Discovering & deciphering rock art

India has about 5,000 rock art sites, next only to Australia and South Africa, where prehistoric people have recorded life as they saw it, in paintings, engravings and carvings. Finding and decoding this artistic “perception of reality” is a challenge for rock art hunters.

Published : Nov 11, 2015 16:00 IST

At Chaturbhujnath Nala,  in the Chambal valley, Madhya Pradesh, a miniature painting of a battle scene with two groups, one with axes and the other with bows and arrows, confronting each other.

At Chaturbhujnath Nala, in the Chambal valley, Madhya Pradesh, a miniature painting of a battle scene with two groups, one with axes and the other with bows and arrows, confronting each other.

TIRUMALAI is a small, obscure hill in Sivaganga district in Tamil Nadu. However, in the world of rock art it is treasured for its exquisite paintings that are more than 2,500 years old and stand out for their style, variety and method of execution on rough, uneven rock surfaces. One masterpiece has two men in bird masks with prominent beaks fighting ferociously. Each has one hand stretched out and the other hand raised with the palm and fingers open as if to slap the opponent. The artist apparently knew how pugilists took their stance and how the hands stretched out to block an oncoming punch or slap. The images were painted in red ochre and in solid form, that is, fully. V. Vedachalam, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, estimated the date of the painting to 500 BCE. Other paintings on the hill included the human form drawn with triangular shapes, a man riding a horse (dated to the Early Historic period—third century BCE to second century CE), a deer, a dog and a crane. They first came to the world’s attention in 1989 when Vedachalam stumbled on them while looking for Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. “The villagers knew of their existence. I only noticed them,” he said in all modesty.

Nineteen years later, on December 19, 2008, K.T. Gandhirajan, an independent researcher of rock art and its history and discoverer of several rock art sites in Tamil Nadu, found more paintings in a rock shelter on the foot of the hill: a hunter leading a dog on a leash, a child walking beside the hunter, and a deer. The hunter was wearing a bird mask and was drawn using triangular shapes, and all the paintings were done in red ochre. Whatever the significance of the bird mask may be, animals were a dominant theme in rock art. Among them, deer, bulls, turtles, hunting scenes, shoulder-clasping dances after a boar hunt, men collecting honey from honeycombs, pregnant animals, men wearing animal masks or other headgear, tigers, monkeys on trees, a procession of bison, and X-ray animals.

Rock art can be paintings, called petrographs, or engravings/carvings, called petroglyphs, done in rock shelters or natural caves. In recent years, cupules, that is, hollow cup-impressions created on rock surfaces using hammer stones, have also been categorised as rock art.

If Professor V.H. Sonawane, retired Professor of Archaeology, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, described rock art as “one of the earliest [contributions to the] heritage of mankind”, K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, saw it as “the earliest aesthetic expression of mankind”, one that served as “an important source material to understand the world of prehistoric people”. For Giriraj Kumar, Professor in Rock Art Science and Indian Culture, Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra, it was the prehistoric artist’s “perception of reality” around him.

These specialists were among those who had come together at the XIX Congress of the Rock Art Society of India (RASI), jointly organised by the Department of History, Pondicherry University, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) from December 4 to 6, 2014, in Puducherry. The occasion marked the silver jubilee of RASI. The highlight of the congress was the participation of a 10-member delegation from China, headed by Professor Tang Huisheng, Professor and Head, Department of Archaeology, Hebei Normal University & the International Centre of Rock Art Dating and Conservation, Shijiazhuang, China. The congress was an opportunity for the specialists to exchange notes and discuss the latest developments in the field, including new discoveries in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.

The techniques used in rock art varied from full wash form to outlines to stick style. Human forms, especially, were done in stick style. Sometimes, as at Tirumalai, triangles were used. The artists used locally available material, and the dominant colours were red (obtained from red ochre), yellow (from yellow ochre), white (from kaolin, or china clay) and black (from black kaolin and charcoal). The brush they used is still a matter of conjecture and was said to be from bird feather or calf tail. Gum from trees was the binding material. Amazingly, the paintings made on rough, unprepared rock surfaces have stood the test of time, lasting several thousand years.

