The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Twelve – The Murals of Kerala

25 Sep

[This is the Eleventh article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the Art of Painting in Ancient India .

The traditional mural arts of Kerala are unique in their style of drawing and depiction; and in their colour schemes.

They are among the finest in India; and have unique idioms of depiction. These glorious paintings are easily recognizable with their characteristic warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturing

In the next article we shall see as specific illustration of this art in the murals at the Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces.] 

Continued from: The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Eleven – Jaina Kanchi

45. The Tradition

45.1. Kerala has a rich and a long tradition in mural arts; and, it dates back to the seventh and eighth century AD. Kerala is the depository of the largest number of traditional murals in India, next only to Rajasthan. Its Temples, palaces, churches are adorned with profusion of very colourful mural paintings.

45.2. The oldest murals in the Kerala tradition are found in the rock cut cave temple of Thrunanadikkara (assigned to the period between 9th and 12th century AD),  which now is in the Kanya Kumari district of Tamil Nadu.  Among its oldest extant temple murals, the well-known are the 13th-14th century temple murals at Kanthaloor, Pisharikavu, Pardhivapuram, and Trivikramapuram in Tiruvananthapuram. These early murals were greatly influenced by the Pallava art, just as the Kerala architecture was influenced by the Pallava architecture.

45.3. The period between 14th-16th centuries was the golden-age of the traditional mural paintings in Kerala. It was a prolific period. But, more importantly, it produced the best in the Kerala mural art tradition. The Ramayana and Girija-kalyanam panels of Mattanchery Palace; and the paintings in the temples such as Vadakkumnatha, Thrissur; Siva temple, Chemmanthitta; Kudamaloor and at Thodeekkalam are regarded as the best illustrations   of the art of this period. The Kerala murals are largely known by these murals.

45.4. They were, at a later period, followed by the wall paintings at Panayannar Kavu, Thrichakrapuram, and   Kottakkal. Those in Padmanabhapuram palace (the Ananthashayi painting) and Krishnapuram palace (the Gajendramoksham panel) are considered the best of this period.

The 14th -17th century murals of Kerala represent the final phase in the history of development traditional mural paintings of India.

45.5. The traditional texts followed by the practitioners of Kerala mural art are the Tantra-samucchaya, the 15th Century treatise on temple architecture and art written by Narayana; and the Shilparatna, the 16th Century text by Sreekumara. The later is also a standard text on temple architecture; and it lays down, among other things, the tenets of painting including the proper colour schemes the skilful management of which provides stylized balance and rhythm to the painting. Shilparatna is the principal text in Dravida, particularly the Kerala, mural art.

46. The Characteristics

46.1. The Kerala murals blend harmoniously with their surrounding architecture, wood carvings and decorative art. Each art-form inspires the other.

The strong and voluminous figures of Kerala murals with their elaborate head dresses have a close association with the characters from the dance dramas of Kerala, such as Koodiyattam and Mohiniyattam; and the ancient dance ritual Theyyam. The Kerala mural art is also strongly related to the drawing of various mandalas (ritual designs) in vibrant colours and decorating them by sprinkling powders of different hues and shades, filling the spaces within the mandala.

46.2. Unlike the wall-paintings in the temples of Tamil Nadu which are exclusively either Shiva or Vishnu oriented, the Kerala murals present a more balanced treatment of its subjects. The Kerala temple-murals depict the legends of Shiva and Vishnu rather evenly. There are paintings of Shiva worshipping Vishnu; and Vishnu offering worship to Shiva. Further, Kerala adores the unique fusion of Shiva and Vishnu in the form of Hari-Hara; and in the form of the most popular deity Sastha.

46.3. As in the case of traditional murals in other parts of India, the murals of Kerala too are inspired by the legends, the episodes and characters from the Puranas, epics and folklore. But, generally, the depiction of the themes in the Kerala murals, in each case, is related to a classical text or an epic poem. The series of narrative panels on the walls of a temple or a palace, in a manner of speaking, could be viewed as illustrations of a particular classic text. For instance, it is said, the Ramayana panels of the Mattanchery palace follow the narration of the epic- story according to Ezhuthachan (c.15th -16th century) who is revered as the father of Malayalam literary tradition.  Similarly, the depiction of Girija-kalyanam (Shiva’s wedding with Girija) is based on the epic poem Kumara-sambhavam rendered by the great poet Kalidasa (c.4th century).

