Paintings today are an important decorative element of any temple, in the practical hope of dissuading rubbish from accumulating near the walls.

As any courting couple today chooses their favourite spots to meet, temples and art galleries will possibly be at the bottom of the list. This was however not the case back in the second and third centuries ACE as one can see in the Paripadal. A detailed description in part 19 talks of the lovers climbing up the Thiruparankunram hill and the lover explaining in detail the paintings there to his beloved. The text even lists the paintings that include predictably the God and Goddess of love! The temple stands today but the paintings, like those of that period, have long disappeared.

Paintings today are an important decorative element of any temple. In the re-consecration of a temple or building of a new one, the sponsors are keen to have an artist execute geometric figures or incidents from legends associated with the temple on its walls and ceilings. City temples have extra drawings on the walls, not to inspire religious devotion amongst the devotees but in the practical hope of dissuading rubbish from accumulating near the walls.

Changing tastes

If aspects such as realism, attention to technique of depicting light and shade features, natural themes, etc., are important considerations that determine the worth of paintings, then those in temples have been on a decline rather than on a rise. This decline spans the entire two thousand years and is intimately connected with the changing tastes and the decreasing number of munificence of the sponsors.

In ancient temples, paintings went beyond the decorative purpose and were actually worshipped. Sadly none of these have survived today. However as temples became symbols of royal authority, mere paintings as deities were considered less sophisticated compared to idols of bronze, wood, stone or stucco.

The Pallava dynasty has left us a few examples of their painting. But they are stunning in terms of the power of the line, shading, naturalness, accurate depictions and sheer creativity. For example, the Kanchi Kailasanatha has an image of Vishnu, sadly much weathered now, that has Vishnu holding his weapon, the discus in prayoga, i.e., poised for launch. The artist has, through the bright red flames on the discus, conveyed a sense of speed! Going by the many titles of Mahendravarman, the king himself seems to have been a painter, calling himself ‘Chitrakarapuli.' Some scholars even believe he authored a text on this art called ‘Dakshinchitra.' Pallava temples were awash with colours since most of their surfaces, including sculptures, were brightly painted over in the past.

Many Pallava kings were Jains, but it is in the Pandya kingdom that we see the best example of paintings with a Jain theme. The Sittannavasal cave has been in use from at least the first century of the Christian era and in this cave are paintings of a king and queen, dancers and a large scene of Jain monks and disciples gathering lotuses from the river bank. The petals of the lotus, some bent over others in bloom, the animals and birds are all masterpieces of Pandya paintings.

Exquisite murals

The Chola murals were also just as exquisite and we have examples from the Brihadeeswara temple, which incidentally celebrated its 1000th anniversary of consecration recently. The paintings were first reported as found behind the existing Nayak paintings in The Hindu. Grand scenes on the 15-ft high walls follow the same style of using vegetable dyes on plaster when it is still wet. The portraits of Raja Raja and his queens paying obeisance to Nataraja and the life of Saivaite Saint Sundarar are all remarkable for their attention to detail, natural portrayal and colour choice.

Beyond the Cholas, examples of paintings are from the Vijayanagar-Nayak period. Srirangam. Chidambaram, Kutralam, Srivaikuntam, Azhwar Tirunagari (those in the gopuram have now been whitewashed over), Patteeswaram (that has fascinating depictions of ocean life), Tiruvarur are all examples. The contrast now is dramatic. Figures become flat, the lines are thick and colours have no tonal variations. The trend is to have the space divided into compartments and each panel tells a story. Explanations in Telugu or rarely Tamil also start appearing. This is also true of Jain temples such as Tiruparidhikunram and Veedur. A similar technique was used in their paintings on paper and cloth, few of which have survived. The Maratha tradition largely continued the Nayak tradition and under the British influence started the tradition of paintings meant to be hung on walls, for instance, the famous Thanjavur paintings. Some of the wealthier commissions in Maratha times have raised relief work and mirror insets as well. This tradition of frescos also depicting the valour of the king continued in the Ramanathapuram palace.

Today indiscriminate devotees and paucity of trained artists make even restoration difficult. Paintings either crumble or are simply whitewashed over, regardless of their uniqueness, a case in point being a rare map of Cauvery with important Siva temples in the Thiruvalanchuzhi temple that was completely whitewashed. Many others go unreported while those that survive cannot be restored due to paucity of experts!

(The author can be contacted on pradeepandanusha@ gmail.com)