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Analysis Of Mural Paintings In Virupaksha Temple, Hampi


 The Mural paintings of Karnataka have been done on caves, ceilings, walls of temples, palaces and mansions with a distinct style, from Ancient and continuing till the Medieval period. Religion had a deep impact on the themes of all the paintings of Karnataka, irrespective of the time period or style.

This paper will concentrate on the Mural paintings found at the Virupaksha temple in Hampi.  Virupaksha is a 7th century temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is located on the South Bank of Tungabhadra river in Hampi, the capital city of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire in the modern state of Karnataka. The distance is about 350 km from the present capital city of Karnataka, Bengaluru. The most important striking features of the temple is that it is the only religious establishment in the capital city of Hampi which have painted ceilings in the open pillared wall next to the main sanctuary.

The ceiling of the Virupaksha temple in Hampi is covered with mural paintings depicting various themes which have been inspired from the folklore, ancient epics, puranas and Kannada literature.

In this paper, the researcher is going to concentrate on the development of mural paintings, themes found in the art, understand the historical and cultural significance of the art and architecture, preservation and conservation of the mural paintings will be analyzed.


Indian has a rich tradition of mural Paintings which began since ancient times and early mediaeval period from 2nd century BC to 8th century AD. Chaityas and Viharas cut in the Western Ghats by the followers of the Hinayana Sect of Buddhism bear the earliest traces of painting in the historical period. The treaties such as Vishnudharmottara, silpashastra, Manasollasa, Shilparatna , Narada-Shastra and Kashyapa –Shilpa discuss at length all aspects of paintings including murals. The best mural painting of Ancient India can be seen at Ajanta in which the skilled artists display their talents with glorious designs and themes from episodes of Jataka tales, tale of Buddha’s early incarnations. Some of the greatest achievements at Ajanta are from the 5th century to 6th century and it is from one of the famous murals in cave 1. No other site depicts a complete record of habits and customs of the Buddhist tradition.

South India has a rich tradition of mural paintings, many royal dynasties like the Chalukyas of Badami, Vijayanagara Empire, Cholas, Mysore Wodeyars and Nayakas supported the artists. The themes of the paintings are largely drawn from mythology, puranas, legends, local folk lores, Kingdom lifestyle of that particular period etc.

Karnataka has a great traditional influence in the field of mural art and it is distinctively recognised for its contribution in Hindu paintings, executed in the Rock-cut architecture of Badami. According to the Epigraphical records documented in Badami caves an inscription dating to 576 AD which belongs to Mangalesa, the king of Chalukyas of Badami describes the mural beauty of painting that is found in the Vaishnava cave. The Ganga Dynasty Kings were great patrons of Art, Architecture and Religion. They built many temples and structures for Jains and Hindus. The Manne plate dated to 707 AD gives us description about the Mural paintings contribution by artist during the Ganga Dynasty in Karnataka. The Devanahalli plates dated 776 A.D. describe the engraver as skilled in Painting pictures. The Art and Architecture and temples that were designed during the Rashtrakuta Dynasty was mostly carved from stones and caves, the most famous one being the Kailash temple at Ellora.

The tradition of paintings reached its new height in Karnataka when the Vijaynagara Empire started reviving the Hindu values and traditions when the subcontinent was going through a waves of Islamic invasions in the Medieval period.

A number of inscriptions, explanation in Kannada literature and the accounts of foreign travellers throw light on the fact that the walls palaces, mansions and temples were decorated with colourful murals.

There are a lot more references to the houses of artists who lived during those periods to have decorated with paintings of aesthetic value. The walls and ceilings were painted to elevate the beauty and embelishments of otherwise plain structures.

After decline of Vijaynagara Empire, the artists were sponsored by Mysore Wodeyars and Nayakas of Tanjore which held a huge influence in South India by successfully developing Mysore and Tanjore school of Art. Initially it was a continuation of Vijaynagara style of painting but in later years they developed it into two distinctive school of art. In South India, it led to a renaissance of mural art in the 18th and 19th century.

