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Mattancherry, Padmanabhapuram and Krishnapuram Palaces

The beginning of mural painting in Kerala is still in obscurity and it is not known when these paintings found a place in these temples. An architectural survey of Kerala has listed some important temples embellished with murals, spread over the length and breadth of the state but this list is not very exhaustive. However, it gives a glimpse of the rich treasures of Kerala so far the traditional wall paintings are concerned.

The Kerala mural paintings generally portray life size characters and they depict scenes from epics and puranas, particularly the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. The episodes selected for these paintings are mostly depicted on the outer walls of the sreekovil, walls of gopura and nalambalam, the reason being that they easily catch the attention of devotees. The paintings differ in each temple as their themes depend on incidents and anecdotes which revolve around the principal deity installed in a temple. Apart from temples there are a number of palaces which are profusely decorated with murals.

In the early texts there are references to chitrasala and the earliest passages occur in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, wherein three types of chitrasalas are referred to, viz., the palaces, the public art galleries and private houses. The paintings at Mattancherry, Padmanabhapuram and Krishnapuram palaces belong to the first category.

Mattancherry Palace : At a distance of about ten kilometers from Ernakulam (Kochi) is the famous historic island - Mattancherry in the midst of Portuguese and Dutch palaces, synagogue and St. Francis church. The palace is one of the oldest buildings of the Portuguese in the oriental style (Fig.1). The unique historical building was built around A.D.1555 by the Portuguese and presented to Vira Kerala Varma to compensate for having plundered a temple in the vicinity of the palace. Since then it served as the seat of the Royal house and all important functions including the coronations were held here. Around AD 1665 a major repair was done by the Dutch and since then it is also known as the Dutch Palace.

At Mattancherry Palace some of the rooms were converted into chitrasalas. Five rooms in this palace; palliyarai or bed chamber, staircase room or kovanitalam, tripunitura appan (another bed chamber) and two ladies chambers in the lower storey contain paintings.


Mattancherry Palace


The interior of Mattancherry Palace

This palliyarai or royal bed chamber - located in the south west corner of the palace measuring 9.40 x 5.10 metre, and contains paintings on the three walls - east, west and south. The height of the wall is 2.6 metre. Wooden edging is fixed at a height of 1.25 metre from the floor level and the paintings are executed over the available wall space between the edging and the wooden ceiling (Fig.2). Below the wooden edging some checkered and square designs, mostly in ochre hues can be seen.

A careful observation indicates that the paintings were done in two phases. The first is represented by two panels of Krishna-lila on the eastern wall and the second phase is represented by the complete depiction of the Ramayana scenes. These two panels of Krishna-lila and the two paintings above the door jambs on the eastern side are earlier in point of time for the following reasons:

The colours used for painting the Ramayana scenes are different from the palette used for the two panels of Krishna-lila. The dominant yellow is in the Krishna-lila panels whereas green predominates in the Ramayana scenes. If the Ramayana panels were painted prior to Krishna-lila, there was no necessity for the abrupt inclusion of Krishna-lila panels. This indicates that the Krishna-lila panels were already in existence probably towards the end of the sixteenth century, during which period the influence of Narayana Bhattathiri, the author of famous Narayantyam, a Sanskrit poem condensing the Bhagavata and giving the glory of Guruvayur Krishna which was very popular in Malabar, before the execution of the Ramayana paintings. Hence, the Ramayana paintings which are later than the Krishna-lila paintings can be easily ascribed to the beginning of the seventeenth century AD.

The complete story of the Ramayana has been depicted in seven panels - two on the east, two on the south and three on the western walls.

