Panayannarkavu is one of the few temples in the state of Kerala 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 luxuriant grove near Parumala and girdled by a tributary of the Pampa, this apparently modest temple is only about 2-miles from Mannar, a village well known for its bell-metal lamps and vessels.
Until recently, esoteric tantric rituals were conducted in this Saktheya temple. From an allusion to this temple in the 14th century Malayalam epistolatory poem, Unni Neeli Sandesam, countless legends and stories sprang and gained credence, about the sacrifices and rituals practiced to invoke the blessings of the ferocious goddess. The poem mentions, in figurative language, the practice of sacrificing elephants to appease the goddess.
And even today, the goddess inspires fear and awe in the faithful. But as one walks into the temple and beholds the paintings around the shrines, the initial fear vanishes and a rare calm settles in. Familiar stories from the Puranas, in gentle and pleasant tones adorn the walls.
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 the Saktheya cult. Vaishnavism helped alleviate the fearsomeness of the tantric rituals once practiced here. However, the murals on the front wall of the shrine and also those around the square-shaped 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 Mahatmyam, the Saiva and Vaishnava Puranas, and the Bhagavata.
Surely, the most fascinating among the paintings around the main shrine are those depicting the encounter between Durga and Mahisha, the buffalo-headed asura, and her subsequent victory. Siva’s terrible and awe-inspiring Aghora form; Kirata-Arjuniyam where Kirata, or Siva as hunter making naught of Arjuna’s skill and strength to humble the latter’s pride and then ultimately presenting him with his divine arrow, the Pasupatastra; the goddess Tripura Sundari in a rare form with ten arms and five heads, seated on a lotus; Ardhanariswara, the Dance of Siva, Vigneshwara Pooja, a picture of Sooryanarayana – a composite image of Vishnu and the sun, Sastha as a hunter, the gory end of Hiranyakashipu in the clutches of Vishnu as Narasimha, and the goddess Parvati on horse-back, riding side-saddle. There are also pictures of Krishna-leela, Subramanya, Bhadrakali, Annapoorna, Yogavishnu, Venugopalakrishna, Yakshi and the Draupadi Swayamvaram.
Mahisha Mardini Durga dominates the southern wall. The Sapta Matas are also picturised close by, as gazing intently at the fray. Each of them can be identified easily, each represented as seated on their special celestial vehicles. Brahmi is on a swan, Maheshwari rides a bull, Kaumari is on a peacock, while Vaishnavi rides Garuda. Boar-headed Varahi has a lion and Indrani sits majestically atop an elephant; Chamundi has her own strange vehicle – the Vetala, neither animal nor human. This hideous mythical creature is also associated with Kali.
The mural of Sooryanarayana is a fairly rare subject in temple frescoes. Statuesque and serene, the god sits cross-legged on a lotus in a chariot pulled by seven horses and ridden by Arjuna, the sun’s charioteer. The sun’s spreading rays are painted as swift shafts strung from the bows of the two small figures on either side of the main figure. The image of the sun dwarfs all the other objects in the painting suggestive perhaps of the omnipresent and omniscient power of the sun. This fresco is far more beautiful in color and composition than the murals on the same subject in the Tali temple at Kottayam or the Triprangode Siva temple in Malappuram.
Even though the murals around the Siva temple belong to a later date, many of these frescoes can be ranked among the finest of their kind elsewhere. On the eastern wall are a few frescoes depicting dramatic moments from the Ramayana. These are doubtless the best murals in the temple.
The battle between Rama and Ravana, the fall of the great king of Lanka, his queen’s lament over his death, the reunion of Rama and Sita, and lastly, Rama’s coronation as the king of Ayodhya, these are the group of the Ramayana murals. Though there are innumerable frescoes portraying these subjects in various temples and palaces in Kerala, nowhere else is it so brilliantly and beautifully done. One has only to compare these frescoes with the Ramayana frescoes, say at Mattancherry, to get an idea of the remarkable beauty of these murals. The group of mourners, led by Queen Mandodari looking like the goddess of grief incarnate, is one of the most life-like paintings in the panel. In the picture showing the reunion of Rama and Sita after the capture of Lanka, the artist has captured the moment of ineffable happiness, which is beyond excitement or tears. But the face of Lakshmana mirrors his great joy and relief unmistakably.
Ravana’s fall is a remarkably composed frame. Though Ravana has seemed invincible with his ten heads, twenty arms, and numerous weapons, Rama’s arrows never strayed from their target. This painting has captured the action of the mighty duel and the moment of the defeat and the fall of the king of Lanka with a sure touch of drama.
Other paintings include pictures of Mahavishnu seated with his two consorts Lakshmi and Bhoomidevi in Vaikuntha, Anantasayana Vishnu, Vishnu Maya playing with a ball, Durga after the destruction of Mahisha, the mischievous antics of the young Krishna, Ganesha Pooja, Narasimha, Parvati in bridal attire, and pictures of Siva as Nataraja, Daskhinamurthy or the Lord of Knowledge, and Kalasamharamoorthy or the destroyer of Yama.
The murals of Panayannarkavu are notable for their linear accuracy, and agreeable color combinations. It is a little difficult to date these paintings, but we can 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. Historically, it was during this time that the Vaishnava cult assimilated Sakti worship to effect a more colorful ritualistic pattern.