The artists used a lot of symbols—they have been found in rock art sites all over the world—but what they represent or mean has not been established conclusively. Among the symbols are the sun, the ladder, handprints/palm impressions, honeycombs, concentric circles, squares and rectangles. Handprints were sometimes stencilled: fingers/palms sprayed with paint and pressed on the rock surface.

Cupules are considered to be the earliest form of rock art, and what they represent remains a mystery. In India, they have been found in Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Daraki-Chattan, a small, narrow and deep cave made of hard quartzite rock in the Chambal basin in Madhya Pradesh, is “the richest known early Paleolithic cupule site in the world”, according to Giriraj Kumar. It has on its vertical walls as many as 500 cupules. Kumar in his studies of the site, along with Robert Bednarik, a rock art specialist from Australia, determined that the cupules had been created using the percussion technique, with hammer stones. A number of hammer stones were found near the cave.

In India, rock art, especially paintings and carvings, have been known to exist from the Mesolithic Age, that is, circa 10000 BCE to 3000 BCE. The tradition continued through the Neolithic Age (c. 3000 BCE to c. 1000 BCE), the Iron Age (c. 1000 BCE to c. 400 BCE) and the Early Historic period (400 BCE to 300 CE).

Mesolithic phase The Mesolithic phase in the rock art tradition is identifiable on the basis of representation of animals such as deer, tortoise, rabbit, fox and hyena and anthropomorphic figures, masked human beings, handprints and geometric figures, said N. Chandramouli, Associate Professor, Department of History, Pondicherry University. His doctoral thesis on “The Rock Art of Andhra Pradesh” was the first comprehensive study of all rock art sites in Andhra Pradesh. Undivided Andhra Pradesh had, across its 23 districts, 60 painted rock shelters with around 500 images. A majority of this art appears in the form of symbols, as at Bollaram, Budigapalli, Durgam, Edthanur, Kokapet, Mudumula and Naidupalli. Among the symbols, the most interesting is the “circle with a trident” as an engraving. At Naidupalli, there are 150 depictions of this symbol in various sizes. “That the ‘circle-with-a-trident’ symbol has religious/cultic significance is implied in one composition in which several human figures (one of them ithyphallic) are shown dancing in front of it,” said Chandramouli.

In Tamil Nadu, rock paintings of the Mesolithic period depict mostly human and animal figures and occur at Mayiladumparai, Ulkombai, Perumukkal, Munandipatti, Mallappadi and Paiyampalli. There are interesting rock art sites in Karnataka at Kutakankeri, Badami, Ramadurga, Aihole, Hire-benakal, Hosa-mahakuta.

Only red colour was used and no petroglyphs occurred in all the sites of this period. In the early phase of Mesolithic art, there are large-sized depictions of wild animals done in thick outline and/or in flat wash style, as at Sanganonipalli, Chintakunta, Pandavulagutta and Kethavaram, all in undivided Andhra Pradesh. At Sanganonipalli, large-sized deer were drawn in thick outline, beginning with the head and proceeding to the body. “The fluidity of the brush movement is obvious from the gradual thinning of the colour pigment towards the end of the body,” Chandramouli noted. Handprints occurred only at Kethavaram during the Mesolithic phase and continued in the Neolithic phase.

“One of the striking features of the Mesolithic rock paintings of Andhra Pradesh is the absence of hunting scenes or any depiction of hunters with bows and arrows,” said Chandramouli. Such scenes are common in the Mesolithic art of central India, and it was difficult to hypothesise the reasons for their absence, he said, and added that most of the rock art sites in Karnataka, too, had no hunting scenes. “However, on the basis of the depiction of wild game (and the non-occurrence of domesticated animals such as humped bulls), the style of paintings, the state of their preservation and other such parameters, these representations are dated to the Mesolithic phase. Even in Bhimbetka, not all the rock art shelters have hunting scenes,” he explained.

The world-famous Bhimbetka Caves and Chaturbhujnath Nala, both in Madhya Pradesh, are repositories of rock art images of the Mesolithic period. The paintings show men, women, boys, girls, infants, various animals and hunting scenes and provide insights into the way of life and the environment. The rock art of the Early Historic period at Bhimbetka depict battle scenes, horse riders and so on.

The rock art of the Neolithic Age is marked by the presence of geometric symbols, totemic symbols and petroglyphs, besides human figures. Significantly, paintings of the humped bull first appeared during this period, indicating that man had begun to master the domestication of cattle. The appearance of humped bulls in paintings is an indicator that the petrographs belong to the Neolithic Age. According to Chandramouli, petroglyphic art (engravings and bruisings) starts from the Neolithic period in south India. Also, it was in this period that white colour began to be used in the paintings in south India. According to Rajan, who has discovered 50 of the 120 rock art sites found in Tamil Nadu, images of this period are found at Chandrapuram and Netterimalai, both in Vellore district. In Karnataka, the hill ranges of Kalaburagi (Gulbarga), Raichur, Ballari (Bellary), Chitradurga and Kolar harbour rock art images of the Paleololithic Age, the Neolithic Age, the Iron Age and the Historic period. They comprise bruisings and engravings, and men performing ritual dances and animals such as deer, tiger and boar. Interestingly, in north India, there is no rock art belonging to the “pure Neolithic period” because there is no clear-cut demarcation between the Neolithic Age and the Chalcolithic Age unlike in south India in the archaeological stratigraphic context.

The rock art of the Historic period is identifiable by religious symbols, animals such as horses and elephants with armed warriors riding on them, and so on. Such paintings and petroglyphs are found at Bollaram, Chintakunta, Dapalle, Durgam, Kethavaram, Naidupalli, Regonda and Pandavulagattu. “The most intriguing form in the entire corpus of rock art of [undivided] Andhra Pradesh is the painted petroglyphs at Ramachandrapuram,” Chandramouli said. “The figures were first engraved and later filled up with red ochre. Located in a dense forest setting in the Telangana plateau zone, the themes at Ramachandrapuram include drawings of hands , hoof prints, paw prints, bees and geometric figures. Similar rock art is extensively found in Odisha and Bihar.”

Finding rock art Searching for rock art demands a sense of adventure and long hours of legwork. Gandhirajan, who has discovered rock art sites at Karikkiyur, Mavadaippu, Selakkurai, Kurumbarvarai and Kallampalayam, all in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, adopts an ingenious technique. “We ask shepherds who graze their cattle in forests or the tribal people living there where they take shelter when it rains. We then ask them how big the rock shelter is, whether it can accommodate 10 or 20 persons, and whether they have seen paintings there,” he said. “If they say they have seen paintings in a rock shelter, we go there.” Another pointer to the existence of rock art is waterbodies such as springs, ponds or streams. “If there are water sources near a cave, the chances of finding rock art there are more,” said Gandhirajan.

Presence of honeycombs on top of ledges of tall rocks increases the probability of finding rock art in shelters there. “Honey is an important item of food for the tribal people. A gallery of images is often found in rock shelters near honeycombs,” Gandhirajan said.

The honeycomb itself is an image that is found in several rock art shelters across the world. V. Ramabrahmam, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Archaeology, Yogi Vemana University, Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, found more than 100 paintings of humans and wild animals, done in white pigment, in a rock shelter called Diviti Mallanna Banda in the district. What stood out was the image of a tree with a honeycomb and a magnified image of a honeycomb painted nearby, which showed the creativity of the artist. “Honey was a major food supplement” for dwellers in rock shelters, Ramabrahmam emphasised.

Place names, too, can be a giveaway. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, rock shelters often had names ending with suffixes “pudavu/pidavu”, “varai”, “kurai” or “ponthu” in Tamil. Examples are Kurumbarvarai, Sethavarai and Selakkurai. V.P. Yathees Kumar, Assistant Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (Chennai Circle), who has discovered rock art sites such as Moonanpatti and Thembampatti in Tamil Nadu, said the Palani hills had several rock art shelters with names ending with “alai” or “pidavu.” Alai means cave in Tamil and pidavu means shelter. “We located Moongil Alai and Vegiruttu Alai, which are rock art shelters with beautiful paintings,” he said. Sometimes, according to Yathees Kumar, the search turns out to be futile. He narrated how two men who had located two shelters in the Palani hills could not find the place when they returned with a team of archaeologists, including himself, K. Rajan and Bansilal Malla of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, in 2008. Sudden heavy rain had changed the topography of the place, with new streams coming to life and cutting off access to previously accessible areas.

