Generally used to refer to images and illustrations that are painted on the surfaces of natural rock shelters or caves, cave painting is a term typically applied to Prehistoric art from the Stone Age, although it has been practised across historical periods since then. While the earliest example is a 64,000-year-old hand stencil found in the Cave of Maltravieso in Cáceres, Spain, some indigenous cave painting practices in Australia have continued up to the twentieth century. The majority of Prehistoric caves in India containing such paintings are located between the rivers Narmada and Ganga, particularly near the Vindhya mountain range. The most significant examples of these paintings, across historical periods in India, are the Bhimbetka cave paintings in Madhya Pradesh, those in the Ajanta caves and clusters in the Sundargargh and Sambalpur districts of Odisha (formerly Orissa).
A variation of styles, communicated through a range of techniques and rendered using natural pigments, have been used in cave paintings across historical periods, differing largely by region, rock feature, availability of pigmented material and whether the local climate has been conducive to the preservation of the paintings. They have typically used mineral-based pigments, with red — made using ochre and haematite — proving to be the most resilient over time. Other widely used colours include white, green, blue and black made from compounds of lime, copper, manganese and charcoal, respectively. These colours are speculated to have been applied in a number of ways, such as using brushes made from twigs or bird feathers, sticks, fingers and hollowed bone for spray painting. In some cases, the ‘paintings’ are actually engravings or petroglyphs created using a method called rock bruising.
Although there are variations in the motifs found in cave paintings around the world, there are also some overarching similarities owing to the common stages of human development across regions. Images of regionally specific wildlife, such as bison and certain kinds of deer that were likely a source of food, hunting scenes, depictions of ritualistic celebration and broader geometric shapes feature in Prehistoric caves across the world. There is also often a more detailed, naturalistic rendering of animals than humans — possibly because of superstition and social norms surrounding such image-making, or simply because the artists were able to observe captive or dead animals in ways that they could not with humans. For instance, there are multiple depictions of animals that show a rudimentary skeletal structure and, in one case at Bhimbetka, a calf inside a pregnant cow.
Geometric shapes, on the other hand, have typically not followed an identifiable logic or structure. Simple forms such as carefully placed triangles or dots have been found across regions, although their context and symbolic significance may have varied. Leading interpretations of these symbols have changed over time as developments in the fields of linguistics, art history and anthropology have offered various explanations for the functions, stylistic norms, rituals and cultural frameworks that could have governed these motifs. Some scholars claim that they could even be abstracted representations of tools, body parts and natural objects, such as in the case of the honeycomb pattern found in the Vikramkhol cave in Odisha.
With the emergence of organised religion in South Asia, cave paintings from the Vedic period onwards became easier to study as their subject matter was now legible and followed an established structure. Due to increased royal and state patronage, these later paintings exhibit a higher quality of craftsmanship and the use of superior materials compared to the Prehistoric period. Since the caves containing these paintings are partially or entirely rock-cut, patronage for them was also allocated for the construction of entire structures or sections, such as a façade or stupa.
The Ajanta caves near Aurangabad, Maharashtra are considered the most significant examples of patronised rock-cut architecture — which include cave paintings — in India. However, other prominent examples can be found across the country. In the Deccan, the Ellora, Badami and Aihole caves feature paintings and, in some places, frescoes. Paintings at the Ellora caves especially are few in number and heavily damaged, but still visible. They date back to the eighth century and were patronised by the Hindu and Jain elite, who also oversaw the carving of the Kailasa temple in which most of the paintings are housed. In Madhya Pradesh, the now-eroded secco and tempera paintings from the Bagh caves are said to have depicted a combination of secular and religious images, such as renditions of the Buddha, the monks who inhabited the caves and dancers and singers. Copies of these are now housed in the State Archaeological Museum in Gwalior. In Ladakh, a much later set of paintings, from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, can be found in the Buddhist Saspol caves. These are well-preserved and notable for their mix of Indian and Tibetan narration and painting styles within the larger tradition of Buddhist art.
At the time of publication, only a few of these cave structures and their related paintings — notably Bhimbetka, Ajanta, Ellora and the Kailasa Temple — are marked as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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