Stories on walls

Print edition : September 02, 2016

At Mattancherry Palace: Kumbhakarna is sleeping on the floor. A white elephant is waking him up. Photo: From “Kerala Murals”

At the Sri Rama temple at Triprayar: Green-skinned Mahishasuramardini standing on the green-skinned buffalo Mahisha. The godess has four hands: in her upper right hand she is holding a chakra, in her upper left hand a conch, in her lower right hand an arrow and in her lower left hand a bow. Photo: From “Kerala Murals”

Kerala Murals offers a delectable feast of detailed descriptions of wall paintings in six temples and a palace in Kerala that are protected monuments under the ASI.

DOCUMENTING ancient murals painted in caves, rocky outcrops on hills, temples and palaces is not an easy task. They are often located in remote, dark caves in forests, on roofs of mantapas or at a height on the walls of temple prakaras, and in the narrow confines of tiers in temple gopurams. Besides these physical constraints, what makes it difficult for the specialists who assiduously study these murals and for photographers is that many ancient murals in temples and palaces have faded over time or have been vandalised. So it is difficult to guess the details in them.

However, M. Nambirajan and S. Suresh’s book Kerala Murals offers a delectable feast of detailed descriptions of wall paintings in six temples and a palace in Kerala that are protected monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The monuments are the Mahadeva temples at Peruvanam, Tiruvanchikulam, Chemmanthitta and Pallimanna; the Sri Rama temple at Triprayar; the Vadakkunnathan temple in Thrissur; and Mattancherry Palace in Kochi. The book has a bonanza of photographs of paintings found at these sites. M. Basavaraj, ASI photographer, Thrissur Circle, took the photographs with great clarity, though the paintings were often located at “inconvenient heights in dark corridors” of these temples. Basavaraj has done a difficult job with relish. The book has line drawings too.

As the foreword says: “Although there have been a few earlier publications on Kerala murals, all of them have dealt with the paintings in a broad manner and in the process, have failed to describe or catalogue them in a detailed fashion. Thus, the present book is the first ever attempt at a detailed documentation, accompanied by photographs of the historical paintings of Kerala.” The book has several hitherto unknown paintings, which came to light during the recent chemical conservation of the monuments coming under the ASI’s Thrissur Circle.

Some of the paintings, especially those in the Triprayar temple and Mattancherry Palace, are outstanding works of art, for example, those depicting king Dasaradha performing Aswamedha yajna; Rama’s coronation; Narasimha ripping apart Hiranyakasipu; the Vamana episode; Nataraja with 20 hands; Vishnu seated on a throne with Sridevi and Bhudevi flanking him; a bewitching panel portraying Siva as Mahamrtyunjaya; Kumbhakarna sleeping on the floor and a white elephant trying to wake him up; the return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya in the pushpaka viman; risque scenes depicting Siva and Mohini; and a big, lascivious painting of Krishna enjoying himself in the company of many bare-breasted gopikas. A rare theme that has been superbly portrayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple is Siva in slumber. Another rare theme, which has been painted with a lot of empathy, is that of poor Kuchela, with a bag of puffed rice, visiting his friend Krishna in the latter’s palace, Krishna embracing Kuchela, Krishna’s wife Satyabhama fanning Kuchela with a venchamaram in one hand and some sweets for her husband’s childhood friend in the other hand.

The book is a product of the field research Nambirajan and Suresh carried out in these sites from 2008 to 2010. They have taken care to mention the length and width in centimetres of each published painting, the colour with which each protagonist has been painted, the weapon in every hand if a protagonist like Siva or Vishnu is portrayed with several hands, the precise location of various characters depicted in the murals, and so on. The documentation includes, as the introduction states, the temple’s location, history and architecture and its ground plan, indicating the precise location of the paintings. The section on “Mural traditions with special reference to Kerala” has information on how the mural painting technique of Kerala is different from that of other places; the stages involved in the murals taking shape; the five basic colours, that is, panchavarna used in painting them; the raw materials used in preparing the pigments; and the long and the soft strands of arrow grass (known as viyampullu in Malayalam) that were used to make the paintbrushes.

