Stones with stories

Invaluable in nature, the petroglyphs of of Bhimbetka, Pansaimol and Ratnagiri provide archaeological breakthroughs that bridge the gap between mythology and history.
Last Updated 30 June 2019, 04:41 IST

A depression in a rock in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri indicates that it was left by someone lying down. For years, local villagers insist the impression was created by Sita, Lord Rama’s wife, who lay on the surface during the period in which the demon king Ravana had abducted her. The story, however incredulous, bears immense significance. Mythology is usually weaved around facts.

And, it was only in this millennium that the zone’s myriad carvings were scientifically analysed and examined by archaeologists to reveal the presence of petroglyphs created by prehistoric man: a fact that changes history for the zone.

Sudhir Risbood’s wonderment as a child at viewing odd, concentric circles and artistic carvings on a square-shaped rock off the main road in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri while cycling as a child in the zone grew into what would provide Maharashtra its biggest link with prehistoric times.

It was only after finding a similar rock at a site project near Ganpatipule that Sudhir, many years later, and working as an engineer, realised that there was a method in the occurrences. The rocks weren’t similar by accident. There was a design in the entire affair. So, in 2012, Sudhir, with engineer friend Dhananjay Marathe, embarked on a pilot project to discover similar sites by asking around the villages in the vicinity. They soon realised that because of the new roads, a lot of people didn’t walk across the flat rock surfaces anymore. However, a lot of older residents who had used the rocks to walk upon knew… and spoke about them.

In the next few years, the two unearthed a whopping 86 creations at 10 sites in Ratnagiri district. These petroglyphs, as the rock carvings are known, are said to be carved by prehistoric humans.

Period unknown

Technically, it is difficult to determine the exact period of the carvings, but these particular petroglyphs were carved using metal tools, providing archaeologists a way of determining the period of origin. For years on end, the locals would refer to the markings as Pandava Chitra and had little reason to believe otherwise. After all, their ancestors had referred to them as Pandava Chitra and that could simply not be questioned.

Coordinator of Maharashtra Archaeological Department’s technical team, Rutwij Apte, went on to find over 700 stone tools of varying sizes, including microliths (small stone tools), inside a Konkan cave. Meanwhile, amateur archaeologists have begun talking to locals about the importance of the sites and the need to protect them. A ring of stones around the human carving in Devache Gothane is an attempt towards this direction.

Where petroglyphs fall in land mined for laterite stone, widely used in construction across the western coast, landowners have been requested to erect brick boundaries protecting the sites. In Ukshi village in north Ratnagiri, the local archaeologists have worked overtime with local authorities to construct a circular viewing gallery, complete with an inscription that explains the art work’s significance.

Historians maintain that from the data gathered, it appears that the carvings found in Ratnagiri ranged from prehistoric to the early historic period. The presence of curvilinear lines on the rocks suggests advanced thinking, and the etchings of animals indicate it was not a farming society. So, more excavations are expected to follow to find tools and other living implements.

The petroglyphs are said to be about 25,000 years old; in the Mesolithic Age (or Middle Stone Age), which existed between the Paleothilic Period (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic Period (New Stone Age). It is the nature of the porous laterite rock that dominates the terrain of Ratnagiri and Rajapur along Maharashtra’s Konkan coast on which the petroglyphs are carved that helped researchers arrive at this.

Among the 1,000-odd petroglyphs discovered in the zone is an eight-foot-long human form — a man standing feet apart with his arms hanging loose by his side. Covering over 52 sites across the region, the forms range from human and animal shapes to a 50-foot carving of an elephant within which smaller animals and aquatic forms are carved.

Some of the patterns are abstract and carved roughly on the rock surface while others are geometrically perfect reliefs cut deep into the rock. Distinctly different from pictographs, the petroglyphs are carved into a flat, open rock surface, lending a unique finesse.

History is replete with evidence that the Konkan coast was lined with important port towns. Epigraphs reconstructed lend credulity to contemporary records that it had a history of trade and contact with Europe, even with the Roman Empire.

