Kerala Murals

KERALA MURALS

Tradition

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.

IMPORTANT MURAL

PADMANABHAPURAM MURALS

This Magnificent palce is also a splendid example of native architecture at its best. And it has utilized the plenitude and excellence of Kerala wood. If one wishes to experience the grandeur of carved wood, Padmanabhapuram is just the place.
Padmanabhapuram now in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu is about 65 Kms to the south of Thiruvananthapuram. A slight detour from the national highway running through Thiruvananthapuram and Nagarcoil will bring you to this old palace enclosed with in a four kilometer perimeter of a huge granite wall. The reign of Marthanda Varma, the most powerful of the Thiruvithamkur Kings (1729-1758), was also the most glorious period in Padmanabhapuram history. It was Marthanda Varma, the maker of modern Thiruvithamkur , who gave the palace and its surroundings the present name of Padmanabhapuram or the abode of Padmanabha. This was around 1744, before which the place was known as Kalkulam.

Murals decorate the inner walls of the room. These paintings depict gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon and are intended to create a congenial atmosphere for meditation. On the western and eastern walls, the two paintings of Anantha Padmanabha from the central theme. And both these paintings were held in reverence since it was believed to be sanctified by the presence of the particular deity.

GAJENDRA MOKSHA OF KRISHNAPURAM

Kayamkulam Kottaram ( Krishnapuram Palace) was constructed the reign of Marthanda Varma (1729-58), the king of east while Travancore . This Palace is noted for its peculiar architectural style, which is a typical ‘Pathinarukettu’. Besides it is the miniature Padmanabhapuram Palace. The head quarters of Travancore. This Palace is also noted for ‘Gajendra Moksham’, the largest single panel of mural painting found in Kerala.The Bhagavata describes Gajendra Moksha as one of the most important exploits of Lord Visnu. A great devotee of Vishnu, King Indrayumna, was cursed by Saga Agastya to be reborn as an elephant. The sage’s words proved true and indrayumna was reborn as Gajendra or the king of elephants. One day as he stepped in to a lake to drink his fill, he was caught by a crocodile. Though he fought he fought to shake it off with all his might the crocodile only tightened its grip. The story runs that Gajendra remained thus for many years. Finally in great despair, he cried piteously to the Lord to help him. Hearing his entreaties Vishnu descended expeditiously from heaven on the back of garuda, his celestial transport. Gajendra Moksha was a favourite theme of Indian sculptors and artists. Excellent sculptures on the above theme with minor deviations are to be found at Barhhut and Deogath (Uttar Pradesh) and at the three Pattadakkal temples of Karnataka.

PANAYANNARKAVU MURALS


Panayannarkavu is one of those few temples in the state where the Sapta Matas or the Seven Mother Goddesses are worshipped as the presiding power. Chamundi, the fiercest of them all, gets the predominant place as Kali. There is also a temple of Siva in the premises. Situated in a lauxuriant grove near Parumala and girdled by a tributary of Pampa, this apparently modest temple is only about two miles from Mannar, a Village well known for its bell metal lamps and vessels. .

The shrine of the Sapta Matas is rectangular in structure. Murals are painted along all the available wall space. Probably these were done at the transitional phase of Vaishnavite influence on Saktheya cult. Vaishnavism helped to alleviate the fearsomeness of the tantric rituals once practiced here. How ever the murals on the front of the shrine and also those around the square shrine of Siva were painted much later, Presumably after the transition was complete. Like elsewhere the subjects of the frescoes were inspired by stories and episodes from the Devi Mahatyam, the Saiva Vaishnava Purnas and the Bhagavata.

The murals of Panayannarkavu are notable for their linear accuracy and agreeable color combinations. It is a little difficult to date these paintings. We can however presume that these frescoes were done in two phases. The murals around the small rectangular chief shrine were in all probability the earliest paintings. The paintings on the square shrine were completed later, presumably during the closing years of the reign of the King of Chirava a branch of the Odanadu Royal House, it was during this time that Vaishnava cult assimilated Sakti worship to effect a more colorful ritualistic pattern.