In this paper the author will concentrate on the mural ceiling paintings found at the Virupaksha temple situated in Hampi, the architectural importance, preservation of the mural paintings will be discussed.

Virupaksha temple

Virupaksha is a 7th century temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is located on the South Bank of Tungabhadra river in Hampi the capital city of the Mighty Vijayanagara Empire in the modern state of Karnataka, the distance is about 350 km from the present capital city of Karnataka, Bengaluru. The temple belongs to Dravidian style of architecture. The temple initially was a small shrine dedicated to pampa, the local goddess of the region which in later times was also known as Goddess Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva.  Ancient inscriptions in the temple complex have been dated back to 9th and 10th century. Along with the Vijayanagara Empire, the Chalukyas and Hoysala kings played a huge role in making the small shrine into a large temple.

According to Historians many Foreign travellers visited the Virupaksha temple during the 15th and 16th century and proclaimed the greatness and wonderful sights of the temple and the capital city in their travel records. The most important striking features of the temple is that it is the only religious establishment in the capital city of Hampi which have painted ceilings in the open pillared wall next to the main sanctuary. Hampi remains to be the Original centre of Virupaksha cult although there are other Virupaksha temples dedicated to Lord Virupaksha in South India. One of the important sculptures found in the Virupaksha temple is the unique three-headed Nandi (the vehicle used by Lord Shiva).  According to the locals it is believed that the sculpture is probably done to give high respect to all the Trimurti that is, Vishnu and Shiva.

The temple also have the Emblem of Vijaynagara Empire which is a boar followed by a worshipper and a conch. Even though the temple was destroyed a bit during the Muslim campaigns and occupations during the decline of Vijaynagara Empire, the temple has been functioning uninterruptedly since its foundation. Restoration work was done bringing back the full glory of temple which can be seen even today. Virupaksha temple was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the year 1986.


Hampi was derived from the local language Kannada word Hampe which came from pampa, the ancient name of river Tungabhadra,. Hampi is located in southern bank of the Tungabhadra river in the modern state of Karnataka, It is 343 Km from Bengaluru..

Hampi is known as World’s largest open air museum, it has ancient temples forts and monuments which are spread throughout the place.

Hampi was the capital city of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire. Founded by Harihara and Bukka in 1336, it fell to the Muslim rulers of the Deccan in 1565, and also the city was pillaged over a period of six months before being abandoned. However, the ruins of these monuments have withstood the ravages of time, and still provide memories and account of the golden era. It had been declared as World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1986.

The main occupation of the people of Hampi is agriculture and Hampi gets it main revenue through tourism at it is a very prominent historical site.

Themes Found in the Painting

 Figure 1 Trimurtis

Source – Digital Hampi Lab, National Institute of Design, Bengaluru (2011)

In panel (Figure 1 ) we can see the principal deities or Trimurtis of the Hindu culture. In Vaishnavism, Vishnu is considered as the Supreme God. He is known as preserver of the Universe. In the starting of the panel we can notice Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi sitting on a large simhasana with stylized Lion. In the puranas, Lord Vishnu is often shown rescuing Devas from Asuras and help Devas in destroying Asuras and evil forces. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, fertility, courage, wisdom and prosperity. Vishnu and Lakshmi are symbol of love and good fortune. In the sides of Vishnu and Lakshmi one can notice Garuda the vahana of Vishnu and on the other side Hanuman the ardent devotee of Rama respectively.

In Shaivism, Lord Shiva is considered as the Supreme God. He is known as destroyer or absorber God. He is worshipped in the form of Shiva Linga. He is often associated with rebirth, immortality and death. In the Central panel, one can notice Shiva and his consort Parvati.  In the Ardhanarishwara form Shiva is fused with himself and Parvati, which shows the world as a balanced place only when the universal male-female is balanced. Parvati is often considered as Adiparashakti, which means all other Goddesses are her own incarnations. She is also known as Shyama, Krishna, Sodari, sister of Krishna or Vishnu. They have two kids Ganesha and Kartikeya. On the left side it is interesting to notice Tumburu as only in South India one can see Tumburu depicted as a Horse face and holds an instrument Veena . According to the legend Tumburu pleased Lord Shiva and got boons like immortality, horse face, skill in music and liberty to travel the universe and on the right side one notices Narada as a travelling musician and storyteller, who carries news and enlightening wisdom.