Connecting the dots

“Apart from the caves in the region, there always existed a huge gap regarding the zone’s prehistoric times. So, from the time period of the port towns existing in 3,000 BCE to 25,000-year-old stone tools discovered, and the more recent petroglyphs dating back to about 10,000 BCE, archaeologists can now embark on the historical accounting to match the dots,” says Tejas Garge, director, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Maharashtra.

The petroglyphs are placed in the Mesolithic Period, which lies between the OldStone Age or Paleolithic Period, characterised by chipped stone tools, and the New Stone Age or Neolithic Period, associated with smaller, more polished tools.

Here, at Ratnagiri, was also found a motif of two legs, squatting and spread outward. Cut off at the hip and is usually deployed as a side motif to the larger, more abstract rock reliefs. “Images from later periods depict a goddess called Lajja Gauri, similarly portrayed, squatting and with legs facing outward, though in those cases the rest of the body is also shown. We are exploring a link between the two,” maintains Garge.

The preponderant depiction of animals and aquatic life suggests that the petroglyphs were created by hunter-gatherer tribes. Unlike the carvings in Bhimbetka and Mirzapur where hunting of animals has been depicted in scenes, in Maharashtra’s cultural records, there is no evidence of any art being practised until about 3,000 BCE, which is when the first mention of painted pots and clay figurines is available. Some of the petroglyphs depict the rhinoceros and hippopotamus, never thought to be prevalent in this part of India. They, however, suggest that the Konkan may have once been a lot like the rainforests where these animals are typically found.

Also, the art, large and prominently animalistic in nature, indicates some form of religious belief or religious system. The theory that more complex reliefs, etched deep into the ground, could have been done using metal implements rather than stone indicates that like Bhimbetka, where art has been dated from prehistoric times right down to the medieval period, points to an uninterrupted habitation possibly by various nomadic tribes.

There is a theory that the carvings get more complex as one moves from north to south, suggesting a pattern of migration in this direction over centuries. A petroglyph of a man standing with two tigers flanking him on both sides, in the village Barsu, can be found in petroglyph sites across the world indicating man’s control over nature.

The Maharashtra Government has set aside Rs 24 crore for further research on these sites and a lot of administrative work will need to be done to showcase the same to tourists. From a notification as an archaeological heritage site down to acquiring the lands legally from locals, it’s a long road ahead.

It will be a long-drawn battle of perception for India to make her mark in the world map of pre-historic rock art. The first image that comes to one’s mind with regard to ancient rock art remains that of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche Department of southern France that contains some of the best-preserved figurative cave paintings in the world as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.

Located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River, in the Gorges de l’Ardèche, the Cave was discovered on December 18, 1994 and is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites and the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO granted it World Heritage status on June 22, 2014. Each year, millions of tourists visit them, to marvel at their beauty.

In sharp contrast lie the rock carvings at Pansaimol in Usgalimal, South Goa. It houses a stupendous collection of petroglyphs tracing back to a whopping 30,000 years, discovered by sheer coincidence.

A make-shift bridge made of tree trunks across River Kushavati at the site of petroglyphs at Usgalimal in South Goa.
A make-shift bridge made of tree trunks across River Kushavati at the site of petroglyphs at Usgalimal in South Goa.

A chance discovery

A year before the world-renowned Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave was discovered in 1993, a team headed by archaeologist P P Shirodkar, exploring the region nearby, chanced upon this site at the Pansaimol village.

As a bend of the Kushavati river where it takes a sharp turn here, a part of the laterite rock bed stood exposed with some detailed etching on it. After clearing the area, the team discovered about 140 rocks with clear engravings, depicting human beings in various postures, a different variation of cattle, elephant, deer and other animals along with geometric and abstract designs scattered all over the area.