The first panel on the south-east corner depicts king Dasaratha ordering his minister Sumanta to arrange for the performance of the Putrakameshthi yajna (a sacrifice to obtain male issue). The yajna is being performed by sage Rishyasringa, who has a peculiar antelope face. From the yajna-kunda, Agni appears holding over his head a vessel of payasa (Fig.3). Vishnu according to the legend had also appeared and assured Dasaratha that he would be blessed with four sons. King Dasaratha after receiving the payasa distributed it amongst his three queens Kausalya, Keikeyi and Sumitra. The continuation of narration in the same panel depicts the birth of Rama and his three brothers Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughana seen here as little babies lying on small mats.

The next two panels depict scenes from the Krishna-lila. The first one shows Krishna with eight hands surrounded by eight gopis, sitting on the banks of river Yamuna, while the next panel portrays Krishna as Venugopala with gopis on either side holding musical instruments indicative of sruti and tala respectively.

In the second panel of the Ramayana, king Dasaratha has been approached by sage Vishwamitra to take Rama and Lakshmana with him for the protection of sacred yajna. After the meritorious act Rama and Lakshmana proceed to king Janaka’s palace where Rama succeeds in marrying Sita after breaking the Siva’s bow. There is a depiction of Rama’s encounter with Parsurama and the latter’s subjugation.

The legend continues in the next panel when King Dasaratha announces his eldest son Rama to be the heir apparent and this followed by the depiction of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in Panchvati in the fourth panel.


A detailed painting of Putra ameshthi yajna

The largest panel in the hall is divided into three friezes. The top row represents Rama handing over his signet ring to Hanuman who is ready to leave in search of Sita. Hanuman leaps from the mountain Mahendragiri and encounters Surasa. The magnificent representation of enormous demon Surasa covers a major portion in the panel. Hanuman assumes a tiny figure while passing through her mouth and baffles her (Pl.I). The continuous narration in this panel shows the fierce fight between demons and monkeys. The following scene is of an elephant trying to wake up Kumbhakarna, the brother of Ravana. The most graphic representation is the fight between Rama and Kumbhakarna. But the emphasis in the panel is on the climax when Rama indulges into a combat with Ravana (Pl. II). The fire ordeal of Sita in the right corner is another eye-catching episode (Pl. III). The expression of monkeys witnessing this anxious moment is worth noticing where the artist’s skill is at par excellence.

 Return of Rama

Return of Rama

The victorious Rama with Sita and Lakshmana returns to Ayodhya (Pl. IV). In the panel they are shown seated in the Pushpakavimana (Fig. 4) and the overwhelming residents of Ayodhya have assembled around them to have a glimpse of their beloved Rama, Sita and Lakshmana back from exile. In the palace they are being received by their mothers in the midst of festivities.

The staircase room or the kovinitalam has six magnificent painted panels with Hindu mythological scenes.

These paintings were executed after the Ramayana panels, probably in the early eighteenth century. The palette changes from restricted ochre browns of the Ramayana paintings and becomes more colourful. The figures indicate a strong influence of Kathakali, the traditional dance of Kerala.

The first panel portrays Shyamala Devi seated on white lotus as the Supreme goddess of the universe (Pl. V). She is surrounded by Vishnu, Siva and other gods standing in adoration. Seated below is the Bhuta mata, the mother of bhutas, pretas, and pisachas, in sukhasana on the lotus with two hands in abhaya and varada hastas wearing kirita-makuta on her head and having a third eye on her forehead. Standing on either side are Vishnu and Indra.

The next illustrated panel is Vishnu Sheshashyana (Fig.5). Vishnu is reclining in an elegant manner on the Adisesha. Brahma as usual is seated on the lotus emerging from Vishnu’s navel. The ten incarnations of Vishnu are also painted around this scene. Narada, the divine messenger, stands behind Vishnu.

The majestic Koodala Manikkaswamy is standing in samabhanga in the centre of the next panel amongst the lotus strings (Fig.6). The ornamental prabhavali with intricate floral design projects the main deity. This is a reproduction of the image enshrined in the Koodala Manikkaswamy Temple at Irinjala Kuda.

