I am letting myself be transported to South Asia of the Medieval period (c. 700-1700 CE). As I leaf through my notes from the recent field-trip to India, the bygone era seems more endearing. Just after monsoons, when I let myself wander through the temples along the west coast of India, I day-dreamt about being one of the characters living in those spaces. And one of the fondest dreams are that of being in close proximity to the delicately painted buildings.
The edifices decorated with frescoes in Konkan area (along the west coast of India) continue to highlight the local art forms and rich tradition that sustained for over two centuries. Today, only a few extant buildings with medieval frescoes remain in Konkan. The delicate work on the brick-mortar walls continues to draw tourists and people like me. My sense of wonderment comes from the exhaustive details in each fresco that adorns the walls in some temples hidden from the public eye today. However, these places might have been very important for the rulers and people of the time! I am still on a desperate lookout for historical sources to know more about these places with frescoes.
What is a fresco?
A patterned or colored rendering executed on a wall while the wall-plaster is wet or untreated gets affixed on the wall. This technique of oil based or water based color painting on walls is a fresco. The fresco becomes a permanent decoration on the walls, and is generally quite durable.
Vishnu Temple, Kasheli
The temple at Kasheli village in Konkan bears testimony to the old fresco tradition along the west coast of India. The sanctum of the temple dedicated to Vishnu (one of the famous deities of Hinduism) bears some remains of frescoes with religious imagery. Approximately 12 cm high band runs on teh exterior wall of the sanctum. This band is divided in ten small compartments, each containing one of the forms of Vishnu painted in the medieval art style of Western India.
The forms of Vishnu and the mythological exploits of each form continue to entertain the audiences across the globe. The ancient texts in South Asia are replete with the narratives and some stories have found their home in performative traditions in Indian, Bali, Indonesia, Java and so on.
Half-man, half-lion form of Vishnu; the Narasimha is depicted in this temple as slaying the demon king Hiranyakashyapa (left). The form of Vishnu as a dwarf stepping on the head of King Bali (centre) and maybe Vishnu in his abode (right), are the various depictions of Vishnu at the temple. The poor state of preservation of the frescoes makes it challenging to identify the depictions. It is however remarkable that the frescoes survived at least in this form to this day, given the moisture, salty winds and other atmospheric agents in Konkan.
Shiva Temple (Rameshwar), Girye
The second site with frescoes in Konkan is much better preserved than the temple at Kasheli. The temple in the village of Girye constructs a robust idea of what the medieval temples with frescoes might have looked like, in their full glory. The exterior walls of the temple are decorated with intricate panels based on narrative literature in South Asia. The stories from the celebrated epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and the ten forms or avatars of Vishnu adorn the three exterior walls. The fresco artists have used the walls as their canvas to full advantage, and the windows, wall paneling and other structural features are cleverly blended with the frescoes.
The details of the fresco paintings makes the narrative appeal more endearing. The narrative panels are painted such, that the devotees circumnavigating along the exterior walls will have a full development of the story pictured in these frescoes. The characters have labels, much like in the Indian miniature painting tradition. The panel in the centre is that of Jarasandha. A character that was killed by tearing his body into half, and throwing the halves of his body in opposite directions (ouch!). And we know that the character is Jarasandha, because of the label (I wonder if it is visible in the picture). It is almost like reading a set of comic or graphic novel and imagine the dialogues that the characters would say.
The life-size fresco panels at Girye follow the technique of layering. The main character is painted prominently, with vibrant colors and bold facial expressions, while the background characters are rendered through dark outlines. In this panel (above), Hanumana, the monkey warrior who fights for Rama in Ramayana, is shown prominently with the light colored body hair and menacing expression. The other members of the monkey army are seen in the background, with a shower of arrows above, depicting a battle-scene.
The temple at Girye is dedicated to the god Shiva. As you may have noticed, the subject matter for the paintings however, is Vishnu in his various forms. I wonder why this juxtaposition? We know of the medieval rivalry between the groups that worshiped Shiva and Vishnu. Maybe this was a way to reconcile (?). The name “Rameshwar” also bears a semblance with the form of Vishnu: Rama. And the suffix : “Ishwar” is popularly used for Shiva. So the fusion: Rama + Ishwar (= Rameshwar) may indicate a fusion for both the Shiva and Vishnu worshiping groups. The devotee worships Shiva in the temple, and then looks at the narratives on Vishnu on the exterior of the temple. Hmmm, I am not entirely convinced, but I need to keep digging more!
The medieval frescoes from this tradition are better preserved on buildings in the modern states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. It is mainly owing to the sustained upkeep and relative dry weather. The medieval period along the West coast of India was politically turbulent, and the port sites along the coast (such as many in Konkan) witnessed constant shifts in power. This political instability further reflected on the flimsy artistic record left for us to study. Because for art to thrive, steady commission, support and a group of patrons is a must. That said, I do not want to portray Konkan as completely bereft of these things. There is a trove of art and artistic movements through various epochs in Konkan… that just needs to be carefully uncovered!