The period during which the site was occupied has been debated by scholars and archaeologists over the years. Owing to a lack of scientific dating of the site, parallels have been drawn with petroglyphs on the basis of the pattern of carvings. Dr P P Shirodkar compared them with the rock bruising (as these etchings are called) in Europe and Bhimbetka in India, attributing it to the Mesolithic Period.

Figures of two animals carved out of the rocks at Usgalimal by sharp stones near Kushavati river is easily 30,000 years ago.
Figures of two animals carved out of the rocks at Usgalimal by sharp stones near Kushavati river is easily 30,000 years ago.

Goa’s Department of Archives and Archaeology’s assistant superintending archaeologist Dr Varad Sabnis maintained that the petroglyphs found at Pansaimol were not a one-time phenomenon. He maintains, “Looking at the carvings and their styles, one can be sure that they were made in different periods. The carvings occur from the Mesolithic Period (8,000 - 6,000 BCE) to the Medieval period (10th – 12th century CE).”

The rock art at Pansaimol lends us strategic insights into the lives of those who lived in the zone ages ago. Settlers would prefer rock shelters and caves located in thick forest regions near sources of water, hence the Kushavati river, whose proximity fetched food - wild fruits, roots, tubers and other edible forest products and small game.

The shack to house security provided by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at the Usgalimal Site usually lies empty.
The shack to house security provided by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at the Usgalimal Site usually lies empty.

Concentric circle labyrinths

Among the most interesting and enigmatic geometrical designs etched at the Pansaimol rock carvings are the concentric circle labyrinths. Incidentally, these are common designs noticed in rock art from across the world and from different periods depicted on pottery, coins and other forms. Till the Pansaimol rock carvings were discovered, the labyrinths on the rock surface at Winnemucca Lake, Nevada, USA were considered to be the oldest, dating back to 8500 - 12,800 BCE. “The symbol is found in Europe in Galacia Caves in Spain (dating to 2,000 BCE) and Rocky Valley in England from early Bronze Age (1,800 – 1,400 BCE)” says Dr Varad Sabnis. The Pansaimol Labyrinth is identified by experts across the world as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of such forms on earth.

“In the last 30 years, a range of petroglyphs has been discovered along the western belt of the country, especially in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Goa. This rock art site of Pansaimol is symbolic of a rather obscure and even unknown cultural history of Goa, in particular, and the subcontinent, in general,” maintains Panjim-based History professor and chairperson of Goa Heritage Action Group Prajal Sakhardande.

Sadly, of the 70,81,000 Indian tourists, and the 90,31,000 foreign tourists who visited Goa last year, barely a few hundred-odd tourists would have visited the Pansaimol rock carvings.

The signage indicating the way to Usgalimal in South Goa.
The signage indicating the way to Usgalimal in South Goa.

It may be noted that the oldest prehistoric rock carving (petroglyphs) in the world happens to be the Bhimbetka rock carvings in Auditorium Cave, the largest cave in Bhimbetka complex. The petroglyphs here were created between 2,90,000 and 7,00,000 BCE, during the Acheulian period of the Lower Paleolithic. Discovered in 1957, Bhimbetka was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003 and is home to more than 500 caves and rock shelters, all of them adorned with paintings.

It was an excavation by Dr Vishnu Wakankar in 1957-58 during an accidental trip to the sanctuary of Ratapani that he chanced upon the caves. Invaluable in nature, the Bhimbetka Caves house paintings made in differ ent periods of history, some around 30,000 years old, providing historians and viewers insight into the pre-historic lifestyle, festivals, hunting and agriculture. Of the 500 caves, only about 12 have been kept open for public viewing.

The term Bhimbetka, like Ratnagiri, has mythological likes. It is said that Bheema (of the five Pandava brothers) would sit (baitha in Hindi) in this place, hence Bhimbetka.

The marvels of Bhimbetka, Pansaimol and Ratnagiri are thrown open to Indians and the world at large and provide archaeological breakthroughs that bridge the gap between mythology and history. Now, for the first time, India has the tools, and is etching her rightful place in prehistoric times.

(Published 29 June 2019, 19:30 IST)

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