Prehistoric Rock Painting in Indian Sub-Continent

In India, the earliest paintings have been reported from the Upper Palaeolithic times. The subjects of their drawings were human figures, human activities, geometric designs and symbols.

Remnants of rock paintings have been found on the walls of the caves situated in several districts of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Bihar. Some paintings have been reported from the Kumaon hills in Uttarakhand also. The rock shelters on banks of the River Suyal at Lakhudiyar, about twenty kilometers on the Almora-Barechina road, bear these prehistoric paintings.

Lakhudiyar literally means one lakh caves. The paintings here can be divided into three categories: man, animal, and geometric patterns in white, black, and red ochre. Humans are represented in stick-like forms. A long-snouted animal, a fox, and a multiple-legged lizard are the main animal motifs. Wavy lines, rectangle-filled geometric designs, and groups of dots can also be seen here. One of the interesting scenes depicted here is of hand-linked dancing human figures. There is some superimposition of paintings. The earliest are in black; over these are red ochre paintings and the last group comprises white paintings.

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Ancient Cave Painting at Lakhudiyar, Almora district, Uttarakhand

From Kashmir, two slabs with engravings have been reported. The granite rocks of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh provided suitable canvases to the Neolithic man for his paintings.

There are several such sites but more famous among them are Kupgallu, Piklihal, and Tekkalkota. Three types of paintings have been reported from here-paintings in white, paintings in red ochre over a white background, and paintings in red ochre. These paintings belong to the late historical, early historical, and Neolithic periods. The subjects depicted are bulls, elephants, sambhars, gazelles, sheep, goats, horses, stylized humans, tridents, but rarely, vegetal motifs.

But the richest paintings are reported from the Vindhya ranges of Madhya Pradesh and their Kaimurean extensions into Uttar Pradesh. These hill ranges are full of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic remains, and they are also full of forests, wild plants, fruits, streams, and creeks, thus a perfect place for Stone Age people to live. Among these the largest and most spectacular rock-shelter is located in the Vindhya hills at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh.

Bhimbetka Cave and its Paintings

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Bhimbetka Cave in Madhya Pradesh

Bhimbetka is located forty-five kilometers south of Bhopal, in an area of ten square kilometers, having about eight hundred rock shelters, five hundred of which bear paintings. The themes of paintings found here are of great variety, ranging from mundane events of daily life in those times to sacred and royal images. These include hunting, dancing, music, horse and elephant riders, animal fighting, honey collection, decoration of bodies, and other household scenes.

The rock art of Bhimbetka has been classified into various groups on the basis of style, technique, and superimposition. The drawings and paintings can be categorized into seven historical periods. Period 1, Upper Palaeolithic; Period II, Mesolithic; and Period III, Chalcolithic. After Period III there are four successive periods. The paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic phase are linear representations, in green and dark red, of huge animal figures, such as bison, elephants, tigers, rhinos, and boars besides stick-like human figures. A few are wash paintings but mostly they are filled with geometric patterns. The green paintings are of dancers and the red ones of hunters.

The largest number of paintings belong to Period II that covers the Mesolithic paintings. During this period the themes multiply but the paintings are smaller in size. Hunting scenes predominate. The hunting scenes depict people hunting in groups, armed with barbed spears, pointed sticks, arrows, and bows. In some paintings, these primitive men are shown with traps and snares probably to catch animals.

The hunters are shown wearing simple clothes and ornaments. Sometimes, men have been adorned with elaborate headdresses, and sometimes painted with masks also. Elephant, bison, tiger, boar, deer, antelope, leopard, panther, rhinoceros, fish, frog, lizard, squirrel and at times birds are also depicted.

The Mesolithic artists loved to paint animals. In some pictures, animals are chasing men. In others, they are being chased and hunted by men. Some of the animal paintings, especially in the hunting scenes, show fear of animals, but many others show a feeling of tenderness and love for them. There are also a few engravings representing mainly animals.

Though animals were painted in a naturalistic style, humans were depicted only in a stylistic manner. Women are painted both in the nude and clothed. The young and the old equally find their place in these paintings. Children are painted running, jumping, and playing. Community dances provide a common theme.

There are paintings of people gathering fruit or honey from trees, and of women grinding and preparing food. Some of the pictures of men, women, and children seem to depict a sort of family life. In many of the rock shelters, we find handprints, fist prints, and dots made by the fingertips.

Period III covers the Chalcolithic period. The paintings of this period reveal the association, contact, and mutual exchange of requirements of the cave dwellers of this area with settled agricultural communities of the Malwa plains. Many a time Chalcolithic ceramics and rock paintings bear common motifs, e.g., cross-hatched squares, lattices. Pottery and metal tools are also shown. But the vividness and vitality of the earlier periods disappear from these paintings.

The artists of Bhimbetka used many colors, including various shades of white, yellow, orange, red ochre, purple, brown, green, and black. But white and red were their favorite colors. The paints were made by grinding various rocks and minerals. They got red from haematite (known as geru in India). The green came from a green variety of a stone called chalcedony. White might have been made out of limestone. The rock of mineral was first ground into a powder. This may then have been mixed with water and also with some thick or sticky substance such as animal fat or gum or resin from trees. Brushes were made of plant fiber. What is amazing is that these colors have survived thousands of years of adverse weather conditions. It is believed that the colors have remained intact because of the chemical reaction of the oxide present on the surface of the rocks.

The artists here made their paintings on the walls and ceilings of the rock shelters. Some of the paintings are reported from the shelters where people lived. But some others were made in places that do not seem to have been living spaces at all. Perhaps these places had some religious importance. Some of the most beautiful paintings are very high up on rock shelters or close to the ceilings of rock- shelters. One may wonder why early human beings chose to paint on a rock in such an uncomfortable position. The paintings made at these places were perhaps for people to be able to notice them from a distance.

The primitive artists seem to possess an intrinsic passion for storytelling. These pictures depict, in a dramatic way, both men and animals engaged in the struggle for survival. In one of the scenes, a group of people has been shown hunting a bison. In the process, some injured men are depicted lying scattered on the ground. In another scene, an animal is shown in the agony of death and the men are depicted dancing. These kinds of paintings might have given man a sense of power over the animals he would meet in the open.

It is interesting to note that at many rock-art sites often a new painting is painted on top of an older painting. At Bhimbetka, in some places, there are as many as 20 layers of paintings, one on top of another.

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