Hampi Virupaksha Temple Murals

Inspirational Paintings from the Vijayanagara Period

Dedicated to Lord Virupaksha, a local name for Shiva, the Virupakasha Temple is one of the main attractions of Hampi and has been an active temple for hundreds of years. An amazing feature of this temple is the murals painted on the ceiling of the Ranga Mantapa, the main hall in front of the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum).

The murals were painted more than 500 years ago at the height of the Vijayanagara Empire. Inspired by the folklore, ancient Indian texts and epics, and Kannada literature, such as Girija Kalyana by Harihara, these beautiful and expressive paintings reflect the traditions and the culture of that era. With the passage of time, the murals have faded considerably. However, some of them have been restored in recent years.

There are three distinct sections in this mural: 1. West section 2. Middle Section 3. East Section. The Virupaksha Temple is an east-facing temple, so note that the west section is near the garbhagriha and the east section is near the entrance.

The main focus of the paintings on the west section is Shiva and the celebration of his marriage to Parvati. The middle section has a beautiful lotus flower medallion carved at the center, flanked by two narrative paintings depicting stories about Shiva. The east section is about Vishnu, his avatars, and related scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata.

West Section

Painted on the topmost panel of the eastern section are the Trimurti, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, each with their consorts.

The theme of the rest of the eastern section is Girija Kalyana, the celebration of the Shiva and Parvati wedding, and is based on the epic poem authored by Harihara, an ancient Kannada poet known for his devotion to Shiva.

Girija Kalyana – Pompous wedding of Shiva and Parvati

The image below depicts the scenes at the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. Attending the wedding are the pantheon of Hindu gods, including Brahma and Shiva (the other two gods from the Hindu Trinity), Ashta Dikpalas (guardians of the eight directions), rishis (sages), devas (demigods), celestial beings such as gandharvas, yakshas, and kimpurushas (mythical creatures with the human bodies and horse or lion heads).

Girija Kalyana - Wedding of Shiva and Parvati painted on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, India
Girija Kalyana – Wedding of Shiva and Parvati

The rectangular frames on the topmost panel show kinnara’s on the left and right extremes, and palaces with onlookers in the middle.

The second panel from the top depicts the actual wedding ceremony. At the center is Shiva trying to hold Parvati’s hands. Standing behind Shiva is Brahma, shown with four heads, and behind Brahma is Vishnu, shown with four hands, and his wife Lakshmi, who is carrying a veena.

Behind Vishnu and Lakshmi is Narada, the matchmaker of the Shiva-Parvati alliance, and the horse-faced figure standing next to Narada is Tumburu, a gandharva considered as the best musician among the gandharvas. Notice that both Narada and Tumburu are carrying musical instruments on their shoulders.

Standing behind Parvati are her parents – Himavata and Mena – and female attendants. The figures on the last frame with the lion, horse, and elephant heads represent the mythical creatures from the forests.

The topmost panel shows kinnaras who have human heads with the bodies of birds. The panel below the wedding panel shows the ordinary people celebrating the wedding and playing music with drums and tuttooris, trumpet-like instruments. The panel below depicts Ashta Dikpalas (eight guardians of the directions).

Ashta Dikpalas – Guardians of the eight directions

Painted on each of the eight frames is a dikpala (guardian of a direction).

Ashta Dikpalas - Painting on the Hampi Virupaksha Temple ceiling
Ashta Dikpalas

Here is the list from left to right:

1. Ishana – Guardian of Eshanya (Northeast), riding Vrishaba (a bull)
2. Nirrti – Guardian of Nairutya (Southwest), riding a horse and carrying a sword
3. Vayu – Guardian of Vayuvya (Northwest), riding a gazelle
4. Varuna – Guardian of Paschima (West), riding Makara (a crocodile-like mythical creature)
5. Kubera – Guardian of Uttara (North), riding Nara (a man) and carrying a gada (mace)
6. Yama – Guardian of Dakshina (South), riding a male buffalo
7. Agni – Guardian of Agneya (Southeast), riding a ram
8. Indra – Guardian of Purva (East), riding Airavata (a white elephant) and wielding his signature weapon Vajrayuda (Thunderbolt)

Middle Section

The middle section has a beautiful lotus medallion carved at the center flanked by the following two narrative paintings.

