Barring the wall paintings of the Ramnagar Palace which are under the protection of ASI, all other examples of murals have been vandalized in temples and palaces across in Jammu division owing to official apathy and ignorance of custodians.
Most of the exquisite mural paintings that once adore Jammu’s temples are at the verge of extinction thanks to neglect and apathy of state authorities as well as private custodians and caretakers. These artistic treasures, belonging mostly to the so-called Dogra period, (extant examples dating roughly from 1820 to 1920) have been whitewashed, covered with cement plaster in the name of temple renovation.
Officials of the Dharmarth Trust and other defacto custodians like the family of priests in residence of these beautifully decorated edifices have allowed the whitewashing or complete obliteration of murals to present a clean surface to devotees. What is even more appalling is that they justify the acts, which disregard the canons of art conservation, by claiming that devotees do not like to see faded paintings.
In what conservationists describe as a classic example of murder of art, in some cases these paintings are reportedly repainted by signboard artists who merrily use modern poster-colours to re-create them (Gaytri Devi Temple- on the banks of river Tawi). The State Archaeology Department-with a only namesake conservation wing marked by lack of technically trained human resource and thus ill-equipped to under take any chemical conservation of murals-has been a silent spectator while the precious artistic heritage is disappearing fast with every passing day.
The ignorance of the locals has also led to the neglect of these works of art. Soot from oil lamps settles over the murals; electrical cables and switchboards are installed over them; or cracked ceilings allow water and sunlight to seep in and spoil the murals.
The temples where the few surviving murals have been mindlessly whitewashed include the Billo Mandir, Panjtirthi, Deewan Mandir and Rani Mandir in Purani Mandi; all in Jammu city. Other temples like the Purmandal group which was once profusely decorated with wall paintings, today due to white washing and repairs are left with only a few painted portions as the show pieces of ancient Dogra art of murals.
The temple of Sui and Burj in the Marh block which are under the custody of hereditary lines of priests contain examples of wall paintings that for their historic importance can be called as masterpieces of early Dogra style. But like many such cases as the pradakshinapath of Sui temple decorated with cycles of wall paintings is being used as godown to store sacks of grains, the paintings, especially in the lower registers, have been subjects of decades of rubbing and subsequent erasing and defacement of the details.
The condition of another excellent example of wall paintings at temple of Burj is again in poor condition.
Not only the temples but murals in many other palaces and havelies in Jammu face similar defacement.
These mural paintings are not only great works of art but serve a historical purpose by throwing light on contemporary society through dresses, ornamentation, hairstyle, musical instruments, arms and armoury, and a host of other details depicted in them. Some of the murals are about actual historical events such as battles and other aspects. Murals at Ramnagar Palaces show Raja Suchet in various moods day to day activates like hunting etc. Although the great majority of wall paintings deal with mythological themes, including the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata. A comparative study of the styles and techniques in different periods can take us through the process of development of the art of mural painting at different stages in the past.
One of the immediate needs of the hour is to prepare an inventory of all the surviving murals in the Jammu and other parts of the state. This list would help in undertaking immediate conservation efforts. This work for the state register of murals has to begin without delay though the magnitude of the proposed work involves a real concerted effort by team comprising of art historians, archaeologists, conservationists, photographers and academicians. An exhaustive list would help reduce the problem of identifying what can be saved and what cannot. Luckily unlike south India where there are about 35,000 temples only in Tamil Nadu, the number of temples and monasteries in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh is not that large, and especially the buildings in which murals are found are still less in number thus can still be properly documented.
The key to the solution of preservation of murals lies in creating an awareness among the different stakeholders on the value of these murals along with making available the desired technical and scientific skilled human and financial resources to undertake the task of preserving the artistic heritage of Jammu and Kashmir.