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Wood Carvings in Kerala Temples

Wood Carvings in Kerala Temples


The use of wood dates back to the Rg Vedic period and there are many references to deities in human form carved in wood and also descriptions about their body parts as quoted in hymns and other references. Similarly, Saama Veda and Yajur Veda also give details of images and their various characteristics. In the Atharva Veda reference is often made of Sraakthya tree, from the wood of which they (the Atharvins), used to make arms and ammunitions. This infers that the idols which were carved might have been on wood, though we do not find any survivals of them. In short it may be said that in early times this sub continent had vast expanse of forests and the people developed dexterity in wooden sculptures of very high standard. When structural temples came into existence around eighth century it extended to new dimensions and aesthetical carvings became dominant.

Kerala temples have a rich tradition in wood craft, mainly due to the availability of timber. The entire eastern tract of the state (except the gaps in the Sahyadri mountains) has various types of forests viz. Tropical – evergreen, Sub-tropical wet-evergreen, Temperate shoal, Tropical-moist-deciduous and the Tropical dry deciduous. Further, the fertile soil and heavy rainfall contributed to the rich flora, especially with the abundance of high quality timber which include teak, rosewood, ebony, sandalwood etc besides innumerable other forest products. Apart from the availability of timber, the transportation of timber was also easy as the state has many rivers. Kerala has 41 west flowing rivers and the main communication link was through waterways till the middle of seventeenth century. As such the timber, which was locally available in plenty and easily transportable, was used for building temples, further, carvings of exquisite nature can be easily made in wood than in stones. In short wood is seen used for super-structure in temples though the mouldings of adhishtaana are generally made of granite or laterite. The timber used in temples are of different types. Among these types certain trees are considered as divine trees (Deva vrkshas) viz. kalpaka-vrksha, atthiaal, paarijaatham, santhaanam and to the commentary given by Murari on Vishnu Paddhathi and Saiva Paddhathi five trees have been prescribed as sacred viz. Cheralam, Thindukam, Saakah, Panasam and Deva Thaaru. Of these Saakah (Teak) and Panasam (Jackwood) are available in plenty and hence used for making idols in Kerala, as they are not easily affected by termites, mushrooms etc. of these two, teak has a predominance over the other in building temples due o its durability.

The evolution of wood carving in Kerala, though dates back to more than thousand years, its techniques grew progressively and reached its zenith during the period 1300 – 1800 A.D. As Sarkar pints out ‘it was, in the main, a period of wooden architecture and wood sculptures; forms in murals, stone, and metal sculptures have been carved with consummate skill and patience, portraying scenes from the epics and Puraanas without reflecting any sectarian bias’. As already indicated in almost all temples timber is extensively used for building superstructure. It is seen that among the districts of kerala the erstwhile Central Travancore region (covering mostly the present Kottayam, Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta districts) has a preponderance of such temples, as compared to the rest of the districts. Most of these were built between 16th and 18th century, mainly influenced by the Bhakthi movement, spearheaded by the great luminaries of Malayalam literature like Thunchatth Ramaanujan Ezhuthachhan, Melppatthur Narayana Bhattathiri and Poonthanam Namboothiri. The art of wood carving in temples shows a decline from the second half of the nineteenth century due to various reasons such as exorbitant cost of wood, non availability of dedicated artisans, and above all absence of lovers of wood sculptures. The change of political situation and lack of Rulers having aesthetic sense have resulted in the retrogression of masterpieces of wood sculptures, particularly in temples. The wood carvings in Kerala temples has a unique style. Its impact is seen in the various component parts of the temple viz. Sreekovil, namaskaara mandapa, naalambalam, vilakkumatam, koothambalam, gopura etc. In ancient temples of central and northern Kerala, balikkal mandapas are conspicuously absent. However, in southern kerala balikkal mandapas with carvings in its ceilings are noticed. The characteristic features of wood carvings in each of the above component units of a temple are briefly as follows.


Namaskaara Mandapa

Balikkal Pura


Important temples which have been acclaimed by all those having exquisite wood carvings .





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