I am here at Ettumanoor to see the famous temple murals. The temple is dedicated to Mahadeva, an aspect of Lord Shiva. At 4 pm, the temple is still closed for worship. I have an hour to admire the murals before darshan hour. The temple is faced by an intriguing multi-tiered pillared mandapa of the modern kind. It has a few walls, but mostly pillars laid upon pillars on a lower level. It somewhat reminds me of the Panch Mahal at Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri; but really, there is no comparison. The Panch Mahal is a beauty.
Flanking the outer doorway are two murals. These are dwarpalakas in attendance. They stand with a daring countenance, hands holding their heavy maces, stamping over serpents and worshipped by beautiful admirers. In neighbouring panels are religious themes. Lord Krishna stealing the clothes of bathing gopis is a common one. The murals are wonderful but nothing here surprises me. The style is same as elsewhere in Kerala. The themes are familiar. The level of attention to detail is as incomparable as ever.
I walk into the first courtyard. On the rear walls flanking the same doorway are two superb murals. These are preserved much better for their sheltered surroundings. On one side is Anantasheyana who glances sideways towards his admirers. They in turn respond with the same expressive eyes. The narrative in the scene is lively. I feel there is so much going on here in this still picture. The picture gets its dynamism with simply lines and forms – such as a sweeping pair of eyebrows or a little upturned curl at the end of smiling lips. The Lord’s head is bolstered by one of his consorts who looks lovingly. Their crowns are packed with radiant jewels. The crowns define status, wealth and godly power. The Lord delicately holds a lotus. Rishis, gandharvas, lesser gods and goddesses pay homage. The multi-headed Sesha looks on with utmost reverance. The opening of lotuses is an offering to the Lord.
As is common in this style of painting seen all over in Kerala, eyes are rarely looking at the viewer, except when it is a deity ensconced on his or her throne in isolation. Narrative murals are more common. With side glances, characters are always talking to each other with their understood silences. No language is needed. No misunderstanding is possible. Everything in the world of the gods – at least as understood by humans – happens according to a predetermined order. Extraordinary things may happen but there are no surprises. The beings in these scenes are all-knowing.
On the other side of the doorway is the second masterpiece. Nataraja dances his cosmic dance. It is a magnificent piece packed with details. Unfortunately, the wall is too dark and too far from ground level to admire the intricate details. I can only praise the imagination of the Keralan artists, their use of lines and colours. The canvases are not simply expressions of art but imbued with religious symbolism at every level. Much of Indian art is this way and only the initiated can understand it.
At 5 pm, the inner sanctum is opened for darshan. Everything is ready by now. The multitude of lamps are burning everywhere surrounding the circular shrine – some standing lamps, some hanging lamps, some wall lamps. The day has waned sufficiently to let the lamps burn to a greater radiance. Devotees come in groups with their own offerings of little oil lamps. The linga inside is decorated beautifully with eyes of gold. A woman donates Rs. 510 for a special puja. Another woman steps away from the crowd and prays fervently. She is in a lot of trouble and all her hopes are on Mahadeva. I dare not disturb her and tiptoe around the shrine.
That’s when I discover that more than the murals, the wonder of this temple is in the woodpanels lining the walls of this circular shrine. When installed, they would have been painted brightly. I quite like them as they stand today in their faded colours against the natural colours and grains of wood. Wood gives character. The colours add emphasis. Among the masterpieces are central panels – Nataraja in his cosmic dance, Ganesha seated with contentment, Krishna playing his flute, Surya standing with consorts, Ram dharbar in which the God in blue sits as if in half-dance. Yet another masterpiece is Gajendra moksha, the entire scene done on a narrow panel of 2 feet height and 6 inches width. I rate this as high as the Gupta masterpiece of Deogarh.
These panels are not everything. There is so much on these walls that I could spend hours walking around this shrine. The brackets are wonderfully crafted with exquisite female forms. These deities or dancers stand on elephant pedestals that are part of the brackets. Friezes of little lions and elephants make compelling scenes – elephants falling headlong in each other’s way, lions clawing on to elephants, lions and elephants rolling over one another in a tussle. Between two levels of such friezes are familiar scenes from the Ramayana. Seeing and recognizing these familiar stories in miniature adds a lot of excitement for any keen tourist.
All I can say is that I am glad I stopped at Ettumanoor on my way to Kottayam.