Paintings on the wall
The murals of Mattanchery palace are an artistic marvel, especially the Ramayana stories on the walls of the coronation hall. TNIE dives into the details of what makes them special
Walking through the lanes of Mattanchery is never a casual stroll. You are moving through history. Each building, structure and street here have something to tell a story. You are forced to look back rather than experience the present.
On one such trip to explore the town, once the capital of the Cochin Kingdom, I explored the Dutch palace, where the kings resided. It was constructed way back in 1557 by the Portuguese. The place is now also known for the 500-year-old mural paintings preserved there. Their beauty is such that I wanted to explore the history behind them, not just the palace.
Historians say the palace was built to pacify Raja Veera Kerala Varma. He was enraged when the Portuguese plundered a Shiva temple in the vicinity. After the Portuguese gifted the palace to the king, it became the residence of the Cochin royal family.
The building got the name Dutch Palace after it was refurbished when the Dutch ruled Kochi. Even then, the palace preserved the murals that tell the stories of the epic Ramayana. All the art in the palace was created during different times, say experts. However, the depiction of Ramayana in the coronation hall remains the most admired collection of the mural artworks there.
Story of a king
“The murals, particularly the interpretation of Ramayana in the palace, are one of the most beautiful ‘Kottara Chithram’, or palace painting, in the state. They are much more intricate, elaborate and grand compared to other palace works,” says Dr Saju Thuruthil, head of the painting department at the Sree Sankara Sanskrit University in Kalady.
The main stories or stages in the Ramayana are captured on the palace walls in the traditional Kerala mural style. “Though it is hard to interpret each tale and character when one sees it for the first time, the works follow a puzzle-like pattern called ‘manimala’. This could be one of the only mural works where a woman giving birth is depicted -- the birth of Rama and his brothers in all its largeness and divine form,” says Saju.
Many such details make the mural works of the Mattanchery Palace stand out. The entire tale of King Rama of Ayodhya him meeting Janaka and marrying Sita, leaving the kingdom and going for ‘vanavasa’, the majestic beauty of Shurpanakha, Ravana kidnapping Sita, and the war is depicted inside the walls of the coronation hall.
“No one knows who painted these murals or when it was done. However, Rama is considered a just king, the epitome of all that is human. That could be why Ramayana became part of the coronation hall,” says Saju. The reason why the palace is even now known globally can be because of the importance of these murals, he points out.
“The world-famous painter Amrita Sher-Gil was awed by these works. Not just the depiction of Ramayana, many other parts of the palace have various kinds of murals depicting many kinds of stories from Indian mythology.”
Vishnu Vikraman, a professor with the Sree Sankara university, says there are certain rules in mural painting. “Characters are drawn in a predefined proportion. But there are no proportions while painting evil characters. That is why characters such as Mareecha and Shurpanakha appear on a larger scale,” he says. Another interesting factor is that paint made from natural sources has been used in these murals, Vishnu points out.
“The green colour was made from the indigo plant, black was from burning sesame seeds. The red and yellow colours are from different kinds of rocks. These rocks might have been taken from the river basin of Kollur Mookambika Temple. The idea is that the elements taken from the mountains live longer.”
According to Saju, the murals at the palace share some similarities with those at the Thuravoor and Elamkunnapuzha temples. “However, the palace paintings of Mattanchery are one of a kind. It’s in the stories they tell, the grandeur of it all, and even the way each character is drawn,” Vishnu adds.
Laws of murals
“This mural painting is based on the ‘thriguna’ principle, where each colour represents a particular ‘guna’. The three gunas are rajo guna, tamo guna and sattvika guna. The vibrant characters having the rajo guna are given red colour, sometimes red mixed with yellow. Vaishnavic or Sattvik characters are given green colour. White colour is used to represent calm characters having tamo guna,” says Saju Thuruthil. The paintings of Krishnaleela, Tripunithura Appan (Lord Vishnu), the family of Shiva, Koodalmanikya Swami, Kaliamardan and Bhutha Matha can also be seen in the other rooms. Some unfinished paintings remain a mystery inside these palace walls. The paintings in the staircase room and royal chamber are now closed to visitors.
Tracing the lines
The first murals could be of the Ramayana, says Saju. “No other temple or palace in Kerala has such grand imageries of Ramayana. Later, they may have painted the bedroom of the king. Here you can find more scintillating works, such as Madana Raja Gopalan, Parvathi Chamayum, Sivan playing with Mohini and Parvathi watching, etc. And in the upper storey, Tripunithura Appan and other gods are depicted.