Mural Paintings from Jammu: Sui and Burj Temples

in Overview
Published on: 19 September 2018

Navjot Kour

Navjot Kour is currently pursuing her PhD on the archaeological investigations of the outer plains of Jammu spanning the prehistoric and early historic periods at MSU Baroda, Vadodara. She holds two Masters degrees - one in History from the University of Jammu and another in Archaeology from Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune. A UGC-JRF Fellow in Archaeology, she is mainly interested in reconstructing the history of Jammu combining both literary and archaeological data.




The region of Jammu has a rich historical legacy of temples. With Vaishnavism and Shaivism considered as major religious traditions in the region, these temples play a major role in the social setup of the area, so much so that the city of Jammu is synonymous with the presence of temples. The whole process of evolution of these temples becomes important when one deals with the development of the socio-religious complexities of the area. The temples with elaborate murals are the ones being considered here. Although such temples are found scattered across the entire Jammu area, the focus of this paper is on two temples located in the Marh block of the Jammu district. These two living Vaishnava shrines, named Sui and Burj, contain narrative paintings of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Puranas, Krishna Leela, etc. It may be said that these paintings serve as a mirror to the society of 19th-century Jammu, that is when the temples were constructed. The range of subjects depicted varies from war to palatial scenes, recording the most minute of details such as the type of utensils used, type of prevalent architectural designs, garments in vogue, etc. 


These paintings belong to the Pahari school of art, which flourished in the foothills of the western Himalayas from the 17th to 19th century. Ohri (1998) observes that the paintings, distinct in spirit and idiom, were the result of an amalgamation of two recurrent themes of contemporary vernacular poetry: one theme was devotional, suggesting the need for a complete surrender to God, and the second was concerned with romantic love.


According to Khandalavala (1958):

Of painting in Jammu during the late 18th century and early 19th century we know but little, yet there is no doubt that there were painters settled there. By the time that Brajraj Dev came to the throne in 1781, his uncle Balwant Singh was probably dead, and it is not known what happened to his atelier. Some of the artists or their descendants may have stayed on in Jammu. Brajraj Dev died in 1787 and was succeeded by his minor son Sampuran Dev (17871797) who died at the age of 12. Thereafter, Sampuran’s cousin Jit Dev (17971812) came to the throne. He was deposed in 1812 or thereabouts by Ranjit Singh, and hence forward the state was completely under the control of Sikhs. Thus from about 1812 onwards the Sikh style of paintings had prevailed in Jammu. In 1820 Jammu was conferred as a fief upon Gulab Singh, a scion of the Jamwal family who was the favorite of Ranjit Singh and who was given the title of Raja by his sikh master.


The temples


The Burj and Sui temples are located about 20 km north-west of Jammu. The distance between the two is less than a kilometre. Architecturally, these temple structures belong to the 19th century AD.


The shrine at Burj has a rectangular plan and is a sandhara temple (with a circumambulatory path) consisting of a garbha griha (sanctum santorum), a small antarala (antechamber) and a mandapa. The singular temple structure is divided into two levels. The lower level houses the mathas dedicated to the saints. The upper level has an octagonal interior that has painted depictions all over. The idols of Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Krishna along with framed images of Shiva, Saraswati and small bronze idols of Garuda are housed in this level.


The Raghunath temple at Sui consists of sporadic structures, some of them even recently constructed. There are two structures which have painted depictions. The first one is the main temple, without a superstructure, which has a rectangular plan of a sandhara type consisting of a garba griha, antarala and a mandapa. The paintings are profuse in this complex and the idols enshrined in the sanctum consists of Ram, Lakshman, Sita along with the pindis (manifestations of Goddess). There are also idols of Garuda, Ganesh, Surya, Durga, Shiva-Parvati and Vishnu. The other temple with painted depictions is a small rectangular shrine with the modern idols of Krishna and Radha. This complex seems to be a dedicatory structure as suggested by an inscription that states that the charan padukas (divine footprints) established there were dedicated to a Mahant Balram Das. The paintings are now found only on the walls.


