the rock engravings at Edakkal in Wayanad

February 22, 2020, 7:00 am IST in Tracking Indian Communities | Malayalam, Roots & Wings | TOI
When Fred Fawcett came across the rock engravings at Edakkal in Wayanad towards the end of 19th century, he was sure that the pictures symbolised the dance of the devils of the pagans. It was impossible for a British anthropologist like him to think beyond the limits of his ideology. From early 20th century several attempts have been made to decipher the mysterious cave art. Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai concluded that the 8,000-years-old engravings are the prototypes of wood carvings in Kerala.

Edakkal Caves - Wikipedia

Edakkal Caves also Edakal, are two natural caves at Edakkal, around 120 km south-west of Mysuru, in Wayanad district of Kerala. The caves are situated 1,200 ...
Location‎: ‎Wayanad district, Kerala
Discovered‎: ‎Fred Fawcett (1890)
Region‎: ‎India


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Edakkal. Edakkal is a remote location in Wayanad district of Kerala, India, the site of the Edakkal Caves. The tallest mountain in the district, Ambukuthi mala, is located here. