5,000-year-old treasure in the Nilgiris

More than 300 images are etched on the cliff-face along the Kotagiri slopes

Updated - July 29, 2022 10:35 am IST

Published - July 28, 2022 10:18 pm IST

A painting on a rock surface at
Karikiyoor in the Nilgiris.

A painting on a rock surface at Karikiyoor in the Nilgiris. | Photo Credit: M. SATHYAMOORTHY

Tucked away along the Kotagiri slopes, overlooking the confluence of the Moyar and the Bhavani, is one of the most remarkable and enigmatic rock art sites in south India. The Karikiyoor rock paintings — a series of over 300 images etched on the side of the cliff-face — are believed to be more than 5,000-years old. They are just one of a series of cave and rock paintings that have been rediscovered across the Nilgiris in recent decades.

“Karikiyoor is probably one of the biggest rock art sites in India. A variety of subjects are depicted in great detail — the communities that lived in the area at that time, the wildlife they witnessed and their relationships with them, as well as the battles with other communities, making their way up the hills,” said K.T. Gandhirajan, a rock art expert.

Mr. Gandhirajan said the images were added over a period of hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. “Though no scientific dating has been done on the site itself, the images depict a gradual shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the initial drawings to a pastoral and, eventually, a settled agrarian lifestyle in the later drawings.”

The shift could indicate the rock art site itself was added onto by different groups at different stages in its history, anthropologists believe.

While Karikiyoor is the largest of the rock art sites in the Nilgiris, there are other smaller cave painting sites, mostly hidden deep inside reserve forests, according to Kannan Ramaiah, a naturalist documenting rock art and cave paintings in the district.

Mr. Ramaiah said James Wilkinson Breeks, a civil servant who lived in the 19th Century and author of An Account of the Primitive Tribes and Monuments of the Nilagiris [sic]’, records 18 distinct rock art sites. “Unfortunately, much of the knowledge of these sites seems to have been lost even to indigenous communities, many of which said the elders who had known where these sites were located have either died or have forgotten the locations,” said Mr. Ramaiah.

He has documented 10 sites, and is trying to find the others mentioned in Breeks’ records before they are lost forever. “In Karikiyoor, vandals have defaced some of the rock art, painting political and religious symbols on the images. Unless the other sites are found, documented and protected, the same fate could await them,” he said.

Local indigenous communities, especially the Irulas and the Kurumbas, have an attachment to the sites, as most of the rock art and cave painting sites are located near the settlements of these aboriginal groups. However, there is not enough evidence to suggest a link between the communities and the rock art itself, said C. Maheshwaran, former director of the Tribal Research Center in Udhagamandalam.

“The Irulas and the Kurumbas believe the sites are the ancestral abodes of their forefathers, and this belief has helped in conserving these sites so far,” said Mr. Maheshwaran. More research is needed to establish whether the local communities, such as the Irulas, the Kurumbas and even the Todas, have any direct link to the art itself. “In Vellarikombai, another major rock art site, the Kurumbas claim a link to it, while in Karikiyoor and Sigur, the rock art sites are claimed by the Irulas,” said Mr. Maheshwaran.

Researchers stated that while there were no immediate threats to the rock art, unless they were fully documented, the art itself might be lost owing to erosion, vandalism or neglect. “These images are all drawn using earthen paints, which could be susceptible to erasure. There are technologies that can scan these sites to ensure that researchers can have access to them at all times, without needing to disturb the sites themselves,” said Mr. Ramaiah.

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