The Murals of Kerala


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May 04, 2012 — CANADA (SUN) — A three-part series on the Kerala's magnificent legacy of temple murals.

The art of Kerala has a long history. Situated in the Southwestern part of India, Kerala is a place of scenic and sylvan beauty, resplendent with greeneries, backwaters and coconut trees. The murals of Kerala dates back to 8th century AD and the style and content have gone through a constant phase of change and improvement over a period of time. Like any other traditional South Indian art forms like the Tanjore School, the Mysore School or the Kalamkari School, the Kerala murals are essentially iconic and had their genesis in the temple precincts.

Wonderful pieces of visual art forms were created on the temple walls depicting scenes of Vedic cultural events as depicted in the Puranas and Itihasas. The subjects for murals were derived from religious texts. Palace and temple murals were filled with highly stylised pictures of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, representing imageries 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 stylised forms.

Created by environmentally friendly art materials, these art works normally done in the earlier periods on the walls of the sanctum sanctorum and the multi tiered front elevation (Gopuram) of the temples were a visual treat to the eyes, reflecting the richness of our traditional culture.


Record evidences that the mural school of painting on walls (Suvar) began in Kerala with the rock paintings found in the Anjanad valley of Idukki district. These paintings appear to have had its genesis in the rock engravings discovered in two regions of Kerala, at Edakkal in Wayanad and at Perumkadavila in Tiruvananthapuram district. The Kerala mural styles seem to be related to the more ancient Dravidian art of "kalamezhuthu" and also significantly influenced by the Sittanavasal style. The mural tradition of Kerala could be traced as far back as the 7th and 8th century AD. It probably did come under the influence of Pallava art. The Nayak and Vijayanagar idioms of the South got amalgamated with local factors in Kerala, later.

Some of the oldest murals are found in the Thirunandikkara Cave temple, now a part of Kanyakumari district of Tamilnadu. Though only sketchy outlines seems to have survived the ravages of time, it is presumed that the cave must have once been richly decorated with paintings executed in the 9th or 10th century AD. Barring these murals the only other rendering belonging to this period (900 AD to 1300 AD) is in the Nedumpuram Tali temple in Trissoor. Interestingly it also has some information about the money paid to the mural painters for the work they have done.

Growth & Development

There are evidences that from the mid-sixteenth century onwards the mural art of Kerala has got a major fillip. Artists of later age should have extensively used Silparatna, a sixteenth century Sanskrit text on painting and related subjects written by Srikumara. This work is rated as unique and apparently covers all the finer nuances of the painting encompassing the style, content and techniques. One can find information on this subject in texts like Shilpa ratnam, Saraswatha chithrakarma sasthram, Vishnu Dharmotharam, Aparajitha Prijha, Samarangana Soothradharam and Abhilashitatma chinthamani.

The Krishnapuram Palace near Kayamkulam in Alappuzha district houses one of the largest mural panels depicting Gajendra Moksha. The Mattancherry Palace in Ernakulam district is famous for housing paintings based on the popular Itihasa, Ramayana and the Purana, Bhagavatha. We can understand more about these murals at the Shiva temple in Ettumanoor. The murals of Kanthaloor temple in Trivandrum district (13th century) and those of Pardhivapuram (Kanyakumari district) and Trivikramapuram in Tiruvananthapuram (14th century), Pisharikavu and Kaliampalli in Kozhikode district are the oldest temple murals of Kerala.

The period between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries AD saw an upsurge in the execution of the murals - 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 and Padmanabhapuram palace, Guruvayur. Murals can also been seen in various temples that dot Kerala and also churches like the St. George Orthodox Church near Alappuzha, St. Mary's Church near Ernakulam and Thiruvalla, Kanjoor and Ollur Churches in Kerala. The main chamber of the triple storied houses of kings called as "Uppirikka Malika" has its inner walls painted with exotic Murals of gods and goddesses, where in Lord Ananthapadmanabha occupies the centre stage.

Every piece of the traditional murals of Kerala skillfully executed by master artists takes hours of breathtaking appreciation. Resplendent with colour, these stylised renderings reflect a rich heritage of Vedic culture, capturing not only the beauty of a fine art but also the ethical values of human life.

Tomorrow we will explore the two distinct styles of Kerala mural painting, and discuss the artistic techniques, colors and brushes used to create them.

Source: Rejuvenating Ancient Arts of South India (RASI)


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