(From Shakuntalam of Kalidasa)

The scenes from the legend of Krishna – such as, Gajenda-moksha; Poothana-moksha; Kaliya-mardhanam, and Cheera-haranam etc—painted on the walls of Padmanabhapuram palace and Krishnapuram Palace are illustrations of episodes from Srimad Bhagavatham.

The iconic representation of gods and goddesses at the Padmanabhapuram palace are based on Dhyana-shlokas, which are not mere prayers or hymns. They are the word-pictures or verbal images of a deity. A Dhyana-shloka relating to a deity describes precisely, its form, its aspects, its countenance, the details of its physiognomy, its facial and bodily expressions; its posture, details of the number of arms, heads and eyes; and details of its ornaments, ayudhas (objects it holds in its hands) etc. It is said that there are more than 2,000 such Dhyana- shlokas, culled out from various sources like Puranas, Shilpa texts etc. These verses help the artist to visualize the form of the deity that he is about to paint.

46.4. The human and the godly figures depicted in Kerala murals are strong and voluminous, drawn in running, smooth curves and subtle darkening of colours. The exquisite shading depicts the fullness and roundness of their form; resembling the paintings of Ajanta.

46.5. The figures in Kerala murals are highly stylized and rendered with elongated eyes, painted lips, exaggerated eye brows; and, explicit body and hand gestures (mudras). The figures are decorated with elaborate head dresses, exuberant and overflowing ornaments. The expression of the emotions too comes out rather strongly. As compared to these figures, the animals, the birds and the plants drawn in the pictures appear closer to life.

46.6. The wild and erotic scenes also are overtly shown without much reservation. The gods, humans and animals are shown in combat and lovemaking. The murals take a holistic approach to all existence; and almost obliterate the thin dividing line between the sublime and the mundane; and between religion and art .The Kerala murals is another instance in Indian tradition where the sacred and the profane are treated with equanimity in its arts.

46.7. The Kerala murals often look rather over-crowded with too many gods and celestial beings hovering around and filling up the painted surface. The paintings hardly have plain and clear spaces; as if the artist was keen to maximize the space -utilization. The paintings sometimes appear to be lacking in depth.

46.8. A unique feature of the Kerala murals is the deployment of a system for decorating the borders with relief- figures of animals, birds, flowers, creepers etc. It is called the Pancha-mala (five schemes or garlands), a system of five decorative reliefs. They are the Bhootha-mala (of goblins and dwarfs), Mruga-mala (of animals such as elephants, deer etc), Pakshi-mala (of rows of parrot like birds), Vana-mala (of floral motifs) and Chithra-mala (of decorative, artistic designs).

47. The Colours

47.1. Another noticeable feature of the Kerala murals is their rich, warm and loud colours. A traditional Kerala mural follows the Pancha-varna (five colours) colour scheme. The five colours employed in traditional Kerala mural paintings are; red, yellow, green, black and white.

The White, yellow, black, and red are the pure colours, according to Shilparatna. The Ochre yellow, Ochre red, white, bluish green and pure green are the more important colours in Kerala Murals.

The pigments are derived from natural materials, such as minerals and stones extracted from earth, oils, juices, roots, herbs etc.

47.2. There are varying versions regarding the materials used for preparing the pigments. One source mentions that the white is obtained from lime; the black is derived from soot of oil-lamps; red from vermilion (mercuric sulphide); deep red from lac and red lead ( it is also said; Red is derived from red laterite; yellow is derived from yellow laterite) ; yellow from realgar (arsenic sulphide); blue from plants like Neela Amari or Neelachedi  (Indigo ferra); and green from a local mineral called Eravikkara.

The quality of mural-colours depends upon on the preparation of pigments and the meticulous balancing of its various components.

The final treatment to a finished mural consists in applying a fine coating of resin on the painted surface, in order to give it a glossy look.

