When you travel eleven kilometers to the north of Kottayam town, you 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.
The deity of Ettumanoor still inspires awe and fear in his devotees. This is Siva as Sarabha Moorti, his most fearsome, or Roudra form. This is the omnipotent power that can crush evil underfoot and at the same time grant favors to the faithful.
Ettumanoor temple is also a museum of rare and beautiful works of art and sculptures in wood and stone. The walls of the central shrine or sanctum are paneled with intricate and delicately carved wood. These panels form a kind of screen around the circular shrine. On the inner and outer walls of the western gopuram, or entrance tower, are the large sized paintings that have been acclaimed by artists and art critics alike, like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, Fuku Akino and C Sivarama Murti. The most outstanding among the paintings is the mural of Siva as Nataraja. This is on the southern side of the inner wall face of the gopuram. The painting is quite large, measuring 360 cms in width and 217 cms in height. The dancing Siva is, of course, the focal center of the painting, and is enclosed within a circular outline. The dance depicted is that described as ‘Taalasamsphotita’ by Bharata Muni in the Natya Shastra.
Outside the circular band, to the left and right and also above it are several figures of rishis, gods, goddesses and other celestials. Everyone appears enthralled by the dance and the dancer. Their eyes bespeak their enjoyment and adoration.
To the right of the central figure, one can easily distinguish Mahavishnu playing the mizhavu (a large jar-shaped percussion instrument), Indra playing the flute, Brahma keeping rhythm with the cymbals, Kali on her vehicle Vetala, and young Ganapati and his mouse. On the left are the consorts of the trinity – Parvati, Saraswati and Lakshmi, all watching intently. Discernible also in the group are young Karthikeya on his peacock among several rishis with their hands raised in adoring worship. Nandi, the bull of Siva, is also on the left in his characteristic bovine posture, with his head cradled between the fore and hind legs. But he has an expression of ineffable bliss as he listens intently to the celestial gathering. Parvati, holding a lotus in her right hand, and Kali, on the ugly and unshapely demoness Vethala with her hands raised high in devout worship are the most impressive among the group of spectators.
What is remarkable is the adroitness of the painter in achieving a convergence in the lines of vision of the figures to a focal point, viz. the eyes of Siva himself, which in turn seem to be in communion with eternity. This is the most noteworthy feature of the mural.
Siva’s matted locks are strewn behind him and form a maze of radiating lines. Caught in the locks are flowers like the lotus and the champak, probably flung by the spectators, coiling serpents, and the four-armed and three-legged Bhringi.
The Siva of the mural is sixteen-armed, each hand holding either his traditional weapons, on held in a symbol of blessing. Under his left foot squirms the dwarfish demon, Apasmara, while his right leg is raised in dance. Apasmara in drawn holding on to the tail of a large hooded serpent. The hallmark of the painting is the sense of suppressed movement captured in each and every figure.
The late Ananda Coomaraswamy in An Introduction to Indian Art (1913) had pointed out that this Nataraja painting 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 eight-armed Nataraja fresco of the Siva temple at Ettumanoor in North Thiruvithamkur, but no systematic search for paintings has been made on the older parts and on the more neglected surfaces of Thiruvithamkur and other southern temples”. Stella Kramrisch, the late art historian and art critic was quite poetic in her appraisal – “like a giant butterfly caught in a stained glass window and transformed into its luminosity is the shape of the dancing Siva”. Coomaraswamy’s claim that the Ettumanoor murals are the earliest examples of Dravidian mural art stands disputed since the discovery of Chittanavasal and Kanchipuram (7th century).
Adjacent to the Nataraja mural is a painting of Siva as Aghora Murthy, his most fearsome form. The fierce mien and the ash-smeared body, with garlands of snakes and skulls instills deadly fear in the beholder. He is represented with protruding teeth and rounded eyes, and is painted in a bluish-black hue. He is eight-armed, each hand either bearing a deadly weapon or a musical instrument, including the trident, a bow and an arrow, sword, an axe, a rattle-drum, a shield and a skull-bowl. His other ornaments include a garland of skulls beside snakes. The long garland of lotus buds forming a decorative border to the painting subdues the fierce aspect of the picture. In olden days, kings and warriors worshipped Aghora Siva before setting off on battle, to bring them victory.
On the northern wall of the western entrance is yet another large mural, perhaps the largest in Kerala, measuring 580 cms in length and 247 cms in height in which Lord Padmanabha reclines on his serpent attended by his consorts Shree Devi and Bhoodevi.
As in the other painting, here too is a gathering of celestials and rishis gazing with adoration at the Lord. The theme closely follows all the iconographical details exclusive to Kerala’s indigenous style of sculptural art and painting pertaining to the subject. Vishnu is shown dropping flowers on a Sivalinga with his right hand, even as he is resting on Anantha. And yet, this in no way establishes the superiority of Siva among the trinity, as he is also seen as a worshiper among the group of celestials near the head of Vishnu. The four-headed Brahma sits on a lotus that sprouts from Vishnu’s navel. Vishnu’s celestial vehicle and humble devotee, Garuda, stands with folded hands near the Lord’s feet. Shree Devi, Bhoodevi and Garuda appear unaware of anything except the Lord.
Smaller painted panels adorn the outer walls of the main entrance. They include the two Dwarapalakas, or the divine sentries, flanking the entrances, Krishna playing his flute, the Vastrapaharana and Sastha as a hunter on horseback. In the Vastrapaharana mural, Krishna is painted seated astride a lofty bough, playing on his reed. Four gopikas, the women of Vrindavan, are shown coming out of the river, imploring him to return their clothes that he had stolen from the river-bank while they were bathing. Another four are shown, who seem to have retrieved their clothing. Nowhere in Kerala has this theme been so sensually depicted.
Although there is no sound evidence, it is widely assumed that these murals were drawn as early as during the 16th century AD, based on Coomaraswamy’s observation that the temple was renovated during that period. But considering the various stylistic features, it is also possible to date these paintings to the late medieval period, i.e. the late 17th century or the early 18th century.
What stands today is only a retouched version of the original, as these murals were given a ‘face-lift’ around twenty-five years ago. This has, however, marred their ancient quaintness irretrievably. One has only to compare the copy of the Nataraja painting exhibited in the Sri Chitralayam, the Thiruvananthapuram Museum Art Gallery, with the retouched painting at the temple, and this becomes more than apparent. Something precious has been wiped off the retouched painting at the temple. Something vital, perhaps the aura of timelessness, has been retouched away.
[From the publication Murals Of Kerala by M G Shashibhooshan, Dept. Of Public Relations, Kerala State. Reproduced here without permission, please advice if this information may not be carried here.]