Architecturally it was not very different from any typical village temple of Kerala. We entered the tiled and saddle-roofed square ‘chuttambalam’ which enclosed a square sanctum sanctorum. A Namboodri was offering prayers to the deity with total dedication and immense devotion. It was quite entrancing to watch the elaborate hand movements of the priest as he was offering puja to the main deity. The idol worshipped here is quite unique. It is an image of Vishnu sitting astride his celestial vehicle Garuda, together with Bhoodevi. The play of the flickering lights from the oil lamps on the beautifully decorated idol in the dark sanctum was quite mesmerizing. I cannot claim to be an ardent temple lover but occasions like this are truly an absorbing spiritual experience.
The walls of the small sanctum are covered with the most exquisite murals I have ever seen. Noticing our interest, an elderly lady walked up to us and started explaining the nuances of each one of them in chaste Malayalam. There are eight large panels and about twenty smaller ones which feature episodes from the Hindu myths and the Puranas. The paintings on the eastern and northern walls still look fresh in spite of the passage of the years. In contrast, the murals on the western wall and the two panels on the southern wall look faded and moldy, probably because these two walls face much of the harshness of the monsoons.
The most magnificent of the pictures at Pundareekapuram is on the northern and eastern walls of the sanctum. Astride a resplendent horse is Sastha, the God of hunting, along with a retinue of servants and dogs. The hurry and confusion of a chase is superbly conveyed. Many beasts of the forest have been ensnared in the open-net, bursting with snarling and clawing wild pigs, bears, leopards, etc. Holding a bow, a broadsword at his side, and wearing an enigmatic smile, the divine hunter’s eyes bespeak his purpose. The horse is a very realistic representation, particularly when one remembers that horses were quite rare in Kerala in the ancient and medieval period. The white color of the horse is mixed with tawny shading, and particular care has been shown in embellishing it with a glittering jewel-studded bridle. The dark forest is symbolic of the human mind, and the wild beasts that roam the forest are the vices in man – lust, anger, greed, etc. Sastha capturing the beasts of the forest is symbolic of the victory of the mind over the senses, leading to the right way of life, which in turn leads to moksha, salvation. The bold lines, vivid colors and its dramatic portrayal contribute to its timeless beauty.
The three false doors around the sanctum are filled with the antics of young Krishna – at his favorite pastime of stealing milk and butter; sucking the lifeblood out of the demoness Poothana, dancing on the hood of the serpent Kalinga, filching the garments of the gopis, and so on. The paintings capture the beauty and the harmony of an idyllic pastoral life enveloping the onlooker with a rare kind of bliss.
Though there is little association among the murals, with each one portraying a particular theme, there is a binding organic unity among them. The boldness and accuracy of lines gives a distinct energy to the paintings. Ochre-red seems to be most dominant color used in these paintings and it beautifully complements the verdant green of the Kerala landscape.
Since the temple is tucked away on a rarely-trodden village road, these paintings have for long (thankfully!) remained relatively obscure. But these murals without doubt can hold their own against the better known wall-paintings of the Padmanabhapuram and Mattancheri palaces. We were informed that these murals were in all probability painted in the latter half of the 18th century.
I was keen to photograph these wonderful murals and hesitantly asked the lady who was explaining whether it is feasible. She took us to the chief Namboodri of the temple. He told me in Malayalam “You seem to have travelled far to have a glimpse of these paintings and I have been observing your interest and involvement…do go ahead. And having come so far let us also perform a special pooja for you both!” He also handed over a book written in Malayalam on the temple. To our great surprise we found that the lady who patiently took us around was the author of it!
Our travels in rural India have consistently been a revelation to us… not just of priceless artistic treasures but also of the warmth and friendliness of total strangers with whom you strike an instantaneous bond.
Pundareekapuram was such an ethereal experience.
You can savor some glimpses at: