Divine Hues and Palettes

Text : Teny Manchayil Thomas

Pictures: Gokul Ramachandran

The traditional mural art form, using natural pigments and vegetable colours, is being revived by a new genre of artists in Kerala, who are actively involved in researching and teaching mural art. It’s now widely taught at the Sree Sankara Sanskrit College in Kalady and also at the Mural Art School associated with the Guruvayoor temple.

Mural paintings can be defined in a single word as ‘frescos,’ since they throw light on mythology and legends which can be seen on the walls of ancient churches, palaces, and temples in Kerala. From the 9th to 12th centuries, this form of exquisite art enjoyed much royal patronage. Patience and passion are the key ingredients needed for a mural artisan. 

St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church also known as Kottayam Cheriyapally (small church) is one of the oldest churches in Kerala, India. The church was built in 1579 by a king of the erstwhile princely state of Thekkumkoor and has been well preserved and noted for its antique murals. Murals found in the churches of Kerala are famous for richness in hues. The paintings of Cheriyapalli are fine examples of this. While the architectural style of the church is European; with galleries, pillars, cornices and pediments; the inner walls are adorned with beautiful murals made in Oriental and Western styles depicting biblical and non-biblical themes.

The sufferings of Jesus Christ, Judas holding the bag of thirty silver coins, disciples awaiting Christ in the Gethsemane garden, the Last Supper, trial, crucifixion,  Christ’s body lying in the lap of Mother Mary, and the resurrection, are all portrayed here. There are also some magnificent murals in ancient Hindu temples and palaces. One of the most famous is the Gajendramoksham mural painting, which is one of the largest single mural paintings in Kerala. This mural measures a whopping three metres (9.8 ft) in height. It is housed at the Krishnapuram Palace, at Kayamkulam, Alappuzha district. The palace was built in the 18th century by Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (1729–1758 AD). 

The gigantic mural painting in the palace, is based on Gajendramoksha, an excerpt from Sri Maha Bhagavatha, the Indian epic. The literal meaning of Gajendra Moksham is the “salvation or Moksha of the elephant king Gajendra.” The underlying theme of the mural is mythological and depicts an elephant saluting Lord Vishnu in devotion as the other gods, goddesses and saints look on. The mythological legend narrated as the Gajendra Moksham is contained in the 10th century Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana. 

Legend has it that the Pandyan king, Indradyumna, a devotee of Lord Vishnu, was cursed by the sage Agastya, to be reborn as an elephant. While on a pleasure trip to a lake with his wives, Gajendra or the Elephant King, was seized by a crocodile that caught hold of his leg, and held Gajendra captive for many years. Finally, the hapless Gajendra appealed to Lord Vishnu, his chosen deity, to rescue him. Soon Lord Vishnu appeared riding on his vehicle, Garuda. The Garuda (the celestial half man half bird form) kills the crocodile as per Vishnu’s command. 

This entire sequence is vividly depicted with vegetable colours, on this mural with a dynamic portrayal of Garuda at the centre, about to land with huge wings spread out and the roudra (fury)facial expression. This is in stark contrast to the compassionate features of the multi-armed Vishnu. The mural also shows a smaller figure of Gajendra, in mid-trumpet, and of the crocodile on the right side. As is typical of mural paintings, apart from the main characters of the legend, saints, animals, mythical beasts and forest plants are also illustrated. The outer edges of the murals are decorated with floral borders. 

Gajendramoksham was initially believed to be the largest mural painting done on a single band in the State. But later it was discovered that the Ananthasayana painting at Ettumanur temple was larger than Gajendramoksham.

Eleven kilometres to the north of Kottayam town one can reach the Ettumanur Mahadeva temple, a centuries-old ancient Shiva temple in Kerala, India. Myths have it that the Pandavas and the sage Vyasa had worshipped here. The name of the place has its origin from the word ‘man-oor’, which means the land of deer

The present temple was reconstructed in 1542 AD. Adorning the walls are Dravidian mural paintings. The fresco of Pradosha Nritham (Dance of Shiva) is one of the finest wall paintings according to artisans in the whole of India. The murals were drawn as early as the 16th century AD.

On the northern wall of the western entrance is the Ananthasayana, perhaps the largest in Kerala, measuring 580 cm in length and 247 cm in height, in which Lord Padmanabha reclines on his serpent attended by his consorts Shree Devi and Bhoodevi. Lord Vishnu is shown dropping flowers on a Shivalinga with his right hand, even as he is resting on Anantha. 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 serene, unaware of anything around except the Lord.  

To the right of the central figure, one can easily distinguish Maha Vishnu playing the mizhavu (a large jar-shaped percussion instrument), Indra playing the flute, Brahma keeping rhythm with the cymbals, and young Ganapati and his mouse. On the left are the consorts of the trinity – Parvati, Saraswati and Lakshmi. The young Karthikeyan on his peacock among several rishis, with their hands raised in adoring worship. Nandi, the bull of Shiva, on the left, in his characteristic bovine posture, his head cradled between the fore and hind legs. 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 group of spectators. Shiva’s flowing hair is strewn behind him forming a maze of radiating lines. Caught in the locks are flowers like the lotus, the coiling serpents and the four-armed three-legged Bhringi.

A noteworthy feature of this magnificent mural is the intricate skill of the painter in merging the lines of vision of the figures towards a focal point; the eyes of Siva himself seeming to be in communion with the omniscient.

These murals that speckle the historic sites within Kottayam, and beyond, not only have the age old quality of being able to charm and attract many devout worshippers into the edifices they occupy; but, also have now become works of art that fascinate and inspire discerning art enthusiasts.

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