Nilgiri tribals tense as trekkers trash priceless rock art

Govt. has done little to stop illegal tourism from defacing the 5,000-year-old drawings at Karikiyoor

June 03, 2019 02:08 am | Updated 08:33 am IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

Heritage vandalised:  Some rock paintings at Karikiyoor have been covered with graffiti and defaced.

Heritage vandalised: Some rock paintings at Karikiyoor have been covered with graffiti and defaced.

The rock paintings in Karikiyoor at Kil Kotagiri in the Nilgiri forests have withstood the forces of nature for some 5,000 years, but in just the last few years, close to 40% of the paintings have been destroyed by trekkers, tourists, and vandals.

Members of the Irula tribal community, who have an ancestral link to the site, said they were “extremely angered” and “disturbed” at the damage by illegal trekkers, who have painted over religious symbols using whitener pens and political messages with chalk, while couples have carved their names on the rocks, permanently disfiguring the priceless pre-historic site. They enter the site without permission.

“The site remained undisturbed till very recently, when a spurt in the number of tourists has led to many people organising illegal treks to the rock art site,” said R. Ranganathan, a youth from Karikiyoor village.

Mr Ranganathan and others now plan to set up a group to regulate tourist entry into the reserve forest — the rock paintings are found deep inside.

C. Maheswaran, former director of the Tribal Research Centre in Udhagamandalam, said the society that painted the symbols onto these rocks were contemporaneous with the Indus Valley civilisation.

“The rock paintings in Karikiyoor contain analogous-Indus script, meaning they resemble the script found in Indus civilization sites of northern India,” he said.

Sites such as Karikiyoor need to be preserved to better understand the people that lived in the region, while also possibly deducing how certain technology and written scripts could have possibly diffused to southern India from the Indus peoples or vice versa, Mr. Maheswaran said.

The rock paintings serve both, as a “historical record,” detailing the hunting habits and ways of life of the local communities, and also a ritualistic purpose, local residents said.

M. Bathran, a village elder in Karikiyoor, said the Irulas have a deep cultural connection to the site, believing that their ancestors were the ones who had painted the symbols. “Till today, we rely on these drawings to teach us the customs we should follow, remind us of our ties to the land, and the need to protect the forest,” he said.

“As the government does not seem to want to protect the site, we plan to put up warning boards prohibiting tourists from entering without our permission, and only with a guide under exceptional circumstances,” Mr. Bathran said. The forests in which the rock paintings are nestled are also the habitat of wild animals, including leopards, sloth bear and elephants.

“The State Archeological Department, the Archeological Survey of India and also the Forest Department have a huge say in ensuring the site is protected. They need to act quickly to ensure that what remains of the rock paintings are preserved,” said Mr. Maheswaran. According to him failure to act will lead to the destruction and eventual loss of the site forever.

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