Murals are glorious paintings, easily recognizable through their characteristic warmth, subtle shading, elaborate ornamentation with categorically divine or mythological figures. Kerala, in particular has a rich and long tradition in mural arts dating back to the seventh and eighth century AD. Its temples, palaces, churches are adorned with rich mural paintings, oldest being found in the rock cut cave temple of Thrunanadikkara (assigned to the period between 9th and 12th century AD), now a part of Tamil Nadu.
The period between 14th-16th centuries was the golden-age of mural paintings that became more prolific and grandeose. The Ramayana and Girija-kalyanam panels of Mattanchery Palace; and the ones at Vadakkumnatha, Thrissur; Siva temple, Chemmanthitta; Kudamaloor and Thodeekkalam are regarded as the best illustrations of the art of this period. Those in Padmanabhapuram palace (the Ananthashayi painting) and Krishnapuram palace (the Gajendramoksham panel) are considered the best of this period.
The traditional texts followed by the practitioners of Kerala mural art are the Tantra-samucchaya, the 15th Century treatise on temple architecture and art written by Narayana; and the Shilparatna, the 16th Century text by Sreekumara. Legends, episodes and characters from the Puranas, epics and folklore inspires the theme for murals. For instance the Ramayana panels of Mattanchery palace, depiction of Girija-kalyanam (Shiva’s wedding with Girija) based on the epic poem Kumara-sambhavam by Kalidasa, murals of Padmanabhapuram Palace and Krishnapuram Palace are illustrations of episodes from Srimad Bhagavatham.
The iconic representation of gods and goddesses at the Padmanabhapuram palace are based on Dhyana-shlokas, which are not mere prayers or hymns, but verbal images of a diety describing precisely, its form, its physiognomy, its facial and bodily expressions; its posture, details of the number of arms, heads and eyes; and details of its ornaments, ayudhas (objects it holds in its hands) etc.It is said that there are more than 2,000 such Dhyana- shlokas that help the artist to visualize the form of the deity that he is about to paint.
The figures in Kerala murals are highly stylized and rendered with elongated eyes, painted lips, exaggerated eye brows; and, explicit body and hand gestures (mudras). The figures are decorated with elaborate head dresses, exuberant and overflowing ornaments. The compositions are strictly governed by factors such as proportion, pose, background etc. For instance the face is to be divided into three sections, the neck is to be one-fourth of the face, and the length of the chest is to be equal to that of the face and face and so on.
A unique feature of Kerala murals is the pancha-mala i.e decoration of the borders with five decorative reliefs including figures of animals, birds, flowers, creepers etc. Another noticeable feature of the Kerala murals is the Pancha-varna or five colour scheme which are ochre yellow, ochre red, white, black and green. White is obtained from lime; black from soot of oil-lamps; red and yellow from laterite soil, green colour is obtained by mixing the dried pigment extracted from Neelamari palnt (Indigo ferra) and being mixed with a local mineral called Eravikkara. characters in the murals are painted according to their characteristics as depicted in the mythological texts. green is employed for depicting the sattvic (balanced, pure or divine like Krishna) ; red or a mixture of red and yellow for Rajasic (powerful and materialistc); and white for Tamasic (inert, mean or base eg. Shiva).
Wooden utensils are used for mixing the colors and the binding media is derived from tender coconut water and Neem tree. The painting brushes used was of three types – flat, medium and fine. Flat brushes were made from the hair found on the ears of calves, medium from the hair on the goats belly and the fine brushes were made from delicate blades of grass.