Many works of art in the various temples of Tamil Nadu, belonging to the Cholas, Nayaks, Sangam age, etc., have been wiped out wholly or partially

As Gandhirajan said, Tamil Nadu has had a continuous painting tradition of more than 4,000 years, beginning from rock-art, paintings in dolmens, Sangam age murals (which are not available), the Pallava murals, the Chola frescoes, the Pandya murals, the Vijayanagara (Nayak period) paintings, those of the Maratha school and so on.

There are more than 50 temples in Tamil Nadu, which have exquisite murals of the Pallava, the Chola, the Nayak and the Maratha periods. A couple of palaces - the Ramalinga Vilas at Ramanathapuram and the Padmanabhapuram Palace in Kanyakumari district too have murals.

At the centre of destruction of murals in temples are the HR and CE officials. They have not only whitewashed murals in many temples but continue to sandblast sculptures and inscriptions, disfiguring them. In the name of renovation and kumbabhishekam, the HR and CE officials have fully or partially whitewashed, out of existence, beautiful murals in the Pundarikaksha Perumal temple, Tiruvellarai, near Tiruchi, the ‘Tiruvilayadal Puranam' murals in the Meenakshi temple at Madurai, the Kallazhagar temple at Azhagarkoil, near Madurai, the Vishnu temple at Mannarkoil, near Tirunelveli, the Arunachaleswarar temple at Tiruvannamalai, the Vygrapuriswara temple at Tiruppulivanam near Uttiramerur, the Siva temple at Vedaranyam and so on.

Portraying Ramayana

Several hundreds of beautiful murals at the Tiruvellarai temple, depicting episodes from the Ramayana, do not exist. The HR and CE officials have totally whitewashed them. They have sandblasted the murals out of existence from the Mahabharata episodes portrayed in a Siva temple at Tiruveezhimizhalai, near Thanjavur.

Gone are the Nayak period paintings that depicted the life of the Vaishnavite saint, Nammazhwar, at the temple in Tirukkurugur, near Adichanallur, Tirunelveli. Private owners of the Muthalamman temple at Kodangipatti, near Karur, have erased the paintings there. The terribly vandalised Nayak period murals, discovered a few years ago, in the gopuram of the Satyavageeswarar temple at Kalakkad, near Tirunelveli, will deeply pain any lover of art. Superb murals at the Siva temples at Konerirajapuram near Kumbakonam and Gokarnam in Pudukottai are in a terrible state. Many murals at the Venugopala Parthasarathy Swamy temple near Chengam, Tiruvannamalai, have been sandblasted out of existence.

What has happened to the Ramayana murals on the walls and the roof of the vasantha mandapam at the Kallazhagar temple, Azhagar Koil, is horrifying. Almost the entire Ramayana is told in these stunningly beautiful Nayak period paintings, with interesting Tamil labels. In the hands of the HR and CE officials of this temple, the vasantha mandapam first became a cattle shed. Then it became an elementary school with class rooms. When the vasantha mandapam metamorphosed into class rooms, a number of Ramayana murals on the walls and the roof were whitewashed and blackboards were fixed on the walls.

In 2008, an HR and CE official, who was in charge of the Vyagapuriswara temple at Tiruppulivanam ordered the sandblasting of Chola frescoes, as part of the temple renovation. These indescribably beautiful frescoes no longer exist. Sculptures and inscriptions were disfigured by sandblasting. Not only that. Earthmovers brought down two 16-pillared mantapams with sculptures, and inscriptions dating back to Kulotunga Chola III (1215 CE), the Telugu Chola Vijayakanda Gopaladeva. A 100-pillared mantapam, just outside the temple, was pulled down too and somehow re-assembled. Paradoxically, at a seminar held on the temple premises on August 27, 2007, archaeologists, epigraphists and artists had drawn up measures to preserve the murals and inscriptions in the same temple!

In ruins

In the Varadarajaswamy temple at Kanchipuram, the Vijayanagara period murals, in several hundreds, are in ruins. These murals, depicting 108 Divyadesams, have been peeled off and electrical cables and switch-boxes installed on them or graffiti scrawled on them.

Inscriptions, about 1000 years old, dating back to the Chola period, have been painted over in white and red ochre colours and big ‘namams,' have been painted over beautiful murals. In 2008, in this temple, just because a sponsor paid the money, a Nayaka period mandapam with pillars filled with carvings of dancers, musicians, floral motifs and inscriptions were pulled down and haphazardly rebuilt.

In the Chandraprabha (Jaina) temple at Tiruparuttikunram, three kms from Kanchipuram and the Ramalinga Vilas Palace at Ramanathapuram, the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department engaged artists to repaint ancient murals, violating all cannons of preservation and conservation. The ancient murals were thus ruined by being painted over.

In a seminar on the protection of murals organised in Chennai on October 8 and 9, 2005, R. Champakalakshmi, former Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “…They (the rich mural heritage) should be protected from the… mindless renovation of temples, carried out by the devout religiosity of people who have no clue as to what their real importance are in terms of our cultural heritage… It is extremely important that a combined effort is made on the part of the art historian, the chemist and the temple authorities to come together to create not only an awareness of our rich heritage but also to take the necessary steps to prevent vandalism and mindless renovation…”