  1. Manmatha Vijaya – Manmatha firing Kamabanas at Shiva.
  2. Tripurantaka – Shiva’s incarnation destroying three aerial cities

Manmatha Vijaya – Manmatha shooting Kamabanas at Shiva

Hamp Virupaksha Temple Murals - Manmatha Vijaya - Kama shooting Kamabanas at Shiva
Manmatha Vijaya – Kama shooting Kamabanas at Shiva

This painting shows a scene based on Shiva Purana where Manmatha (also known as Kama, Kamadeva), the god of love and carnal desire, strikes Shiva with Kamabanas (Kama’s arrows) to arouse passion and desire in meditating Shiva.

Here is the story in brief:

After the death of his wife Sati, a grief-stricken Shiva started meditating, resulting in a great imbalance in the world. Meanwhile, Sati was reborn as Parvati, and the gods wanted Shiva to marry Parvati. To accomplish this goal, Indra, the king of heaven and the devas (demigods), sends Kama to break Shiva’s meditation, and arouse his passion and desire to make him love Parvati.

As you can see from the image, Kama is standing with an elegant pose inside a chariot driven by his vahana (vehicle), a parrot. Standing behind him is his consort Rathi. Seated on a majestic throne with a meditation pose is Shiva. Below him are Agni riding a ram and Parvati waiting for Shiva to open his eyes. As Kama shoots his arrows made of flowers from a sugarcane bow, Shiva opens his eyes with rage for waking him up from his meditation.

Tripurantaka – Shiva’s incarnation destroying three aerial cities

Tripurantaka - Shiva's incarnation destroying three aerial cities - painted on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, India
Tripurantaka – Shiva’s incarnation destroying three aerial cities

This painting depicts Tripurantaka, an incarnation of Shiva. Note: Tripura means three cities. With his incarnation, Shiva destroys three aerial cities, each belonging to a son of Tarakasura. As you can see from the image, Shiva is riding a chariot and pointing an arrow at the three cities (two of them are partly visible on the right side). The faces drawn inside the wheels of the chariot represent the moon and the sun.

Here is the story in brief:

Pleased with the three sons of Tarakasura after they perform tapasu, Brahma presents them with three aerial cities in the sky that revolve around the earth. Brahma assures them that they are indestructible, except when a single arrow pierces through them when they are aligned in a straight line.

When Tarakasura’s sons realize that they are invincible, they start tormenting the devas (demigods) and rishis (sages). The gods, including Vishnu and Brahma, urge Shiva to destroy the evil cities. Shiva agrees and makes plans to teach Tarakasura’s sons a lesson.

Vishwakarma, the god of architecture and crafts, constructs a chariot with Prithvi (Earth) as its body and Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon) as its wheels. He creates a bow from Mount Meru with Vasuki as its string. Brahma volunteers to become the charioteer, and Vishnu the arrow. Once the chariot is ready, Shiva waits for the precise moment for the three cities to align into a straight line and shoots an arrow that pierces through the aerial cities and destroys them.

Shiva wipes the ashes from the destroyed cities on his forehead horizontally with his three fingers, and these three lines remain permanently on his forehead from then on. Based on this legend, Shiva’s devotees apply the three horizontal ash lines daily on their foreheads.

East Section

Dashavatara and Rama Sita Wedding painted on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, India
Dashavatara and Rama Sita Wedding painted on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple

The theme of the upper part of the east section is Dashavatara (ten avatars of Vishnu). Each avatar is painted in a small frame in chronological order. The Dashavatara frame is flanked by Rathi on the left and Manmatha on the right.

