Velaricombai’s pre-historic rock painting opens a door to the life and culture of the Kurumbas

It feels like heaven — to stretch my legs and just sit still after four hours of trekking. Sitting on a boulder at approximately 1,500 ft above sea level, I splash water on my face, and relish the moment on the cliff. We are at a pre-historic site near Velaricombai, a Kurumba hamlet, located 16 km from Kotagiri. The ochre painting, spread over the rock canvas dates back to the pre-historic era and unfolds vital clues about how the Kurumbas, a tribal community in The Nilgiris, lived.

Accompanied by K. Balasubramaniam of the Nilgiris Adivasi Welfare Association, we begin our trek at Mamaram — a picturesque pathway, flanked by scenic tea gardens (most of the tea plants are as old as 60 years!). Burst of bougainvilleas and exotic orange flowers add colour to the greenery. Then come the Robusta and Arabica coffee plantations. We pluck oranges off the tree. There is also pepper, jackfruit, pomegranate, mango, cotton (elavam panju), guava, and betel nut…the weather here supports a multi-crop pattern. A few miles away, there is rubber too. Velaricombai was once a hideout of the Kurumbas, when they had to escape warring enemies.

The next village is Sundapatti and it is picture postcard stuff. We stop briefly and get a bird’s eye view of the Mettupalayam plains, the Black Thunder theme park and a glimpse of the River Bhavani snaking through.

The stony pathway, made from uneven sized boulders, takes over. And, the trek gets tougher. Two tribal boys N. Ganesh, a class IX student and P. Sivakumar guide us into the forest. Sivakumar carries a sickle, and clears the thorny bushes as we go forward.

It’s an uphill trek and the terrain is rough. My hands get bruised as I push my way through the thorny bushes. I slide on rocks, jump over bamboo shoots, and watch every step. One wrong move, and I could fall. I falter a number of times, but the team keeps up my spirits. We munch on groundnut bars, recoup our energy levels, and continue.

The sun is blazing, and our destination, a gigantic cluster of rocks looks so distant. Every 10 minutes we look up eagerly, but it still seems a long way. A small tunnel comes in the way and when we emerge out of it, the rock cluster shows up in its full glory.

There, a gigantic cult figure stares from the rock canvas. He has long limbs and carries a decapitated head on his right hand, while the torso of the slain person lies below. A halo in dotted line surrounds the huge figure. “He’s a key figure perceived by the pre-historic people as their main deity or cult hero,” explains C. Maheswaran, director of Tribal Research Centre, Ooty.

“A kurumba priest, even today, draws ‘anthropomorphic’ forms on temple walls over the previous year’s paintings. They believe that the spirit from the painting flies to the pre-historic figure on the cliff and rejuvenates it. They conduct a secret ritual to recharge the cult figure, as they believe he brings prosperity to their hamlet. Allen Zagarell, professor of Anthropology at West Michigan University, U.S. has documented the paintings at the Velaricombai site.”

N. Krishnan, one of the last surviving painters of the Kurumbas, says the paintings depict the lifestyle of his ancestors. They depicted rituals involving harvests, festivals, and death, as well as things they were scared of, such as snakes, and muni (evil force). Krishnan points out to the ‘dodda deiva’ (the big deity) ‘neer deiva’ (water deity) and the kudils and parans (machans). A ‘muni sangili’ shown near the feet of the beheaded figure depicts the evil force. There is a red cross on the painting that looks similar to Indus Valley symbols. “It also denotes fertility. Native Alukurumbhas consider the pre-historic remains as their ancestral lineage or property. These paintings are 5,000 years old or dated 3,500 B.C.”

Kurumbas used caves as their dwelling place, and they are expert honey collectors. They use the zig zag nodes of bamboo as ladders to reach the beehives. They have used hand brushes, fibres or barks of trees for the painting. “They could have used the bamboo ladders, held the brush in their mouths and painted too. James Wilkinson Breeks (the first Collector of the Nilgiris), and many others like Antony Walker, Paul Hawkins and William Nobel have studied the painting but they don’t know the local interpretations,” says M. Kumaravel, field officer of C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre. As dusk falls over the cliff, we discuss history over bread, butter, jam, and banana, breathe the pollution-free air for one last time, and turn back to a crazy city life that awaits us.


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VELARICOMBAI

  • GETTING THERE:

    The trek from Mamaram to the pre-historic site via Sundapatti and Velaricombai is roughly 10 km. From Coimbatore, take the road that goes to Kotagiri and stop at Mamaram. You can park your vehicle here. It is advised to enter the forest in the morning as elephants are often sighted in the evenings. Carry water, and sunscreen. Get prior permission. Contact The Nilgiris Adivasi Welfare Association (NAWA) at 04266-271596/ 271576.

    WHERE TO STAY:

    There are hotels in Kotagiri, Ooty, and Coonoor.


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