Fortunately, the authors do not suffer from antiquity frenzy and claim that the temples are several thousand years old and that the murals were painted many centuries ago. They acknowledge that the paintings mostly date from the 15th century C.E. to the 19th century C.E. They point out that a few paintings carry the name of the artist and the date of the drawing. For instance, an inscription on the murals painted on the chuttambalam (circumambulatory wall) of the Vadakkunnathan temple, says that many of the murals were executed by Kizhakkeppat Atchutavarier or his disciple, and the date given is November 18, 1830. Another inscription in the same temple also mentions that it was done by “Atchutavarier’s disciple, 18th November, 1830”. The dates mentioned are according to Malayalam/Kollam calendar, but the authors have given the equivalent dates in the Roman calendar. What is puzzling is how several paintings in the Vadakkunnathan temple could have been done on a single date. The authors could have done some research to throw light on this.

Both Nambirajan and Suresh have excellent credentials to write this volume. Nambirajan, who is now Regional Director (west), Mumbai, ASI, earned his PhD under the guidance of Professor A. Sundara from Karnatak University on the archaeology of Goa. He was earlier Director (Monuments) and Director (World Heritage), New Delhi, ASI, and Superintending Archaeologist, Thrissur Circle. He had conducted excavations at Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu, Kakkanad in Kerala and Kalagunda in Karnataka. He has authored four books: Coastal Archaeology of Western India: with Special Reference to Goa; A Catalogue of Srirangapatna Museum; Bekal Excavation; and now Kerala Murals with Suresh. Nambirajan has served in the composite Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, New Delhi and Tamil Nadu.

Suresh was a Fulbright Academic and Professional Excellence Visiting Fellow at the Department of Art and Art History, University of Mary Washington, United States, from August 2015 to May 2016. He has a double PhD in archaeology. He earned his first PhD on the study of ancient Roman coins and other Roman objects found in India from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and his second, on medieval Indian art and architecture with special reference to the Mahrattas of Tanjore, from Mysore University. He has written 37 books, including textbooks for college and school students, historical novels and travelogues. One of his acclaimed books is Arikamedu: Its Place in the Ancient Rome-India Contacts, published in 2007. Suresh is Tamil Nadu convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Other ASI staff who helped in the documentation of these murals include K.P. Rajan (senior conservation assistant), C. Kumaran, Suresh Kumar (artist), L.R. Rakes (surveyor), Lekshmi (draftswoman), Darshana, Aswin and Ambedkar.

The themes of the paintings in the temples and the palace range from the religious and secular to historical personages such as Tipu Sultan and court scenes to floral motifs. The predominantly favourite themes of the artists who drew these paintings are Venugopala playing the flute while he is surrounded by a bevy of gopikas, Narasimhavatara, Siva’s dalliance with Mohini, Rama’s coronation, Krishna as Govardhanadhari and the story of Arjuna’s penance in the forest to get the pasupata weapon from Siva, the latter appearing before him in the form of a hunter (Kirata), the fight that ensues between them, Siva and Arjuna aiming an arrow at a boar and the two arrows simultaneously piercing the animal, both claiming that he killed the boar first and so claiming its ownership, the resultant mushtiyuddham between them, Siva vanquishing Arjuna, and Arjuna, after realising that the hunter is Siva himself, receiving the pasupata from Siva.

What is revelatory is the assertion by the authors that the theme of the paintings on the wall of the Sankaranarayana srikoil (sanctum sanctorum) situated on the premises of the Vadakkunnathan temple deals with episodes from the Mahabharata and not the Ramayana. Scholars were divided on whether the murals represented stories from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. Most of the murals were faded or damaged, so the scholars could not arrive at a decision. “But recent studies have categorically established that these murals portray episodes from the Mahabharata although it is well-known that paintings or even sculptures based on events from this epic are rare in Kerala,” Nambirajan and Suresh observe on page 217.

Mattancherry Palace has some superb paintings on episodes from the Ramayana, including Kumbhakarna sleeping on the floor, Sita undergoing the agni-pariksha, Vishnu lying on the snake Ananta, the Siva-Parvati family, and Krishna being serenaded by 16 gopikas.

Instead of describing the colours in which the protagonists in the murals have been painted, how many hands they have, what weapons each hand wields and merely mentioning what episode they represent, it would have been useful if the authors had narrated the stories behind the episodes. Such stories relate to Narasimha killing Hiranyakasipu, the Kalasamharamurti, the short-statured Vamana demanding three “feet” of land from King Mahabali, and so on. If the authors had narrated these stories while they described the paintings, the reader would have understood and relished the paintings much more.

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