Sacred Walls of Kerala

Said to be the museum of India, Kerala, in the south-west, reflects countless forms of ritual, classical, martial and folk arts.

Prayer to reach and please the Gods, to communicate with them and live in their sacred presence is achieved through different forms of art. It can be expressed through graceful or vigorous dances, mythological dramas displaying heroism, humour and devotion, melodious singing or powerful percussions, the composing and chanting of verses and carving or painting the forms of Gods or their divine activities.

In India, especially in Kerala, almost all arts are executed as offerings to the deities. There are innumerable temples in Kerala that have maintained a great fervour and a sacred atmosphere by observing various rules of purity.

Giving shape to the Gods’ benevolent presence through images is certainly not an easy task for the artists. But with the help of an accomplished technique based on acknowledged treatises and their deeper inspiration and meditation, the painters give Iife to the representations of deities adorning many Kerala temples. Throughout the State, one can see countless forms of ritual, classical, martial and folk arts. Vibrant and alive, these forms are perpetuated from generation to generation in a spirit of dedication by their exponents and families. One can still see various traditional arts such as Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Krishnanattam, Teyyam, Tullal, sacred percussions Tayampaka and Panchavadya, sopana style of singing specific to Kerala, the martial art Kalari Payattu, and also wood carving, traditional architecture, and mural paintings.

Some of these traditions, especially those of the ritual and martial arts, date back to the 10th century and even earlier. Murals, though found in a few cave temples of South Kerala dating from the 9th century, really blossomed between the 17th and 19th century. The tradition continues to this day, imparted through masters attached to Guruvayur temple and Vastuvidya Gurukula.

The large shrines such as the Krishna temple in Guruvayur or the Padmanabha-swami temple in Trivandrum attract a great number of devotees from Kerala and, indeed, from all over India during festivals.

The gods and goddesses of the Hindu mythology are depicted with opulent forms and round smiling faces, eyes overflowing with grace, evoking joy and compassion. Their various weapons display their power and instill a sense of protection and Security even as one is reminded of their high deeds. The episodes are taken from the great Indian epics, Mahabharataand Ramayana, and the Bhagavata Purana, where the deities are constantly active on the side of virtuous heroes, obliterating evil to establish the good.

Myths associated with Vishnu’s various incarnations appear in Kottakal temple: his form as the Man-Lion or Narasimha who destroyed the asura-king Hiranyakashipu for the welfare of his young devotee Prahlada; Krishna, the divine cowherd and charioteer who from childhood protected Dharma.Varaha the Boar who saved the earth from deluge, and so many other paintings evoke scenes from an eternal drama fixed on the walls. In Todikalam temple, the style of the paintings is similar to the one found on the frescoes of the Mattanchery palace like Ganesh, the remover of all obstacles; Rama piercing with his powerful arrow the demon-king Ravana, who falls at his feet, and others. In this temple, there is a rare representation of the sage Adi Shankaracharya.

In Padmanabhapuram palace, among fifty mythological representations, those of Rama’s coronation and of the goddess Lakshmi annointed by two elephants shower auspiciousness, while Lord Padmanabha Anantashayana is peacefully reclining on the Milk Ocean, protecting the whole creation with his benign smile. In the remote shrine of Pundarikapuram, the sweet sound of Krishna’s flute seems to pierce the silence, awakening the heart to devotional feelings. In Mukutala temple, the terrible fight of Shiva disguised as a hunter with his devotee Arjuna and the subduing of the huge and ferocious elephant Kuvalayapida by Krishna appear as playful activities.

Some murals have kept the original brightness of the colours made from mineral and vegetal pigments. While some of them are in a state of decay, most of them have disappeared due to neglect or unfavourable climatic conditions. Effort is being made to restore and preserve some of the most damaged paintings such as those found in Trichur Vada-kkunnathan temple or in Trivandrum Padmanabhaswami temple. In the palaces of Padmanabhapuram, Mattanchery and Krishnapuram, one can still see magnificent and rather well preserved frescoes.
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Reprinted from “Namaskaar” – Inhouse magazine of Air India, dated Jan-Feb 1996 issue and written by MARTINE CHEMANA. She is particularly interested in Kerala’s arts and traditions. She has also written a book on Kathakali.