Archaeology

Discovering & deciphering rock art

Print edition : November 27, 2015

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. Photo: Giriraj Kumar

Two big deer painted in red ochre colour. Under the belly of the deer standing in front are people who are dancing. This painting dates to the Mesolithic period (c. 10000 BCE to 3000 BCE) and was discovered in a rock shelter at Pandavulagutta in Warangal district, which is now in Telangana. Photo: N. Chandramouli

At Tirumalai in Tamil Nadu, two men in bird masks with prominent beaks ready for a face-off. The mural was estimated to have been done around 500 BCE, the last phase of the Megalithic period. Photo: K. Ganesan

Painted engravings of female genitalia, the phallus, geometric symbols and the human palm at Ramachandrapuram in Khamman district, Telangana. The paintings belong to the Megalithic/Early Historic period. Photo: N. Chandramouli

Paintings in the rock shelters at Bhimbetka, a World Heritage site in Madhya Pradesh. They are spread across a sprawling hillock on the foothills of the Vindhyas on the southern edge of the central Indian plateau. The rock paintings here have defied the vagaries of time and reflect the rhythm of life dating back almost 10,000 years. They show how hunting parties armed with spears, shields, bows and arrows rode their horses and how there was time to celebrate, with the whole community dancing to drumbeats. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A row of rock shelters that have prehistoric paintings on a hill at Dharul, Betul district, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Kanti Pawar

A rock shelter at Muktai in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra. Photo: Kanti Pawar

Early historic painting of an elephant and a man riding a horse, done in white kaolin, in YSR-Kadapa district, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Vellore Ramabrahmam

In a cave in Maraiyur, Idukki district, Kerala, an aerial view of a Megalithic painting of monitor lizards with four legs and other lizards with four, six and 12 legs. They have been done over palm imprints of the earlier Mesolithic-Neolithic period. Photo: By Special Arrangement

An engraving on a shale outcrop at Naidupalli, Prakasam district, Andhra Pradesh. It shows a cultic dance of nude men, one of whom is ithyphallic, in front of a circle-with-a-trident symbol. Photo: N. Chandramouli

At Chaturbhujnath Nala, Chambal valley, Madhya Pradesh, a cow feeding a calf. This painting, done in flat wash style with red ochre, belongs to the Neolithic-Chalcolithic period. Photo: Giriraj Kumar

At Chaturbhujnath Nala, this painting done in red ochre from the top angle shows two men riding a chariot drawn by two horses. A big man walking behind the chariot is holding a flambeau, and one of the men in the chariot has an axe-like weapon. The presence of horses and the chariot shows that it is from the Early Historic period. Photo: Arti Sharma

At Daraki-Chattan in the Chambal basin in Madhya Pradesh, a cave in the quartzite buttresses of Indragarh hill. The vertical walls of the cave boast more than 500 cupules. Photo: Giriraj Kumar

On the southern wall of the cave at Daraki-Chattan, small circular cupules that show conical depth and are about two million years old. Photo: Giriraj Kumar

On the southern wall of the cave in Daraki-Chattan, (in close-up) small circular cupules that show conical depth and are about two million years old. Photo: Giriraj Kumar

The rock art specialist K.T. Gandhirajan points to a petroglyph in a hamlet near Kallampalayam in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. He says it relates to astronomy and is one of its kind. It has a big circle, in the middle of which is a small circle that has eight circles around it. He dates it to the Megalithic Age and conjectures that the small circle in the middle represents the sun and the circles around it celestial bodies. Also seen are spur-like projections a little above the base on either side of the outermost circle. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A life-size figure of a honeycomb done in red pigment in the Mesolithic period at Dharul. “A gallery of images is often found in rock shelters near honeycombs,” says Gandhirajan. Photo: Kanti Pawar

An exquisite ornamental turtle done with red pigment in a rock shelter at Dharul during the Mesolithic period. Photo: Kanti Pawar

A miniature (9 cm × 6 cm) masterpiece at Chaturbhujnath Nala. The third figure, with hands on hips, is said to be the smallest rock art figure in all of Chaturbhujnath Nala. Photo: Giriraj Kumar

Aboriginal rock art in a cave in the Australian Outback, a 2012 photograph. The University of Southern Queensland archaeologist Bryce Barker said tests showed the artwork was made 28,000 years ago, making it the oldest in Australia. Photo: Bryce Barker/AP

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.
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