Altamira’s bulls The study of rock art came into its own with a series of discoveries at Altamira in Spain, Chauvet, Lascaux and Niaux in France, and many sites in Australia, Africa and South America. After visiting Altamira with its spectacular depiction of bulls, Pablo Picasso is said to have remarked: “After Altamira, all art is decadence!”

The Guardian published an article on June 20, 2015, that “the world’s most inaccessible art” had been found in the heart of the Colombian jungle. Written by Dalya Alberge, it said: “A British wildlife film-maker has returned from one of the most inaccessible parts of the world with extraordinary footage of ancient rock art that has never been filmed or photographed before.

“In an area of Colombia so vast and remote that contact has still not been made with some tribes thought to live there, Mike Slee used a helicopter to film hundreds of paintings depicting hunters and animals believed to have been created thousands of years ago. He said: ‘We had crews all over the place and helicopters filming all over Colombia. As a photographer, Francisco Forero Bonell discovered and took the pictures for my movie.’”

The extraordinary art includes images of the jaguar, crocodiles and deer. They are painted in red. There are also paintings of warriors or hunters dancing and celebrating. Professor Fernando Urbina, a rock art specialist from the National University of Colombia, said the images “reveal the hand of a master of painting”. He estimated that the paintings could be up to 20,000 years old.

In India, rock art hunters/specialists are a diverse lot: teachers, epigraphists, archaeologists, journalists and even retired engineers. They scour thick jungles and climb craggy hills to scan vertical rock faces or search inside natural caverns. India has about 5,000 rock art sites and ranks behind Australia and South Africa in the number of sites. This has come about largely because of the individual efforts of pioneers such as Archibald Carlleyle, who discovered rock paintings in the Kaimur range in Mirzapur district, Uttar Pradesh, in 1867; F. Fawcett, who found rock paintings at Edakkal Caves in Kerala in 1901; and V.S. Wakankar, who in 1958 discovered the spectacular Bhimbetka and Jhinjhari caves in Madhya Pradesh and many other sites in central India. Wakankar was considered the paterfamilias of rock art studies in India. R.C. Agrawal, president, RASI, paid tributes to the genius of Wakankar at the congress: “Wakankar was a sevak of rock art. He drank, ate and slept rock art. He walked in the forests and he walked like a prehistoric man. During his expeditions, he survived on channa and groundnuts. He was a six-footer. He was not only a discoverer of rock art sites but also a great teacher. He had a fascination for painting, music and dance.”

Interest in rock art studies in south India grew after the discovery of sites in remote areas of Andhra Pradesh in the 1980s and 1990s following the efforts of archaeologists such as K.P. Rao, B. Subrahmanyam, K.S.B. Kesava, S.S. Rangachari and Emani Sivanagi Reddy. A. Sundara discovered them in the Hire Benkal-Hampi region and the Badami-Kutakankeri areas in Karnataka; Padmanabhan Thampy located many rock paintings in the Anjunad valley in Kerala in the 1970s; and K.V. Raman found the Mallappadi site in Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu in 1978.

Central India’s riches Central India, especially Madhya Pradesh, teems with several hundred sites. Besides Bhimbetka, which is recognised as a World Heritage site, rock art has been found at Ambadevi, Ambapani, Bijawar, Bordap, Brijpura, Chattabeshwar, Chaturbhujnath Nala, Daraki-Chattan, Gawilgarh hills, Ghodpend, Hatnitol, Jinjhari, Kukadsadeo, Magarkachcha, Putli-ka-Danta, Pourn-ka-Danta and Shaipur-Badiara.

