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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Thirteen – The Murals of Kerala (Mattancherry and Padmanabhapuram Palaces)

[This Twelfth article in the series; and , it  follows the one on the murals of Kerala which talked, in general,  about some of the main features of the traditional mural art of Kerala, which has a unique style of drawing and depiction; and colour schemes.

The present article looks at the murals at Mattanchery and Padmanabhapuram Palaces, as particular instances of traditional Kerala mural art..

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 ..

In the next article we shall move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra- Eleven- The Murals of Kerala

A. Mattancherry Palace

49.1. Mattancherry , in Cochin, had been the former capital of the erstwhile rulers of Kochi. It was a bustling sea port to where the Portuguese and the Dutch traders were drawn by the lure of the legendary spices of the East, especially the black pepper. They established business houses and built large warehouses, at Kochi.

49.2. It is said; the Portuguese traders, in order to seek favours, beguile or appease the then king of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma Thampuran (1537-61), built for his use (in 1552/1555) a palace at Mattanchery and also gifted him a golden crown. The Dutch, who later arrived on the scene by 1663, promptly displaced the Portuguese and took over the spice trade. The Dutch,   for reasons similar to the ones that prompted the Portuguese, refurbished the king’s palace at Mattanchery. Since then, the Mattanchery palace has come to be known as the Dutch Palace. It had been the residence of the Kochi royal family for about two centuries.

49.2. There is a certain medieval charm and simplicity about the Mattancherry Palace .The palace is a blend of Portuguese architecture and Kerala style of construction,; a ‘Nettukettu’ (four buildings) with a shrine of Pazhayannur Bhagavathy, deity of the royal family, in the central courtyard. Its   interiors are made beautiful with rich wood work and exquisite flooring that looks like polished black granite; but it is actually made of a mixture of charcoal, burnt coconut shells, lime, plant juices and egg whites. The palace has within it two other temples, dedicated to Krishna and Shiva.

The Mattancherry Palace is  included in the ‘Tentative list of nominations‘  in India , under the World Heritage List of the UNESCO.

50. The Murals

50.1. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the walls in some rooms of the palace were painted with scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata and other epic poems. Most of the murals are adorned with decorative textile design borders filled with figures of the flowers, creepers, birds, animals etc.

The paintings are massive and are spread over a total area of almost 1000 sq. ft.

50.2. The palace is a treasury of the 16th-17th century Kerala art. It is an artist’s delight. It is said; the late Amrita Sher Gill, the well known painter who visited the palace in 1937 was fascinated by these ‘perfectly marvellous old paintings’. In a letter to her sister, she said she was surprised by the technique and the amazing knowledge of form and the power of observation of the painters. According to her, the Mattanchery paintings were more powerful than the Ajanta frescoes; but the latter were superior from the painting and artistic aspects.

50.3. The earliest paintings of the 16th century are on the theme of Venugopala (Krishna as the divine flute player). These panels were, in later years, interspersed with paintings depicting episodes from the epic-poem the Ramayana. Some say that the Mattanchery palace Ramayana murals are the visual interpretations of the Adhyatma Ramayana of Ezhuthachan, the great Malayalam poet of the 15th century.


50.4. The Ramayana murals

The Ramayana murals of Mattanchery palace depict the story of Rama, commencing from Dasharatha offering a yajna praying to gods to grant him sons; and it concludes with Rama returning, triumphantly , to Ayodhya , along with his beloved Sita and brother Lakshmana. The Rama-story is rendered in about 48 paintings covering nearly 300 sq ft (28 m2) of wall surface. Rama’s nobility, unsullied character and composure even while placed in adverse situations, comes through serenely.

The narration of the episodes flow smoothly, each panel theme lucidly leading to the next. The themes are separated from one another by decorative borders, unique to the Kerala mural tradition. Besides giving a subtle form of relief to the pictures, they seem to convey a sense of motion.

50.5. Besides the Ramayana paintings there are portrayals of Krishna holding aloft Govardhana hill, another of a flute-playing Krishna (Venugopala) in jewel-like green.

There is also a mural of Krishna in reclining posture, surrounded by gopis,. His languid pose belies the activity of his six hands and two feet, caressing his adoring admirers. Apparently, these panels were later additions.

50.6. The themes from the epic poem Kumara-sambhavam of the poet Kalidasa depict Shiva and Uma in their snow abode atop the Mount Kailas.

A painting on the walls of the Raja’s bedroom depicts Shiva and his consort Parvathi in embrace. They are surrounded by their son Ganapathi and other admirers. Interestingly, a guard wearing a Portuguese helmet and wielding a halberd, slaves and sages stand nearby. These paintings belong to a much later period than the Ramayana scenes; some of them to the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries.

50.7. Among the depiction of Vishnu, his portrayal as Vaikuntanatha and Ananthasayanamurti are well known.

The seated Vishnu (Vaikuntanatha) under the canopy of five-hooded Anantha-naga is a rare depiction of Vishnu. It is said to be a replica of the deity at the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple at Tripunithura, the family deity of the erstwhile Kochi dynasty. The Vishnu image at Tripunithura was, in turn, perhaps inspired by the Vishnu sculpture at the 6th century rock – cut temple of Badami.


There is also a composition of Lakshmi seated on a lotus. These are among the latest works in the palace.

50.8. According to the website of the Corporation of Cochin, many of these murals were painted in the traditional style by one Shri Govindan Embranthiri of Narayana- mangalam. No details are given.

51. True to the Kerala tradition

51.1. The beautiful and extensive murals of Mattanchery palace are fine examples of traditional Kerala mural art. Some of them are hailed for their style of depiction.

