Mural Paintings in Kerala Temples
Mural paintings belong to ancient period. The early Brahminical and Buddhist literatures prior to the Christian era give evidences for the occurrence of various types of paintings and techniques like lepya chithras, lekhya chithras and dhooli chithras. Each one has got certain characteristics. Lepya chithras were representations of legendary lore, in line and colour on textiles and when akin to charana chithras of an earlier and pata chithras of a later tradition. They might as well signify wall paintings, later known as bhitthi chithras, on walls and ceilings and floors where colour was applied with a brush. Lekya chithras were probably line drawings or sketches, patterns and designs in colour rendered with a style or brush and presumably of a decorative nature like aalampanas or aalapanaas of a later tradition. Dhooli chithras were in the same genre, except that the material used was dry powdered rice, white and coloured. In early periods most of the paintings in our country can be ascribed to very early period, like seetaabengaa or Yogeemaara caves in the Ramgarh hills (1st century B.C), cave numbers IX and X of Ajantha (2nd century B.C and 1st century A.D). It is significant to note that only small portions of these are preserved. The later additions of Ajantha are datable to 6th century A.D. However the mural paintings of Kerala are datable to a much later period as per the present evidences.
The beginning of mural paintings in kerala is still in obscurity and it is unknown when these paintings found a place in temples of kerala. Sarkar during his architectural survey of temples of kerala had listed some important temples having mural paintings, spread over the length and breadth of the state. It is to be admitted that the list is not exhaustive but gives a glimpse of the rich treasures of kerala in the field of traditional mural paintings. Most of these paintings are datable from seventeenth century to nineteenth century. M.G. Shashibhooshan however indicates that there are regional and chronological differences in the stylistic approach in motifs in the execution of mural paintings in temples and they fall in three phases early (9th to 12th century), middle (13th to 15th century) and later (16th to 19th century).
There is great deal of uniformity in the techniques adopted in executing mural paintings in south India. There are different modes for paintings but the procedure given in some ancient texts deserve special mention. The techniques of mural paintings have been broadly described in Vishnudharmotthara (7th century), Abhilasha Chinthamani (12th century) and Silparathna (16th century). Some earlier prescriptions indicate as follows. Powdered rock, clay and cow dung not in frequently mixed with chaff or vegetable fibres, sometimes also with mudga decoction or molasses, were made into a paste like substance which was thoroughly and evenly pressed like plaster on the hard and porous surface of the rock. The plaster was then leveled and polished with a towel and when still wet, it was over laid with a coat of fine white lime wash. The ground thus prepared was generally allowed to dry before any colour was applied. Subsequently the painted surface was slightly varnished. The procedure adopted is simple in Kerala but delicate. Normally the walls of temples in kerala which are made of laterite stones, granite stones etc have cavities and uneven surgaces. Therefore the foremost step is to lime plaster them in which silica constitutes the inert material. In short on the wall there are two layers one containing the rough mixture to make the surface even and the other a white coating similar to a screen or canvas for painting. The rough layer has a depth of 0.4mm to 54.1mm. while the top layer varies between 0.3mm and 20.9mm. depending on the surface of the wall. The varnish used was made from fine resin of Pine tree mixed with gingelly oil and filtered properly to avoid any small practicles that may deface the painting.
The next step was painting by using colours depending on the theme. The themes were drawn mainly from epics and puraanas, but the figurates were based on the intellectual, refined and sophisticated skill of the artist, apart from contemporary life pattern. The colours and tools require elaboration. The colours generally used are red ochre, yellow ochre, green, vivid red, indigo blue, yellow, golden yellow, lamp black etc. it is to be noted that all were natural colours either taken from laterite stone for red ochre and yellow ochre; neela amara plant for blue; manayola or eravikkara mixed with blue for green etc. mixed colours were also used depending on the characters ie, mildness or ferocity in appearance. Generallym traditional colours taken from minerals, clay, mud, stones, herbs etc are extensively used for painting these murals. The brushes used for painting in kerala were made of kora grass and root of kaitha plant. The procedure for painting is to draw the outline first with yellow ochre and subsequently making them prominent by using red ochre. The inner contours and lines basically depend on the character, pose, equipment, head gear etc apart from the facial expressions of characters. The colours used for them are influenced by the artistic skill of the painter. There is no doubt that these paintings depict perfect craftsmanship and pure pictorial significance.
The mural paintings generally give larger life size characters and they generally depict scenes from epics and puraanas, particularly Ramaayana and Mahabhaaratha. The episodes selected for these paintings differ in each temple, as their themes depend on incidents or stories of the principal deity installed in a temple. The themes which are covered in temples can however be grouped as under.
1. Images of gods and goddesses particularly of Siva, Vishnu, Sree Krishna, Sree Rama, Bhagavathi (Lakshmi Devi, Parvathi, Seetha, Bhadrakaali etc), Ganapathi, Subramanya and Saastha.
Generally the talents of artists are exquisitely executed in these mural paintings. As the themes of these paintings in kerala are based on puraanic legends they evoke bhakthi, besides being master pieces of art.
Till date there is no exhaustive list of all mural paintings in the state primarily because of certain reasons. Firstly these exquisite paintings are spread over the length and breadth of the state irrespective of the importance of the temple, as these artistic talents were exhibited on the interests shown by the local Rajas, Chieftains or owners of the temple. Secondly, due to non preservation or due to defacing, many of them could not be listed. Thirdly access to temples is often restricted and it is not always possible to have detailed accounts of them. Lack of knowledge on the puraanic stories for identifying the incidents was also a factor for the omission in accounting them.