On this page, I present a frame-by-frame account of the Chengam murals, examining in the process, the kinship the murals share with the textual version that it most likely draws from, and other narrative forms.

A systematic understanding of the painted narrative is best achieved through the label inscriptions that accompany the paintings at Chengam. However, these bilingual Telugu-Tamil label inscriptions have suffered extensive damage. The figures are also more lost than preserved. This makes it difficult to figure out what's going on. But figure out we must, for which external sources have to be resorted to. However, I start with the paintings themselves, that part of the paintings that I believe constitute the low-hanging fruit.

The western panorama is easy. The whole (western) panorama is that of the coronation of rāma. There is no story developing here. Only the characters need to be identified, the missing ones included. Moving on, the southern panorama is a little higher on the scale of difficulty. Of the three registers painted, the third, the lowest, is the best-preserved, which makes it the starting point for our 'decipherment'. So the narrative here is presented in the order of its decipherment and not as painted. Once every detail is understood, I propose to rearrange the order as painted on the ceiling. I beg the reader's forgiveness for this clumsiness. This website is intended to present the work in progress, displaying the content as it evolves, including the inevitable mistakes and contradictions, the subsequent corrections and the reorganisation of content. In fact, I set out to archive the revision history for any interested reader to be able to observe the content evolve through its faltering steps, which requires blog style administration and moderation, something that I do not have the resource for at this point in time. Reluctantly, I overwrite.

Before we dive into the narrative, I wish to point out that the visual material from Chengam is correlated with the text of the Srī Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa. I have relied mainly on the translation by Shantilal Nagar, [1] paraphrasing it as needed. The line numbers are cited. I have also cited parallels perceived by me between the texts, the Chengam murals and the leather puppet performance of the Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa (?) by Kande Ramdas and party, which we recorded on video, especially if a parallel helped illuminate my understanding of a sequence or a character in the sequence. In the context of parallels, I would like to point out that Tamilnadu has full length, though not fully preserved, Rāmāyaṇa mural paintings in six different locations which I have documented, as a team member in earlier documentation projects, and individually. I present, as part of the narrative, those parallels or variations between locations which I believe are interesting. I close this preamble with the note that while I am conscious that a subject like Rāmāyaṇa has scope for infinite parallels, I presently confine myself to the narratives listed above.


Southern Panorama

The story on the southern panorama has been painted in the right-to-left (east-to-west) and bottom-to-top (south-to-north) direction.

The south eastern corner. From here, the story proceeds from east to west, or as the viewer sees it, from right to left


Southern panorama. Bottom Register. Right to Left. Panel 1.

Anumāṉ announces to cītā the death of rāvaṇaṉ and the end of the war.

Label inscription - Telugu

None/Not extant.

Label inscription - Tamil

None/Not extant.

Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa 8011 - 8040

Rāvaṇaṉ having been overcome and with the coronation of vipīṭaṇaṉ as the king of Lanka having been facilitated by the victorious rāma (depicted in the eastern panorama), the time has come for rāma to plan the release and return of cītā. Rāma asks anumāṉ to go to Lanka at once and inform cītā of his victory. So anumāṉ goes with great speed, looks at cītā, bows in reverence and breaks the news.


Southern panorama. Bottom Register. Right to Left. Panel 2.

Carmā and tiricaṭai (?) prepare cītā for her reunion with rāma.

Label inscription - Telugu

None/Not extant.

Label inscription - Tamil

None/Not extant.

Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa 8041 - 8050

Rāma requests vipīṭaṇaṉ, the new Crown of Lanka, to bring cītā back to him, bathed and purified, appropriately clad and adorned with divine ornaments. vipīṭaṇaṉ presses his queen carmā and other damsels of the inner apartment into service.

The mural shows two women attending to the 'welfare bath' of cītā. While one pours water, the other is offering cītā her saree. Who is who? The taller, statelier figure, of fairer skin as well, offering the saree must be carmā, in keeping with the characteristic mural painting formula that size is proportionate to rank. Carmā's arms are fully covered whereas her ample breasts are fully exposed and it is difficult to explain why. The other character present is an unnamed, brown-skinned damsel of the inner apartment, or is she? As we go forward with the narrative, we can come to the reasonable conclusion that the shorter woman who is bathing cītā is tiricaṭai, cītā's personal attendant during her exile in the acōka vaṉam.


Southern panorama. Bottom Register. Right to Left. Panel 3.

Cītā on the journey to her reunion with rāma.

Label inscription - Telugu

None/Not extant.

Label inscription - Tamil

None/Not extant.

Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa 8051 - 8060

From right to left, you see cītā standing (that part of the painting is heavily peeled), ready and decked out for the journey. She is then seen reclining in a palanquin. Two brown-skinned women shoulder the palanquin while a third woman, of lighter skin, at the rear end and almost completely peeled and faded, is fanning cītā even as she provides additional support to the palanquin. A dwarfish woman stands between the viewer and the palanquin, fan in hand. This appears to be an interesting depiction of tiricaṭai, who is painted lifesize in the previous frame but is dwarfed in this one. This is a standard artifice in painted narratives. Certain characters are resized by context and shown. Anumāṉ, for instance, appears subserviently small in the presence of rāma, brave and mighty in the battlefield, and stealthy and tiny when spying in Lanka. So size equals rank and size equals relative rank or context. This is so not only with mural painting narratives but also in leather puppet performance narratives, as I found out. Seeing the leather puppet group of Kande Ramdas and party of Anantapur introduce puppets of differing sizes and styles for the same character led me to identify the parallel on the wall, or ceiling, as in this case.

Vipīṭaṇaṉ leads the palanquin, staff in hand and attendant-like in demeanor. He is led in turn by three demon musicians (fangs et al), playing on the drum (mattaḷam), horn kompu and trumpet (ciṟu tārai). Well, where there is a procession there must be music. Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa does not say so but the painter of these murals seems to have thought so. The mural paintings represent a hybrid imagination.


Southern panorama. Bottom Register. Right to Left. Panel 4.

Cītā and rāma reunite, but not quite.

Label inscription - Telugu

None/Not extant.

Label inscription - Tamil

None/Not extant.

Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa 8051 - 8060

This is a very interesting composition. The description of the first meeting of cītā and rāma after the war is quite brief in the Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa and the meeting does not quite go well. As can be seen from the gestures, there is argument. Before cītā can so much as behold rāma, after their long separation, rāma launches into a tirade, casting aspersions on her character. In response, cītā appeals to laṭcumaṇaṉ to get a pyre ready for her to walk into. Anumāṉ is looking imploringly at rāma. The monkey generals are watching, lined up by rank behind laṭcumaṇaṉ (see identification below). Vipīṭaṇaṉ, having brought cītā at the command of rāma stands behind cītā in helpless silence. Next to him stands tiricaṭai, no longer the dwarf that she was made to be in the previous frame and back in her normal size, in a different saree and with her hands held in prayer. This is an impressive interpolation by the artist, for the text of this episode does not identify by name anyone except the core characters of rāma, cītā, laṭcumaṇaṉ, anumāṉ and vipīṭaṇaṉ. There is a general reference to other onlookers, monkeys and demons. Why did the artist then think it necessary to feature tiricaṭai here? For she alone knew every moment of cītā's life in acōka vaṉam? And so, she represented the best witness in the episode in which cītā's integrity is being questioned? Is the artist suggesting that instead of all that fuss about ordeal by fire, one just had to ask tiricaṭai, the one who is standing right there?

The generals of the monkey army, are on rāma's side. cukrīvaṉ leads, followed by jāmbavān, the bear in the monkey army, and aṅkataṉ, cukrīvaṉ's nephew and the son of vāli. The other two monkeys are most likely nala and neela, cukrīvaṉ's advisors and builders of bridges.


Southern panorama. Bottom Register. Right to Left. Panel 5.

The pyre is lit.

Label inscription - Telugu

None/Not extant.

Label inscription - Tamil

None/Not extant.

Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa 8051 - 8060


Southern panorama. Middle Register. Right to Left. Panel 5.

The fire ordeal.

Label inscription - Telugu

None/Not extant.

Label inscription - Tamil.

There are two labels to this composition, set in reverse on the black strip at the top of the frame. The labels are separated by a vertical marker. The second label overlaps with the next composition.

cī tā te vi a ka ka ni le mu ḷu ka ca ce | (cītā tēvi akkanile muḻukac ce |). Cītā tēvi 'takes a dip' in the fire.

pi ṟa mā pa ra me sa pa ra ṉa a sh ṭa ṭa ti ṟu pā la kā ca ka la mā ṉa pe ru ma me ka ta ti le ni ṟa ṟu ḷā ka ḷa | (piṟamā paramesparaṉ ashṭṭa tiṟupālaka cakalamāṉa perum mekatatile niṟṟuḷākaḷ |) Piṟamā, paramesparaṉ and ashṭṭa tiṟupālakas are standing in the cloud (watching the fire ordeal).

Raṅganātha Rāmāyaṇa 8051 - 8060


To be continued