ETTUMANOOR MURALS

When you travel eleven Kilometres to the north of Kottayam town you will reach Ettumanoor and its centuries-old temple of Siva. The small town has all the noise and bustle of any small provincial town. But as one travels northwards on the main highway the ambience of the temple infuses a rare kind of peace. Ettumanoor Temple is also a museum of rare and beautiful works of art and sculptures in wood and stone.

The late Ananda Coomaramaswami in “An introduction to Indian Art” (1913) had pointed out that the Nataraja paintings is the only extant specimen of the old Dravidian style of painting. “.. of Dravidian painting the only old example to which I can refer is the fine eight-armed Nataraja fresco of the Siva temple at Ettumnanoor in North Thiruvithamkur, but no systematic search for paintings has been made in the older parts and on the more neglected surfaces or Thiruvithamkur and other southern temples”. Stella Kramrisch the late art historian and art critic was quite poetic in her appraisal”. Like a gigantic butterfly caught in a stained glass window and transformed in to its luminosity is the shape of the dancing Siva”. Coomaraswami’s claim that the Ettumanoor murals are the earliest example of Dravidian mural art, stands disputed since the discovery of the paintings of chittanavasal and Kanchepuram.

PUNDAREEKAPURAM MURALS

Pundareekapuram is a small temple atop a little rise called Midayikunnam near Thalayolaparampu in Kottayam. Architecturally it is not very different from any typical village temple of Kerala. A tiled and saddle roofed square “cuttampalam”encloses a square sanctum sanctorum. Appended to the square enclosure is a small ‘balikkalpura’. The idol worshipped here is the image of Vishnu sitting astride his celestial vehicle Garuda together with Bhoodevi. This is a rare icon. There’s a fine picture of Siva and Parvathi sitting beneath the Kalpavriksha; a powerful picture of Durga vanquishing the buffalo-headed demon Mahisha, the pranks of Krishna the divine boy of Ambadi; a picture of a Yakshi the dangerous seductress of legends; Rama Pattabhishekham or the coronation of Sri Rama; Siva Thandava and a picture of Sastha astride a horse to point out a few of the striking paintings at Pundareekapuram.

Since the temple is tucked away in off rarely trodden village road, these paintings have for long remained relatively obscure. But these murals, no doubt can hold their own against the better known wall-paintings of Padmanabhapuram and Mattancheri Palaces. In all probability these murals were painted during the later half of the 18 th century. Another characteristic of the Pundareekapuram paintings and Kerala murals in general are the boldness and accuracy of the lines which give a unique force to the paintings.

MATTANCHERI MURALS

Mattancheri in Kochi has a distinct smell of trade and commerce even today. The passage of the years has only retouched her trading face. Large godowns still stand in and around the quayside.

Mattancheri had also been a former capital of the erstwhile rulers of Kochi. When the ‘adventurers from over the seas’ came to Kochi seeking trade, Mattancheri also bustled as a brisk trading port. First the Portuguese and later the Dutch beguiled rulers with gold and gifts in exchange for spices especially black pepper.

Mattancheri is an artist’s delight. For here are some very beautiful frescoes. The walls of some of the palace champers are adorned with paintings done in the traditional mural style of Kerala.

RAMAYANA MURALS

The paintings cover a wide range of themes from the Puthrakameshti Yagam to Rama’s return to Ayodya after vanquishing King Ravana of Lanka. The northern part of the eastern walkl crowded with scence from the early chapters of the story of Rama. The bearded king Dasaratha is seen conferring with his minister, Sumantra, Rishisringa the deerheaded sage performing the Yagam or ritual sacrifice, Dasaratha handing out the divine ‘Prasadam’ to his consorts are the other main paintings here.

KOTTACKAL MURALS


Kottackal owes its fame today as onne of the chief centres of Ayurvedic treatment. But formely it was better known as an important eastern principality of the Zamorins of Kozhikode3. Before it became the eastern seat of the Zamorins, this area was governed by Karuvayoor Mosos as a representative of the King of Valluvanad.

