Mattancheri in Cochin has the distinct smell of trade and commerce even today. The passage of the years has only retouched her trading face, large godowns still stand in and around the quayside.
Mattancheri had also been a former capital of the erstwhile rulers of Kochi. When the ‘adventurers from over the seas’ came to Kochi seeking trade, Mattancheri also bustled as a brisk trading port. First the Portuguese and later the Dutch beguiled the rulers with gold and gifts in exchange for spices, especially back pepper.
To please His Highness Veera Kerala Varma Thampuran (1537-61) the Portuguese built a palace, and also gifted him a gold crown. According to Huzur records, the palace was built and presented to the Kochi Raja in 1552 AD. With the coming of the Dutch in 1663 AD, the trade rivalries between them often led to bloody skirmishes. From contemporary literary works such as the poetry of Melpathoor Narayana Bhattathiripad as well as from the accounts of Father Bartolomeo, it is not difficult to get an idea about the Mattancheri court.
The palace originally built by the Portuguese had some extensions done by the Dutch. These were the porticos on the east and the south of the palace, and the decorated ceiling of the Coronation Room. Paradoxically, the name Dutch Palace somehow stuck to it, and still prevails.
The travel itinerary of any foreign visitor or tourist, especially if they are on a pilgrimage of art and culture, will definitely include a visit to the Mattancheri Palace. Architecturally, the palace is a synthesis of Portuguese, Dutch and native styles. The arched windows and the thick laterite and mortar walls are definitely European. While the total ambience created by the presence of a pool and three shrines – of Shiva, Vishnu and Pazhayannoor Bhagavati, the family deity of the Kochi rulers, is thoroughly indigenous.
Mattancheri is an artist’s delight, it is home to some very beautiful frescoes. The walls of some of the palace chambers are adorned with paintings done in the traditional mural style of Kerala. The late Amrita Sher Gill, the well known painter was greatly fascinated by these frescoes when she visited the Palace in 1937. In a letter to her sister, she was full of praise for these ‘perfectly marvelous old paintings’. She was surprised by the technique and the amazing knowledge of form and the power of observation of the painters. In her words, these frescoes are more powerful than the Ajanta frescoes, even though the latter are superior from the painting point of view.
Walk into the chambers adjacent to the Coronation Room, to experience dramatic incidents from the Ramayana and Bhagavatham and a few major Hindu deities painted here to form a mural tapestry.
The room on the west of the Coronation Hall is generally presumed to have been the royal bed-chamber. The walls of this room, except the northern wall, are covered with frescoes, covering nearly 900 sq. feet of wall surface. Nearly all the fresco borders have a decorative border of textile designs.
One can easily pick out nearly sixty individual themes from the Ramayana. It is apparent that the Rama of the Mattancheri murals is the hero of Ezhuthachan’s Adhyatma Ramayana, regarded as the incarnation of Vishnu and not Valmiki’s ideal king of Ayodhya. This was obviously the outcome of the Bhakti movement that grew in the 16th century.
The paintings cover a wide variety of themes, from the Puthrakameshti Yajna, to Rama’s return to Ayodhya after vanquishing King Ravana of Lanka. The northern part of the eastern wall is crowded with scenes from the early chapters of the story of Rama. The bearded king Dasaratha is seen conferring with his minister Sumantra; the deer-headed sage Rishyashringa performing his Yajna, or ritual sacrifice, and Dasaratha handing out the divine ‘Prasadam’ to his consorts are the other main paintings here.
Besides these, the deliveries of the queens are also candidly portrayed. The figures are very stylized and display detailed and elaborate ornamentation. Among the three queens, only one figure is painted in golden hue – this is Kaikeyi, Dasaratha’s favorite queen, and ultimately, the cause of his undoing.
A picture on the southern end of the same wall shows the grief-stricken Dasaratha bidding a touching farewell to his sons Rama and Lakshmana, who are accompanying sage Vishwamitra to the forest. The encounter with the fearful demoness Taataka is also portrayed. Also a part of this collage of themes is the Seeta-Swayamvaram, and the encounter between Rama and Parasurama.
