The Magnificence of Indian Mural Paintings
India is home to so many different forms and styles of art that there’s so much we haven’t explored yet. Today, let’s take a look at one of the oldest forms of art to ever exist: mural paintings. Mural paintings are directly connected to ancient cave paintings, and we are able to trace the evolution of Indian art over the ages by studying them. Did you know that while the Ajanta and Ellora cave paintings are some of the most famous Indian mural paintings today, there are so many others in different parts of the country?
What qualifies as a Mural Painting?
The word mural is derived from ‘murus’, which is the Latin word for wall. A mural is any art or painting that is painted directly on a large, permanent surface.
Is a fresco considered a mural?
No, because frescoes are painted with water-soluble paints on wet limestone or plaster. Since murals need to be painted directly onto the wall’s surface, a fresco does not count as a mural.
Aren’t the Ajanta Paintings frescoes as well? Are they not considered murals?
Artists used Tempera-style paints—a quick-drying binder mixed with pigment and a water-soluble binder- to create the Ajanta paintings. They also used the fresco secco, or the dry fresco technique, which involves painting with a mixture of pigment and organic binder on dry plaster. Since they did not use the fresco buono, or wet fresco painting technique, the Ajanta cave paintings are technically both frescoes and murals.
The Ajanta paintings are very well known. So let’s explore some lesser-known Indian mural paintings and frescoes.
1. The Indian Mural Paintings of Sittannavasal, Tamil Nadu
The Sittannavasal cave temple’s origins are attributed to either the Pallava king Mahendravarman I or a Pandya ruler from the 7th century who rebuilt it. The murals of this cave are some of the most beautiful in India, second only to those of Ajanta. Despite this, they are not as well known.
The walls, ceiling, and pillars of the cave are covered in paintings created using the fresco secco technique on a thin plaster of lime mortar and sand. The central theme of these paintings is Samavasarana, which is a Jain concept of a divine preaching hall of the Tirthankara with over 20,000 stairs. The murals prominently feature the teachings and imagery of the Jain Tirthankars, who are spiritual guides who have achieved enlightenment.
The techniques and materials used in these paintings provide a link between the Ajanta murals and the Chola paintings. Among all the murals, the one of the lotus pond is well known. This painting features khatika bhumi– a tank filled with lotus flowers and surrounded by faithful monks, elephants, fish, ducks, swans, etc.
2. The Indian Mural Paintings of Jogimara and Sitabenga Caves, Chhattisgarh
Let’s travel to the Jogimara and Sitabenga caves now. They are located in Puta village in Chattisgarh and date back to the 3rd century BCE. The paintings in this cave are some of the oldest coloured frescoes in Asia. While some think Sitabenga was an ancient performing stage, others believe that its location on a historic trade route meant that it was a dharamshala, or a resting place for travellers.
These Indian mural paintings feature non-religious inscriptions in the Brahmi script and the Magadhi language. The translation of these inscriptions has yet to be deciphered. The distinguishing feature of the Sitabenga murals is the lack of religious iconography or imagery. The inscriptions are poetic, and the paintings are non-religious.
The murals feature red, yellow and black paintings of dancing girls, processions, elephants, chariots, etc. While the Sitabenga cave features sculpted bench-like structures, the Jogimara cave does not contain any such elements.
3. The Indian Mural Paintings of Padmanabhapuram Palace, Kerala
Next stop, Kerala! The Padmanabhapuram Palace features several murals depicting Hindu gods and goddesses. These Indian mural paintings illustrate the beauty of the Kerala mural style. The inner walls contain two paintings of Anantha Padmanabha, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, on the western and eastern walls.
The eastern wall is a recreation to replace a mural that was destroyed by lightning. It was painted by Saris Katchadourin and features an interesting three-dimensional illusion. The sun and moon are drawn as gods and are visible in the top corners of this mural. Two doorkeepers, or dwaar palika, flank the deities.
Other themes are the Dashavatara (10 forms of Vishnu), the eleven forms of Rudra, Shiva’s cosmic dance, Krishna being showered with jewels, Sankara Narayana, Ganesha Pooja, and different avatars of Krishna and Shiva. The most beautiful mural at Padmanabhapuram is the painting of Krishna playing his flute for the gopis of Vrindavan. It is one of the finest Kerala murals.
4. The Indian Mural Paintings of Zenana Dyodi, Mehrangarh Fort, Rajasthan
A zenana refers to the women’s palace or a place where the queen and female courtiers lived. Men were not allowed to enter these spaces. Paintings cover the ceilings, walls, pillars, and every part of the Zenana Dyodi of the Mehrangarh fort. You may not have heard of the murals of the zenana before, and you wouldn’t have even if you visited the Mehrangarh Fort. This is because it is one of the oldest parts of the structure and has thus never been open to visitors. The murals here were discovered recently when the layers of plaster began peeling away to reveal decades of history.
The artists painted on a base of traditional lime plaster, or kaudi. Their style may resemble court art but a closer analysis reveals that they are closer to the folk art tradition. Court paintings were often very precise and planned out, but most of the figures and motifs in the Zenana murals were painted freehand, without any preliminary sketch or plan. The older paintings have a limited colour palette and use the expensive blue pigment azurite. The later paintings feature shades of blue, green, yellow, white, red, and orange. The artists painted a double border of blue and red around all the compositions.
These murals date back to different times, perhaps commissioned over time by the different women who lived here. Most of them contain mythological themes, specifically centred around the life of Krishna. To learn more about the fresco art style of Rajasthan and explore its intricacies, check out the Maestro Course on Arayash, the Jaipur-style fresco art, on the Rooftop App by master artist Bhawani Singh
5. The Indian Mural Paintings of Thanjavur Palace, Tamil Nadu
Finally, let’s discover the art of Tami Nadu. The murals at the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur are several centuries old. The temple features extravagant and colourful stone carvings, relief work, and wall and ceiling murals. These paintings depict the gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology, images of the Chola kings, and colourful portrayals of royal life. They are not open to the public due to their close proximity to the linga sanctuary of the temple.
These murals cover the northern and western walls of the passage surrounding the sanctuary. The paintings on the walls of the western and northern colonnades date back to the reign of Shivaji II. About 16 Nayaka frescoes were superimposed over the paintings of the Chola period. The Archaeological Survey of India restored these murals and displayed them separately.
Religious imagery is the central theme of the Thanjavur murals. A painting of Subramanya adorns the Ganapati shrine. Some of the paintings feature Ganapati, Saraswati, Kali, Shiva-Parvati, and non-divine symbols like ascetics, couples, animals, musicians, warriors, etc. The pavillion features a painted ceiling with angels and mystical creatures. They also show signs of damage due to the burning of camphor and soot from temple lamps.
The Splendour of Indian Mural Paintings
Murals in India are instrumental in the study of ancient history and society. They help us understand past cultures and shed light on ancient philosophy. India is a repository of art and culture, and going to new places and exploring the diversity of Indian art can help us feel more connected to our roots and inspire us in the creative pursuits of our future. Isn’t it marvellous how we can observe art evolve over the ages? That we can look at paintings created hundreds, even thousands, of years ago and be awed by their magnificence?
Indian mural paintings are intricate and provide amazing insights into ancient culture and heritage. The evolution of modern folk art forms can be traced all the way back to these cave paintings and even further to engravings on cave walls. For example, the direct link between Sohrai-Khovar art and the rock carvings at ISKO.
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By Melissa D’Mello