The rock paintings at Kumittipathi testify to prehistoric Kongu region

Believed to be around 3,000 years old, the paintings in the Pathimalai cave are drawn with white pigments. They depict an elephant, ther (a chariot, some say it is a peacock), and the lives of early dwellers. Despite being a prominent rock art site, the cave lacks protection and the paintings are at the risk of destruction

April 04, 2024 11:43 pm | Updated April 05, 2024 02:31 pm IST

Mindless act: Miscreants have caused damage to the rock art paintings at the cave at Kumittipathi, a village near Coimbatore, by scribbling their names in the cave and tracing the paintings with chalks.

Mindless act: Miscreants have caused damage to the rock art paintings at the cave at Kumittipathi, a village near Coimbatore, by scribbling their names in the cave and tracing the paintings with chalks. | Photo Credit: S. Siva Saravanan

An elephant with prominent tusks, painted in white, draws the attention of visitors first at the rock art site at Pathimalai in Kumittipathi, a village around 30 km from Coimbatore city.

Believed to be around 3,000 years old, these cave paintings are among the important rock arts in the Kongu region. Drawn with white pigments, the paintings depict an elephant, ther (chariot, some say it is a peacock), and the lives of early dwellers of the region. While most of the other rock art sites are situated in inaccessible areas and deep inside forests, one can easily walk into the Pathimalai cave at the bottom of a rocky hillock surrounded by farmland.

A rare site

“While most of the rock painting sites in Tamil Nadu are found on rock shelters, those at Kumittipathi are drawn inside a cave. Paintings inside such perfect caves are very few in the State,” says rock art expert K.T. Gandhirajan.

Images that look like a chariot, human figures, and animals decorate the cave, the testimonies of the lives of prehistoric people of the region, their routines, and culture. There are small pits and holes in the cave, which are believed to have been used to store water and other belongings.

Elephant, the oldest

According to Mr. Gandhirajan, all the paintings at Kumittipathi are less likely to be of the same age. The lone elephant is believed to be among the oldest, while a few others could have been drawn later. The artists must have used an inorganic white pigment, along with natural gum, to paint the figures, he says.

Similar rock paintings can be found at Vellarukkam Palayam near Thondamuthur, Viraliyur, and Kovanur in the district, all on hill tops. They depict hunting and other activities.

Some argue that the elephant image indicates the practice of capturing wild elephants and their trade owing to the proximity of Kumittipathi to two places: Mavuthampathi (suggesting a place inhabited by mahouts) and Velanthavalam (a place for Vezham meaning elephant). But others say there is no historical evidence to link the paintings to the two places.

Coimbatore’s historian C.R. Elangovan, however, denies the common opinion that the painting could be a representation of elephant trade, as there was no empire based in the region when the paintings were drawn. “Trade, indeed, happened in the region and there is evidence of trade with the Romans. However, there is no historical evidence to link the painting with trade in elephants,” he says.

For Mr. Elangovan, the Kumittipathi rock paintings could be a depiction of the daily activities of the artists or their worship. One image, which is widely deciphered as a group of people pulling a car (ther), could represent something else. Pulling a car for a festival could be the representation of a larger and organised society. However, these paintings are believed to be done by hunters.

Temple atop the hillock

R. Poongundran, former Assistant Director of the Tamil Nadu State Archaeology Department, says these prehistoric paintings could have been drawn by tribal people to while away their time. It is also said the tribals had a belief that they would get more animals if they painted a hunting scene before they went for hunting. However, hunting scenes are few at Kumittipathi.

For Mr. Poongundran, the figure that appears like a car could actually be a peacock. Interestingly, there is a Murugan temple atop the hillock and it could mean that the early dwellers worshipped the deity. “There are also megalithic burial sites in the region. If we link the prehistoric paintings with the megaliths, the art could date back to the 5th Century BCE,” opines the archaeologist. Another significant observation is that Kumittipathi falls in the Palakkad Gap of the Western Ghats, a significant break in the mountain range, which has acted as a corridor between the Tamil land and Kerala since ancient times. “There were ancient trade routes (Peruvazhi) in the Palakkad Gap between Anamalai and Ayyasamy Malai. Three such routes passed through Anamalai, Vellalore, and Avinashi during the Sangam period,” adds Mr. Poongundran.

Den of anti-social elements

Despite being a prominent rock art site, the cave lacks protection and the paintings that stood for centuries are at the risk of destruction. Miscreants, unaware of the significance of the rock art, have caused damage to the paintings by tracing them with chalks and colours and scribbling their names in the cave. The cave has also become a den of anti-social elements consuming alcohol and littering the place with waste. “The Kumittipathi cave paintings need to be protected as many such arts in the region were damaged and lost over the years. The few remaining ones testify to our ancient lives and culture, which need to be preserved,” feels Mr. Elangovan.

Locals complain the Archaeology Department and the district administration have not shown much interest in protecting the site, despite many representations from villagers of Mavuthampathi, art enthusiasts, and historians over the years.

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