The lower part has three themes:
1. Draupadi Swayamvara on the lower right. Arjuna shoots at the Matsa Yantra (Fish Machine) to win Draupadi’s hand
2. Wedding of Rama and Sita in the middle
3. Sita Swayamvara on the lower left. Rama lifts the bow at the King Janaka’s palace to win Sita’s hand

Dashavatara – Ten Incarnations of Vishnu

The panel shown in the image below has 12 frames. Painted between the two large end frames are the ten standard avatars of Vishnu, which are in the chronological order from left to right.

Dashavatara (Ten Incarnations of Vishnu) painted on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, India
Dashavatara (Ten Incarnations of Vishnu)

According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu, the preserver, intervenes by manifesting himself in different forms – sometimes human and sometimes anthropomorphic – to restore order and maintain harmony in the universe. These manifestations (or incarnations) of Vishnu are known as avatars. The Dashavataras are the ten standard avatars, according to ancient Indian texts, including the Puranas, although there is no complete agreement on the eight and ninth avatars.

The avatars of Vishnu are spread across all four yugas (epoch), which are, Satya, Treta, Dwapara, and Kalki. The list below provides a brief explanation of the avatars painted in the image from left to right :

1. Matsyavatara – Human face with the body of a fish
2. Kurmavatara – Human face with the body of a turtle
3. Varahavatara – Human body with the face of a wild boar
4. Narasimhavatara – Human body with the face and claws of a lion
5. Vamanavatara – Vamana is carrying a wooden umbrella.
6. Parashurama – Parashurama is holding an ax, his signature weapon
7. Rama
8. Krishna – Krishna is killing Kaliya, a serpent causing trouble in the Yamuna River
9. Buddha
10. Kalki – Kalki is riding a galloping white horse

The first five avatars occurred during the Satya Yuga, the sixth and seventh during the Treta Yuga, and eight and ninth during the Dwapara Yuga. The last avatar hasn’t occurred yet. According to Hindu mythology, the Kalki avatar will appear at the end of the current Kali Yuga.

The two end frames depict Rathi and Manmatha. Riding a horse on the left end is Rathi, and riding an elephant at the right end is Manmatha, and each is holding a bow and an arrow.

Sita Swayamvara – Rama lifting King Janaka’s bow

Note: Swayamvara is an ancient Indian practice in which girl herself chooses her husband. Swayam means self and vara means groom.

Sita Swayamvara - Rama lifting the bow - a mural painted on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, India
Sita Swayamvara – Rama lifting the bow

According to the story, King Janaka of Videha arranges a swayamvara for the princes who seek his daughter Janaki’s (Sita’s other name) hand in marriage. The suitor must lift the bow that King Janaka inherited from his ancestors. None of the other suitors, including Rama’s nemesis Ravana, succeed in lifting it.

As you can see from the image, Rama, an avatar Vishnu who was born as a prince of Ayodhya, is lifting the King Janaka’s bow above his head. Standing on the right side are Sita and her parents, Janaka and Maithili, who are anxiously watching Rama as he is lifting the bow.

Draupadi Swayamvara – Arjuna shooting at the fish revolving in the Matsya Yantra

Draupadi Swayamvara - Arjuna shooting at the fish revolving in the Matsya Yantra painted on the ceiling of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, Karnataka, India
Draupadi Swayamvara – Arjuna shooting at the fish revolving in the Matsya Yantra

This painting depicts a scene from the Draupadi Swayamvara episode narrated in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. According to the story, King Drupada of Panchala arranges a swayamvara for the princes who seek his daughter Draupadi’s hand in marriage.

As part of this swayamvara, his sons devised a competition where the suitor must shoot a mechanical fish revolving above in the Matsya Yantra (Fish Machine) by looking only at its image in the water pond below.

As you can see from the image, Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, is looking down into the water pond to see the reflection of the mechanical fish revolving above while he is aiming the metallic bow up to shoot that fish. Draupadi, whose hand Arjuna is seeking, is standing on the right, anxiously watching Arjuna.

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