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Fading frescoes calls for a facelift

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Time has taken a toll on the 19th century murals on the walls of Palkiana Sahib in Amritsar

by Kanwarjit Singh Kang
I first visited Palkiana Sahib in 1971. I was researching on mural paintings in 19th century Punjab and its walls — both of the inner shrine and the circumambulatory — delighted me. The more than 50 fresco panels, most of these from the Ramayana, and executed on glazed lime plaster were in good shape. One of these portrayed Maharaja Ranjit Singh sitting on a chair and holding a sword in his right hand. An attendant stood behind him and a petitioner, his hands folded, stood before him; probably in token of the association of the place with the Maharaja who, in charity, had bestowed land upon Sarju Das to erect this temple.But a recent visit to the place left me dismayed.

The frescoes were in a dilapidated condition, mostly because lime plaster on the walls is slackening its tenacity and peeling off.
The temple is dedicated to Ramananda, a promoter of Vaishnav Bhakti in North India, and his followers are called Ramanandis. He emphasised on the equality of all men, declaring, ‘Whoever adores God is God’s own’. One of his hymns is included in the Guru Granth Sahib too. Palkiana Sahib, devoted to Ramanandi Vaishnavism, stands near Jaura village on the Tarn Taran-Patti road. It was founded by Sarju Das, a Ramanandi. He died in 1842.Legend has it that an elderly lady, who was a devotee of Sarju Das, lost the ability to open her eyelids due to some nervous problem. She had been absent from the religious discourses for some time.
On knowing the reason behind her absence from religious discourses, Sarju Das, with his divine powers, restored the functioning of her eyelids. The name of the temple is associated with this i.e. palak, or eyelid.According to the temple priest, while passing by Sarju Das’ hut one day, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was struck by his saintliness and gifted him a piece of land. This enabled him to erect this temple, which stands on a rectangular plan surmounted by a shikhara, the spire or tower over a Hindu temple.There is a circumambulatory passage around the sanctum. The front part of the passage is wider than the other three sides, which are too narrow to allow more than one person to go through it at a time. On my recent visit, I found that while most themes painted in these frescoes are still clear and distinct, their original radiance is gone.


Themes painted are both religious and secular but most of these pertain to Vaishnavism, particularly to Rama and Krishna, the two chief incarnations of Vishnu. The paintings are mostly based on the Ramayana and the painter has preferred to paint incidents that had drama in them. Rama is depicted breaking the bow at Sita’s svayamvara, chasing the golden deer along with Lakshmana while Ravana, assuming the guise of a wandering yogi, begs alms from Sita. In another panel, Rama, sitting on horseback, marches towards Lanka, accompanied by his brother Lakshmana, ape-king Sugriva and Hanuman, along with his monkey hordes. The most impressive among these frescoes is a large vertical panel that illustrates the fierce fighting in the island of Lanka, wherein Rama and Ravana face each other on their war chariots and gargantuan Kumbhakarna, with massive ears, stands in the centre, encountering Rama’s forces. One painting portrays Rama and Sita, the divine couple, attended upon by Lakshmana, while Hanuman stands in reverence with folded hands before his master.
Themes related to Krishna paint him in the circle of gopis dancing his eternal dance, the raas-lila; stealing the clothes of gopis; lifting mount Govardhana on his little finger and holding it like a canopy to give shelter to his companions.In addition, several other religious themes, derived from Hindu mythology, appear. Some painted panels portray Bairagi sadhus in the act of meditation.
Among the non-religious themes are painted scenes of wrestling, hunting, chariot racing, martial and warlike acrobatics, women engaged in domestic chores like winnowing grain and then pounding it. However, the most captivating frescoes at Palkiana Sahib depict scenes from the romantic tales of Punjab. A fresco representing Heer-Ranjha illustrates Heer in the act of beating Kaidon while Ranjha grazes buffaloes nearby. A scene from the legend of Raja Rasalu illustrates its sub-legend depicting Raja Hodi and Rani Kokilan. Another painted panel related with the popular legend of Mirza-Sahiba show Mirza being killed by the brothers of Sahiba.
These frescoes were executed around the middle of the 19th century on plaster made of slaked lime and sand while it was still wet, with pigments ground in water. The vitalities of the work of art of these frescoes, though now considerably decayed with time, still inspire appreciation. Maybe we need to give these a little thought and a little time before it is too late.

Originally published at Tribune India May 1st.

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