51.2. The murals are packed with details in gloriously rich colours; the style is never strictly true-to-life; the treatment of facial features is trimmed down to the simplest of lines for the mouths, and aquiline noses.

51.3. True to the Kerala tradition, the murals at Mattanchery are characterized by   the 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.


B. Padmanabhapuram Palace

54. The palace

54.1. Padmanabhapuram palace, the exquisite wooden palace was constructed in the early years of the seventeenth century (say, around 1602) during the reign of by Iravipillai Iravivarma Kulasekhara Perumal who ruled Travancore State between 1592 and 1609 A.D. It is said to have been built upon an earlier mud palace in the Nalukettu style of architecture, constructed during the 14th Century.

The Padmanabhapuram palace is a splendid illustration of the traditional Kerala architectural style. it is unlike any other palace in India. Replete with intricate wood carvings and ornate murals, the Palace is an exceptional example of indigenous building techniques and craftsmanship in wood; a style unparalleled in the world and based on historic building system, Taccusastra (the science of carpentry) unique to this region.

The 6.5 acres of the Padmanabhapuram Palace complex is set within a fort of 185 acres located strategically at the foot hills of Veli hills, Western Ghats. The palace complex, which includes fourteen function specific independent buildings surrounded by a 4 km-long stone fort, is located virtually at the land’s-end. The fourteen denoted structures include Kottarams (Palaces); Pura (House or structure); Malikas (Mansions); Vilasams (Mansions) and Mandapams (large Halls).

The Palace structure is constructed out of wood with laterite (locally available building stone) used very minimally for plinths and for a few select walls. The roof structure is constructed out of timber, covered with clay tiles.

54.2. The Palace served as the secure official residence to the Travancore Kings for about two hundred years from 1550 to 1750.

 It is said, the reign of the King Marthanda Varma (1729-1758), was a glorious period in the history of Padmanabhapuram palace. He provided a serene and secure ambiance to the palace; and gave it its present name – Padmanabhapuram palace (c.1744) in honour of the State’s patron deity. Its earlier name was Kalkulam.

The Padmanabhapuram palace was the centre of political power during the years 1600 to 1790, that is till the time the state capital was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandrum).

[ There is an interesting sidelight concerning Martanda Varma and the Dutch.

On February 4, 1741, the Dutch forces launched an assault hoping to unseat Marthanda Varma. In response, Marthanda Varma’s army surrounded the attackers; and, laid a siege , cutting down their supply lines. The siege ended on August 5, 1741, with an unconditional surrender  of all the Dutch forces.

Dutch surrender to Martanda verma Aug 5 1741

The Dutch East India Company commander and his lieutenant were captured; and, were later employed to train; to modernize the Army of Travancore ; and, to  build forts. The Dutch signed the treaty of Mavellikara, formalizing their defeat.

The Dutch trained Travancore Army was later absorbed into the Indian Army ; and, formed the 9th Battalion of the Madras Regiment. The battalion still celebrates July 31 every year as Colachel Day . ]

In 1993, a Museum building was set up in the Southwest corner of this Palace complex, and houses numerous invaluable stone inscriptions and copper plate inscriptions, sculptures in wood and stone, armoury, coins, paintings, and household objects pertaining to the history and heritage of the region.

Padmanabhapuram Palace is the oldest, largest and well preserved surviving example representative of the traditional wooden architecture in India. It is an testimony to the traditional architectural knowledge and skill of Kerala. It is , therefore, included in the ‘Tentative list of nominations‘  in India , under the World Heritage List of the UNESCO.

55. The Murals

55.1.One of the structures in the Palace is an outstanding example of the Mural art form. 

The splendid antique interiors are adorned with intricate rosewood carvings and sculptured décor; and the elegance of the palace is enhanced by some beautiful 17th and18th century murals


55.2. The murals at Padmanabhapuram are exceptional. Besides the depiction of scenes and characters from Hindu mythologies, there are murals also on secular themes which reflect the socio political conditions, fashions and customs of the times.

The UppirikaMalika or the four-storeyed building, constructed in 1750 CE, includes the treasury chamber on the first floor, Maharaja’s resting room on the second floor, and the revered prayer room on the third floor the walls of which are replete with traditional Kerala mural art work.

The walls of the chamber in the topmost floor (Upparika malika) of the palace are covered with beautiful murals painted in the traditional Kerala style; and, they resemble the paintings at the Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple of Thiruvananthapuram. About forty-five of those murals occupy almost 900 sq ft of wall surface, depicting Vaishnava themes, such as: Anantasayanan, Lakshminarayana, Krishna with Gopis, Sastha etc.

The murals at the Padmanabhapuram palace – executed in the traditional style invoking rich and vivid realism and infusing grace and beauty of the figures – are the best preserved in the State .

The depiction of the Krishna theme (Krishna – leela) is inspired by Sri Krishna Karnamrutham, a collection of divine verses charged with intense love of Krishna, attributed to Biva-mangala (c.1220-1300 AD).


55.3. Shri Benoy K Behl, the scholar and art historian, remarks,” Unlike the Mattanchery paintings, the gods (in the murals at Padmanabhapuram palace) are presented in their iconic forms and not in narrative situations. The paintings again reveal the close relationship between the styles of art in diverse regions of India. The beautiful textiles as well as some of the forms recall the paintings of Alchi in Ladakh.”



We shall move on to the 20th and 21st century   and admire the sublime paintings of Shri S Rajam, perhaps the sole votary of Chitrasutra tradition in the modern times.


References and sources

Murals of Kerala by M G Shashibhooshan, Dept. Of Public Relations, Kerala State.

 All pictures are from Internet


Posted by on September 26, 2012 in Art, Indian Painting, Legacy of Chitrasutra


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Twelve – The Murals of Kerala

[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


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