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Outlines of a past

Pre-historic art is of value as it shows mankind in its true dimension. G. CHANDRASEKARAN and K.T. GANDHIRAJAN visit a rock-art site in the Nilgiris.


The site at Karikkiyoor ... largest such panel in South India.

IT wasn't too long ago when a team of artists, an art historian and a photographer from the Chennai College of Fine Arts and the ROOTS organisation were at Kotagiri, in the Nilgiris, to impart art and crafts training to tribal youth at the Donbosco community college. All this under the tutelage of artist Chandrasekaran (Chandru).

It was during this time that a team member decided to explore a few sites of archaeological importance in and around Kotagiri. (These sites are already known to have few pre-historic remains.)

The scene soon shifted to Konavakarai, a tribal village; home to a rock shelter that hasrock paintings of a pre-historic period. But none of the villagers appeared to be familiar with the shelter. Disappointed, we returned to the college. Later that evening, the team discussed the topic of rock art with the students. Suddenly, one of the boys, an Irula, from Karikkiyoor, a village about 40 kilometres from Kotagiri, said he remembered seeing a few such paintings at a site in the forests near Karikkiyoor.

Excitement grew as the team decided that it had to visit the spot the next day.

... we set out for Karikkiyoor passing Solur mattam. The trip along the narrow road with its numerous "hair pin bends" was breathtaking.

At Alambadi ... an x-ray bull

As soon as we arrived at Karikiyoor, we made enquiries at the village. An elder said he had seen what appeared to be a few paintings while gathering honey. We set out for the site with him acting as guide. It was a trek across two kilometres. We finally arrived at a shelter, locally known as Porivarai.

It is a huge rock, roughly 300 feet high and 500 feet long, with paintings found on its eastern face. This site is one of the longest pre-historical rock art sites in Tamil Nadu. The paintings extend over a length of nearly 53 metres and go up to a height of 15 m. The shelter could accommodate more than 100 people at a time, with only two narrow entrances. A deep valley lies below the rock, thus making it a safe and secure site.

There are more than 500 images, but the elements have eroded a few. The subjects range from animal to human figures — a series on bulls and bull-fighting, the domestication of wild animals, deer, elephants, domestic fowl, a man riding an animal, a man carrying animals, monkeys, a mongoose and a snake fight and warriors with weapons.

A group of hunters with weapons

The bulls, and this includes a calf in procession, are a masterpiece. Another interesting depiction is a group of dancers with their arms thrown over the other person's waist.

To Dr. Nambiraj, Assistant Archaeologist, Archaeological Society of India (ASI), the symbols, that are noteworthy, include a four-armed one, similar to the ones on punched marked coins. The depiction of plants, a rare subject in rock art context, is unique to this site.

The colours used here are ochre (red hematite) and white (lime), both available locally. (The paints used by pre-historic man were all derived from natural earth pigments, with the painting style adopted being the wet colour technique.)

The pigments have gone straight on the rock surface, with the most commonly used material for preparing pigment in all the style periods being iron oxide, called "geru" in India. (It was pulverised and mixed with water before being applied to the rock surface. It is also likely that some binding material was used.) At Porivarai, the natural rock wall was not prepared by the pre-historic artists. In rock art, it is characteristic for the artist to chose to execute the work irrespective of the rock curvature or characteristics. At Porivarai, some of the representations are placed so high that they are well beyond the reach of someone standing at floor level. The Porivarai artists may either have clambered on to the wall or used an artificial aid.

Images of bulls.

At this site, the vast majority of recognisable representations are indeed of various species of animals and human activities. Among the animals most commonly represented are the bison, the bull and the horse. Most of the representations of humans are crude and clumsy in comparison with the many animal representations. Animals, humans or signs are shown either in isolation or on panels, which also contain several other animals, humans or signs. Another characteristic of the Porivarai panels with more than one representation on them is the frequent occurrence of super positioning. It is not at all uncommon to find one animal or sign placed on top of another or sign placed on top of another or sign either overlapping the previous representation in part only or completely covering it. Animals are almost invariably shown in profile and the varieties of stances to be found in this art are numerous. Also some images are painted with solid colours in red and white pigments; treatments believed to belong to an earlier period.

The foot soldiers are armed mainly with swords and shields. The horses are draped in a fancy saddle, blankets, reins, tassels and other ornaments. Or course it is not possible to say whether there is any mythological background to these war scenes or whether they are merely a reflex icon of warfare as the artist had seen it. The detailed depictions of weapons show that the rock shelter painters were more than casually acquainted with them.

It is possible that members of tribes were recruited into the royal armies and became acquainted with courtly dress and ornaments. In a few of the warrior scenes, the soldiers are standing on one base line that may indicate that they were war scenes taking place in the plains, and that may have been witnessed and recorded by the artist. The depictions of the bow are also varied.

Images of bulls & the outline of a lizard can be made out.

The depiction of the skeleton and intestines of living animals is a widely diffused phenomenon in the art of hunting and gathering societies. Even in the earliest paintings, depictions in the x-ray style are plentiful (see box on "X-ray expressions of pre-historic art"). The style is obviously not uniform. But uniformity is lacking even between animal depictions within the same painting group. Such x-ray style bull images are depicted in Porivarai. Similar style paintings are found mostly in central Indian rock art shelters. In Tamil Nadu, such images are found in Alambadi, Vellarikombai and Odiyathoor. According to Chandrasekaran, such art shows the development of the artistic evolution of mankind.

The depiction of the lizard in art is an ancient practice too, depicted at Porivarai in a realistic manner. However, while the purpose of its depiction is not known, it may have originated from religious/mythical practice.

In general, rock art is found in/on a rock shelter/cave or dolman slabs. Such rock art shelters may have been used by early man as habitational sites or as a place for rest during their work in their forest.

Celebration after a boar hunt

To Aravazhi, Archaeology Technical Assistant, ASI, "the painted shelter at Porivarai may have been used when early man was engaged in hunting or honey gathering. Even now the local people collect honey from high places in the cave using a creeper ladder. Neolithic stone tools and megalithic pottery pieces can also be found. The paintings seem to have been painted by different artist in different periods."

Pre-historic art gives information on pre-historic social activities, the economy, material culture, idealogy and environmental context, which is often not reflected in other types of archaeological evidence. The general chronological distribution of art in the human evolutionary sequence is highly patterned; that is evidence for art, only occurs in the last 40,000 years or so.

Tamil Nadu still retains the status of "terra incognito" in the field of rock art research. Except for a few articles in English ( K.V. Raman and K. Rajan) and small monographs on rock art by the Madras museum, there is really no other publication on rock art. Raj Poun durai's book in Tamil has very basic information, while a book on rock art in Dharmapuri district, recently published by Mathi vanan and Durai samy, deals with the comparison of rock art symbols with Indus scripts. Further, identification and the list of reported rock art sites are obscureArchaeological departments don't have sufficient data or photo documentation of rock art in Tamil Nadu. In the museum publication, the author mentions 500 rock art sites in Tamil Nadu, which are unaccounted for.

So far, about 100 sites have been reported in Tamil Nadu; they are in Dharmapuri (70), Vellore (25), Villupuram (8), the Nilgiris (10), Coimbatore (3), Madurai (3), Dindigal (1) and Theni (2) districts.

More wait to be discovered.

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