Centaurs, archers and modern vandals

Over 500 exquisite cave paintings, over 2,000 years old, but government mandarins remain blissfully uninterested

March 10, 2017 06:30 pm | Updated 06:30 pm IST

The cave paintings at Porivarai in the Nilgiris were discovered by a team from the Government Arts College of Chennai

The cave paintings at Porivarai in the Nilgiris were discovered by a team from the Government Arts College of Chennai

The Nilgiris have a peculiar ability to completely transform within a few dozen kilometres. And every drop in altitude produces a completely different climate and landscape.

So, when travelling from Ooty (altitude 2,240 metres) down to Sholurmattam town (823 metres) and then a little further down to Karikkiyur village, the journey itself is just a little over two hours, but the language you hear, the trees and flowers you see and the animals you spot are all completely different from what you saw at the beginning of the journey.

A quaint village that is home to about 1,500 people of the Irula tribe, Karikkiyur is also the closest habitation to Porivarai, a pre-historic cave painting site, discovered only over a decade ago. “We used to go there to collect honey, so the name Porivarai,” says the owner of the village’s only tea shop, Selvaraj N. In Tamil, pori can mean sparks of fire and arai , a room. The Irulas use a flame to scare the bees away and come away with the honeycombs. The site is an hour’s trek into the forest, and Selvaraj gathers up a motley crew of kids who had a day off from school and Vellagiri B., a 24-year-old relative, and offers to take us to the site and back for a nominal sum.

The journey is along a woodcutter’s path through the jungle. The many bottles hanging on the walls around houses, especially the ones at the edge of the village, are reminders of the danger of an elephant encounter—the clanking noise the bottles make is an inexpensive alarm system to warn villagers when elephants are trying to get into their property.

A natural gallery

The journey to the site is harder than expected. Vellagiri has to cut large swathes of overgrown plants and thorny bushes to clear a way for us. While a path is always visible, the last stretch, just before we reach Porivarai, is a steep drop and to climb down without slipping is no mean task.

At Porivarai we see a huge rock face curving inwards with a little enclosure. It opens up to a tremendous view of the plains below and of the enormous Bhavanisagar reservoir. The rock face is covered with cave paintings along its 50 metre stretch at heights ranging from three feet to 15 feet. “I think Porivarai was roughly the twentieth rock painting site I had visited. I have seen about 80 sites after, but it still remains the most incredible place I have seen,” says K.T. Gandhirajan, art historian and a specialist in rock art who has been on the trail of rock art sites in South India since 1998. Gandhirajan was part of the small team from the government arts college that discovered Porivarai in 2005.

“We had heard of cave paintings in the Nilgiris and a few sites such as Konavakkarai and Vellaricombai had already been found. We showed images of cave paintings to tribal children in and around the town of Kotagiri and asked them if they had seen anything like this. One high school student told us about paintings he had seen outside his village Karikkiyur,” says Gandhirajan. “We visited the site as soon as we could and what we found blew us away.”

There are over 500 cave paintings here, created with white and red ochre and kaolin, a fine white clay. They depict a staggering array of scenes and animals: A centaur-like figure, bison, grazing cattle, archers in training, a battle-scene with men on horseback, wild boars, grazing deer, a reptilian figure with horns and strange spiral shapes are among the paintings that have survived here.

“For me, it’s important to acknowledge that the people who created these painting were the first great artists. The masterpiece for me here is a herd of bison. It’s a great anatomical study of the animal and each of them is a different shape and size but the proportions are maintained truthfully,” says Gandhirajan. “This is not an easy skill even now and surely would have required a lot of training 2,000 years ago.”

Vandals galore

Porivarai is also unfortunately defaced with ghastly graffiti. From lovers who have etched their name in stone to swastikas and oms and a few paintings of the Indian flag by a particularly industrious and patriotic vandal, the cave paintings are completely undermined by this mess surrounding them. “Yes, Karikkiyur and the cave paintings should be protected and some kind of regulated tourism can even be brought about,” says K. Rajkumar, former District Forest Officer (in-charge) for the Nilgiris North Division. Unfortunately, the officer doesn’t seem to know of any concrete plans to protect the site.

Officials at the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department are also unclear about their plans to protect Porivarai. “This site is inside a reserve forest area and it is therefore difficult for us to be hands-on in terms of protecting and developing it,” says R. Sivanandham, Deputy Director. “While there are four rock art sites in Tamil Nadu under our protection, as things stand now there’s no plan to bring Porivarai into our fold. Hopefully we’ll be able to look into it in the future.”

This lack of enthusiasm and foresight might be devastating for the cave paintings, which might soon be erased by vandalism and natural forces. “None of the local folk have damaged the site, we think it was done by tourists,” says Selvaraj. Gandhirajan thinks different. “Even five years ago, there was hardly any vandalism . I think it’s a combination of outsiders who have come and also a few local boys trying to leave their mark here.”

It does not help that rock art is fairly unappreciated in the country and in Tamil Nadu, getting an even worse deal in the generally lackadaisical approach to heritage conservation. The first rock art site discovered in the State was only in 1978 at Mallapadi in Dharmapuri district. But despite over a 100 such sites having been identified since, the Archaeology Department strangely offers protection to only a few. In sharp contrast, Bhimbetka, a rock art site 40 kilometres outside Bhopal, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Creating awareness about the importance of rock art in the village and environs is important. They should also protect the area, impose a fine on vandals,” says Gandhirajan. “If this is not done, the secrets from thousands of years ago will be lost forever.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in the Nilgiris who enjoys the company of a friendly neighbourhood Indian gaur.

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