The Ancient Form of Mural Painting from Kerala, India

The historic forms of the murals paintings


The word ‘mural’ is derived from the Latin word ‘murus’, meaning ‘wall’. Murals refer to paintings embellished on visual components like the wall, ceiling, or other huge lasting surfaces.They are a fine art skill and portrays artistic and creative excellence. It is a unique of art form and is rich in symbolism. The themes are depicted using common iconographic symbols from the Puranas like Ramayana and Mahabharata from the Hindu mythology. It also involves representations from invocatory verses or dhyana slokas.

Flora, Fauna and other aspects of nature are portrayed in a highly stylized manner. The pieces also portray great linear accuracy and are aesthetically pleasing. Thematically the works become contemporary eco-centric, nature-oriented environmental or rather holistic. Line and colour, tones and shades get strong amalgamation

The murals are made only with natural pigments, consisting of five colors or Panchvarna, namely, yellow, red, green, black and white, prepared from mineral pigments and vegetables.

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The colors also convey certain characteristics of the Gunas - Satva, Rajas and Tamas and are taken into account symbolically. Satvas, which depicts purity, is usually represented by green and when painted on figures, it epitomizes knowledge. Rajas, the predominant one, is represented by golden yellow. Tamas, inactivity or the least pure, is usually illustrated by white.Originally, three types of brushes were used- flat, thick and fine brush. The hair of the brushes used to paint the aesthetic pieces are usually obtained from the back of the ears of the calves or hair found under the goat’s belly or the blades of grass or tails of muskrats.

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The paintings are done following the traditional methodical process and are divided into six stages. The artist starts off by doing a basic sketch/outline which is followed by applying colors chronologically taking into account what it represents. During the fifth stage, the final outlines, usually in black, are done. In the sixth stage or the final stage, the artist does some final touchings to the painting. This form of art has always intrigued me. I am from Kerala and by taking up this topic, I get to learn more about my culture, its history and the mythological stories portrayed in the murals. This project also gives me the opportunity to try and spread awareness about this beautiful artwork that has always been capturing the viewers with its aesthetic appeal and will always.


The Kerala murals have a unique history. Its influence over the people of Kerala has been on and of in the olden days. The first example of mural paintings can be traced back to the Marayoor rock paintings in Idukki district. The painting of the 8th century were considered to be one of the best paintings. But these paintings didn't resurface until 14th century. One of the major works of the 14th century was the mural painting in the Padmanabhaswami temple. Throughout the 16th and the 17th century, a rapid progress is seen in the field of paintings but they were disrupting again in the 18th century and by the 19th century the paintings had completely disappeared. Historians assume that its disappearance is linked to the boycotting of these artists in the social structure and also due to the gaining popularity of other medias suck as oil paintings and miniature painters.

During this particular period the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma and K.C.S Paniker were popular. After the invasion of Tippu Sultan the major revenue of temples were controlled by British rulers. These resulted in a poor economic conditions as far as the temples are concerned. The encouragements of arts became drastically impossible due to the above negative forces. The climatic conditions also did not favor the paintings. The paintings were ruined because it got wet and this lack of maintenance destroyed their beauty and led to the loss of these murals forever. But the fate of the murals took a positive turn in the 20th century. Certain centers were opening up wherein classes were held to teach the Kerala mural art. This brought the Kerala murals back to life. The murals have evolved since then due to a numerable about of factors and the number of artists working on this beautiful art form has increased.

Traditional Forms

Delicate strokes, bright colors, idealistic reproduction of humans, animals, trees are some of the common characteristics of the Kerala murals. The works represent each artists’ dedication and spiritual undertake. The following are the unique characteristics of the Kerala Murals.


One of the quality that characterizes the Kerala Murals are the use of natural materials, derived from plants and one or two mineral earths, by the artists. The three ancient Sanskrit texts viz. Vishnudharmottara of the sixth century (Kramrisch 1928; Sivaramamurti 1978), Abhilashitartha Chintamani of the twelfth century (Shamasastri 1926: Shrigondekar 1925, 1930) and Silparatna of the sixteenth century (Bhattachraya 1974; Raghavan 1933) depict the 4 stages involved in the completion of the murals. They include preparation of the wall, working on the outline, application of colors and addition of decorative details. Frescoes are painted on the surface of the granite or the laterite walls.lima and sand are used to make a mixture to form a semi solid mass. This takes almost one week. This is followed by the application f other mixtures made with fruits and water to the wall before painting. Tantra samuchaya the XV century text authored by Narayanan describes the importance of techniques of colour preparation, colour combination, themes for presentation and brush making.

Colors and its application

The murals are characterized by the use of Panchavarna, 5 colors, which are yellow, red, green, black and white. Traditionally, the color dyes were prepared from vegetable and mineral pigments as well as crude chemicals. The extraxction process was quite simple. Yellow dyes and the red dyes were normally extracted from minerals, green was prepared from a mineral called eravikkara. The method, and the different natural sourced are mentioned in the 3 Sanskrit texts mentioned above. Usually the artists used to follow the trial and error methods to determine the required proportions of the materials to form the required colors. Some ancient manuscripts also suggest that the artists used certain chemicals such as Arsenic and Vermillion. The traditional black pencil called kattalekhini was made by grinding black stone with cow dung and the paintbrushes are made from the hair of animals, feathers and roots, as mentioned earlier.

The colors applied depending on the spiritual virtue and the personality of the characters depicted. The evil, wicked and mean characters (tamas) are generally painted in black or white. Green and blue colours are to be painted only after applying the yellow ochre. The doting technique is widely used for shading.The finishing touchups are done using this method. In the places intended to be black, Red is applied as a base color to intensify the black color. Whatever may be the color, the shading is done from outside inwards by dotting method. The Silparatna gives the artist instructions on how to draw the human figures. It gives a detailed view about the 5 different stances of the human figures which are frontal, half-frontal, askance, one and a quarter eyed, and profile.

Modern Forms

Mural artists were not actively pursued. The opening up of institutions brought it back to life and also increased the numbers practicing the art. Murals were known for their vivd colors and strict traditional rules but that changed it was brought to other surfaces such as fabric, canvas, wood etc. Some call the present day mural paintings as a ‘mural-style work’ as the modern works carry only the essence of what it used to be. As the mindsets of people changed throughout the years, the paintings had to adapt to the changes to appeal to the modern audience. In the following sections I will be discussing the different aspects of the modern day works.

Colors and material

Traditionally, the colors and the brushes used by the artists are obtained by natural means. But due to inventions and the interactions of chemical paints, more artists prefer to use the star brought paints as they are more convent and less time consuming as they usually have to find the required sources and prepare them. The introduction of different types of paints such as acrylics, oil paint, fabric paint etc have exposed the work to different media and also a quicker and more convenient techniques. The state of Kerala has experienced great migration and also the number of people renting homes has increased. This can be one of the many reasons why mural artists work with other media such as canvas and fabric due to the reduced demand of mural paintings on the wall and also the increased convenience and portability.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Ancient Form of Mural Painting from Kerala, India. (2024, Feb 13). Retrieved from

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