Chitraramayanam and the Art Heritage of Kerala

Introducing Chitraramayanam, the ancient picture manuscripts from Kerala and the compilation of the manuscript titled ‘Ramayana in Palm Leaf Pictures’ published by the University of Kerala Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library.

It would be interesting to introduce a picture book that dates back centuries before, in a time when comic books, picture books, cartoon stories and electronic books are ubiquitous. The article intends to introduce Chitraramayanam, one of the important picture manuscripts from Kerala and the compilation of the manuscript ‘Ramayana in Palm Leaf Pictures’. 

Though Kerala is rich in palm leaf manuscripts, there are very few palm leaf manuscripts which features pictures in them. Most of the available palm leaf pictures are related to disciplines such as Astrology and Agricultural practices.  What sets Chitraramayanam apart from the rest of the palm leaf manuscripts is that it illustrates the events from the epic Ramayana as palm leaf pictures. 

Chitraramayanam

Chitraramayanam is kept in the Manuscripts Library in the University of Kerala under the register number 12308. The manuscript contains 98 palm leaves each having 34 cm length and 5 cm width. The manuscripts are illustrated only on single side. The manuscript features the story from Bala Kandam to Yuddha Kandam of the ‘Adhyathma Ramayanam’ depicted  in the form of pictures. The manuscript consists of 318 pictures in total. Captions have been added to 114 of these images. Of these, 24 pictures are given captions in Malayalam and the rest are in Sanskrit. All these are recorded in Malayalam script.

In 1934, the Department of Archeology donated the manuscript to the Manuscripts Library. The book, which is in a state of near-destruction today, has a colophon, gives us the details about the writer and the year in which it was written.

According to the colophone, the author is a disciple of the Balakavi of Bimbalidesa (Vadakkumkoor) and a native of Kayasthavamsa of Kozhimukku (near Ambalappuzha). Like many other ancient writers, he did not reveal his name. The page which mentions the year in which the book was written is missing from the copy preserved in the Manuscripts Library. Below that the date M. E. 697 Makaram 7 (Malayalam Calendar) is recorded by somebody else. According to this, the period of its composition is A. D. 1522. But according to the document of the Archaeological Department in 1944, the period of writing of Chitraramayanam is M. E. 628 Makaram 7. As this document is more authentic the date of composition of Chitraramayanam is considered to be A. D. 1453, January 20. (Ref 1; K. Vijayan, 1997) 

Chitraramayanam will amaze us since it is a picture manuscript drawn in palm leaf. Often four to five pictures are drawn in the same leaf in different columns. Each image is documented with subtle detailing. To distinguish between Lord Rama and Lakshmana, Lord Rama is depicted with crown with peacock feathers.  Lord Vishnu is traditionally depicted as carrying Sanghu (conch), chakram (wheel, a weapon), Gada (mace) and Thamara (lotus flower) in his four hands. Sages like Rishyasringan, Vishwamitra, Parasurama, Vashishta, Sutheeshna and Agasthyan have all been differentiated from each other with subtle detailing. The picture of birds flying to catch fish in the sea during the sea wave is also noteworthy. The pictures of animals such as elephant, deer, crocodile etc are also drawn. According to the story, the monkeys are portrayed as warriors with the majesty they deserve. Hanuman and Jambavan have been given suitable costumes and crowns. 

Another notable feature of the paintings is the depiction of women. Women are portrayed wearing traditional Kerala dress and ornaments. The dress and ornaments worn by the women are given detailing. Some of the Kerala symbols like temple flagmast, Olakkuda (umbrella made of palm leaves), Nilavilakku (traditional holy lamp) and Chenda (percussion instrument) are also in the picture. Flags similar to those found in Kerala temples can be seen at the beginning and end of the journey to Ayodhya after Sita Swayamvara. The monkeys are depicted beating the Chenda (drum) during the victory celebrations of Lord Rama. (Ref 2; K. Vijayan, 1997)

To this day, there is insufficient evidence to trace the roots or continuity of the painting heritage represented by Chitraramayanam. According to Prof. Narayanan Kattoor, artist and former chairman of Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, since drawing on the palm leaf is a tough task and is similar to engraving on a surface like stone or metal, palm leaf pictures in Chithraramayanam can be considered as a part of Kerala Engraved Pictures. In his observation, the murals in Kerala may be a continuation of this. 

Similarities with Thalapathrachithra’ of Odisha 

As there are no other notable works in the series of palm leaf manuscript pictures in Kerala, it is necessary to investigate the influence of palm leaf pictures from other parts of India in the composition of Chitraramayanam. Odisha is a famous state for palm leaf pictures in India. Villagers of Raghurajpur in Odisha traditionally draw on palm leaves with an iron stylus. The palm leaf pictures in Odisha are popularly known as ‘Thalapathrachithra’. Odisha is also known for its cloth paintings ‘Patachitra’. Thalapathra paintings are often depictions of mythological texts. Today, this painting tradition is dwindling in Odisha. Though there is no clear evidence, it can be assumed that the painter of the Chitraramayanam was inspired by the palm leaf paintings in Odisha. However, these two models have some fundamental similarities. This similarity can be seen in the writing surface, the writing instrument used, the depiction of different pictures in the same palm leaf, and the precision in the layout. But the palm-leaf paintings in Odisha featured pictures related to many ancient works. Chitraramayanam, on the other hand, solely consists of pictures based on Ramayana. Captions for the pictures are the only addition in Chitraramayanam.

Connection with Classical Performing Arts

Dr. K. Vijayan has observed that closer look at the paintings reveals the similarities between Koothu and Koodiyattam in costumes, jewelry, etc.  But one thing to note is that throughout the palm leaves, Sita, Rama and Lakshmana are not portrayed as ascetics. They are seen wearing a royal robe and crown. Another observation is that many of the postures in these paintings are similar to those in dance forms. Rama's standing posture and Triambakavandanam,  the posture of the characters Parasurama, Shurpanakha, Ravana or Sugriva, when they are angry are examples. The dance-like depiction in the palm leaves implies whether  this work was intended for the theatrical depiction of any visual art form. The argument that supports this statement is that, Balakavi mentioned in the colophone is the same Chola dramatist (known as Balakavi) who came to Kochi before the arrival of Portuguese.

The Book ‘Ramayana in Palm Leaf Pictures’

This work which remained forgotten for centuries came back to the attention of the public when Dr. K. Vijayan, former Director and Professor of Manuscripts Library, University of Kerala, compiled the manuscript  and printed it into a book. The book depicts 98 palm leaves without losing the beauty of its paintings and the uniqueness of the palm leaves. The pictures are arranged with simple descriptions.  The editor has also added a prolific study of Chitraramayanam as the preface. The Ramayana hymns and necessary notes have been added to the book. The book is published in English by the University of Kerala Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library. Published in 1997, this book ‘Ramayana in Palm Leaf Pictures’ that presents the rich heritage of Kerala can pave the way for a serious study. 

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