Pundareekapuram is a small temple atop a little rise called Midayikunnam near Thalayolaparambu in Kottayam. Architecturally it is not very different from any typical village temple of Kerala. A tiled and saddle-roofed square ‘chuttambalam’ encloses a square sanctum sanctorum. Appended to the small enclosure is a small ‘balikkalpura’. The idol worshipped here is the image of Vishnu sitting astride his celestial vehicle Garuda, together with Bhoodevi. This is a rare icon.
What makes this temple so special to the art lover, apart from the rare idol, are the exquisite paintings on the walls of the sanctum. Eight large panels and about twenty smaller ones feature episodes from the Hindu myths and the Puranas.
There’s a fine picture of Siva and Parvati sitting beneath the Kalpavriksha; a powerful picture of Durga vanquishing the buffalo-headed demon Mahisha; the pranks of Krishna, the divine boy of Ambadi; a picture of a Yakshi, the dangerous seductress of legends; Rama Pattabhishekam, or the coronation of Rama, Siva Tandava, and a picture of Sastha astride a horse, to point out but a few of the striking paintings of Pundareekapuram.
Since the temple is tucked away on a rarely-trodden village road, these paintings have for long remained relatively obscure. But these murals without doubt can hold their own against the better known wall-paintings of the Padmanabhapuram and Mattancheri palaces. In all probability, these murals were painted in the latter half of the 18th century.
The paintings on the eastern and northern walls still look fresh in spite of the passage of the years. In contrast, the murals on the western wall and the two panels on the southern wall look faded and mouldy, probably because these two walls face much of the harshness of the monsoons.
A large panel on the northern wall has a dramatic picture of the vengeful and fiery-eyed Durga confronting the demon Mahisha. It is impressive not only by its sheer size (1.45 mts. by 1.65 mts.) but also for the force and fury that it seems to convey. A popular subject, the story of Mahisha Mardhini can be seen on the walls of several temples, for instance at Munnoottimangalam (Alapuzha), Chemanthitta (Thrissur), Aarpookkara (Kottayam), Morazha (Kannur) and Panayanarkkavu (Pathanamthitta). But in most of the above mentioned temples, it is not the battle that is illustrated but the picture of the triumphant Durga, standing on the severed head of Mahisha.
Near the Mahishasura Mardhini is a painting of a Yakshi. She is standing beneath a palmyra (Borassus Flabelli Formis) palm and every frond of the palm leaves is exquisitely worked out. In her hand she holds an oval shaped mirror, and it looks as if the Yakshi is giving the finishing touches to her make up.
The Yakshis, or Yakshinis, are generally considered to be the companions of the major goddesses. But legends also credit her with a dual personality – the enchanting seductress can turn into a blood-sucking vampire! The painters and sculptors of old, who inevitably drew inspiration from the dhyana-shlokas, portray her standing beneath palm-trees. This full-bosomed and dark haired beauty is the Circe of our groves who lures men to their doom.
The three false doors around the sanctum are filled with the antics of young Krishna – at his favorite pastime of stealing milk and butter; sucking the lifeblood out of the demoness Poothana, dancing on the hood of the serpent Kaliya, filching the garments of the gopis, and so on.
The last panel of the northern false door has a charming picture of Krishna playing the flute to an enraptured audience consisting of gopikas and the frolicking cattle of Vrindavan. Beast and man are lost in the magical notes flowing from the divine flute. The painting, which has fully captured the bliss and the peace of an idyllic pastoral life, also enwraps the onlooker with a rare kind of quiet.
The choice of colors shows a deliberate attempt to achieve a harmonious blending. The central figure, Krishna, is painted in dark green. The colors of the gopikas flanking him to the right and the left are light green and ochre respectively. Radha is apparently the fair figure in the group of three gopikas behind Krishna. It is true that Radha is not described as a fair beauty in the dhyana shlokas, but in the murals of Kerala, it is interesting to note that figures described as dark are often portrayed in light colors. The Vrindavan mural of Pundareekapuram bears a close resemblance to a mural on the same subject in the Padmanabhapuram palace. Apparently, both the muralists have relied on the same dhyana mantra.
Srirama Pattabhishekam, or the coronation of Srirama arrests our attention as we turn to the eastern wall. The king of Ayodhya wears his crown with benign grace. Sita, his consort, is seated to the left on the throne. The group of onlookers include rishis, the other princes of King Dasharatha, Hanuman, and the other main characters from the Ramayana.
The parrot-headed Suka and the deer-headed Rishyashringa, as well as Vasishta, Vamadeva and Kasyapa can be identified among the rishis. Lakshmana, Rama’s half brother and his constant shadow can also be picked out easily from the gathering on the smaller panel, which includes Bharata, Shatrughna, Sugreeva, Guha and Vibheeshana. Despite its relatively small size, this painting is as impressive as any of its counterparts in the Mattancheri or Padmanabhapuram palaces.
The most magnificent of the pictures at Pundareekapuram is on the northern and eastern walls of the sanctum. Astride a resplendent horse is Sastha, the God of hunting, along with a retinue of servants and dogs. The hurry and confusion of a chase is superbly conveyed. Many beasts of the forest have been ensnared in the open-net, bursting with snarling and clawing wild pigs, bears, leopards, etc.
Holding a bow, a broadsword at his side, and wearing an enigmatic smile, the divine hunter’s eyes bespeak his purpose. The horse is a very realistic representation, particularly when one remembers that horses were quite rare in Kerala in the ancient and medieval period. The white color of the horse is mixed with tawny shading, and particular care has been shown in embellishing it with a glittering jewel-studded bridle.
Many read a symbolic meaning into this picture. The dark forest is symbolic of the human mind, and the wild beasts that roam the forest are the vices in man – lust, anger, greed, etc. Sastha capturing the beasts of the forest is symbolic of the victory of the mind over the senses, leading to the right way of life, which in turn leads to moksha, salvation.
Undoubtedly, this mural will rank high if a list is drawn up of the ten best murals of Kerala. The bold lines and vivid colors, the exciting theme and its dramatic portrayal are some of the factors that contribute to its timeless beauty.
On the southern wall there is a large picture of the rotund-bellied and elephant-headed god Ganesha at his elaborate breakfast. The drawings of the attendants gives us an idea of the people of the artist’s contemporary world (the 18th century), their mode of dressing and styling of their hair.
Though there is little relation among the murals, with each portraying a particular theme, there is a binding organic unity underlying the surface. This is achieved through the sense of the might and benevolence of the deities painted, coupled with the sense of awe and humility aroused in the devout worshipper. And this organic unity is a characteristic of the mural art of Kerala’s temples.
Another characteristic of the Pundareekapuram murals and of Kerala murals in general, is the boldness and accuracy of lines which gives a unique force to the paintings. Ochre-red, ochre-yellow, blue-black, parrot green, yellowish green, turquoise blue and white are the colors predominantly used in Pundareekapuram. And among these colors, ochre-red is the most dominant, and it seems to be the perfect complement to the pervasive green of the Kerala landscape.