History of Mural Art in Kerala

Mural art is paintings or any piece of artwork that is done directly onto permanent surfaces such as walls or ceilings. The paintings are done to complement the architectural elements of the building and so they are also incorporated into the artwork. The history of mural art can date back to 30,000 BC, originating in caves. Kerala also has its proud history of mural art, making it the second-largest owner of mural sites in India after Rajasthan.

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The walls of Shiva Temple at Ettumanoor are adorned with one of the earliest murals in Kerala that provide insights into Dravidian art culture. Just like most murals around India, the mural art in Kerala depict scenes from the Hindu epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, portraying their deities in their peculiar style. The deities were presented in a highly stylized manner, with large and exaggerated features such as wide-open eyes, elongated lips, and particular body proportions for males and females.

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Mural art of Nataraja (a dancing Shiva) in Kerala Mahadeva Temple at Ettumanur, 17th century
Nataraja (a dancing Shiva), a fine wall painting in the Kerala style
in the Mahadeva Temple at Ettumanur, 17th century. Source: http://www.kamit.jp/05_wooden/6_kerala/xett_eng.htm

The art of murals in Kerala is said to have evolved from certain ancient Dravidian rituals like Kalamezhuthu, the art of drawing on the floor with colours. With the earliest said to date back to the 8th and 9th centuries, the history of mural art is divided into three main phases.

Kalamezhuthupattu I Mural art in Kerala

The first phase, being from the 10th to 11th centuries CE, were simple line drawings without much of the vibrancy that we see today. The murals in Thirunandikkara Cave Temple, now in present-day Kanyakumari, is an example of this phase. It is one of the oldest Kerala murals. Other examples include the murals at Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram and the Thiruvambadi Temple in Thrissur.

Murals at Thirunandikkara Cave Temple in Kerala
Murals at Thirunandikkara Cave Temple.

The second phase was from the 11th to 14th century CE, with the murals being more evolved and stylized compared to their earlier forms. Murals from this timeline are seen in places like the Mattanchery Palace in Kochi, Mulakkulam Temple in Kottayam, and Sri Vadakkunathan Temple in Thrissur.

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The third phase, from 14th to 19th century CE, is of the vibrant and elaborate murals that are known today as Kerala murals. It is during this time that this art form started to spread across the state, and expand beyond temple walls to palaces and churches. Murals in Sri Rama Temple in Trippayar, Thodikkalam Temple in Kannur, and also the churches in Kanjoor, Akaparambu, and Thiruvalla are examples of the third phase. The largest mural painting in Kerala called “Gajendra Moksha” at Krishnapuram Palace near Kayamkulam is also a product of this phase.

Mural art at Mattancherry Palace in Kerala
Mural at Mattancherry Palace. Source: livehistoryindia.com
Gajendra Moksha, Krishnapuram Palace. Mural art in Kerala
Gajendra Moksha, Krishnapuram Palace. Source: keralatourism.org

Murals were initially painted on temple walls as a means to experience the presence of the gods outside the temple. For this purpose, they were mainly painted on the outer walls of the sanctum. The Bhakti movement that emerged in medieval Hinduism is said to have contributed a great deal to the growth of the art form, as many local rulers and landholders commissioned these paintings as a way of expressing their devotion.

The materials used to paint murals are all pigments obtained from natural sources. The traditional colour palette, consists of mainly 5 colours or Panchavarna, with the colours red, green, yellow, black, and white. When murals began to be painted on the walls of churches, there came the use of another colour – blue. While Hindu epics were the main subjects of the murals in temples and palaces, church murals depicted biblical stories.

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Splendid works of this art can be found on the walls and ceilings of several churches in Kerala such as St Mary’s Soonoro Church in Angamaly, St George Church at Paliekkara, and also churches in Cheppad, Kadamattom and Kottayam.

Restored mural paintings in St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church
Restored mural paintings in St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Kottayam. Source: onmanorama.com
Mural art in Kerala
Mural depicting a scene from hell, St Mary’s Soonoro Church, Angamaly. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Mural art was a tradition that originated early in the 9th and 10th centuries, but it gained popularity from the time of the 16th century. It was in the 16th century that Srikumara wrote the Silpratna, a Sanskrit text on painting and related topics, which was found helpful for artists. This then led to the proliferation of mural art along with other art forms. But it slowly started losing its impetus in the years that followed.

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Ironically, it took a disaster for people to feel the need to conserve and revive the receding tradition of mural art. In 1970, a fire had struck the Guruvayoor Temple in Thrissur destroying the sanctum and all the paintings as well. Attempts were made to restore the paintings as a part of which the authorities tried finding artisans who could create similar works. Only a few artisans were found and that’s when they realised that effort should be taken so the art of Kerala Mural gets passed on to future generations. This led to the establishment of mural painting schools.

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The art of mural painting is not only an act of pious devotion but also showcases the skill and creative excellence of the artists. The saga of the ancient gods and goddesses on the walls contributes to the religious and artistic history of Kerala, from simple line drawings to intricate designs. Whether it be churches or temples, their murals are all unique in their techniques and aesthetics, holding great historical and cultural values.

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