Pre historic art in Karnataka

By Dr. A Sundara



How old is rock art and when did man give expression to his strong emotions. How did he conceive and how did he execute? What was the purpose?  We know that traditional knowledge, practice and experience evolved and crystalysed over a period of time into a shastra, whichever the field may be.

The history of development of human culture has a long past.Scholars in prehistory earlier thought that it goes back to 200,000 years.  But in the 1990s tremendous progress was made in the study of the human past.  In Isampur, a small insignificant village in Surpur taluk in Gulbarga district, excavations have been conducted by Dr. K.Paddaiah, a very well known prehistorian of international repute, from the Deccan college, for the past 20 years.  In his recent investigation some fossilsof animals were found and they have been dated using the ESR technique. The dates obtained shows that the early Paleolithic cultural stage in that part of the country is as old as  1.5 million years. In Ethiopia, Northeastern Africa  many important  discoveries have been made. Fossil remains of almost a complete skeleton of a woman,   fondly named Lucy by the discoverer were found  . More  astounding  is  the  discovery  of  a human skull,  surprisingly having modern features as  well,  which is puzzling,   in  Chad  area of  western-central  Africa. It  is  dated by an  international team  at 6 to 7 million years !. Of  course  the  identification of  its  features,  are  questioned  and  the study is in progress. Further, the present human form ( Homo Sapiens ) and brain are said to have evolved some 50,000 years ago. But today this stage of  human evolution is pushed back to 150,000 years. 

Researchers and amateur archaeologists did not know rock art as late as 1890s or slightly earlier, say the middle part of the 19th century.  As is the case with many of the science fields, two chance discoveries at  Altamira ( Spain ) and Lascaux ( France )  ultimately laid the foundation for a distinct branch called Rock-art archaeology.  Rock art today occupies an important place and has become a separate discipline.

In India the first discoveries of rock art were perhaps in the last decades of 19th century. Hubert Knox  in Karnataka at Kigali, Archibald Carlyle and John Cocksure in Aimer  ranges, Madhya Pradesh, found the rock  engravings and cave paintings. Later, in Karnataka, in 1915,  Leonard Munn, an  English officer was moving about in Hire Benkal ( Gangavati taluk., Raichur district, now in  Koppal  district) forested  hill ranges, he happened to discover three caves with paintings.  He published a note on  them in the annual reports of the archaeological department of the former Nizam’s Dominion of Hyderabad. Occasional discoveries were being made and no further studies were carried on as late as 1960s. It was the late Vishnu Wakankar  of Ujjain, who found about 700 natural caves, most of  them  with  Prehistoric  paintings, in the sand stone belt in Bhimbetka near Bhopal.  His Ph. D. thesis  on  these  paintings was the first of its  kind on rock art and in view of his service to rock art he was awarded Padmashree by  the Government of India.    Since then numerous discoveries were made in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bihar, Bengal. Orissa and eastern part of Punjab, etc.

To have access to the painted rock-shelters and caves, one must be determined and physically strong. In a single shelter/cave  there may be one or  two  or even 50-100 pictures of animals, humans, geometrical designs and scenes of  some  significant  social performances such  as  hunting, group dance, burying the dead, etc. which  are less frequent.  The pictures  are executed in mineral colours like red, green, white , the  first  being  the most  common.  It is said that it was mixed with pig’s blood since it would not dry up fast.  The pictures  are in either outline  or  silhouette.

There are  three categories of rock art. bruising  caused with a stone, the engraving with a sharp stone or metal  tool and then the paintings.  Almost  all  the  paintings  are monochrome. In southern Karnataka, we find mostly engravings.  Very rarely there are paintings in white ochre and red ochre.  In eastern part of North Karnataka there are bruisings, engravings and paintings dating back to the Neolithic period (4000-2000-800 B.C.) In Badami-Hosa Mahakuta-Pattadakal-Aihole-Kutakankei area there  are  very interesting  painted  shelters  mostly with  animals  of wild  species and humans  drawn in a peculiar  way besides some unusual  geometrical  designs datable to Mesolithic
(circa.10,000 B.C.) or even earlier.  There  are  more than a dozen sites in this  area. What is  more striking is the existence of  a painted  scene of  a   seated nobleman approached  by his  two  consorts carrying lotus  flowers  in hand  on a prepared  surface  in classical style  in  a  deep  rock  recess dark noticed  by me  sometime in 1975. Later,  Dr. Shilakant Pattar of Badami discovered  a  similar  cave painting  in the same area.  In the Western-ghat-coastal region there  are   mostly engravings from Sindhu Durga( Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra ) upto mid Kerala.  In the  border  area of Kerala-Udakamandala also cave-paintings are located.  Their  dating  is  vague.

The variations in the form of rock art are mainly due to the prevailing rock conditions. Yet another aspect of the rock art to be considered are the contents or the designs. In the  Ghat-coastal  region,  cattle  such as  bulls, cows  and  infrequently geometrical designs  are  strikingly  common. Human representation is scarcely in  evidence. In Badami area, paintings only of wild  animals such  as pigs, animals  with  stripes on the  body,  to be  identified  and  depictions of  stick like humans  with an  exaggerated trunk with a end, have no  parallels  in the other parts of  Karnataka  and the South. In the Eastern part of North Karnataka all three forms of the art i.e. bruisings, engravings  and  paintings and some traditions  of society such  as  group dance, burial  hunting ritual etc occur  frequently.

With regard to painted humans in the eastern part, there are varieties of singles, large and small, in pairs  or  multiples  hand in hand etc.  The  largest depiction of a nude human standing  with squat legs and  with geometrical designs painted all over the body obviously engaged in some ritual is in Narayanapur near Hampi. It  is  appreciably proportionate.  How the artist managed to draw the figure from the tip of the surface about  four  meters  high  from the  ground level, is to  be  admired.

In  geometrical  designs,  certain  types  of  what  are known as  mandalas  prepared in rangavalli even  today  in  religious performances  are  found  in  the paintings  and  engravings. Double  lined two  squares, obliquely  intersecting  with  loops  at the  corners  is  the  most  common  as  found at  Hire Benkal, Chik Rampur  in painting,  Sonda (Uttara Kannada dt.)  and  Gavali near Kundapura (Dakshina  Kannada) in engraving.  What is interesting  is that such  a design is attached  to the  bull’s legs, at  the last two  places.  Also endless  six knot  design  attached  to  three  bulls’ legs in a  row,   a similar    design  in exclusion  of  bull/s is  found  on a loosely lying stone  slab  at  Hire-Madapura, (Hire Kerur tk. Haveri dt.)  And  enigmatically  it is  used  by  villagers to  cure  horn  diseases  of  cattle  even today.  Thus  it appears  that such  designs  were  believed to  have  some  magical  powers  by  rural folk  especially  the  pastoralists  even in  the  past.   

Thus rock art are the most effective visual evidences giving an insight into the beliefs and practices of the peoples of the past dating at least from the Upper Palaeolithic. It is needless to say that they are the only source of knowing the visual art of the Prehistoric communities. 


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