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The petroglyphs of Ratnagiri

A large engraving of an elephant in Ukshi village in north Ratnagiri, where a circular viewing gallery has been constructed, along with an inscription that explains the art work’s significance.   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe

The colour of the setting sun matches the ferrous red of the porous laterite rock that dominates the terrain of Ratnagiri and Rajapur along Maharashtra’s Konkan coast. At a quarter past six in the evening, in the small village of Devache Gothane, when there is finally some respite from the heat, the two shades converge, casting a soft glow on the lush grass that covers the flat hilltops. The monsoon has evidently been generous to this region. A steep climb from the village ends in an endless expanse of such grass. But the sight that greets you in the middle of it, on a patch where the heat has baked the surface of the red laterite black, makes the climb worth it.

An oval ring of stones frames an image carved into the laterite. It depicts a human form — a man standing feet akimbo, arms loose by his side. The carving is about eight feet long. It’s the head that is most striking, framed by a kind of aura or halo. Something about the vastness of that meadow, the rapidly fading light, and the eerie nature of that single carving in a desolate field evokes a strange excitement. A small window into another world.

This carving is one of the over 1,000 such petroglyphs that have been discovered in and around the Ratnagiri and Rajapur districts over the last two or three years, making them one of the most significant archaeological finds of recent times. The carvings cover over 52 sites across the region. The 12 sites that The Hindu travelled to contained an incredible range of images, from basic depictions of human and animal forms to a stunning 50-ft carving of an elephant, within which a series of smaller animal and aquatic forms were drawn. From abstract patterns and fertility symbols carved rudimentarily on the rock surface to dizzyingly complex geometric reliefs cut deep into the rock, the etchings seem straight out of the movie Signs or the television series Lost. The term rock art usually brings to mind pictographs (paintings on rocks). But these are petroglyphs, and the fact that the images are carved into the flat, open rock surface gives them a scale and look that is unique.

Filling a gap in history

“These petroglyphs fill a huge gap in the history of the Konkan region,” says Tejas Garge, Director, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Maharashtra. There is ample evidence that in the medieval age, the Konkan coast was lined with important port towns. It has been reconstructed from epigraphs and contemporaneous records that it has a history of trade and contact with Europe, and even with the Roman Empire. But there was a big void regarding what went on here in prehistoric times. Some evidence has come from the caves in the region. A team of researchers from Deccan College, Pune, discovered stone tools that were estimated to be 25,000 years old. “If you consider that the records of the port towns are from about 3,000 BCE, we are talking of a gap of about 20,000 years. No one knew what happened here during this period,” Garge says.

The working theory around these petroglyphs is that they date back to about 10,000 BCE, placing them in the Mesolithic Period, which comes between the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic period, characterised by chipped stone tools, and the New Stone Age or Neolithic period, associated with smaller, more polished tools. The basis for this reasoning are two-fold. The first is that the petroglyph style of art is associated in other archaeological sites with tools from the Mesolithic period. Second, near one petroglyph site in the village of Kasheli, about 25 km from Ratnagiri city, Garge’s team also found evidence of stone tools, along with the petroglyphs dating back to this time. More precise dating may be hindered at this point, he explains, partly because of the way in which many of these sites were discovered.

“These were accidental discoveries by amateurs. As often happens in such cases, they cleared away much of the soil around the carvings, soil that would normally have been part of the archaeological record,” he says. Accidental discovery by explorers is not uncommon in archaeology, Garge says, adding that amateurs account for about 20% of all the world’s archaeological discoveries.

The road to discovery

In 2010, Sudhir Risbood, an electrical engineer, started a campaign and an informal group called Adgalnavarche Konkan, or Unexplored Konkan. Risbood is a keen ornithologist and a passionate raconteur of Konkan history. His eyes light up when he speaks of the different kinds of beaches in the region (black sand, red sand, and white sand), and the multitude of forts and temples that have become tourist attractions. For years now, he has been building replicas of the forts of Ratnagiri, Raigad, and Sindhudurg for public display. He likes to regale students and history enthusiasts with tales of how they were built and operated.