Lord Brahma is the creator of the world. According to Hindu mythology, he rises from the lotus, growing from the navel of Vishnu. Brahma is mostly shown having 5 heads, but unfortunately one of the head was cut down by Shiva in his rage due to which he is depicted as Chaturmukha Brahma. There is no temple dedicated to him, he is mostly sculpted to show the Trimurti in temple walls but never as a main deity. Each head represents the Vedas that is Rig, Yajur , Sama and Atharva Vedas . Some believe the head represents the social class hierarchy – Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra . On the right side of the panel one can notice Brahma and Saraswati. Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and learning. In Rig Veda, Saraswati was associated with river but in late Vedic period she became associated with literature, music, arts etc. She is usually depicted as a beautiful women dressed in pure white and often seated on a white lotus which symbolizes the absolute truth. On the left and right side of Brahma and Saraswati one can notice Dwarapalas .Dwarapala is a gate guardian often portrayed as a warrior or giant usually armed with weapons.

Theme 2 Girija Kalyana

Figure 2- GirijaKalyana

Source – Digital Hampi Lab, National Institute of Design, Bengaluru (2011)

In panel 2 (Figure 2) we see the scene depicting Girijakalyana. Girijakalyana is a story about the marriage between Lord Shiva and Parvati who is also known as Girija, according to Shiv Purana she is the daughter of King Giriraja. GirijaKalyana as the name suggests is a story about the penance taken by Parvati and difficulties she faced in her effort in marrying Lord Shiva. The wedding takes place after the Manmatha Vijaya episode where Manmatha tries to break Shiva’s penance. In the panel of GiriKalyana it is very important to understand the local folk lores and legends of Hampi. The panel lying below the Trimurti depicts the GirijaKalyana. The starting of the panel one can notice Veerabhadra , Tumburu and Narada followed by depiction of Saraswati and Vishnu, in the center one can notice Brahma performing the kalyana while Himavant is giving his daughter’s hand to Lord Shiva under the iconic tree. Mena is standing behind her husband along with three crowned woman and towards the end of the panel one can notice Bhringi, Nandi and Ganesha.

 Theme 3 Sita Swayamvara– Sita Kalyana – Draupadi Swayamvara

Figure 3 Sita Swayamvara – Sita Kalyana – Draupadi Swayamvara

Source – Digital Hampi Lab, National Institute of Design, Bengaluru (2011)

At the beginning of the panel on the left side one can notice the theme of Sita swayamvara. According to Ramayana, when Sita was of marriageable age, her father King Janaka decided to arrange a swayamvara for his daughter. The swayamvara had a small contest, previously Lord Shiva had given King Janaka a immensely heavy bow. The condition of the contest was anyone who could lift and string the bow could marry Sita. Kings from various regions had entered the auspicious ceremony. But only Prince Ram of Ayodhya had the strength and he successfully broke the arrow and won the right to marry Sita. In the panel one can notice Rama lifting the bow, to his right we can notice Lakshmana, King Janaka and Sita’s mother Sunayana. Towards his left we can notice Sita. Below we can notice Ravana, the King of Lanka alongside with other kings who were called to attend the Swayamvara.

In the central panel one can notice the theme of Sita Kalyana. After the Swayamvara the marriage ceremony takes place. In the panel we can notice Ram and Sita under the holy tree. Ram is seen with his parents King Dasharath and Queen Kausalya and Sita by her parents King Janaka and Queen Sunayana. On the left side we can notice Lakshmana and sage Vasishta. Then there are the royal guests, rishis blessing the couple by raising their hands.