[For instance; please click here for a description of the stages in the painting of Sriman Narayana] 

(For more on these subjects, please check: )

47.3. Wooden utensils are used for mixing the colours and the binding media is derived from a tender-coconut-water and extracts from the Neem tree (Azadiracta indica).

The painting brushes used were  of three types – flat, medium and fine. Flat brushes were made from the hair found on the ears of calves, medium from the hair on the goats belly and the fine brushes were made from delicate blades of grass.

The  type of grass  that  was used for the purpose of making brushes was  called Eyyam Pullu, in the shape of an arrow, which grows in the riverbanks, . The fully matured grass is boiled with paddy. Then the chaff or the weaker part is removed and fastened together. This brush is tied to a small bamboo stick. The thickness of the brush is adjusted according to needs.

The wall-surface- preparation too was a laborious and a time consuming process. Murals were painted over only after they were completely dry. Lemon juice was used to mellow the alkalinity of surface. The outlines of the murals were sketched by using sharpened bamboo pieces or charcoal or dung crayons (called Kittalekhini prepared by grinding a black stone and mixing it with cow dung).

47.3. The colour symbolisms are related to Trigunas – the natural attributes or disposition – of the characters.  For instance, green is employed for depicting the Sattva (balanced, pure or divine) characters (for instance, the jewel-like green colours of the flute playing Krishna); red or a mixture of red and yellow  for Rajas ( active , irascible); and white for Tamasa (inert or base).

[The Natyashastra also mentions the colours associated with each of the Rasas. According to that : Srungara with light green; Hasya with white; Karuna with grey; Raudra with red ; Vira with yellowish pale ; Bhayanaka with black; Bibhatsa with dark blue; and Adbhuta with yellow.

śyāmo bhavati śṛṅgāra sito hāsya prakīrtita kapota karuaścaiva rakto raudra prakīrtita 6.42

gauro vīrastu vijñeya kṛṣṇaścaiva bhayānaka nīlavarastu bībhatsa pītaścaivā-adbhuta smta ॥6. 43]

Kerala Shiva

48. Among the finest in India

48.1. The mural paintings of Kerala are among the finest in India; and have unique idioms of depiction. These glorious paintings are easily recognizable with their characteristic warmth and grandeur of rich colours, elaborate ornamentation, sumptuousness of the outline, depiction of volume through subtle shading, a crowding of space by divine or heroic figures;   a strong sense of design and well defined picturization.

48.2. The traditional murals of Kerala represent the last flourish of the graceful and vibrant tradition of Chitrasutra. Please click here for a list of Mural Paintings in Kerala temples.

[While  in the olden days the murals were drawn on walls , today any surface like paper, canvas, cardboard, plywood and terracotta  is used for reproducing / simulating the traditional style of  Kerala paintings . These innovations are to be understood as the necessities of the times in order to keep alive and to sustain   the interest in the ancient art form. ]

With this brief introduction let’s look at the mural paintings at the Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram palaces, the Mural Pagodas of Kerala, in the next article.


The mural paintings at Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces

 References and Sources

Click to access 254.pdf

 All pictures are from Internet



Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Art, Legacy of Chitrasutra


Tags: ,

7 responses to “The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Twelve – The Murals of Kerala

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    kerala murals are really beautiful.. there is a kathakali touch..
    wish you a happy and prosperous new year


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 7:58 pm

      dear shri sampath, thank you. yes i agree; the kerala murals blend harmoniously with their surrounding architecture and decorative art. they also have a close association with the dance drama forms such as kathakkali, mohiattam and others. each art-form inspires the other.

      wish you and your family a very happy new year. regards

  2. Kerala Art Gallery

    November 25, 2015 at 10:25 am

    wow amazing painting

    • sreenivasaraos

      November 25, 2015 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks for the visit and appreciation


  3. penkraftp

    January 7, 2022 at 10:32 am

    Such beautifull artform

    to learn Kerala mural must visit

    • sreenivasaraos

      January 12, 2022 at 6:54 pm

      Thank you for the visit ; and, for the invitation


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