Indian Rock Art - Prehistoric Paintings of the Pachmarhi Hills by Dr. Meenakshi Dubey Pathak


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The Pachmarhi Hills are situated in the geographical center of the Indian sub continent in the State of Madhya Pradesh. The hills lie in the Satpura Range, formed of the Gondwanaland sandstone belonging to the Gondwanaland series of the Talcher Group formations. The sandstone sequence is of the upper Gondwanaland formation. The sandstone is relatively friable and, on weathering, forms the sandy solid found at the foot of the hills. These hills form one of the most beautiful parts of the Satpura Range. The shelters are found all over the hills and the surrounding forests, in the foothills and riverbanks. Many shelters are covered with paintings made over centuries by early inhabitants depicting a wide range of subjects expressed by them in a variety of styles and left as great heritage for us to understand them and appreciate their unique contribution.
Pachmarhi Hills India
The Pachmarhi Hills
Pachmarhi Hills India
The Pachmarhi Hills
Captain J Forsyth made the discovery of this place, as a sanitarium. Forsyth was sent there in 1862 under the instructions of Sir Richard Temple, Commissioner of that day to explore this portion of the Satpura Forest. Here he built a forest lodge and named it “Bison Lodge”. His famous book  “The Highlands of Central India” depicts the exquisite beauties of the Satpura range. The point from where Captain J. Forsyth forest glimpsed the extra ordinary sight of Pachmarhi is still one of the finest points named as “Forsyth point”. When he came to Pachmarhi, the area was occupied by the Korku jagirdar of Pachmarhi, but there were traces of a much older civilization in the shape of sites of ruined huts near “Handi kho” site. The total area of the plateau is about 60 sq kms including the forest area and 12.90 sq kms occupied by the Pachmarhi cantonment.
Part of Forsyth’s report states “Every where the massive group of trees and park like scenery strikes the eye and the greenery of glades and wild flowers, unseen at lower elevation, maintains the illusion that the scene is a bit out of our temperate zone. Thereafter, a multitude of beauty spots were discovered, and the place developed. Much remains the same even today. Pachmarhi still retains its tranquility, its many silences, its gentle green and its soothing forest. It is one place where solitude is miraculously achieved in moments, and the sighs of swaying trees are the only sounds you will hear. Pachmarhi is a lovely hill-girded plateau on the green Satpura range, called by the tourists as the Queen of Satpura." (M.P. Tourists 1962: 4).
By popular belief the name “Pachmarhi” is a derivation of “Pach-marhi” or a complex of five caves of the Pandava brothers, who are supposed to have spent a considerable portion of their lifetime of exile incognito in this area. Genuine place is attainable any where in “Pachmarhi”. Pachmarhi, the legend tells, was once a huge lake guarded by a monstrous serpent. This serpent began terrorizing the pilgrims visiting the sacred shrines of the Mahadeo hills. Lord Shiva, angered by this, hurled his trident at the snake, imprisoning him in the rift of a solid rock, which assumed the shape of a pot or handi. The flames of wrath dried up the lake and empty space assumed the shape of a saucer. Botanists have therefore reported the existence of plants only found by the sides of large expanses of water, these rare penmen of flora seem to bear out the myth! (M P Tourist 74:2).
The hills are thickly vegetated with rich floristic and faunal biota but quite widespread and difficult to access. The natural species represented in the rock art were of great economical importance, having food value for the shelter-dwellers and often form subjects of their painting. Rock paintings found within shelters here are the major sources of our understanding of how their creators related to their physical, biological and cultural environments. These people, as do their descendants at the present time, held beliefs and practices which expressed a direct or indirect relationship between their environment and themselves. Within this body of expression, the evolution of the art form, with the development of mankind over centuries, plays an important and multifaceted role.
GR Hunter brought the painted rock shelters of Pachmarhi Hills to the notice of D.H. Gordon (1958). Hunter had excavated some sites here in 1932 and again in 1934-35. The 1935 excavation revealed that the cultural sequence within this region commenced during the Mesolithic period, confirming that the Pachmarhi Hills were not occupied during the Palaeolithic. Thus, the rock paintings of this region belong to the Mesolithic and later periods. The Mesolithic paintings clearly depict a society of hunters and gatherers. Mainly they portray man and his relationship with animals. The subject matter of this period is quite varied, although game animals are most frequently represented. Bulls, bison, elephants, wild boars, deer, tigers, buffaloes, dogs, monkeys and crocodiles appear alongside smaller species such as rats, lizards, turtles and fishes. Some of the birds are identified as peacocks, jungle fowl and ostrich. Arthropods, such as scorpions and wild bees, were also depicted. The hunters are portrayed using spears, axes, sticks and bows and arrows.
india rock art
Stag Hunting
india rock art
Hunting Wild Buffalo
Female figures are occasionally shown. Sexual life does have a place in Mesolithic art but is not very prominent, and male and female union is rarely shown. It seems that dances were important for ceremonial or entertainment purposes during this period. For these dances headdresses and animal masks representing donkeys, crocodiles, bulls or monkeys were worn. The compositional elements of these Mesolithic paintings are highly developed. They represent an element of the creative spirit of the early people. That their aesthetic sense had developed to a high degree can be seen in geometric designs and in paintings of the X-ray style. Pregnant animals such as cow and deer depict the fetus in the womb. Most interesting depiction is a urinating cow. It suggests the awareness of medicinal value of cow urine to the primitives. As we all know according to Indian Ayurved cow urine is a very good treatment for cancer patients and for other ailments. Head Hunters are another interesting depiction . A variety of animals can be seen from elephants to ants.
india rock art
Urinating Cow
rock art India
Pregnant Animal with fetus in the Womb
india rock art
X-Ray Style Rock Art Painting
india rock art
X-Ray Style Rock Art Painting
In the Pachmarhi Hills most of the paintings are from the Chalcolithic to the Historical period. Conflict is one of the main themes depicted during this time. War scenes are common but reasons for conflict are not indicated. Horsemen armed with swords and shields overlie the earlier paintings portraying the life of hunters and gatherers. They bear elaborate war equipment consisting of spears, axes, swords, shields, daggers and bows and arrows. Other individuals carry drums and trumpets, and foot soldiers as well as men riding caparisoned horses and elephants are depicted. Goats, dogs, oxen, donkeys and performing monkeys accompany the troops. The descendants of the original hunters and gatherers and artists of this region are the tribal Korku and Gond who still uphold some of the traditions of their ancestors. In the rock paintings their ancestors are depicted dancing in pairs or in rows and playing musical instruments. They hunted animals and collected honey from the hives of wild bees. Their mode of dress was quite simple. The women carried food and water and looked after the children. The forebearers of the present day tribal people had a variety of ways to express the magic of their beliefs, rituals and taboos. The tribes living in these hills have wooden memorial boards on which the carved horse and its rider is similar to those painted by their predecessors in the past on the walls of their rock shelters . They also decorate the walls of their houses and this activity seems to have its roots in the cave dwelling traditions of their ancestors. Men and horses of geometric construction are randomly spaced across the walls. Such paintings are done during the rainy season and on festive occasions, and bear a close resemblance to those found in the painted shelters.
india rock art
Bees Nest
india rock art
Presently, the wall paintings in their houses, as in the great majority of rock paintings, are executed in red and yellow pigments prepared from hematite or other iron oxides. The white pigment was made from limestone or kaolin, while mixtures of pigment that produce pinks are also found used in paintings. The rock paintings were executed in a number of stylistic conventions. Some are only sketches or constructs of lines, while others are silhouettes filled with colours and embellished with decorative designs.
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