The temples of Kerala are simple and almost austere compared to the ornate, sculptured marvels in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. The only concession to colour and vivid art in the shrines of this southern state are their unique murals, unlike any you will see elsewhere.
Not celebrated enough, the Kerala Mural is truly fantastic and historic.
In fact, few realise that Kerala has the second-largest number of significant mural sites in the country, after Rajasthan.
The earliest of these murals adorn the walls of the Thirunandhikara Cave Temple in present day Tamil Nadu (the region was once a part of Kerala) and are dated to the 10th century.
From here, the mural made its way across Kerala, peaking between the 16th and the 19th century, with the rise of the Bhakti Movement. Temples and these murals benefitted from the patronage of local rulers and landholders, who commissioned these paintings as a way of expressing their devotion.
The Kerala Mural digs deep into tales from the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and depicts deities like Vishnu and Shiva in all their glory.
The paintings present a highly stylised version of the gods, with wide open eyes, elongated lips and exaggerated eyebrows, which can be compared to forms depicted in the classical theatre of Kerala. Also, the figures along with animals and vegetation are executed in a technically unmatched manner. The colour palette consists of just five colours – Panchavarna or red, yellow, green, black and white and the colours are derived from natural sources.
The Kerala Mural has its roots in Kalamezhuthu, the tradition of drawing on the floor, using colours. The mural paintings are usually found on the exterior walls of the sanctum sanctorum, the mandapas and the circumambulatory path of temples, and was a means to experience the deity outside the sanctum.
These murals are painted in a very organised and specific manner – each body part has a specific measurement for both men and women. There are ways to depict different features, like the eyes which can be in the shape of a fish, a bow, lotus petals, water lily petals or a conch. The hair can be straight, wavy, curly or spread out. Each figure has its own charm and magnetism, whether it is a god or a demon.
The Kerala Mural is divided into three phases:
The 1st or Early Phase lasted from the 10th to the 11th century CE, with significant paintings from this period at Thirunandhikara in Kanyakumari and Kantalur in Tiruchirappalli, both in present-day Tamil Nadu, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, and Thiruvambadi Temple in Thrissur.
The early paintings are simple line drawings and lack the vibrancy of the later phases.
The 2nd phase or Middle Phase lasted from the 11th to the 14th century CE, when the Vadakkunatha, Thiruvanchikkulam and Pisarikkavau temples in Thrissur, Mattanchery Palace in Kochi, Mulakkulam Temple in Kottayam, Elamkkunnapuzha Temple in Ernakulam and Balusserry Temple in Kozhikode were painted. These murals were more evolved and stylised than the earlier ones.
The 3rd or Late Phase lasted from the 14th to the 19th century CE, with paintings in churches in Kanjoor, Akaparambu and Thiruvalla, the Sri Rama Temple in Trippayar, Thodikkalam Temple in Kannnur, Pundarikapauram Temple in Kottayam and Lokanarkavu Temple in Kozhikode. This phase saw the art of mural paintings spread out across the state, and go beyond temples to palaces and churches in Kerala. The style also became more elaborate and stylised, and it is paintings from this phase that are now tagged as ‘Kerala Murals’.
Although the Kerala Mural originated in the 9-10th century, the art proliferated from the 16th century onwards. It was in the 16th century that Srikumara wrote the Silpratna, a Sanskrit text on painting and related subjects, which may have been useful for artists. It could also explain why this tradition received such a strong impetus at the time. This prolific painting activity continued till the 19th century, when the tradition slowly petered out.
Although initially made on the walls of temples, the murals also found their way to palaces and churches in Kerala.
Among Kerala’s churches, one can find these murals in the St Mary Sunoro Church in Angamaly, the St George Church at Paliekkara and churches in Cheppad, Kanjoor, Paravur, Akaparambu, Angamaly, Ollur, Kadamattom and Kottayam. While in the palaces, the themes centre on the Hindu epics, the churches obviously depict Biblical stories. In the churches, the palette of the paintings also changes and one sees the use of blue.
Ironically, it was a disaster that awakened people to the treasures in their midst and the need to revive the Kerala Mural. The Guruvayoor Temple in Thrissur district was struck by a major fire in 1970, which destroyed the sanctum as well as the paintings, and while restoring the temple, the authorities looked for artisans who could paint in this style. On finding a few remaining artists, a concerted effort was made to revive the art form and teach it to the next generation. This led to the setting up of mural painting schools.
While the effort revived an ancient tradition in Kerala, over-enthusiastic restoration in some places has led to old paintings being completely painted over and replaced with new ones. Cautious scientific methods need to be used while carrying out restoration.
Today, there are wide variations in the period, style and preservation of the mural paintings in the temples, churches and palaces of Kerala. Many temples even have contemporary designs executed in traditional style.
Kerala murals are counted among the most iconic art works in the country. Sadly, many of the paintings in ancient temples like the Sri Rama Temple in Triprayar near Thrisssur, and the Mahadev Temple in Thiruvanchikulam, have deteriorated over time and are urgently in need of restoration. There is a crying need to preserve this fragile tradition in Kerala.