Papavinasa temple into a buzzing temple complex adorned with multiple shrines and mandapas.
There is an interesting legend about the construction of the Virabhadra temple. Virupanna, a treasurer in the service of King Achyuta Deva Raya, found an image of God Virabhadra and decided to construct a temple. He utilised the funds from the royal treasury for the construction. While the last part of the Kalyana mandapa was on the verge of completion, the king got the news of his treasury being exhausted due to the temple construction. He was enraged and ordered that Virupanna should be blinded. Virupanna was a loyal servant and hearing the sentence, he executed it on the spot by plucking his two eyes and dashing those against the temple wall. Two red spots on the western wall of the temple are said to be the spots where the eyes were dashed against. Virupanna soon died leaving the Kalyana mandapa unfinished.
The Virabhadra temple has some exquisite and rare mural paintings of the Vijayanagara period. One important mural painting in its Natya mandapa is that of the legendary king Manu Neeti Chola, also known as Ellalan or Elara. The story of the king is mentioned in the Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicle Mahavamsa, which says Elara was a Damila (Tamil) of noble descent who came to Sri Lanka from the Chola country. He seized the throne from king Asela and ruled for a good 44 years, administering justice evenly towards friends and foes. He had a bell fixed at the head of his bed, and the rope of the bell was extended till the entrance of the palace. The objective was to allow people to ring the bell as and when they desired justice. Once, the prince was going on his chariot, and on its way, a calf came under the wheels unintentionally. The calf died on the spot and the mother cow in her grief approached the palace and rang the bell. Setting an example of justice, the king caused the prince’s head to be severed under the wheels of the same chariot.
The legend of King Manu Neeti Chola is further extended and retold in the Periya Puranam, a Tamil work of the 12th century CE. We shall see what it says. Thiruvarur was a holy and divine city of the Cholas. It was ruled by king Anapaya, a descendant of Manu of the solar race. A just ruler, he came to be known as Manu Neeti Chola. The son of the king killed a calf under his chariot wheel. Knowing that he had committed a grave sin, the prince approached the Brahmins to expiate his sin. When the cow approached the palace and rang the bell, the king came to know about the accident. When asked, the ministers told the king that the prince might expiate the sin following the rules laid down for cow slaughter. The king did not agree and explained that expiating the sin the way that they suggested would not cure the agony of the cow. The king announced his verdict that his son should meet the same faith as that of the dead calf. The king took the prince to a street and executed the sentence by riding the chariot over the prince’s body. Lord Shiva was pleased by the act of the king and appeared in the form of Veeti Vitangka to bring the calf and the prince back to life.
There are not many depictions of the Manu Neeti legend and only a few are known; there are two famous murals, one in the Thyagaraja Temple, Thiruvarur, and another in Lepakshi. The legend is closely associated with Thiruvarur and its presence at Lepakshi is surprising. Was there any specific reason behind its selection by the designers of the Virabhadra temple? From the wealth of inscriptions about various grants and other activities of munificence at the site, we come to know that Virupanna had very cordial relations with the king. As a governor of Lepakshi, Virupanna would have also demonstrated the qualities of a just ruler following the principles laid down by the political texts and the court. As Virupanna was instrumental in the overall design and execution of the temple, the selection of the Manu Neeti Chola story was made as a demonstration of his unprejudiced and impartial rule. Reminiscences of the same were later developed into the legend where Virupanna is depicted as a loyal servant of the king, someone who executed the ruler’s sentence against him with his own hands.
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