The last panel we can notice the theme of Draupadi Swayamvara from Mahabharata. Drupada, the king of Panchala arranged a swayamvara for his daughter Draupadi. The competition was to lift a bow and shoot at the fish only by looking at its reflection in the water below. Kings from all over had come but were unable to do the task. In the end Arjuna disguised as a Brahmana was able to shoot the arrow in the fish eye as depicted in the painting. Towards his left we can notice Draupadi and towards her left yudhisthira near the Brahmin priests. Behind Yudhisthira we can notice the rest of Pandavas disguised as Brahmins. King Drupada is seen with other royal figures.

Theme 4 Procession of Vidyaranya

Figure 4 Procession of Vidyaranya

Source – Digital Hampi Lab, National Institute of Design, Bengaluru (2011)

Vidyaranya served as a prime minister to the empire founders HariharaRaya 1 and Bukka Raya 1. He played a very important role in establishing the Vijaynagara Empire. According to the local legends of Hampi, the founder Harihara saw a big Rabbit and sent his dog to kill it as part of a hunt. But he was surprised to notice the rabbit attacking his dog and escaped. This strange phenomenon was irritating his mind so while returning to his camp.  He saw a holy priest and narrated this bizzare incident.

The man was Vidyaranya who told him the place which the rabbit had attacked his dog was a sacred place and advised him to establish his new capital in the same place so that he can have a strong kingdom which can defy the Muslim sultanate in the North and protect South India. In the picture, you can notice 4 palanquin bearers holding Vidyaranya, soldiers, two drummers, people sitting on the elephants . It is to give the impression of a Royal procession the artist depicts the painting theme in this way.


The important aspect of Ancient Mural paintings in India that one should understand is every style, be it a regional one or national, always the artist used to make it with natural resources irrespective of the time period, so there are various reasons which causes deterioration of paintings.

Some of them are –


Water in any form when interacted with the wall paintings can damage the paintings, which helps to form fungi and could lead to a large reaction. Even a small amount of crack could have a long lasting damage.


Paintings exposed to sunlight and other artificial light for a long time can deteriorate due to the chemical changes caused by UV, especially when the paintings are made of organic pigments.

Biological damage

Micro – organisms like Fungi, lichens etc. can grow rapidly when the surface is moist. The organic material used in the paintings can also be a source of food for small insects and organisms which is a serious problem. In temples and monuments, there is trouble of bird droppings at night which harms the paintings.

Faulty Restoration

Improper use of materials and techniques during restoration can lead to damages. In South Indian temples some of the mural paintings are covered with lime wash. Lime wash was mostly used in renovation without understanding the importance of the paintings.

Some of the solutions to rectify thse problems are

  • Creating a proper database so that government will know which all places have mural paintings which need immediate restoration.
  • Proper documentation before restoration and creating a virtual heritage museum so that future generations won’t miss out the important themes present in the paintings.
  • Formulating site specific protocols so that conservation experts understand how to restore them with respect to sites as each site has its unique identity and problems which cannot be followed by having same policy.
  • Government should join partnership with prestigious institutions at both national and international level so that we can use a wide variety of experts to understand the problems and find solutions, in the long run this will help in making the site reach the importance of world heritage site in the UNESCO list.
  • Providing appropriate funds to use scientific methods in conservation, many times ASI or state department don’t get enough funds for restoration due to which improper techniques are used to adjust with the budget.


Indian Mural paintings are very important to understand the culture and heritage of a region or dynasty. In India we have a rich tradition of mural paintings from ancient period to the early mediaeval period. The themes associated with the paintings are mostly from Jataka tales, puranas, daily activities of the royal family, traders and lifestyle of people during ancient times. They are usually made on caves, walls and ceilings.

In Ancient India artists used to make mural paintings from natural resources like coal, rice, red ochre, chalk, terracotta etc. In South India mural paintings reached its new heights in during the reigns of Chalukyas, Vijaynagara Empire, Cholas, Mysore Wodeyars, Tanjore etc.

The most important sites of remaining Vijaynagara Empire paintings can be seen in Virupaksha temple Hampi and Lepakshi temple in Andhra Pradesh.

The government should make efforts to conserve the mural paintings by choosing appropriate techniques and scientific methods. The preservation of the mural art not only helps us understand the ancient society and culture but also helps us in understanding the methods used by artist of different periods.


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