The petroglyphs of Ratnagiri

Unexplored Konkan is a motley crew of like-minded individuals who are all into documenting nature. Manoj Marathe, like Risbood, is also an electrical engineer, but with a passion for butterflies. Surendra Thakurdesai is a geography professor with a deep interest in snakes. Along the way, they acquired a rotating cast of allies which included the Superintendent of Police and Collector of Ratnagiri district.

In 2012, Risbood came up with a plan to expand the group’s activities. Having grown up in Ratnagiri, he remembered having seen, as a school boy, a square rock relief pattern just off the road near the village of Nivali, about 17 kilometres from Ratnagiri city. “I would cycle pass it and wonder what it was,” he says. It was full of interlocking curls and concentric circles, Risbood recalls, but of course, he had no idea that he was seeing a petroglyph from an ancient culture. But he did know that the local tribal population treated it with reverence, as a legacy of their forefathers.

Years later, in the mid-2000s, while doing a project in the area around the Aryadurga temple and Ganpatipule, Risbood came across more such rock carvings. “In 2012, we decided to see how many more sites like these we could find. We started asking around in the villages, and realised that because of the new roads people didn’t walk across the flat rock surfaces any more. But some of the older people knew.”

A shepherd was the first to volunteer information. He plotted a location for them by describing a boundary wall and the shape of bushes around the petroglyph. From then on, there was no looking back. Three sites became 52, and Rajapur and the number of petroglyphs recorded grew to over a thousand. When the new director of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums (Garge) visited Ratnagiri in 2016, Risbood sought a meeting. He showed sketches of the petroglyphs to Garge and took him to some of the locations. In 2017, Garge transferred a young Archaeology Department official, Rutwij Apte, from Pune to Ratnagiri to work full time on the petroglyphs. Currently, Apte and Risbood’s crew are in charge of the project.

As much as they are involved in discovering and documenting the sites, Risbood and Apte, along with Manoj Marathe, have also started speaking to the local villagers about the importance of the sites and the need to protect them. The ring of stones around the human carving in Devache Gothane is one such attempt. In other sites, particularly where the petroglyphs fall in land that is mined for laterite stone, widely used in construction across the western coast, they have convinced the land owners to erect brick boundaries protecting the sites. Help also arrived from the Collector, Radhakrishnan B., who put a halt to mining around some sites. In the village of Ukshi in north Ratnagiri, for a large engraving of an elephant, the team worked with local authorities to construct a circular viewing gallery, complete with an inscription that explains the art work’s significance.

Decoding their significance

What do we know so far about the significance of these petroglyphs? The Ratnagiri project is yet to focus on comparative analysis. But these carvings could be contemporaneous to other petroglyph sites in India that date back to the Middle and Later Stone Age. The period in history preceding the Indus Valley Civilisation, which is dated to about 5,000 BCE, is a rich one of historical discovery, with evidence of stone tool cultures scattered across the subcontinent.

Prominent petroglyph and rock art sites in India that could be contemporary to this period are the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, rock carvings in Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, petroglyphs from the Tindivanam and Viluppuram districts in Tamil Nadu and Unakoti in Tripura. The carvings on laterite stone are what make the petroglyphs in this region unique, as the carvings discovered in other sites around India are on granite and sandstone. More recently, petroglyphs of a similar nature, though not in the same numbers, have been discovered in Sindhudurg district, and near the banks of the Kushavati river in Goa. Both are south of Ratnagiri, hinting at a pattern of migration.

Garge is quick to point out that this is not yet evidence of a civilisation, as there is no evidence of writing, agricultural or economic activity, or of living arrangements or settlements. It’s more likely, he says, that these were nomadic tribes, with the preponderant depiction of animals and aquatic life suggesting that they were hunter-gatherer tribes. Interestingly, there are no actual scenes depicting the hunting of animals, unlike the carvings in Bhimbetka and Mirzapur. “In Maharashtra’s cultural records, there is no evidence of any art being practised until about 3,000 BCE, which is when we find the first mention of painted pots and clay figurines. That’s why these petroglyphs are a significant find for a better understanding of the history of this region and its artistic traditions,” Garge says.

