Indian temples have not only been centers of worship,
but have also been venues for expression of the creativity of the human
spirit using a range of media. Thus, temple culture has promoted art in a variety of
shapes and forms. Examples include and are not restricted to music and dance,
architecture, sculpture, woodwork and paintings. Paintings form the focus
of this brief feature on Templenet.
The dictionary meaning of the word mural
is a very large image applied directly to a wall or a ceiling. Indeed, ornate murals are
seen several temples all over India as a part of the complex tapestry of
decorative work that have evolved through the ages. It may be a little known fact
that one of the largest murals ever painted in Asia happens to be on the
ceiling of the shrine at the Veerabhadreswara temple at Lepakshi
in Andhra Pradesh in South India.
The phrase Indian murals, immediately brings the Ajanta
paintings to one's mind. The Ajanta paintings date back to the earlier part of the 1st
millennium CE and are primarily Buddhist in religious affiliation. These
murals painted with vegetable and mineral dyes in caves were discovered in early 19th
century. The murals at Ajanta represent the Buddha as well as instances from the Jataka
tales. The Ajanta and Ellora
caves form part of well visited tourist circuits in the state of Maharashtra.
The 6th century Chalukyan rulers of South India also used painting as a
medium in expressing their creativity, as seen in the murals of Badami in
Karnataka depicting for instance the
royal court of Indra the King of the Devas. Badami, also known as Vatapi
was won over by the Pallavas later, and an image of Ganesha brought back
to the Chola empire by Sirutonda Naayanaar is enshrined at Tiruchenkaattankudi in Tamilnadu.
Sittannavaasal near Pudukkottai (near Tiruchirappalli) in Tamilnadu has Jain murals
from the Pandya period.
The Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur
which dates back to the 11th century CE has many murals within. The
enclosure surrounding the sanctum here has brilliant works of art, both in terms of
sculpture and painting. The ancient Chola murals once covered all the walls and ceilings
of this enclosure. Later 17th century paintings of the Nayak period were
added over them; however some of the older Chola murals have been restored. Seen in this
enclosure around the sanctum is an image of the monarch Raja Raja Cholan
who was primarily responsible for temple centered cultural growth shown with his preceptor
Karuvoor Devar. . It is to be noted that this monarch renovated (and
rebuilt with stone) several of the temples in the Chola kingdom that had been visited and
praised by the Tamil Saints of the
Bhakti movement of the 2nd half of the 1st millennium CE.
Mention must also be made of a mural (in this enclosure) that depicts grand cosmic dance
of Nataraja at Chidambaram.
Depicted in this mural are images of Rajaraja Chola and his queens. There
is also a gigantic painting of Shiva
as Tripurantaka, depicted on the northern wall of the enclosure.
A large circumambulatory passage (prakaram) surrounds the main temple. It
is bounded by fortress like walls lined with a pillared cloister. At the back of this
pillared cloister that lines the entire stretch of the walls, there are several cells
filled with Shiva lingams, and on the walls are paintings belonging to a
much later period.
The Vijayanagar rulers were amongst the greatest of temple builders. Lepakshi
in Andhra Pradesh houses the Virabhadreswara Swami temple. This temple is
known for its exquisite carvings in the unfinished Kalyana Mandapam as well as for its collossal
Nandi and its elegant murals which depict the various manifestations of Shiva. The murals
here are full of vitality. Mention must be made of depictions of Kirataarjuneeyam,
Dakshinamurthy and the divine wedding of Shiva and Parvati. The mukhamandapa
has an 50 feet long panel, which bears paintings narrating the legend of Manu
needhi Cholan (also portrayed in Tiruvarur
which incidentally also houses murals depicting the legend of Mucukunda Chakravarti).
The mukhamandapam also bears paintings depicting Krishna
as a child, and scenes from the Mahabharata illustrating Draupadi's
The ardhamandapam of the Lepakshi temple bears paintings
of 14 of the manifestations of Shiva (Dakshinamurti,
Chandesa Anugraha murthy, Bhikshatana, Harihara, Ardhanareeswara, Kalyanasundara,
Tripurantaka, Nataraja, Gowriprasadaka, Lingodbhava, Andakaasurasamhaara etc.)
The sanctum's ceiling bears a large painting which is said to be Asia's largest
mural. This large painting of Veerabhadra measures about 23 feet by 13 feet.
Elsewhere in the Lepakshi temple are paintings depicting the incarnations
of Vishnu. The Lepakshi temple is an unfinished temple (in part), but is a perfect
synthesis of architecture, sculpture and painting.
The Vijayanagar ruler's patronage extended deep into Tamilnadu and the
brilliant murals in the Srirangam
temple are yet another feature in the never ending display of art treasures in a vast
temple complex that is also a repository of ancient worship traditions. In the innermost
circumambulatory passage in the Srirangam temple are 300 year old
paintings depicting scenes from the epics.
The Nayak and the Maratha period of the mid and later
2nd millennium CE also saw a flourising of art. Seen in the Brihadeeswarar
temple are more recent murals were painted over the more ancient Chola paintings.
Many of the temples of Kerala boast of grand murals all around the
sanctum in the innermost enclosure. Mention must be made of paintings in the Ananta Padmanabhaswamy temple
in Tiruvanandapuram and the Ettumanur Mahadevar temple
One of the best displays of murals is the Chitrasabha or the hall of pictures. As
the name Chitrasabha suggests, the very structure is a house of
paintings. The Chitrasabha is a stand alone structure, that is located a
few blocks away from the Kutralanathar temple at Kutralam in southern Tamilnadu.
It is a wooden structure , every inch of whose walls are lined with murals depicting
scenes from the epics. From the outside, the Chitrasabha resembles mandapams seen in
Keralite temples. The Chitrasabha or the hall of pictures is used for worship only during Margazhi
Tiruvadirai where an image of Nataraja is brought into the
sabha. Chitrasabha is considered to be one of the 5 sabhas, or the Cosmic Dance
Halls of Shiva Nataraja in the southern state of Tamilnadu.