Rock galleries

Print edition : June 29, 2007

The discovery of rock art, dating back to 2000 B.C., in Tamil Nadu offers a peek into history.


Four men, bound by a passion for exploration and art history, arrived at Puliyankandi village near Aliyar in Coimbatore district, Tamil Nadu, in the second week of May. The apparent aim was to conduct a workshop on the art and heritage of the Nilgiris for tribal children. Of particular interest to the group was the exploration of not-yet-discovered areas of rock art; the hill ranges formed an archaeological wonderland with all types of rock art, particularly cave paintings. This time they hit the jackpot.

Prof. G. Chandrasekaran, Principal of the Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai, has been on several such expeditions with his colleague K. Natarajan and K.T. Gandhirajan and P. Manivannan. Gandhirajan is a postgraduate in Art History from Madurai-Kamaraj University, Madurai, and Manivannan is Senior Designer at The Hindu, Chennai. The group's strategy is to quiz local people, shepherds, cowherds and honey-gatherers if they have come across rock paintings in their areas.

THE CENTAUR-LIKE IMAGE in white ochre at Karikkiyur, the largest rock art site in South India.-

Thus, when Gandhirajan asked the children at the Puliyankandi workshop if they had seen any such paintings on rocks in their villages, a girl sprang to her feet and replied excitedly that she had seen paintings of elephants on a rock-shelter near her village. But she could not explain clearly where the hill was.

However, that was enough for the group, which included a few students of Chandrasekaran's college, to head for the child's village, about 45 km from Valparai. Most villagers they inquired about rock paintings had seen no such thing but spoke about "stone-houses" (dolmens) in the area. However, an old woman remembered having seen rock paintings at a place called Koppathuparai. The group now trekked to Koppathuparai, from where a local guide took them to Mavadaippu village. What they saw there surprised them.

The rock surface in Mavadaippu has a mix of ancient rock art, contemporary tribal paintings, and graffiti.-

"A massive rock surface, curving inwards, confronted us," said Gandhirajan. "It looked like an arched dome. The entire natural cavern was painted with rock art. A spectacular feature of the site is that the rock surface is an admixture of ancient rock art and contemporary tribal paintings, showing a continuity of tradition." There were modern graffiti, too.

PROF. G. CHANDRASEKARAN (extreme right) watching his team take estampages of the petroglyphs in a cave at Yerpettu near Kothagiri.-

The painted surface is about 40 feet (12 metres) long and 20 feet wide. The images include a tiger, a deer with straight horns, anthropomorphic figures marching inside a circle, an elephant seizing a man with its trunk while another man chased it, and several paintings of a bamboo-ladder used for taking honey from the heights. Contemporary tribal paintings show the profile of a man wearing a headgear and that of another man in a tight-fitting coat with rectangular designs on it. This man has his right hand raised, while his left hand rests on the waist.

THERE ARE ABOUT 20 dolmens in four different locations about a kilometre from Mavadaippu.-

Mavadaippu is the latest discovery by the team. It had discovered a prehistoric rock art site at Porivarai (2003), and ancient rock paintings at Salekkurai and Sundasingam (2005), near Karikkiyur, about 40 km from Kothagiri in the Nilgiris. In fact, the team was totally unprepared for what awaited it at Porivarai. It turned out to be the largest rock art site in South India with about 500 paintings in an area that is 53 m long and 15 m wide. Experts say the rock paintings at both Mavadaippu and Karikkiyur could be dated to 2000 B.C. to 1500 B.C. How did they stumble upon this treasure trove? The group was at Kothagiri to provide training in arts and crafts to tribal youth at the Don Bosco Community College when it visited Konavakarai, a tribal village, where a rock art site reportedly existed. But the villagers were not aware of its existence. Disappointed, the team returned to the college in Chennai. During a discussion on rock art that evening, an Irula tribal student from Karikkiyur said he had seen such paintings on a rock-shelter in a forest near his village. Chandrasekaran and Gandhirajan lost no time in making it to Karikkiyur. A 7-km trek through an elephant corridor led them to the rock-shelter, locally known as Porivarai.

The paintings in white ochre include a procession of bisons, monkeys clambering up a tree branch, a herd of deer grazing, human beings welcoming one another with outstretched arms, a battle scene with men aiming at each other with bows and arrows, men on horseback engaged in battle, a shoulder-clasping dance after a successful boar-hunt, a man with a mask, the depiction of sun and its rays, a spiral, a tiger fighting another animal, and a man and his dog sleeping.

THE MASTERPIECE OF Karikkiyur is a realistic depiction of bisons moving in a row, in red ochre.-

Gandhirajan calls it "a huge gallery of ancient rock art, the biggest in South India in terms of size and the number of paintings". The rock surface had been continually painted for about 3,000 years by different artists at various times, he said. No other rock art site in South India can rival Karikkiyur by the sheer number of paintings and the themes they represent. Some figures are outlines or sketches; others are solid images. "The prehistoric artists used white kaolin and red ochre to paint them. They may have used animal fat or vegetable juice as a binding medium," he said. "The rock surface is in different shades of grey. The artists chose white pigment to paint in dark grey areas, proving how intelligent they were."

A remarkable feature of the Karikkiyur rock art is that while the original artist made the painting in white ochre, the succeeding artist used red ochre to work on the same painting, trying his skill at ornamentation. Sometimes, the second artist mistook an animal and redrew it into another animal.