Vishnu Sheshashyana

Siva with Parvati seated on his left lap flanked by Ganesa and Skanda and surrounded by rishis is seen on the facing wall (Fig 7). Siva has been depicted with a calm, dignified and majestic face, wearing jatamakuta and holding his attributes in his hands. Below the main deity are seen the figures of Ardhanarisvara, Mohini and Durga.


Siva and Parvati


Koodala Manikkaswamy

Tripunitura Appan depiction in Room No. 3 shows Vishnu enshrined in the famous Tripunitura temple. He is magnificently portrayed with a kiritamukuta and other ornaments like the makara-kundala, yajnopavita, vanamala, udarabandha, etc., and seated on the serpent fold as Anantasayanamurti (Pl. VI).



An incomplete painting of Vishnu illustrates the most powerful line drawing (Fig.8). This partly tinted drawing would have been a magnificent panel had it been complete. On stylistic grounds this painting can be assigned to the middle of the eighteenth century. Similarly five panels in one of the underground ladies chamber can also be dated to the same time as the colours used for these paintings are the same.

The first panel here on the right side showing Uma-Mahesvara seated in a bhadrasana on a white lotus, are attended by Bhairava and other lady attendants (Pl. VII). The four handed Mahesvara carries his iconographic attributes in two hands whereas the other two are folded in abhayamudra.

The next panel represents Krishna lying in an amorous posture in the midst of gopis all indulged in the sexual act (Pl. VIII). The gopis are involved in sensual pleasure. The whole enactment seems to be taking place in the middle of Vrindavana forest. Even the animals depicted in the forest are in copulating posture. The whole atmosphere is inclined towards the display of love and desire.

The third panel on the eastern wall represents Krishna lifting the mount Govardhana (Fig. 9). He is wearing a crown topped with peacock feather and playing on his flute. At the instance of deluge the villagers are depicted taking shelter under the Girigovardhana which was lifted effortlessly by Krishna to protect the villagers from the fury of Indra. The altogether expression prevailing is of anxiety mixed with astonishment, relief and relaxation.

The first panel here on the right side showing Uma-Mahesvara seated in a bhadrasana on a white lotus, are attended by Bhairava and other lady attendants (Pl. VII). The four handed Mahesvara carries his iconographic attributes in two hands whereas the other two are folded in abhayamudra.

The next panel represents Krishna lying in an amorous posture in the midst of gopis all indulged in the sexual act (Pl. VIII). The gopis are involved in sensual pleasure. The whole enactment seems to be taking place in the middle of Vrindavana forest. Even the animals depicted in the forest are in copulating posture. The whole atmosphere is inclined towards the display of love and desire.



An unusual episode is painted on the northern wall. This seems to be a scene from the Ratirahasya (Pl. IX). Siva along with Vishnu, portrayed here in the Mohini aspect, are involved in an amorous posture. Parvati, the consort of Siva, riding on Nandi is not only surprised but shocked to see Siva and Vishnu in such a sensual manner. The entire atmosphere of the forest is under the spell of Kamadeva and not a single creature seems to have been spared.

Apart from these mythological episodes, on the eastern wall there are line drawings of Tipu Sultan watching dance and next to that is a drawing of Narasimha but unfinished. The most probable date of these murals can be the end of the eighteenth century.


Line drawing from the Kumarasambhava

The exquisite line drawings from Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava depicted in the first room of the ladies chamber are masterpieces. Now only traces of these drawings are left (Fig 10). The artist has employed a special technique in arranging the five scenes of Parvati’s marriage. The bride with her companions move from left side whereas the bridegroom moves from the right wall and they meet in the centre where the panigrahana (marriage ceremony) is performed. Every detail is a true portrayal and visual representation of Kalidasa’s description of this divine ceremony in fourteen slokas in the seventh sarga of Kumarasambhava. The artist has excelled in depicting the subtle expression from the beginning to the end.

The Archaeological Survey of India has got the copies of these drawings done on paper by Shri B.A. Balakrishna Belur which are now exhibited in this room.