The mural paintings


These paintings found in both the temples belong to the Pahari school. Pahari according to Khandalavala (1982) means 'of the hills’. The principal centres where the school of painting flourished were Basohli, Jasrota, Mankot, Jammu, Chamba, Nurpur, Haripur-Guler, Sujanpur, Alampur, Nadaun, Mandi, Bilaspur and Akri. These states are very close to each other, thus Khandalavala concludes that the similarity of painting styles in these areas was primarily due to exchange of painters as well as paintings, by way of gifts or dowry.


To understand the evolution of the stylistic pattern of these paintings in Jammu, one has to consider the history of its development in Punjab, the reason being that Jammu was politically and culturally an extension of the Punjab plains. Srivastava (1983) gives a detailed history of the development of this style in Punjab. According to him, mural paintings in Punjab flourished from the times of Akbar, as described by noted historian Muhammad-ud-din Fock, and was prevalent in Punjab upto the 17th century, after which it began to languish and was revived only in the 19th century. This discouragement of the tradition of painting was due to the fact that 'scant attention was paid to pictorial art in the Sikh culture'.


Srivastava goes on to say:

Moreover, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Sikhs were mostly concerned with the preservation of their entity and naturally could not spare much thoughts for cultural activities. However, there was a considerable change after the emergence of Ranjit Singh. The comparatively settled life and the glow of power channeled some of the energies of the martial race into avocations of higher tastes. With the shift of political supremacy to the Lahore court, art also became centered there. Consequent upon Ranjit Singh’s suzerainty over the Hill rajas, entire social and political situation took a dramatic change: artists of these states found new patrons among Sikh nobles as well as in the Lahore and Patiala Darbars. The new political order created favorable conditions for the promotion of fine arts. This change encouraged Hindus and Sikhs not only to construct magnificent shrines without any fear of their being demolished by the rulers, but also to lavish upon them architectural and ornamental decorations. (1983)


He further describes the sources of influence on the paintings of Punjab. Punjab, as he states, was lucky to have both political and matrimonial relations with territories on either side of its borders, i.e. Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Artists from Himachal worked at Lahore, Amritsar, Patiala and Phulkian (comprising of the areas like Patiala, Kapurthala, Jind, Nabha, Faridkot, Kalsia, Nalagarh, Malerkot, etc.) and masons came from Rajasthan. 'It was a two-pronged influx of artists, workers, masons and builders who not only migrated to the Punjab plains in search of livelihood but brought with them a cultural heritage which immortalized them as also their patrons (Srivastava 1983).'


The paintings in both the Sui and Burj temples do not seem to be following any set pattern. There are scenes depicted from Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc., all placed together without any particular story being related. However, these murals provide an excellent source for the reconstruction of the social history of the area. These are painted directly on the wall with inscriptions sometimes found close to them. These inscriptions are immediately reminiscent of one of the murals with inscriptions found in Rajasthan. These paintings, in composition, follow the pattern seen in the Pahari school of Basoli and Kangra. In Basoli and Kangra, Rajasthani flat composition and the Mughal sophistication of portraiture is integrated in the romantic landscape of Himalayan foothills (Chakraborty 2015).


Methods and colours used


Different types of minerals, oils and semi-precious stones were used to make the colours to paint the walls. Mixture of different colors further led to more vibrant colours. Sharma (2010) talks about the different kinds of material used by the painters in the Himalayan foothills in general and Kangra painters in particular.


Red - prepared from a local clay known as hurmachi (type of iron oxide) and sandhuri (red lead)

Singharfi - a shade of red made from cinnabar, red sulphide of mercury

Yellow - produced from either yellow clay or hartial (yellow mineral of the arsenic group)

Peorhi - a shade of yellow made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves

Green - made of powered green stone called sang-i-sabz

White - extracted from marble chips, ground conch shells and lime

Black - soot from lighted earthen lamps and charcoal used

Blue - made from indigo


Layers of lime plaster were applied on the wall before the paintings were made. Kang (1985) explains how 'unlike in the Italian process of buon fresco, colors in in the Indian process of fresco painting were united to the plaster, not only chemically by the action of lime, but also by the mechanical action of beating colors with a trowel into the surface of the ground.' He further adds that the process of running-in of colours with a small iron spatula passed over the surface was peculiar to the Indian practice.


