Kerala Murals – A Brief History

One could say that the tradition of painting on walls began in Kerala with the pre-historic rock paintings found in the Anjanad Valley of Idukki district. Archaeologists presume that these paintings belong to different periods from the upper Paleolithic period to the Early historic period. Rock engravings dating to the Mesolithic period have also been discovered in two regions of Kerala, at Edakkal in Wayanad and at Perimkadavila in Thiruvananthapuram district.

It is not difficult to trace the roots of the Kerala mural styles to the more ancient Dravidian art of Kalamezhuthu. This was a much more fully developed art form connected with religious rituals. It was [is] a ritual art of sprinkling and filling up different colored powders inside outlines sketched with the powder.

The roots of the extant mural tradition of Kerala could be traced as far back as the 7th and 8th century AD. It is not unlikely that the early Kerala murals along with its architecture came heavily under the influence of Pallava art. The oldest murals in Kerala were discovered in the rock-cut cave temple of Thirunandikkara, which is now in the Kanyakumari district of Tamilnadu.

The hall of the cave must have once been richly decorated with paintings. However, at present, only sketchy outlines have survived the passage of [the] years. The paintings that were here, were, in all probability, executed in the 9th or the 10th century A.D. Apart from this, there are no other paintings that can be dated to the period between the 9th and the 13th century A.D. however, a 10th century inscription of Goda Ravi Varman found in the Cheruthuruthy Tali temple in Thrissur district mentions the wages that were paid to mural painters.

A Portuguese traveler, Castaneda, who had accompanied Vasco da Gama on his voyages to India, when landed at Kappad, near Kozhikode in 1498 A.D. has recorded his and his friend’s experience of walking into a Hindu temple under the mistaken notion that it was a native church. On entering, they noticed “monstrous looking images”, some of which had four arms, painted on the walls. To the travelers, the images looked like the pictures of devils, which raised doubts among them whether they were actually in a Christian church. In all probability, the navigators must have gone into a Bhagavati temple that was situated somewhere between Kappad and Kozhikode.

Archaeological evidences point to the period from the mid-sixteenth century onwards as the most prolific period of mural art in Kerala. Srikumara’s Silparatna, a sixteenth century Sanskrit text on painting and related subjects must have been enormously useful to contemporary and later artists. This treatise has been acclaimed as a rare work on the techniques of Indian art, the likes of which has not been published before or after. It discusses all aspects of painting, aesthetic as well as technical and is greatly useful in understanding the later medieval murals of Kerala.

The subjects for murals were derived from religious texts. Palace and temple murals were peopled with highly stylized pictures of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. It was not a fanciful representation but drawn from the descriptions in the invocatory verses or dhyana shlokas. Flora, fauna and other aspects of Nature were also pictured as backdrops in highly stylized techniques.

The murals of Kanthaloor temple in Thiruvananthapuram district (13th century AD) and those at Pisharikavu and Kaliampalli in Kozhikode district (14th century) are the oldest extant temple frescoes of Kerala. Representing the prolific period of mural art, viz. the period between the 14th and 16th century A.D. are the Ramayana murals of Mattancherry Palace and the paintings in temples like the Thrissur Vadakkumnathan temple, Chemmanthitta Siva temple and those at Kudamaloor and Thodeekkalam in Kannur district. They represent a latter phase in the evolution of the medieval mural tradition. Likewise, the wall paintings at Panayannar Kavu, Thrichakrapuram, Kottakkal, as well as those in Padmanabhapuram and Krishnapuram palaces and those in the inner chambers and the lower floor of the Mattancherry palace, represent a much later period in the evolution of the medieval mural tradition.

[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.]