Pachmarhi Cave Paintings
From the Hindi panch (five) and marhi (caves or huts), meaning “a complex of five caves,” the Pachmarhi caves are some of the oldest painted rock shelters in India, located in the Pachmarhi hills in the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. Similar to other rock art traditions in the country, these cave paintings depict human and animal figures, scenes of hunting and battle as well as those of rituals and worship. They were first brought to prominence by archaeologist G R Hunter in 1935, who later led an excavation into the site with D H Gordon in 1958. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Pachmarhi cave paintings were created in the Mesolithic period and the Historic period.
The Pachmari hill range is believed to be named after the Pandavas, who, according to the Mahabharata, were exiled here after losing a gambling game. However, since most of the paintings were created in the Mesolithic or Historic periods, they do not have origins in organised religion, which emerged later.
Evidence suggests that paintings may also have continued to be made well after the Mesolithic period, although there is little evidence of overlapping and layering, as in other examples rock art such as the Bhimbetka cave paintings. Several of the cave paintings found here are in prominent rock shelters such as the Mahadeo Hills, Nimbu Bhoj (Nimbu Khud), Hanuman Mandir, Jambu Deep, Dorothy Deep, Bazaar cave and Rajat Pratap cave. These are located a few kilometers from the town of Pachmarhi in smaller hills such as Mahadeo, Mandiadeo and Jatashankar.
The cave paintings in Pachmarhi express distinct styles, which are typically categorised in terms of technique and aesthetic. Although at first glance the paintings seem monochrome — predominantly in shades of red — other colours such as white, yellow, brown and black were also used from pigments derived out of naturally occurring minerals. White was mainly obtained from limestone or kaolin, while red and yellow (ochre shades) were obtained from iron oxides such as haematite.
The paintings differ in their details across rock shelters and depict representative rather than realistic human and animal figures. Some of the wild animals depicted include bison, deer, elephants, horses, bulls, wild boars, buffaloes and crocodiles. Depictions of smaller animals, which are painted in a manner that suggests that they were not necessarily hunted, include rats, lizards, scorpions and birds such as peacocks, ostriches and other fowl. Similar to other cave painting traditions, these paintings depict the lifestyles of hunter-gatherer groups: scenes of hunters holding weapons such as spears, axes and bows and arrows and battle scenes with warriors riding horses and holding swords and shields. Scholars have discovered layers of paintings wherein those with themes of conflict, war and fighting between humans superimpose earlier ones of humans hunting animals and collecting honey and fruit, along with other domestic activities. Scenes depicting rituals, with groups of people holding hands, dancing, beating drums and worshipping nature have also been documented, as well as paintings of fantastical creatures, imagery such as a urinating cow, symbols such as the swastika, scenes of tree worship and hand stencils of adults. There are also depictions of women engaged in activities such as combing their hair and breastfeeding their children, as well as stylised paintings of a female figure believed to be worshipped as Mother Goddess.
In terms of structure and composition, the figures depicted on the rock shelters can be categorised into three types: contoured or outlined figures, solid figures that are partially or completely filled in and stick figures. Solid figures are further categorised into naturalistic (resembling real-life proportions of creatures), geometric (for instance, inverted triangles to represent the upper and lower human body) and X-ray styles, for example, pregnant cows and deer with the offspring depicted within. The X-ray style is of particular interest to scholars because it suggests that the painters had deep anatomical knowledge of the animals they hunted. The rock shelters also contain inscriptions and figural petroglyphs, including those of severed human heads purportedly collected as trophies and other depictions of human sacrifice that superimpose older paintings of hunter-gatherers, especially at Rajat Pratap cave. Experts have identified these as examples of head hunting. India is understood to be only the second country, after Peru, to record such clearly identified paintings of head-hunting scenes.
It is claimed that the Gond and Korku groups of people developed indigenous styles of painting and art based on the Pachmarhi cave paintings. Apart from its paintings, the hills are renowned for the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve, established by the Government of India in 1999 to conserve the area’s rich biodiversity. On account of being a prominent tourist destination, the Pachmarhi hills have been exposed to vandalism over the years, allegedly by tourists.
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