Prehistoric Kerala

After our chance encounter with the Kudakkallu, the megalithic umbrella stone, I surfed the web for information on prehistoric Kerala. The first place to visit was the informative website of the Archaeological Society of India. The pictures of Kudakkallu I found here and through an image search were quite different from what we had seen: the tallest which the ASI talks about is less than 3 meters high, whereas what we’d seen was about 10 meters in height.

Eventually, we had to fall back on professional journals. An article from 1976 in the Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute explained that after sporadic discoveries through the 19th century, systematic studies of the stone age in Kerala date only from the 1970s. A reference in a more recent book also explained that we saw a menhir, whereas the ASI records dolmens. There seem to be sites from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and later Megalithic times. One of the articles we found drew our attention to Marayoor as a place rich in prehistoric remains.

Dolmens at Muniyara near Marayoor and Kovilkadavu

Marayoor is about two hours from Munnar. The route winds through protected sandalwood forests. It is this that makes it so difficult to visit some of these rock paintings and dolmens. We reached the village a little before noon. Right in the center of the village, in front of the large Panchayat office is a big signboard listing all of the prehistoric remains one can see in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately there are no directions. The auto drivers have no idea where any of these things are. We got some information from a few very helpful people we met at the offices of the forest department, which stands nearby in a little lane next to the Panchayat office. It turned out that of the four main sites for rock paintings: Attala, Ezhuthala, Kovilkadavu and Manala, the first two are probably inside sandalwood forests, and therefore inaccessible without prior permission. We’d read that both these sites had been vandalized and damaged, so perhaps it wasn’t a big miss.

A dolmen in Muniyara near Kovilkadavu and MarayoorWe were directed to dolmens (called Muniyara locally). These are perhaps 3000 years old, and protected by the ASI. Later we found that these are very close to the Thenkasinath temple in Kovilkadavu village. Perched on top a huge rock (see photo above), they are fenced off from casual vandalism. We climbed up to them. They are burial chambers. A photo of the least well-preserved one is shown here: you can see the upright stones with a horizontal roof laid across it. The chamber is less than a man’s height. The stone is cut into large sheets. Apparently iron tools are needed to do this, and that’s part of the reason for the dating.

A rock painting in Madathala in Chinnar wildlife sanctuary

To get to the dolmens we’d driven on State Highway 17 past Marayoor town until a petrol pump, and then turned right. Now we backtracked to the petrol pump, and proceeded further along State Highway 17 into Chinnar wildlife sanctuary. We got off at Alampetty Eco-camp and asked about a walk through the forest to see rock paintings. This was possible for a small fee. We had two forest guides with us. We walked past a dolmen. A further half hour’s walk brought us to a rock face protected by an overhang. On the rock face there was the red ochre painting which you see in the photo above. This is part of the Madathala complex of sites.

Rock painting in Madthala inside Chinnar WLSThe two deer were painted a little above my height, and were in good condition. This area has both the chital (spotted deer) and the bigger sambar. I thought the painting looked like chital. A photo of another painting at my eye level is shown alongside. This is not very clearly visible; has it been painted over? Probably one can see the rump of a wild pig here. We are not experts in ancient art. The Family and I have seen paintings like this before only in Bhimbetka. The painting on a rock face, the use of red ochre, painting over an older painting, and the lack of physical context in the painting, probably means that they are not as old as the paleolithic and the ice age, nor as recent as the neolithic with its discovery of more colours. These are probably mesolithic, which in India could mean about 12,000 years old.

General view of the Madathala rock painting regionThere was a signboard here which said a little about this area called Madathala. One of our guides could speak a little English; he pointed out caves in the far cliff you can see in the photo here. He said that there are paintings in some of those caves, although they are hard to reach unless you are equipped for a climb. He also told us that there are more easily accessible rock paintings in the area, but they would take longer to get to. Unfortunately we had little time. We decided to come back again.

The day had been hot, and I could feel a mild sunburn. Although we had spent a large part of the day tracking down the sites of the dolmens and paintings, we had eventually spent quite a while walking in the sun. The next time we come here we will have to arrange for the permits in advance so that we get to see the places we missed this time around.

Ancient Rock Art

The rock shelters of Bhimbetka are less than 50 Kms from Bhopal: an easy drive on a good road. In less than an hour we traveled from the city to this magical world. The paintings were discovered in 1957 by Vishnu Wakankar, a historian involved in studies of rock art in France and Spain, when he was beginning his work in India. Wakankar was traveling by train to Bhopal and noticed rock formations similar to ones he had worked on abroad. He went there and discovered the paintings.

bhimbetkaWork is still going on in this area, but some of the shelters are open to the public. These are not closed caves with little openings. The picture on the right shows what they are: overhangs, some low, some high enough that we could stand upright. It rained quite heavily while we were there, and we could find shelter under some of the rocks, more or less like our prehistoric cousins would have. But the fact that the shelters are exposed also means that there has been more weathering here than in closed caves. In spite of this, many of the paintings are spectacular.

These shelters were inhabited till the medieval period. The earliest paintings are made with a single pigment, either red, which is the oldest, or white. Art from later times used multiple colours: yellows and greens appear. I wanted to know how old the earliest paintings are. There is no clear answer yet. Excavations have yielded stone tools, the oldest from the late Acheulian period. Some are in display in the museums in Bhopal. Acheulian tools in India were dated recently as more than 1 million years old. This is the deep Paleolithic, from long before Homo Sapiens arrived. However, the oldest paintings are thought to be more recent, and estimates quoted in plaques in Bhimbetka say they are probably from the Mesolithic period. That means they were painted by humans.

petroglyph

Near the entrance to the complex we saw this outline of a human hand. Apparently these are common in rock art, and it is believed that they were made by putting an actual hand on the rock face, and painting around it. I put my hand over it, the outline was substantially smaller. The Family compared her hand with it; it was smaller than hers. This fits with our understanding that early humans were relatively small compared to us. I have seen Ashoka’s stone inscriptions, the Rosetta stone, Hammurabi’s code etched on a stone. They are barely a few thousand years old. This connection of our hands was with another human who lived tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps even a good fraction of a hundred thousand years ago. The sense of deep time overwhelmed us for a while. Walking the streets of Rome, Patna and Xi’an, you are aware of the history of a couple of thousand years. The people who lived here would have been walking on ground familiar to other people tens of thousands of years before them!

holesinstone

We saw enigmatic holes in the rock face, like in the photo above. They are associated with rock paintings across the world and are called cupules. There are no experts on these. There is a consensus that they are deliberate, and that they are not functional, but served some artistic or symbolic need. They are older than rock paintings, and some people date them to a hundred thousand years before the paintings. Could this be the art of Homo Habilis, the art of an alien species?

We spent several hours at the site. Some caves were like zoos: full of wild animal figures, sometimes layers painted over previous layers. Elsewhere, you would come to an exposed rock face and see maybe a line of faded red colour, the whole painting would appear slowly to your eye as you stood and followed the faint lines. In some paintings, like in the boar in the featured photo, the pigment would be bright and eye-catching. We left, but we are not finished with Bhimbetka. We plan to return. And now that we have seen this, and read about rock paintings in India, we plan to explore many other sites across the country.