These murals have a special significance as they belong to an exclusive school of style and technique and the workmanship is considerably different from that of the characteristics of other schools of Indian art.

These murals are painted in rich, warm and vibrant colours and in the accepted tempera technique. The compositions are rather florid and the figures are all conventionally treated and profusely clothed and ornamented.

C. Sivaramamurti while commenting on the Mattancherry murals had said, This School of painting closely resembles the contemporary sculptures and wood carvings but upto the early Vijayanagara period, little has been found to show the intermediate stages. With a distinctive type of anatomy of squat and robust type of figures, peculiar, rich of ornamentation recalling the Kathakali makeup, they present a subtle combination of the Kanarese and Dravida types ...

The paintings at Mattancherry constitute a rich heritage of the Cochin area. The figures are heavy built, with wide open mouth and eyes. All the details are intricately depicted mainly in the costumes. In spite of crowded panels with innumerable characters, every figure stands out distinctly and does not get lost in the intricate decorated details. The drawing, grouping and the colouring are all conventionally treated, and in spite of their rigid forms they are intensely vital and alive. The figures seem still, but the flowing draperies and the general rhythm of their composition are suggestive of movement. The faces are expressive with wistful eyes and winsome smiles.

Padmanabhapuram Palace: Padmanabhapuram (city of Lord Vishnu) is an ancient historical town situated at a distance of about fifty kilometers from Thiruvananthapuram on the Kanyakumari road. From AD 1555 to the eighteenth century, it had been the ancient capital of the erstwhile Travancore State. At that time Travancore was only a small kingdom. But when Maharaja Marthanda Varma the maker of the modern Travancore (AD 1729-1758) commenced his reign, Travancore attained self reliance with construction of temples, palaces and forts giving the place a cultural and spiritual face-lifting.

One of the historical deeds of Marthanda Varma was the dedication (Thrippadidanam) of the newly expanded Kingdom of Travancore to his tutelary deity Sri Padmanabha. This deed was commenced in AD 1750 and transformed the king and also his successors to be the servants (dasas) of Lord Sri Padmanabha and they ruled the Kingdom in the name of the Lord as trustees thereafter.

The Padmanabhapuram Palace is situated in the midst of picturesque surroundings (Fig. 11) which contribute to the magnificence of the monument. It is a complex of fourteen palaces added one after another by the successive rulers and at the end of the eighteenth century it attained its present status. The interior of the palaces are completely enriched with wood carvings. The main palace-Upprikka - a multistoryed building which was constructed in AD 1750 by Marthanda Varma was originally known as Perumal Kottaram (Lord’s Palace). This sacred four storeyed building is where our interest remains.

The third floor of this palace is popularly known as the Mural Pagoda. The wall paintings render episodes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and even some genre scenes. The scenes painted in this room are Padmanabhaswamy- ananthasayan, Annapurna, Gajalakshmi (Fig.12), Venugopala (Pl. X), Subramanya with Valli and Devayani, Rama Pattabhisheka, Mahavishnu and Lakshmi, Sivalingam, Siva and Parvati, the seven Mathuras (winds), Parthasarathi, Hari-Hara, marriage of Siva and Parvati and many more from the Hindu mythology.


Padmanabhapuram Palace



The murals in the Upprikkamalika are well preserved and display the style of painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The technique adopted in the murals of the Padmanabhapuram depicts the use of light colours against the dark background. The line is powerful, adding grace to the figures with well formed contours and one can easily see the continuity of mural tradition from Mattancherry to Padmanabhapuram.

The depiction of Sthanamalya Sivalingam (Pl. XI) is an identical representation of the Sivalingam under worship in the Sthanamalya Shishindrama temple at Kanyakumari.

Krishnapuram Palace : At a distance of about hundred kilometers from Kochi is the palace of Krishnapuram. The continuation of mural tradition from Mattancherry to Padmanabhapuram can be traced in the Krishnapuram palace.

