Art, in more than 50 temples and three palaces in Tamil Nadu, is being mutilated.

Temples in Tamil Nadu are repositories of history, with inscriptions, sculptures, murals, bronzes, carvings, architecture and so on. The inscriptions provide valuable insights into the history of the period during which the temples were built, the village administration that prevailed, elections conducted for its assemblies, taxes collected, boards set up for the maintenance of lakes, ponds and canals, donation of land for Brahmin settlements, gifting gold for temple maintenance, etc.

There are more than 50 temples and three palaces in Tamil Nadu with murals. The palaces are Ramalinga Vilasam in Ramanathapuram and those at Bodinayakanur near Madurai and Padmanabhapuram in Kanyakumari district.

While just four or five temples have murals dating back to the Pallava period (seventh to ninth century CE) and the Chola period (10th and 11th century CE), the majority of the murals belong to the Vijayanagar and the Nayak periods (14th to 17th century CE). The Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur have murals belonging to the Chola, the Nayak and the Maratha reigns.

Visual archives

The mural masterpieces are visual archives on the history of the period, coronation rituals, the dress or the jewellery that men and women of those days wore, their hairstyle, musical instruments, the battles that they fought, the weapons used and so on. There are several Jain temples that have wonderful murals based on the Jain traditions, the Tirthankaras and the Yakshis. A favourite subject of many of the artists of those times was episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and some of the artists even took care to write the labels for the episodes (captions) in Tamil or Telugu.

Unfortunately in Tamil Nadu, the murals, the inscriptions, the sculptures and carvings have become targets of destruction and vandalism. The officials of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department, who administers the temples, are to be blamed for this state. Most often, these officials fail to appreciate and preserve these splendid works due to lack of knowledge of history.

In the famous Meenakshi temple, Madurai, several historic mandapams have become shopping complexes. The Pudhu mandapam, the Ashta Sakti mandapam, Veera Vasantharayar mandapam and Meenakshi Nayakar mandapam teem with hundreds of shops, obstructing from view pillars with incredibly beautiful sculptures. A scholar on the history of the Meenakshi temple was displeased that its 1,000-pillared mandapam, with superb sculptures, has become ‘a studio' now, with an incongruously gleaming granite floor, skewed focus lights and a big sculpture of Nataraja painted in black!

Several years ago, the earthen bed of the temple's famous ‘Golden Lotus' tank (Pottramarai Kulam) was cemented up, with the result that no water stays in the tank now and it looks barren now. The HR and CE officials of the temple also whitewashed hundreds of beautiful murals, painted on the walls of the northern corridor of the Golden Lotus tank, portraying the ‘Tiruvilaiyadal,' in the first quarter of 1996.

In a state of disrepair

While sculptures and carvings can survive for centuries because they have been chiselled out of granite, murals are vulnerable to nature. Since these murals were painted with natural dyes on mandapam walls or ceiling, they easily lend themselves to vandalism from devotees. Besides, they are exposed to sun or seepage of water from rain. Gaps between the granite slabs that form the roof of the mandapams lead to seepage of water due to rain and the sidewalls begin to ‘sweat.' The lime plaster which forms the base for the murals has a tendency to absorb the water. When rain water falls on the murals painted on the ceiling or walls, fungus develops and the murals start peeling off. Smoke from the camphor (lit by the devotees) and from the oil lamps damage the paintings. Besides, they suffer from desecration at the hands of the HR and CE officials and devotees. Officials have fixed scores of metres of electric wires on the murals on the walls of the mandapams, installed switch boxes and tube lights on them, as it has happened in several places on the splendid murals in the Devaraja Swamy temple at Kanchipuram, portraying the 108 Divya Desam murals.

Extremely rare murals painted on wood in the Tirukkutraleeswarar temple at Tirukkutrala Chitra Sabha in Tirunelveli district have been vandalised. At the Siva temple at Patteeswaram, paintings were sandblasted in 1998 in the name of cleaning the surfaces on which they were painted. The paintings portrayed Lord Siva presenting a palanquin studded with pearls to the Saivite saint Tirugnana Sambandar because he could not bear to see his devotee walking in the sun. Temple officials sandblasted another row of paintings narrating the life of a mythical king who had no child but was blessed with a child after praying to Siva at Patteeswaram. Officials of the Lakshminarasimhar temple at Sevilimedu, near Kanchipuram, whitewashed them. They do not exist today.

Tales of destruction and desecration of these invaluable murals in temples in Tamil Nadu do not end with this list. What happened to the paintings at the Meenakshi temple at Madurai, the Trilokyanatha Jaina temple at Tiruparuttikunram near Kanchipuram, another Jaina temple at Karanthai near Kanchipuram and the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace in Ramanathapuram town take the cake.