Kerala on the south-western coast of India has won the admiration of every visitor because of its resplendent greenery and luxuriant vegetation. Every aspect of Kerala art blends into this pervasive greenery with perfect harmony. Nothing loud, nothing discordant. Every work of art maintains a subdued tone.
One can say that the tradition of painting on walls began in Kerala with the pre-historic rock paintings found in the Anjanad valley of Idukki district. Archaeologists presume that these paintings belong to different periods from upper Paleolithic period to early historic period. Rock engravings dating to the Mesolithic period have also been discovered in two regions of Kerala, at Edakkal in Wayanad and at Perumkadavila in Tiruvananthapuram district.
It is not difficult to trace the roots of the Kerala mural styles to the more ancient Dravidian art of kalamezhuthu. This was a much more fully developed art form connected with religious rituals. It was a ritual art of sprinkling and filling up different colour powders inside outlines sketched with the powder.
The roots of the extant mural tradition of Kerala could be traced as far back as the seventh and eighth century A.D. It is not unlikely that the early Kerala murals along with its architecture came heavily under the influence of Pallava art. The oldest murals in Kerala were discovered in the rock-cut cave temple of Thirunandikkara, which is now in the Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu.
The hall of the cave must have once been richly decorated with paintings. However at present only sketchy outlines have survived the passage of years. The paintings that were here were executed in all probability in the ninth or tenth century A.D. Apart from this there are no other paintings that can be dated to the period between the ninth and the thirteenth century A.D. However a tenth century inscription of Goda Ravi Varman found in the Nedumpuram Tali temple in Trissoor district mentions the wages that were paid to mural painters.
A Portuguese traveller, Castaneda, who had accompanied Vasco-da-Gama in his voyages to India, has recorded their experience of walking into a Hindu temple under the mistaken notion that it was a native church. On entering they noticed "monstrous looking images' some of which had four arms painted on the walls. To the travellers the images seemed like the pictures of devils which raised doubts among them whether they were actually in a Christian church. In all probability the European navigators must have stepped into a Bhagawati temple that was situated somewhere between Kappad and Kozhikode.
The churches of Kerala contain paintings which depict characters and scenes from Christian mythology. The paintings of Virgin Mary in the churches at Edappalli and Vechur are of deep religious significance to the devotees. The Orthodox Syrian churches at Cheppad at Mulanthuruthi contain interesting murals. The outer walls of the Kanjur church have a huge mural which depicts the scene of a battle fought between the armies of Tipu Sultan on the one side and those of the English East India Company, aided by the bare - footed local militia, on the other.
Archaeological evidences point to the period from the mid-sixteenth century onwards as the most prolific period of mural art of Kerala. Srikumara's Silparatna, a sixteenth century sanskrit text on painting and related subjects must have been enormously useful to contemporary and later artists. This treatise has been acclaimed as a rare work on the techniques of Indian art, the like of which has not been published before or after. It discusses all aspects of painting, aesthetic as well as technical and it is greatly useful in understanding the later medieval murals of Kerala.
The subjects for murals were derived from religious texts. Palace and temple murals were peopled with highly stylised pictures of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. It was not a fanciful representation but drawn from the descriptions in the invocatory verses or 'dhyana slokas'. Flora and fauna and other aspects of nature were also pictured as backdrops in highly stylized forms.
The murals of Kanthaloor temple in Tiruvananthapuram district (thirteenth century) and those at Pardhivapuram (Kanyakumari district) and Trivikramapuram in Tiruvananthapuram (fourteenth century) are the oldest extant temple frescoes of Kerala. Representing the prolific period of mural art viz. the period between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. are the Ramayana murals of Mattancherry Palace and the paintings in the temples like Trissoor Vadakkumnatha temple, Chemmanthitta Siva temple and those at Kudamaloor and Thodeekkalam in Kannur district. They represent a latter phase in the evolution of medieval mural tradition. Likewise the wall paintings at Panayannarkavu, Trichakrapuram, Panjal Kottakkal as well as those in Padmanabhapuram and Krishnapuram palaces, Kayamklulam and those in the inner chambers and the lower floor of Mattancherry palace, represent a much later period in the evolution of medieval mural tradition.
A close study of the mural art of Kerala will prove to be valuable in understanding the state's art and cultural tradition. It was a tradition that was not averse to incorporate the best of the diverse cultural and aesthetic influences that it was open to. But alongside it was also able to retain and preserve its own individuality.
The state of Kerala holds the second place in having the largest collection of archaeologically important mural sites, the first being Rajasthan. The mural tradition of Kerala evolved as a complement to her unique architectural style.
The palaces at Padmanabhapuram, Kayamkulam (Krishnapuram) and Mattancheri are the important sites of Kerala Murals. The temples at Panayannarkavu, Pundareekapuram, Pandavam, Trissoor, Chemmanthitta, Kaliampally and Thodeekkalm are equally famous for its frescoes. The church frescoes have paid more attention to a more or less realistic representation of human anatomy. The churches at Cheppad, Akapparambu and Ankamali are important for their old wall-paintings.
The most significant drawback of the Kerala mural tradition was that it confined itself with in the stipulations of Icnography. However no other mural tradition has been able to match the linear accuracy of Kerala murals.