Saju Thuruthil, who was part of the team that restored the murals at the Thuravoor Mahakshetram, says murals are not just paintings; they are an important link to the past

Thick, greasy layers of oil and soot combined with unscientific attempts at ‘restoration’ have ensured that many a mural painting in Kerala’s temples have been lost. The last few years, fortunately, have seen concerted efforts to protect and restore some of these treasures. The Thuravoor Mahakshetram in Thuravoor is one such site where restoration of murals has been achieved.

The paintings on the outer walls of the sanctum sanctorum have been restored by the Fine Arts Consortium of the Sree Sankaracharya Sanskrit University, Kalady. This is the Consortium's first project. The team was led by assistant professor and head of the department of mural painting, Saju Thuruthil. Saju, a mural artist, has been part of teams that restored murals at temples such as the Padmanabha Swamy temple and the Ettumanoor temple besides a number of others.

Ignorance of the immense artistic and cultural value of temple murals is responsible for their pathetic condition, says Saju. He along with eight of his students restored the murals. “There was little to go by. A greasy coat of soot had all but ruined the works. It is not just this temple, it is like this everywhere,” says Saju. He points to each panel and explains the intricacies of the entire restoration process. He says he prefers the term reclamation.

These murals are more than just paintings. They speak about the artists’ journey. Saju says each section has a different style, an artist’s signature. If one panel has the highly decorative images of gods and goddesses then the images on the panels on the other side reveal an artist of stronger lines. “My conjecture is that there were three artists. Possibly one was an ashaan and the two others – his understudies,” Saju says. The paintings would be around 350 years old, he hazards a guess.

The third set of murals is on the panels above the sanctum sanctorum. “These were not even seen. I don’t think people knew these existed there.” The restoration process or the ‘kaya kalpa chikitsa’, as Saju calls it, of the paintings began with several rounds of cleaning which revealed the paintings under the grime – a mixture of soot, oil, grease and sandalwood paste. Some of the portions had chipped off while others were bulging due to previous unscientific, careless attempts at ‘restoration’. Natural and acrylic colours were used depending on the condition of the existing work. If the surface was too oily then acrylic was used as the surface wouldn’t ‘hold’ the natural colours.

The process, which lasted six months, started with chemical cleaning. After which the cracks and chipped off parts were filled and bulges carefully attended to without causing further breakage. The actual restoration began after these initial procedures.

“In some of the paintings there was hardly anything left for us to go by. The Dhyanashlokams prescribe the basic attributes of each form; the decorative elements can be according to the artist’s imagination and creativity.”

Some of the paintings like the one of Mohini-Shiva were almost completely destroyed. “There was just the outline of the painting and the faces were gone. There was no form of Parvathy but with the Dhyanashlokam prescriptions, we knew how to fill it in. Mohini is the epitome of feminine beauty and forms an alluring image here.”

“But these are an unusual set of works,” he adds. The portions above the sanctum sanctorum have the unlikely Kathakali and Theyyam figures. These, traditionally, do not make an appearance in temple murals, Saju says. “It must have been a prank by one of the understudies. Even when I was learning mural painting, my ashaan wouldn’t have permitted me to draw anything but divine forms. Since he was painting on the top, his teacher wouldn’t have been able to see what he was up to so the student must have done as he pleased.”

The figures of Hanuman and Meghanadan offer an interesting insight even into the cultural climate of the time given that Kathakali was the more predominant art form and little was known about Theyyam. A fact which Saju says indicates that the artists might have belonged to Malabar.

The niches on top of the sanctum sanctorum too have not been left untouched; episodes from the Krishnaleela have been painted in these grooves. As someone who has worked on several murals and restored many, Saju says, “this temple has one of the most beautiful renderings of Sita. It is reminiscent of the Sita in the murals in the Mattancherry palace.” He adds that there is thematic similarity between the works in the Mattancherry palace and the works in the temple.