REMARKABLE FEATURES OF Karikkiyur rock art are images like monkeys clambering up a branch.-

An outstanding painting shows monkeys marching in a single file on the curved branch of a tree. The attention to detail is amazing. The monkeys on the lower side of the branch are shown clinging on to it upside down even as they stay in line.

Another beautiful painting depicts a big herd of grazing deer. "This painting is in symmetry," said Gandhirajan. "It needs skill to draw the same image repetitively because you need to have a sense of proportion and symmetry."

Victory-dance after a hunt.-

Another set of solid images is that of a child sacrifice - a man holding a curved sword in one hand and dangling a child from the other, and a centaur-like figure.

The masterpiece at Karikkiyur is a red-ochre painting of a group of seven bisons moving in a row. One of them has a calf in tow. In the opposite direction comes another bison. Above the group of bisons is a solid white-ochre image of a monitor lizard (udumbu in Tamil).

A human sacrifice.-

Another salient feature of the Karikkiyur rock art is the depiction of everyday life through scenes such as an animal playing with its calf or feeding it, two bulls fighting, a celebration, battle scenes or a fight between a man and an animal. There are also several X-ray-like images in white ochre, showing the rib cages of animals. Later generations of artists shaded them in red ochre. Also seen are trees and plants, which are generally not found in rock art.

The first discovery of rock painting in Tamil Nadu was at Mallapadi in Dharmapuri district in 1978 by K.V. Raman, then Head of the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology of the University of Madras. In 2005, the State Department of Archaeology brought out a publication called Rock Art of Tamil Nadu. Its editor, T.S. Sridhar, who was then Special Commissioner, Department of Archaeology, wrote in its preface that Raman's discovery "flagged off the race for identifying new sites and the effort has not been in vain". He wrote: "Till date, more than thirty sites along the Western and the Eastern Ghats [in Tamil Nadu] have been identified, many of them by officers of the State Department of Archaeology. This has conclusively proved the existence of cavemen who inhabited the rocky shelters of Tamil Nadu in the megalithic period (the Iron Age). This has also established the State's claims to be considered as one of the important regions for studying and interpreting rock art."

A man and his dog sleeping.-

"The rock art of Tamil Nadu displays great virtues of balance, appropriate use of colour, love of nature and a keen understanding of the life and times of the inhabitants. Scenes of battlefield, travel, hunting, festivities and food habits are depicted with realism and sensitivity. All the images etched on rock surfaces clearly demonstrate their urge to express themselves in forms that are intelligible... . Their study is at once fascinating and illuminating," according to Sridhar.

In Tamil Nadu, rock art is found in Villupuram, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Madurai, the Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Sivaganga, Vellore and Dindigul districts. Notable among the sites are Kilvalai, Alambadi and Settavarai in Villupuram; Mallapadi, Maharajakadai and Mallachandram, now in Krishnagiri district; Konavakarai, Iduhatti, Karikkiyur and Vellerikombai in the Nilgiris; and Anaipatti, Muthupatti and Kidaripatti in Madurai.

Rock art falls into two categories. The first is petrograms or pictographs, which are paintings done in white or red ochre. The second is petroglyphs, figures chiselled out on rock surface. In Tamil Nadu, petroglyphs are found at Perumukkal, about 12 km from Tindivanam, and at the remote, densely forested Yerpettu, 25 km from Kothagiri. Mahalingam, an elderly Kurumba tribal person, led the team to the petroglyphs in a dark cave near Yerpettu. The images include that of a tree and human beings. The team has made estampages of the petroglyphs.

A battle scene at Karikkiyur, depicting men with bows and arrows and on horse back.-

Gandhirajan, a tireless explorer, says it is not easy to locate a rock art site. "If we go in search of 100 sites, we shall consider ourselves lucky if we can discover rock art in ten," he said.

In fact, the team got a bonus on reaching Mavadaippu late in the afternoon on May 17: it discovered not just a rock art site, but about 20 dolmens in four different locations just about a kilometre from the village. Most dolmens are in good shape, some are broken down and in ruins. A few are big enough to accommodate four persons. The dolmens are in different shapes - square, rectangular and even circular. A particular big dolmen has a run-down "compound wall", about a metre tall, around it.

AT YERPETTU, A rare find of engravings that date back several thousands of years in a cave deep in the Nilgiri forests.-

Mavadaippu, in the backdrop of the Anamalai hills, is a small, enchanting tribal village with huts made of bamboo plats packed with clay. It is about 7 km from the Kadamparai hydel power station. The area is full of bamboo forests and is a favourite haunt of elephants. The tribal people make intricate "ladders" using bamboo poles. According to Manivannan, the technology to make them is kept a secret. The tribal people rig them up at night. The leitmotif in the Mavadaippu rock art is the bamboo ladder. A number of mystic symbols also appear. There are paintings of elephants, cattle, tiger, deer, wild boar and porcupine, and of human beings dancing or fighting.

AT MAVADAIPPU, IN the backdrop of the Anamalai hills, human and animal figures in white ochre.-

The prehistoric artists used white kaolin, lime or even ash to paint these figures. Contemporary tribal people have used enamel paint to embellish some of these paintings. They also have made beautiful paintings of elephants, peacocks and so on. The painting of a bus indicates how the arrival of one there must have been an exciting event.

What mars the beauty of these paintings is the modern-day graffiti by people from the plains below, who have scrawled their names in Tamil. Chandrasekaran has appealed the State government to protect these and other rock art sites.