Art of our ancestors

Art of our ancestors

Aihole, rock art, Srikumar M Menon

It must have been sometime in January 2016 when my friend Kalakappa, who lives in Banashankari, near Badami, called up to inform that a new shrine had been uncovered at Benakanawari, near Aihole. I have been exploring the valley of River Malaprabha near Badami, Pattadakallu and Aihole since 2012, and Kalakappa who drives an autorickshaw in Badami has been a close friend and associate on most of my adventures.

I was able to visit the site only in June 2016, when I visited Badami for some other work. The shrine, tucked away roughly 150m to the right of the road leading from Pattadakallu to Aihole, within a deep fold in the sandstone ranges bordering the road, is a simple structure. A single-celled, flat-roofed structure built of sandstone blocks, it seems to have received the attention of treasure seekers who had vandalised it partly, before it was swallowed up in an overgrowth of vegetation over time. It was rediscovered when the villagers were clearing vegetation in the area.

Prehistoric symbols

Unfazed by the absence of a deity within the hitherto unknown shrine, they promptly named it Korammana Gudi (Shrine to Koramma, a local goddess), though a mutilated loose sculpture of Nandi located outside, facing the shrine, suggests otherwise. While we were documenting the shrine, one of the interns, Adrija Choudhary, spotted something up in the cliffs to the south of the shrine, which looked like graffiti. Upon a closer look, we realised that it was several depictions of a symbol commonly encountered in prehistoric rock art at several sites which I had previously visited.

This symbol, a circle — sometimes two concentric circles, or a circle with a dot within — surmounting a long stalk-like line, has three spike-like projections, and two smaller ones, emanating from it. Since it was getting late, it was not possible to explore further that day, but I made a mental note to return to explore the site.

A year and a half sped by before I got an opportunity to do so. The rock art site is accessed by scrambling up gentle slopes of talus, or rock debris created by time and the elements chipping away at the edge of the sandstone massif, till the base of the cliff. The rock art panel we had noticed was painted in white pigment on one of two large chunks of sandstone which had sloughed off the edge of the massif in the geological past. The fallen chunks of rock, resting against an overhang in the main cliff had created a small rock-shelter, enclosing a space about 2.25m wide. Within the shelter were more paintings. A faint outline of a standing bull could just about be discerned on one of the bounding walls of the enclosure.

On the horizontal surface of the overhang, at three separate locations, are painted inscriptions, in both red and white pigments. Prof Shrinivas Padigar, who has studied this region for long, immediately identified these as inscriptions in 8th century Kannada characters, undoubtedly belonging to the period of Early Chalukyan rule in the Malaprabha Valley, when many of the remarkable monuments at Aihole, Badami and Pattadakallu were built. About these inscriptions, Prof Padigar elaborates: “The inscription in red ochre reads “srImatasIla[n]”, the letter “srI” being written as mirror image. The inscription in white pigment reads “srI guNa[pa]” (the intended reading may be “srI guNapAlan”, assuming that latter part is eroded). Another inscription in white pigment above this is not clear, though some letters like “ya”, “da”, “va”, “ra” and “ba” can be identified. All these seem to record epithets of certain individuals, probably craftspeople. “A couple of other inscriptions in white are fragmentary, and cannot be read completely. There is one inscription in modern Kannada script too, in red, which reads “rAmappata”. There is also an incomplete drawing, consisting of only a single line in ochre on the cliff-face nearby.

Who were the ancient people who made these marks on the sandstone cliffs near the shrine? The symbols painted on the outer panel which we noticed first, is widely encountered in prehistoric contexts over large parts of south India.

It has been noticed often in the context of megaliths, which are funerary and memorial monuments believed to have been erected in the Iron Age, roughly 2500-3500 years ago. For instance, similar symbols have been seen in a rock shelter at a place called Onake Kindi, close to the well-known megalithic site at Hire Benakal. There are megaliths scattered on the plateau above the cliffs containing the rock art site at Benakanawari, too, reported by Prof Padigar in 2004. It is quite conceivable that the rock-shelter was inhabited during the period when the megaliths were erected.

Signatures in antiquity

But what about the inscriptions from the Early Chalukyan period? Prof Padigar feels that they are the names of craftspeople from that period. There are several known instances of artisans of this period inscribing their names on or near the monuments they created, and in quarries where the stone was extracted.

For instance, stone for the magnificent royal monuments of the Early Chalukyas at Pattadakallu was extracted from at least three quarries, which have been found within a radius of a few kilometres. These quarries have masons’ marks, sketch studies for sculptures and inscriptions, which offer rare insight into the lives and minds of those ancient artisans.

Stone for smaller monuments was usually sourced from the immediate vicinity of the sites of their erection, such as the cluster of small Chalukyan temples at Huligemmanna Kolla. This site, too, has inscriptions and engravings of the artisans who worked there.

Thus it appears that the newly discovered painted rock shelter was occupied at least in two phases of history – during the period of the erection of the megaliths, and during the erection of the shrine at the foot of the scarp. The shrine is a modest construction and would have needed very few craftspeople to work on it. It is quite probable that Srimatasilan and his fellow artisans camped at the rock-shelter during its construction. The larger context of this painted rock-shelter stretches to the Early Chalukyan temple site at Siddhana Kolla, which abuts the megalithic site on the plateau above the cliffs and is just 1.15 km from the rock-shelter, as the crow flies. There is also another rock art site on the cliffs of the opposite side of the sandstone massif, just 2.5 km away, called Huliphadi, but it is not clear if the two sites are related.

The chance discovery of this site holds the tantalising prospect that there are still many more sites of the Chalukyan or even earlier periods of history hidden away in these surreal sandstone ranges of the Malaprabha Valley, which await discovery. Each of these is potentially important parts of the puzzle and helps in piecing together the grand mosaic of how successive generations of our ancestors lived and used the landscape around them.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)