Kerala Paintings – Historical Context

From Indian Painting: The Great Mural Tradition, by Mira Seth

The Cheras ruled in Kerala in the third century BCE. They seemed to have been the most prominent kingdom here until the sixth century CE. The Chalukyas of Badami are reported to have conquered north Kerala during the sixth and seventh centuries. The Pallavas attacked and defeated them from the west in the sixth and seventh centuries, the Pandyas in the seventh and the Rashtrakutas in the eighth century. Under the Kulashekharas of Mahodayapuram (AD 800 – 1102), foreign attacks seem to have ended, to be renewed again under the Cholas in the tenth century, when parts of Kerala were annexed to the Chola empire. Besides the Kulashekharas, the Kolathiris of Kolathund and the Zamorins of Calicut rose in the thirteenth century and the Perumpadappu Swarupams of Cochin in the sixteenth century. The Vijayanagara kingdom invaded Kerala, annexing some parts of it. The Nayakas of Madura attacked it in the seventeenth century. Kerala however, became powerful during the rule of Martanda Varma (1729 – 1758) and Kartika Thirunal Rama Varma (1758 – 1798). The former expanded the state and the latter preserved it during the Mysorean invasion.

Kerala is a very interesting mix of religious influences. In the beginning, tribal gods and goddesses were worshiped, including the Goddess Kottavai, a war goddess. Jainism, Buddhism, and classical Hinduism prevailed here from very early times. The last became predominant during the Sangam age and after the revivalist movement of Sankaracharya (AD 788 – 820). The Bhakti movement produced several poets like Kulashekhara Alvar, Cherumal Perumal Naynar, Tunchat Ezhuthachan who wrote the Adhyatma Ramayanam, Mahabharatam & the Harinama Kirtanam, and Poonthanam Namboothiri, who wrote the Shri Krishna Kamamritam, Santanagopalam & the Jnanapaana. They encouraged and inspired the art of temple building and wall painting. Christianity arrived in AD 52, the Jews in AD 68 and Islam with the Arabs and under Tipu Sultan.

Social life in Kerala was marked by a high degree of gender equality. Although most ruling houses were patriarchal, a large body of Nairs, the warrior arm of Kerala, followed a matrilineal inheritance system, and there are several cases of queens ruling in Kerala. There was great respect for learning, and the opening of schools attached to temples and mathas was stressed.

The rich tradition of Kerala wall painting was made possible by a strong economic resource base. The Greeks, the Romans, the Phoenicians, and the Persians traded in spices taken from Kerala. Arab trade was to assume great importance, especially in the economy of the Malabar coast, beginning from the eighth century onward. They enriched the Zamorins of Calicut, even manned their navy, and supplied horses to Vijayanagara. Quilon, and later on, Calicut, were important centers of trade with China. Marco Polo mentions trade between China and Kerala. Ibn Batuta (AD 1342 – 1347?) also refers to the prosperity of Calicut and the existence of merchants there from all parts of the world. He further states that men from China, Sumatra, the Maldives, Ceylon, Yemen and Fars visited there. The accounts of Abdur Razzak, who visited Kerala in 1343, and Nicolo Conti, who went there in 1444, also refer to the rich pepper trade of Kerala.

The Portuguese, who came at the end of the 15th century, and the Dutch and the British in the mid 15th century and the mid 17th century, prospered greatly with the spice trade annd also brought prosperity to Kerala. The development of ports during the various periods of Kerala’s history shows its economic and trading contacts. While in the earlier centuries of the Christian era, Muziris, Tendis, Nelcynda are mentioned, Naiva acquired importance during the Chola period, along with Vakal and Pantar. During the medieval and middle period, Quilon, Calicut, Cranganore and Cochin rose to great prominence as centers for trade with the Arabs, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.

Kerala’s ancient and extensive spice trade ensured a strong economic resource base, which led to the development of temple architecture on a large scale and made possible its rich wall painting tradition. The cave temples came first, of which only Tirumandikkarai, contemporary with the Pandya caves, contains the remains of wall paintings. Massive structural temples were built from the time of the first phase of Kulashekhara rule from the ninth to the eleventh century, and continue to be built even today. They are Dravidian in style, with large sculptures, and many of the outside walls of the garbhagrihas have paintings. Sivaramamurti believed that the wall painting tradition started in the sixteenth century, while the archaeologist H Sarkar dates the paintings to 1691, when the Pallimanna temple was built.

Reproduced without permission from Indian Painting: The Great Mural Tradition, by Mira Seth.

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