The southern wall comes dramatically alive with paintings showing Dasaratha deciding to make Rama, his eldest som, the heir-apparent to the throne, the journey across the river Ganges, Lakshmana disfiguring Soorpanakha, Ravana kidnapping Seeta from the forest, and the Bali – Sugriva battle. In the painting of Soorpanakha’s disfigurement, blood gushes from her chopped nose and bosom in a highly stylized manner – the oozing blood is paintes as red cord-like lines.
The western wall is filled with themes from the ‘Sundara-kanda’, showing the daring exploits of Hanuman. The journey to Lanka in search of Seeta, and the several adventures that befall him are very impressively presented. Rama is supposed to have fasted for three days to find a solution to get his army across to Lanka, over the turbulent waters. The most appealing picture here is surely the one of Rama lying on a bed of darbha-grass, his countenance weighted with a deep sense of helplessness and dismay. Rama’s decision to confront Varuna, the sea-god with his ‘Mantrastra’ puts back the motive of action into him. The corresponding picture shows Rama, now the picture of purpose and daring aiming his stringed arrow. The picture also has Lakshmana and a group of seven monkeys looking on with reverential awe.
The other paintings in this portion of the wall include that of building a bridge across to Lanka by the monkey troops, the fierce battle between Rama and Ravana, Seeta’s entry into fire to prove her chastity, and the return to Ayodhya.
The Rama – Ravana battle is a recurring theme in the mural art of Kerala. The fresco of Mattancherry, however, lacks force and verve when compared to frescoes on the same subject in temples like Aarpookkara (Kottayam) and Panayannarkavu. The Ramayana series usually ends with a painting of Rama’s coronation, but in the royal bed-chamber, this theme is conspicuous by its absence.
Most of the scenes or subjects present a gravity of purpose or convey the poignancy of situations. However, those of Hanuman shown escaping through the ears of the demoness Surasa, who intercepts his entry into Lanka, and the great travail of prodding awake the slumbering giant Kumbhakarna provide a kind of comic relief lightening the tension of the situation and adding to the drama. Sri Rama’s portrayal also deserves closer scrutiny. Rama’s spiritual power is pervasive. There is a quality of impassiveness and composure in him, despite the fact that he was a figure buffeted constantly by the vicissitudes of life. It seems to convey deeper meanings, the awareness of suffering as mere illusion or the Maya of Vedanta. Was the artist unconsciously led by Ezhuthachan’s version of the Ramayana? Is this an artist’s idea of Ezhuthachan’s ‘Kothanda-Rama’, Rama as a warrior?
When we view the frescoes of the bed chamber in totality, it seems to convey a sense of motion, as if a heavy tapestry was being rippled by a gentle breeze. Themes and figures are separated from one another either by segmented or beaded outlines; this form of ornamental separation is unique to the Kerala mural tradition. Besides giving a subtle form of relief to the pictures, it also seems to convey an impression of constant movement.
A major defect of these murals is the over-crowded effect they present. It appears as if the artist was in haste to utilize the maximum available space. The same theme is more forcefully painted in temples like Aarpookkara Subromania temple, and Panayannarkavu.
In the temples at Kaviyoor, Chathankulangara, and Poovappuzha (Pathanamthitta district), the Ramayana story is beautifully sculpted in wood. Wood sculptural art closely imitated the style and manner of the art of Kerala iconography. And when ultimately the Ramayana murals of Mattancheri are compared with the wood sculptures of the above mentioned temples, they are slightly inferior in representation. In the Mattancheri murals, there is an impression of realism when compared to the wood sculptures and reliefs which are always highly stylized.
Besides the Ramayana paintings there are a few other murals in this room. These include paintings of Ganapati-Pooja and Krishnalila. It is fairly apparent that these panels were later additions by some mediocre artist. So also the few paintings in the small staircase room.
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.]