Major themes


The art of the wall paintings of the western Himalayas seems to have generally followed the traditional thematic Silpasastra texts (Seth 1976). Srivastava (1983) explains the two causes instrumental for the development of mural painting in Punjabreligious and secular. The religious category includes the following: Vaishnavite, Saivite, Devi (goddess) cult, Nanak Shahi and Muslim establishments. Under the secular category, he states, fall the buildings which were mostly the personal residences of kings, queens or princes; forts, palaces, gardens, terraces, samadhis (royal cemeteries), dharamshalas (pilgrim’s inns), havelis (manors) of big landlords, etc. It is along those line that the paintings in these two temples are executed.


The major themes of paintings revolve mainly around Krishna. Seth (1976) explains how Vaishnavism was the dominant inspiration of most of the wall paintings of this region. Vaishnavism of the later period and Vaishnavite Puranas, which mentioned Krishna as a playful mischievous boy in the pastoral settlements of Vraja and the tales of Bhagavata Purana, were the main source of influence. The essence of this cult was the love of Radha for Krishna, the pastoral society free from the inhibitions and the norms of a society governed by Smarta Pauranik Brahminism. It was the Vaishavism of the Krishna cult which is mentioned in the works written after AD 1000, beginning from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda of the 12th century, Bhanu Datta’s Rasamanjari of the 13th century, Mati Ram’s Ras Raj, Bihari’s Satsai of AD 1662 and Kesavadas’s Rasikapriya of the late 16th century. Besides these writers, a group of other poets including Vidyapati, Surdas, Bansidhara, Dev Datta, Senapati, Sundardas and Tula Ram contributed a great deal to the popularity of this cult.


Other themes depicted on the walls of these temples are:

  •  Scenes and episodes from epics such as the Ramayana
  • Shiva in domestic felicity with his consort Parvati and sometimes with his entire family
  • The figure of the Devi (goddess) in many forms, such as Shakti, Mahishasuramardini, Vaishno Devi, etc.
  • Various incarnations of Vishnu
  • Saints like Kabir, Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Govind Singh and so on
  • Secular subjects such as couples from folklore: Sassi-Punnu and Soni-Mahival
  • Depictions of hell


However, these wall paintings have been, over time, subjected to vandalism with the temples being living monuments. These temples deserve special attention because the area of Jammu has scanty visual historical records unlike its vast literary records, which serve the purpose of the reconstruction of the history of late medieval Jammu. Together, both these sources can help in reconstructing a lucid history of the region which is indeed the need of the hour. 




Chakraborty, Pronoy. 2015. The Place of Radha in Gita Govinda. Project for Indian Painting. Vadodara: The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.


Kang, Kawaljit S. 1985. Wall paintings of Punjab and Haryana. New Delhi: Atma Ram and Sons.


Khandalavala, Karl. 1958. Pahari Paintings. Bombay. The New Book Company Ltd.

———. 1982. Pahari Miniature Paintings in the N.C Mehta Collection. Ahmedabad: Gujarat Museum Society.


Ohri, V. C. 1998. Introduction in Painters of the Pahari Schools. Ed. Vishwa Chander Ohri and Roy C Craven Jr. .Bombay: Marg Publications. 50 no. 11-17


Seth, Mira. 1976. Wall Paintings of the Western Himalayas. New Delhi: Director Publication Division


Sharma, Vijay. 2010. Kangra ke Chitrakan Parampra. Chamba: Chamba Shilp Parishad.


Srivastava, R. P. 1983. Punjab Paintings: Study in Art and Culture. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.