Over the years explorers and archaeologists have found rich concentration of rock art shelters at many places beyond the Bhimbetaka world heritage site in central India. Many such sites in Madhya Pradesh are now attracting attention of foreign and local experts.
Many claim that with all such finds over the decades, Madhya Pradesh has emerged as an area with one of the richest concentrations of rock art in the world. However, besides Bhimbetaka which is well protected and documented, other rich rock art shelters in the state do not enjoy similar protection and need immediate attention for their long time survival and proper scientific study.
Of over 150 rock art sites that have been discovered across India, nearly two-thirds are in central India. The highest concentration of rock art sites is situated in the Satpura, Vindhya and Kaimur Hills, with Bhimbetaka alone having 750 rock art shelters that were discovered by VS Wakankar, considered the father of Indian rock art. But the rich rock art heritage has only recently begun to receive wider attention.
Over the last two decades, many foreign and Indian experts have shown interest in studying rock art of central India, using modern research tools, like special software through which they can see and study different layers of rock paintings not easily discernible to the human eye.
Oldest rock art
One of the most fascinating rock art sites in India that has created a stir and hot debate in recent times is Daraki Chattan, a narrow cave in a hill in Mandsaur district, where petroglyph (rock carvings) in the shape of 530 cup-marks or cupicles (circular depressions in the rock-wall) have been found. It was discovered by Ramesh Kumar Pancholi in 1993.
The experts studying it claim it to be the “oldest rock art in the world”, about 2 to 5 lakh years old. An international research project called Early
Indian Petroglyphs (EIP), under Robert Bednarik, a globally renowned rock art expert from Australia and convener
of International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO) and Giriraj Kumar, secretary general Rock Art Society of India (RASI), have been studying Daraki Chattan site since 2001.
At another site in Mandsaur — Chaturbuj Nalla, rock paintings have been found in a continuous succession for nearly three to four kms, which, Giriraj Kumar claims, is “longest rock art gallery of the world”.
“Daraki Chattan is world’s oldest non-iconic (non-figurative) rock art along with the cup mark found at Bhimbetaka. This shattered the concept of Europe centric origin of art and culture in Upper Palaeolithic period (20,000 to 40,000 years),” Kumar said.
“In the next two years, experts from Australia, Greece and India will together study and date this site with better technological tools,” he added.
Kumar stressed the world-class site needs to be immediately sealed with a metal grid to check uncontrolled visitation and damage to it.
Spanish quest in Kathotiya
Closer to Bhopal, a rock art team from Spain’s Centre de Estudies Contesantas is studying 65 rock art shelters at Kathotiya in Raisen district along with noted archeologist Dr Narayan Vyas. The team has visited the site five times since 2009 and will visit it again later this year.
“The Spanish team wants to date, study colours and undertake some excavation work at Kathotiya.
The exact dating will dispel the long-held notion especially by Western experts that Indian rock art was not that old compared to rock art of Europe or South Africa. Many rock art paintings in Madhya Pradesh, especially the ones in green are at least 20,000 to 25,000 years old,” he said.
Dr Vyas’s collaboration with the Spanish team holds significance as he has not only worked with VS Wakankar, but also done his post-doctoral research work on comparative study of rock paintings of Raisen district, with special emphasis on Bhimbetaka. Dr Vyas accompanied HT to rock arts shelters in Kathotiya in Raisen and Jhiri in Sehore district.
“With enhanced connectivity, tourists, enthusiasts and locals come to these sandstone rock art shelters for sightseeing, picnics, parties, livelihood and ritual pilgrimages. Here you can see ash and egg shells, signs of a recent bonfire party,” Dr Vyas said while showing a rock art site at Jhiri in Sehore district.
It is not just men, who are studying tock art here. Dr Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak is a rare example of a woman rock art expert in the country, who has dedicated over three decades of her life to studying rock paintings, especially in Pachmari Hills, where she discovered 15 new rock art shelters during her research work. Pachmari has 64 rock art shelters.
Dr Dubey has been collaborating with renowned French rock art expert Dr Jean Clottes for over five years to promote, protect and document the rock art heritage of central India. They have recently co-authored a book on rock art of central India in relation to tribal life.
“Many rock art sites are facing threat due to vandalism, graffiti and too much touching by the visitors. Many visitors pour water over the rock art to get clear photographs. We need to create awareness, teach school children about their prehistoric heritage and push government to take measures for protection of these sites,” she said, adding, “Many rock art cave shelters like Adamgarh or
Manuabhan Ke Tekri are frequented by young couples. I have seen messages like ‘I love you…’ written in rock cave shelters,” she said.
Anupam Rajan, commissioner archaeology, archives and museums Madhya Pradesh insists that state government was committed to protecting the rock heritage sites in the state.
“We are already protecting some sites in the state, but given the large number of rock art sites that have been discovered over the years, we have decided to seek suggestion of rock art experts who have either worked or are still working in different areas of the state and the country in this field on how these sites could be protected in a scientific manner. As many of them have studied such sites thoroughly, I will soon call them to Bhopal and ask them to give me a road-map on what initiatives need to be taken to protect and conserve the rock art heritage found in different areas of the state,” he told HT.