The ‘Vasantha Mandapam' at Alagar Koil houses hundreds of valuable paintings depicting the story of Ramayana

Lord Rama's story has inspired generations of Indians and continues to do so. It is not confined to the sacred alone, but is also the popular legend. Artists from the yore have depicted this eternal story of bonding in various art forms.

Apart from poetry, paintings – as an appealing and engrossing art -- too were inspired by the great epic.

Our Temples, the repository of various arts, have many mandapams and walls loaded with rich depiction of Ramayana.

These paintings are found in few other temples in Tamil Nadu including Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchi and Parthasarathi Temple, North Arcot district, Ramaswamy Temple, Thanjavur. .

In Madurai, Alagar Koil's Vasantha Mandapam houses hundreds of such paintings right from the birth of Rama. The painting series begins with King Dasaratha distributing ‘payasam' to his wives, delivery scenes, lullabies sung for children and King Dasaratha distributing sweets and gifts to all celebrating the birth of his children.

“Herbal paints and red ochre are used for colouring the pictures,” says N. Sulaiman, retired Regional Assistant Director, Department of Art and Culture. He also adds that red ochre is used in pre-historic paintings found in caves of Alagar Hills.

The paintings highlight the process of preservation of palm leaf manuscripts and human body too, he notes.

In the picture, where the four children of King Dasaratha are taken to school for studies, the palm leaf manuscripts are found hanging from the ceiling of the school. After the death of King Dasaratha, the body was kept in a huge urn filled with some solution.

3D depiction

Another work of art that depicts the slaying of demoness Thadagai is painted with a difference. The slain body is presented in a bent position before falling to the ground.

Similarly, a 3D depiction of a war scene between Rama and Vaali is captivatingly done. The scene where Rama meets Guha and the ten-headed Lanka king Ravanan, sleeping Kumbakarnan are the other few that strike the visitors with awe.

The marriage scene displays the presence of many antique musicalinstruments and dance forms like kombu, karagam and kavadi.

Says Mr. Sulaiman, “few scenes in the paintings depict the culture and tradition of Thirumalai Nayak period as they were done during his period. In the marriage, women are shown decked with jewels. The heavy use of ornaments among women was more prevalent during Thirumalai Nayak period where as in the, early Pandya period, the usage of ornaments was minimal.”

The last few paintings are of war scenes and Sita's rescue. The captions are written in Telugu mixed with Tamil. Even without captions it is easy to follow the aesthetically drawn paintings.

Though the mandapam is known for its Ramayana paintings, it also houses paintings of Lord Vishnu's marriage ceremony where angels shower flowers in his sleeping (sayana nilai) posture.

“As King Thirumalai Nayak was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, he has painted the picture on the ceiling where he can look at them even when he is in his bed,” he says.

“These invaluable paintings are slowly losing lustre owing to vagaries of nature and human neglect,” rues Mr. Sulaiman.

The need of the hour is to protect the paintings with proper preservation treatment. Mere whitewashing will not help, he says.