It could be argued that the very content of the petroglyphs points to their relevance. For starters, some of them depict rhinoceroses and hippopotami, two species that were never thought to be prevalent in this part of India. The carvings, however, suggest that the Konkan may have once been a lot like the rainforests where these animals are typically found.

More pertinent, perhaps, is the scale of the art itself. “We have to ask what is the purpose behind all these carvings. In many of the cases, what we have are not rudimentary scratches but carvings with a great deal of detail. Some are incredible life-size depictions of large animals such as elephants and tigers,” Garge says. Most of the art from the later medieval period is religious in nature, he says, and it is quite likely that such a significant investment in art points to some form of religious belief or religious system.

An eight ft­long petroglyph in Devache Gothane village in Rajapur district, Maharashtra.

An eight ft­long petroglyph in Devache Gothane village in Rajapur district, Maharashtra.   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe


Many of the petroglyphs are accompanied by abstract motifs and symbols, the meaning of which is not yet known. The most intriguing of these is the motif of two legs, squatting and spread outward. The symbol is cut off at the hip and is usually deployed as a side motif to the larger, more abstract rock reliefs. “Images from later periods depict a goddess called Lajja Gauri who is similarly portrayed, squatting and with legs facing outward, though in those cases the rest of the body is also shown. We are exploring a link between the two,” Garge says.

Apte believes that some of the more complex reliefs, etched deep into the ground, may have been done using metal tools rather than stone. If his theory is proven right, then just as in sites like Bhimbetka, where art has been dated from prehistoric times right down to the medieval period, it could point to a continuous habitation of this region, across millennia, possibly by various nomadic tribes. Apte, who is now doing his PhD on these petroglyphs, is also working on a theory that the carvings get more complex as one moves from north to south, suggesting a pattern of migration in this direction over many centuries. One of the most complex petroglyphs The Hindu visited, in the village of Barsu at the southern tip of Ratnagiri, was a large image of a man standing with two tigers (etched stylistically with precise geometric shapes) flanking him on either side. The carvings in the north of Ratnagiri district are more basic depictions of animal and human forms.

Stage set for further research

The discovery of these sites marks the commencement of what is likely to be a long project. “We still need to look for more evidence of stone tools and evidence of settlements around these sites so that we can do a more accurate dating,” Apte says. So far, such evidence has been hard to come by in Ratnagiri and Rajapur, though there have been recent reports of some caves with petroglyphs being discovered in the Sindhudurg region. To discover more such petroglyph sites, Garge is also planning to deploy drones to cover areas of open laterite rock surface that are not yet accessible. Then there is the question of comparative analysis and collaboration with various universities to understand more about these sites. Maharashtra’s Archaeology Department is already in the process of putting together an academic paper detailing these findings.

For now, while the State government has set aside ₹24 crore for further research on these sites, a lot of administrative work still needs to be done if they are to be showcased as tourist attractions for the region. For a start, the sites need to be notified as archaeological heritage. Then, as Risbood explains, the State government will have to engage in a long process of land acquisition that could prove tricky.

“We have already spoken to many of the villagers in this region. Some are willing to work in partnership with the government because they realise the importance of these sites,” Risbood says. This would involve a system whereby viewing galleries are created and the villagers are able to charge a small fee and possibly sell tea and snacks. The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation has already shown interest in developing some of these sites and incorporating them into the tourist circuit of a region that attracts a lot of travellers, drawn to it by the beaches and famous temples such as Ganpatipule.

Going forward, Risbood concedes that a more coherent narrative needs to be woven around some of the more prominent sites. Promoting tourism and the unknown wonders of the Konkan region is, of course, his passion. The heaps of documents that he has gathered for each site also include rudimentary drawings for viewing galleries and detailed plans for partnership with the villagers. That story, as also the unfolding archaeological research on these sites, is likely to be an even more exciting one.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 7:42:25 PM |

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