“ How did they sculpt this?” – this was the question uppermost in the mind of artist Silpi when he visited Krishnapuram, which is 10 kilometers outside Tirunelveli town. This is home to a Venkatachalapathy temple, built in the fading years of the Vijayanagar empire. Unlike His more famous namesake in Tirumala, devotees come here less for darshan and more to focus on the awe-inspiring carvings fronting every pillar.
The temple is attributed to Krishnappa Nayak (r1563-1572). It was during this period that the capital of Vijayanagar was destroyed by the confederation of northern states and the viceroys of the erstwhile empire became independent, Madurai being one of these. Krishnappa appears to have embarked on constructing this temple at around this time. Given his short reign however, work continued during the time of his sons Muddu Krishnappa and Muddu Veerappa. Deivachillayar, son-in-law of Dalavai Ariyanatha Mudaliar, minister of Krishnappa and his father Viswanatha, also contributed to the shrine.
The sculptures here are classical examples of Nayak art. There are friezes that depict so much of action – a hunter kidnapping a princess and being pursued by her guards is the most famous. There are besides many others – dancers, Arjuna setting out to battle Karna who is in the opposite pillar, Manmatha smiling at Rathi who faces him. A purushamrgam(upper half man and lower half lion) chases Bhima and the two are faced by Yudhishtra who will eventually sit in judgement over their conflict. Taken overall, the sculptures, which line the Ranga Mandapam at the entrance and the larger Veerappa Mandapam that leads to the sanctum, are most impressive. What is more, Krishnapuram having never been witness to any large-scale war, is complete in all respects – the sculptures are free from disfiguration. You can make out taut muscles, veins sticking out from chests, nails in fingers and toes, and practically every hair in the coifs and beards of the figures depicted.
The principal shrine, fronted by a five-tier rajagopuram is flanked by two simpler sub shrines, to goddesses Alamelumanga and Padmavathi. They are both in seated posture. The main deity, Venkatachalapathy, is four-armed, standing and with the ubhaya nachiyars. Seeing Him, several songs of Annamacharya come to mind.
The interesting feature of the Veerappa Mandapam is the way sculptures have been carved on three of the four faces of all pillars. Thus, while the main figure in all pillars is facing the corridor, there is plenty to see on each of the other sides. In one of these auxiliary faces is a stunning figure of a man wielding what appears to be a tambura. Smiling and of a handsome visage, he is crowned and wears a couple of necklaces. One hand is uplifted as though he is singing something. When you pause by him you get the feeling that you have seen this figure somewhere else. And then it strikes you, the small bas-relief in Tirumala, said to be that of Annamayya, is identical in posture to this one. As you wander off to the Alamelumanga shrine, you see yet another depiction – a small bas-relief of the same person – one hand uplifted and the other bearing the tambura over the shoulder. The location of this carving brings to mind all the shrngaracompositions of Annamacharya, for the Goddess is very much a part of these.
Could these two figures be depictions of Annamayya? The great composer lived during the Vijayanagar Empire. He life span is believed to be 1408 to 1503 and his skill in composing songs on the Lord at Tirumala, as well as His consort Alamelumanga had come to the notice of SaluvaNarasimharaya who ruled between 1485 and 1491 though he was powerful enough to be given the title MahaMandaleswara as early as in 1452. Thereafter, Annamayya’sson and grandson, Pedda Tirumalacharya and TallapakaChinnayya carried on the musical tradition, which brings us well into the time when Vijayanagar fell and the Nayaks became independent rulers. That long after Annamacharyawas forgotten, the musical tradition he left behind continued at Tirumala is evident from the 1803 English translation of a Mahratta memoir of Narain Row, which states – “The Taalapwak-walleh then chant the hymns and while they perform the Mungal Aratee they play music of various kinds.”
If that was the situation in the 19th century, the Annamacharyaconnect with Tirumala must have been so much stronger in the 16th century when the Krishnapuram temple was built. Perhaps he was so closely associated with Tirumala that a new temple built for the same deity so far away had to necessarily incorporate him also. Or it could just be that Krishnappa or one of his successors had a great liking for Annamayyacompositions. Lastly, is it really Annamayya? Unless disproven I am happy to assume it is.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated June 12, 2020 in the Friday features section