The yuddha kāṇṭam or the War Canto from the Rāmāyaṇa is painted at Chengam. Reading clockwise from the northern side, we see the war on the northern and eastern panoramas, both damaged substantially. These murals indeed look like they are post war! The eastern panorama shows the final victory over rāvaṇa and the southern panorama shows the return of cītā to rāma and the return of the reunited couple and the support cast to ayōdhya. The western panorama shows the coronation of rāma.

Northern panorama

Eastern panorama

Southern panorama

Western panorama

The Venugopala Parthasarathy temple supported more murals, but only the War Canto is extant. The whole story must have been painted on the northern and southern flanks, with the story finishing in the central square. The sides have been sand-blasted and pictures of them may survive in some unknown archive. Nagasamy[1] and Michell[2] identify the Chengam narrative with the Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa. I have verified this with the translated text of the Śrī Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa by Shantilal Nagar.[3]

Diagnostic to the conclusion that the Chengam murals represent the Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa is a specific detail painted therein (see picture below), that of anumāṉ dragging maṇṭōtarī, rāvaṇa's queen, by her hair, which is not found in the Sanskrit or Tamil texts. Telugu has an extraordinary range of Rāmāyaṇas and it may be that this particular episode is featured in other versions too. Shantilal Nagar, in his introduction to the translation points to the presence of this episode in a 'North Western recension'.

Detail from the eastern panorama. Anumāṉ pulls maṇṭōtarī (extreme right, mostly faded) by her hair. To the immediate left, there is another figure of maṇṭōtarī (bent over) which is much clearer. The artist has gone much further than the text in depicting the violence here. It can be seen clearly that maṇṭōtarī is disrobed, her blouse flying in tatters. Anumāṉ and aṅkataṉ are manhandling, monkey-handling, her. A caption, in Tamil, just over the arched figure of maṇṭōtarī describes the violence and identifies the actors.

Interestingly, we video recorded a leather puppet performance by Kande Ramdas and party at Dharmavaram, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh and they enacted for us the episode of maṇṭōtarī's humiliation, almost exactly as painted at Chengam and as described in the Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa. It occurs as part of the pātāḷa hōmam, an underground fire sacrifice ritual, that rāvaṇa undertakes, which, if rāvaṇa finished successfully, would make him so powerful that a 1000 rāmas cannot defeat him. The monkeys hatch a plan to destroy the sacrificial ritual but cannot touch rāvaṇa. So they go after maṇṭōtarī and humiliate her. This forces rāvaṇa to come to his wife's rescue, resulting in the abandonment of the ritual that would make rāvaṇa invincible. This episode seems to have captured the public Telugu imagination, finding its way into what are now regarded as classical Telugu texts. It probably originated in some oral account, surviving and spreading through generations and regenerations, before it got committed to text. Kande Ramdas and his family hail from Maharashtra, migrating to Andhra about 15 generations ago and have practiced leather puppetry for as long as he can remember. He showed us leather puppets from 200 years back that his forefathers used for their performances. Maybe this is the way the 'North Western recension' travelled, albeit a couple of centuries still earlier? On the other hand, the whole episode of the underground fire sacrifice of rāvaṇa and the humiliation of maṇṭōtarī could equally have originated in the poetic imagination of Gona Buddha Reddi, the author of the Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa. If this indeed be the case, a picture emerges then of generations of highly literate, erudite leather puppeteers who put themselves in the service of the classical texts, committing the texts to pictures.

It is impossible to not give thought to how different versions of the story inform each other. Though it is unlikely that we will ever know which version preceded, just as well perhaps, it is beyond doubt that the oral account, the theatrical narrative, the classical texts and the painted expression have all been working together all the time. For their part, the mural Rāmāyaṇas depict many narrative elements present in the classical texts. But their own texts, the label inscriptions that accompany the mural paintings, whether it be in Tamil or Telugu, have the voice of straight forward colloquialism, rather than nuanced poeticism.