This palace is mainly known for a largest single mural panel covering an area of 154 square feet. It is the famous story of Gajendramoksha (Pl. XII) which occurs in the ashthaskanda of the Sri Mahabhagvatam and narrated in this panel. The Gajendramoksha episode is depicted on the wall of thevarappura of this palace and it is painted opposite the palace pond symbolizing Lord Vishnu emerging from the heaven sitting on Garuda to come and rescue his devotee the Gajendra who was caught by the crocodile when the former had gone to have bath in the pond. This fabulous panel seems to have been painted somewhere in AD 1761-1764, the period of Dharamaraja Varma (AD 1758-1798) who had succeeded Marthanda Varma. Naryana Patta, a disciple of the famous artist family Kaikotta Nambodris was assigned to paint this magnificent episode in the Krishnapuram palace.

There are a number of copies, done on paper, of the paintings from the Mattancherry palace which are on display in the corridor of Krishnapuram palace. These copies are mainly of those panels which are now damaged or completely vanished from the walls due to dampness. The famous scene of Rama piercing the seven Sala trees (Fig.13) with one arrow is damaged in the Mattancherry palace but the copy of this scene is displayed here. Another interesting scene which is copied and placed in the Krishnapuram palace is the Bali vadha (Fig.14). The whole action is performed in a subtle way which the artist has captured in a clever manner. The colours are brilliant and red is prominent. These copies are reduced in size.


Rama piercing the seven Sala trees


Bali Vadha


In South India the techniques adopted in executing mural paintings are more or less uniform. In some of the oldest texts such as Vishnudharmotra Purana; Abhilasha Chinthamani and Silparatana, the earliest techniques are indicated and these are adopted for doing these paintings. The prescription refer to the mixture comprising of powdered rock, clay and cow-dung mixed with chaff or vegetable fibers, and kneaded into a smooth and plaster like substance was thoroughly and evenly pressed on the hard and porous surface of stone walls. The plaster when leveled was polished with a smooth cloth, when still wet. Then it was given a fine coat of white lime wash. Thus the ground was prepared and allowed to dry before any colour was applied.

The procedure adopted in Kerala was simple and delicate. Normally the walls of temples in Kerala which are made of granite stones have cavities and uneven surface. Subsequently the plaster surface was slightly varnished. The varnish used was made from fine resin of pine tree mixed with oil and filtered properly to avoid any small particles that may deface the paintings.

The prepared surface was ready for painting. The palette used was according to the theme or characters to be portrayed. As already referred, the themes were mainly drawn from epics and puranas. The prominent colours used are - red, yellow ochre, green, indigo blue, golden yellow, lamp black etc. It is to be noted that all were natural colours - red and yellow ochre taken from laterite stone; neela-amara plant for blue; manayola or eravikkara mixed with blue for green etc. Mixed colours were also used depending on the characters i.e. mildness or ferocity in appearance. The brushes were made of kora grass and root of kaitha plant. On the smooth surface after the varnish coat, the drawing was first done with yellow ochre and subsequently making them prominent by using red ochre. The contours vary depending on characters, their postures, the attributes they carry and also the expressions change accordingly. There is no doubt that these paintings are representation of perfect craftsmanship and pictorial significance.

The figures in mural paintings are generally of large size. In India, there is a great tradition in invoking devatas by chanting mantras and dhyana-slokas. The stipulations of forms of deity as described in dhyana-slokas are followed by the mural artists and iconographists while performing the mural arts and Iconography in tantric style. These dhyana-slokas are helpful to the artists by giving the details about the deity like moods, forms, ornaments, weapons etc.

Usha Bhatia

Acknowledgement: - We are indebted to the Archaeological Survey of India for giving us the permission to photograph the murals of Mattancherry, Padmanabhapuram and Krishnapuram Palaces. While, photographing the Superintendents of these monuments along with their staff had been most cooperative and helpful. We wish to thank them all for their support.