Rock art specialists are unanimous that central India has the most number of rock art sites in India, and in many of them the art is well preserved. “Most recently, 155 rock art shelters were discovered in the Gawilgarh hills in the Satpura ranges,” said P.P. Pradhan, Assistant Archaeologist, Excavation Branch, ASI, Nagpur. He added that there were many petroglyphs in central India. “Central India, except for some part of the Deccan trap, is extremely rich in rock art. Even menhirs had engravings,” said Kantikumar Pawar of the Department of Archaeology, Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, a deemed-to-be university in Pune.

Rajendra Dehuri, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, commended the good state of preservation of rock art motifs at Putli-ka-Danta, Ambapani and other places, and said this was because the places were not easily accessible to tourists. Ambapani is part of the Panna Tiger Reserve and Chaturbhujnath Nala is located deep in the Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary. Another reason given for the profusion of rock art sites in central India is that it was the tribal heartland of India. Unlike other parts of India, where quarrying had destroyed or damaged rock art sites, in central India they survived, said Venkata Raghotham, Professor of History, Pondicherry University.

Miniatures In 1977, three schoolteachers, Ramesh Kumar Pancholi, Abid Chaudhury and Satish Bhatnagar, discovered an 800-metre-long rock art site with 2,510 paintings at Chaturbhujnath Nala in Mandsaur district in Madhya Pradesh’s Chambal valley. Giriraj Kumar has documented these 2,510 figures. He estimated that the paintings belonged to two periods: those that depicted the hunting-foraging life of the Mesolithic Age and those that portrayed the early pastoral life.

Arti Sharma, a research scholar at Dayalbagh Educational Institute, Agra, who has studied the rock paintings of Chaturbhujnath Nala, called the site “the longest rock art gallery in the world”. It has many miniature paintings, less than 1 cm in size, done on unprepared rock surface. “The rock art at Chaturbhujnath Nala forms a precious archive of the visual, creative traditions of prehistoric age,” she said.

She quoted Giriraj Kumar to say that of the 2,510 images at Chaturbhujnath Nala, 474 belonged to the Mesolithic Age, depicting hunting-foraging life, and 2,036 paintings depicted early pastoral life. “The general size of the paintings of the early pastorals is 10 cm to 15 cm. However, some animal figures may be of bigger size of 25 cm to 30 cm. The artists also did experiments in creating miniature forms of animals, humans and nature, which vary from a few millimetres to nearly 5 cm in size. Microforms, both of humans and animals, are new experiments in the rock art of Chaturbhujnath Nala,” she noted.

There are a total of 115 miniature figures depicted in eight rock shelters. Of them, 108 figures form 25 compositions and seven are individual figures. Describing a small landscape painting with animals and trees executed in red ochre, she said the trees ranged from 1.7 cm to 2.5 cm in height; the size of the biggest bull was 2 cm × 1.5 cm and that of the smallest unidentified animal 0.6 cm × 0.7 cm. The animals faced different directions and were shown to be in motion.

Another composition, she said, had four persons marching one behind the other, shown in perspective. The entire composition was 9 cm × 6 cm in size. The foremost figure was the biggest one, 6 cm × 3.5 cm, and held a long metal weapon that looked like a parasu in his left hand. The penultimate figure was the smallest in all the rock art of Chaturbhujnath Nala, and was 1.1 cm × 0.5 cm in size. Arti Sharma described him thus: “He has been shown majestically with his arms resting on his waist, and moving like a person of authority in the protection of his guards. He has no implement with him.” There are portrayals of a couple with four children, a cow feeding its calf, a woman walking in the protection of three armed men, and so forth.

Rivalling Chaturbhujnath Nala’s uniqueness are, perhaps, the paintings in Tamil Nadu found in caves that had Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on the caves’ brow and Jaina beds on the rock floor. They have been found in Keezhavalavu, Tiruvadavur, Muthupatti and Kongar Puliyankulam (all in Madurai district) and Tirumalai. “Whether these paintings are contemporary to [Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions and] Jaina beds or can be dated prior to them is yet to be assessed,” said Rajan. Will that finding hold a clue to unlocking the mystery of the men in bird masks at Tirumalai?

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