ETHNOLOGY AND ROCK ART IN INDIA
Other Saura designs with people carrying loads
As soon as 1883, John Cockburn had mentioned the fact that "the aborigines of the Kymores were in a stone age as late as the 10th century AD" and thus had had a very long artistic tradition (reported by Chakraverty 2003: 11). Nowadays, India is one of the rare countries in the world with a continuing ethnological tradition which has manifested itself in a vivid tribal life, even though, as far as we know, rock art has not been made for a very long time and the memory of its purposes and meanings has long been gone.
Nowadays, tribal and folk groups apparently do not "associate themselves with such art in their areas (…), except to explain it as the work of evil spirits or epic heroes" (Chakravarty & Bednarik 1997: 31). A similar opinion has been expressed about the rock art in Orissa (east of India), where "the local people do not attach any special significance to these rock art sites. To them, the works of art in the shelters are the works of the heavenly bodies or that of the ghosts. They even often consider it a taboo to touch such works of art" (Pradhan 2001: 27). Near Bhimbetka, the local belief is that "witches paint on these rocks during the dark nights of Kanaiya Aat (Shri Krishna Jurmashthami) every year" (Mathpal 1998: 9).
Some widespread forms of tribal art, however, are quite reminiscent of certain themes and techniques found in the rock art. For example, "in India, (the) tradition of printing hands on the gates of houses, temples, sacred sites at ritualistic ceremonies, auspicious occasions like the birth of a child, marriage ceremony etc., is still continuin" (Kumar 1992: 63).
Saura designs withmounted elephants,
dancers and big cats
A traditional plough and humped oxen
in the Chambal valley region
This obviously does not meant that the hand prints found on numerous sites, such as at Bhimbetka Auditorium Rock (Photo 23), should automatically be given a similar meaning, "because similar patterns may well be the results of different behavioural processes in the past and present” (Chakravarty & Bednarik 1997: 87), so that “to read contemporary ethnographic rituals into ancient art may not be quite appropriate in spite of some common trait" (id.). One cannot but agree wholeheartedly with the caution expressed.
Still, the "common traits" and the rituals which accompany them when they have been well documented can be quite fascinating and provide us, if not with outright explanations, at least with food for speculation and wonder, with graphic examples not of what was precisely done with the rock art but of what could in certain cases be done.
Chaturbhujnath Nala. Painting of a
man driving a traditional plough
This obvi The best examples we know are due to the work of Sadashib Pradhan in the south of Orissa, who did notice that "certain ethnographic parallels with rock art are quite discernible in terms of colour composition, geometric frames, symbolism and overall delineation of the subject matter of depiction" (Pradhan 2004: 39). The basis of his study was the Lanjia Saura, one of the numerous Orissa tribes (Photos 9, 10, 64 to 67). They are mostly hunter-gatherers and practise a little farming with traditional ploughs (Photo 68). They "live in close interaction with supernatural entities. When the primitive mind fails to comprehend the cause of unnatural tragedies like illness, killer epidemics, earthquakes, lightning strokes, attacks by wild animals, etc. it attributes the cause to malevolent spirits and gods (…) which need to be propitiated and appeased by drawing icons" (id.). So "art, prompted by sources of beliefs and myths, forms a part and parcel of the Saura life in their struggle for existence" (Pradhan 2001: 62) and it has kept unchanged for as long as it has been documented.
In his excellent book on the rock art in Orissa, Pradhan devotes a whole chapter to the "ethnoarchaeology of rock art". He thus sums up the creation and use, in three broad stages, of the traditional paintings still being made: "In stage one, the shaman identifies the spirit or the power that has caused the disease, or death or that needs to be propitiated for the welfare of the family, whose icon is to be drawn. In stage two, the icon is drawn on the house wall either by the artist (Ittalamaran) or the shaman (kuranmaran) if he knows how to draw. And in stage three the icon is consecrated by the shaman through an elaborate ritual involving invocations to all gods and spirits of the Saura world and the particular spirit in whose honour the icon is prepared, to come and occupy the house. All sorts of fruits, roots, grains, corns including wine were offered and finally either a goat or a fowl is sacrificed." (Pradhan 2001: 59).
All the details Pradhan gives in his book show the richness of the information to be got from traditional tribal beliefs and practices. No doubt much remains to be learnt from those sources in many other parts of India.
→ Bradshaw Foundation Homepage
→ India Rock Art Archive