It is common to see murals that embellish walls and ceilings in many religious and heritage structures in the State. Most of these paintings are spiritual in nature, depicting gods and goddesses, and incidents from the epics and other religious texts. Some also show the life and times of various rulers.
Temples in Karnataka fall chiefly into three groups - architecturally prominent, sculpturally significant, and those famous for murals. Though not much discussed like the other two, murals enhance the aesthetic beauty of palaces and places of worship. They were largely employed to add charm to the structure and to highlight the architectural details.
The earliest forms of painting were found in caves and rocks. Some of them can be seen in Badami, Aihole, Pattadakal and Hampi. There are more than a dozen sites of interesting painted shelters in this area alone. The peculiar drawings and unusual geometrical designs, it is said, date back to the Mesolithic period or even earlier. They are mostly depictions of animals, humans, hunting, group dance etc., which provide insights into the life of ancient people and their culture. Mineral colours like red, green or white have been used to execute them, red being the most common hue.
In an edition of Mysore Gazetteer, published over eight decades ago, author C Hayavadana Rao has devoted a special chapter to the murals found in Princely Mysore. "In what has been left of the paintings in the temples of the early period, there is evidence of the careful study of nature, of animal life and human emotion," he writes, referring to the paintings in the temples of Princely Mysore.
Elaborate decorations of different colours were employed in the Rangamantapas. Some parts of the paintings were gilded to boost their charm. These paintings were taken care of and redone whenever necessary. Folk designs were also used.
Chitrakaras were permanently employed by the rulers and noblemen for this purpose. Names of such expert artisans and their expertise are mentioned in the historical records. The images that were produced by the chitrakaras of the period were called chitrabhasa as they resembled chitra, a natural image.
Examples of elaborate fresco work can still be found in structures in the Mysuru region. The prominent ones being Dariya Daulat, Prasanna Krishnaswamy Temple, Varahaswamy Temple, Jaganmohan Palace and Mysore Palace. Partial colour may be observed in the ceilings of some Hoysala temples, particularly in the Bhuvaneshwaris.
Hayavadana Rao's list of structures that were known for their murals include Siddalingeshwara Temple in Kunigal taluk, Vailappa Temple in Gubbi taluk, Padmavathi Temple in Chikkamagaluru district, Someshwara Temple in Magadi, Divyalingeshwara Temple in Chamarajanagar district, Chamaraja Wadiyar Janma Mantapa in Chamarajanagar, Mallikarjuna Temple in Mudukuthore and Manteswamy Matha in Mandya district. Similarly, there were murals in North Karnataka in places like Nippani, Naragunda, Raichur and Ballari. Brilliant wall paintings decorated the Rajawades in Nippani and Naragunda.
The earliest murals found in the caves of Badami were executed in the 6th century under the early western Chalukya kings, who held sway over the region. Buddhist influences are traced in these fragments of paintings that are still surviving. From an inscription there, one can understand that these kings continued the decorative tradition of Ajanta paintings. One of the large panels reveals a palace scene showing the performance of dance and music, while another one reveals a court scene. There are two other fragments of panels as well.
The next big works seen are from the Vijayanagar period. An excellent example of the Vijayanagar art can be seen in the famed Virupaksha Temple in Hampi. The ceiling of the Virupaksha Mantapa reveals a series of fabulous paintings. The masterpiece among them is the one representing the long procession of Sri Vidyaranya. Another interesting mural is that of the wedding ceremony of Rama and Sita.
The Vijayanagar style of painting is spread over the old Mysuru region and is found in fragments in temples. Divyalingeshwara Temple at Haradanahalli in Chamarajanagar district is illustrated with paintings on the inside walls and on the ceilings of the sanctum sanctorum, depicting Shiva Puranas. These paintings are said to be at least 200 years old. The ceilings of the mukha-mantapa in Terumalleshwara Temple in Hiriyur are painted with scenes from the Shiva Purana and the Ramayana.
After the Vijayanagar rulers, credit should go to Krishnaraja Wadiyar III for embellishing temples in his kingdom. Besides having his own palace richly decorated, he got works executed in many temples.
Mallikarjunaswamy Temple in Mudukuthore stands atop a 200-foot high Somagiri hillock on the banks of River Cauvery. The mantapa in the spacious enclosure, said to have been built over 150 years ago, was known as 'Chitra Mantapa' on account of the paintings on its walls. These paintings depict scenes from the Shiva Puranas. Sibi Narasimha Temple in Sira taluk is adorned with paintings of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Dashavatara and Krishna Leela. They continue to be the main attraction of the temple in spite of their erosion over time. Care is being taken to regularly restore and maintain whatever left of the frescoes.
The paintings are in the same artistic pattern of Dariya Daulat, the palace of Tipu Sultan in Srirangapatna. They are in three rows, the first row depicting Krishna Leela, the second row showing a scene from the royal court of Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, and the third row is a scene from the court of Hyder Ali Khan and Tipu Sultan. The ceiling of the main entrance is adorned with the images of Lord Krishna playing on the flute, and Tipu Sultan fighting a tiger, horses and elephants.
The Jain Math in Shravanabelagola has beautiful murals as well. Its walls are decorated with paintings showing mostly scenes from the lives of some Jinas and Jain kings. The panels have frescoes representing the Dasara Durbar of Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, figures of Pancha-Parameshtis, Neminatha with his Yaksha and Yakshi, and a figure of the Guru of the Math with his disciples. The north wall illustrates Parshvanatha's Samavasarana, and on the south wall, scenes from the life of King Bharata. Panels also reveal scenes from the life of the Jain prince, Nagakumara.
The Golden Temple in Bylakuppe is a recent Buddhist structure. It is decorated with intricate works of Buddhist themes. In many Muslim prayer halls and dargahs, we can see beautifully drawn creepers, flowers and flower vases. One example is the famous Tipu's Palace in Bengaluru. Similarly, in most of the churches, we come across beautiful paintings on window glasses, walls and ceilings.
Unfortunately, many of the murals are lost to posterity today. Failure to maintain and restore them in time has resulted in their peeling off and gradual fading away. Even if they are found, they are, in most cases, either in poor condition or in fragments. The lack of awareness about the value of such old murals, executed with meticulous care and devotion, either on the walls or on the ceilings, during various periods of history, has resulted in obliterating them, most often with a fresh coat of paint.