The date of paintings, the names of the artists who painted them and their patron are all inscribed on the southern side of the shrine. According to the inscription these murals were painted in the period between 1041 and 1053 of the Malayalam Era (1866-1878)

There are about 40 paintings here. While some subjects cover the entire length of the walls, a few are painted in a miniature fashion divided and contained in upper and lower panels. The most remarkable qualities of several of these paintings are its eye-catching colors and clear, firm lines. A closer scrutiny will reveal the iconographical standards adhered to in the creation of these godly figures. The selection of subjects and the manner pasteurization bespeak its influence and precedence. It was a product of the Shaktheya cult that had imbibed a synthesis of Saivism and Vaishnavism.

One can easily notice two separate styles of painting at Kottackal. Richness of colors used and the bold and accurate lines the paintings are the hallmarks of the two styles. If forced to evaluate the relative merits of the two styles the sure touch of a master-artist is obvious in the former, whereas the colors are fresh and sparkling. This is so because the pictures are extremely good from the point of view of lines as well. The pictures of Siva and Mohini, Garuda Shakti, Lord Varaha holding goddess Earth are good examples to illustrate this.

CHURCH FRESCOES IN KERALA

The Syond of Diamper in 1599 had decreed the need for decorating churches with paintings as well as images. A very common feature of churches is the paintings in oils on the wooden screens in the altar. Frescoes, if any, invariably decorated the walls around the altar. Murals on the roof above the altar also were not very rare. If Christian frescoes painters seemed to have paid more attention to a more or less realistic representation of the human anatomy, temple muralists delighted in presenting a highly imaginative and idealistic notion of person and things.

The Church at Cheppad

The St.George’s Orthodox Church at Cheppad in Kayamkulm, Alappuzha is believed to have been constructed partially with portions of an old 13 th century church at Haripad.

The forty nine odd frescoes in this are fine examples of the Christian mural art of the early medieval period. They can be dated as earlier than those at Vallom, Kanjoor or Koratty churches.

The Themes are all Biblical ranging from the annunciation of Mary, Jesus’ birth, the flight unto Egypt, the Last Supper and pictures of the Crucified Christ. How ever the most remarkable ones here ere those of Noah and his Ark, Judas’ betrayal of Christ and Jesus with his disciples.

Mar Sabore and Afroth Church.

The centuries old Syrian-Jacobite church is situated at Akapparambu near Ankamali(Eranakulam). The present Church is only a replacement or perhaps and enlargement of the ancient structure.

On the upper halves of the walls around the alter are some remarkable beautiful frescoes, surely the best example of church murals of Kerala.

Satan tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden, Prophet Elijah handing over his mantle to Elisha before ascending to heaven, mosses on mount Sinai with the tablet of the ten commandments, Sabore and Afroth engaged in theological arguments with Namboothiri Brahmins are among the Interest murals here.

St.Mary’s Church, Kanjoor

There are two large frescoes on either side of the main door of the church.Apart from this there are several oil paintings around the alter. The two frescoes are commemoration of the defeat of tippu’s marauding army when it sought to plunder the church in 1790. While one mural has captured the fierce and bloody encounter between tippu’s troops and the combined forces of British cannons and native infantry, the other is a victory march of the letter. Grue some details like a corpse of one of the marauders pitch forked at the end of a British bayonet bring out the horror and the mercilessness of war. This fresco is thus significant from a historical perspective also

Kottayam Cheriyapalli

This is an old church tucked one and a half kms from the centre of Kottayam town. The church and surrounding places are steeped in history being in the times of the Thekkumkoor kings.

Cheriyapalli has some fairly large comparatively fine murals. There is a painting of the last Supper, Judas accepting the silver for his betrayal, Jesus’ disciples waiting for him in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus being whipped and dragged publicly. His trial, Pontius Pilate, washing his hands after condemning Christ to the cross, the Crucifixion, the Virgin Mother with the body of Christ on her lap and Christ’s ascension are the other frescoes here. But here what we cannot help noticing is the color of Christ’s robe, which is ochre rather than white. Ochre in Hindu concept is a color related to mysticism and spirituality.

Other churches in Kerala that have old frescoes include St.Antony’s Ferona church at Olloor, St.Marys Churches at Thrissur and Koratty, the oldSyrian Church at Kandamattom and the Paliyakkara church at Thiruvalla 

SPECIALITIES

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.

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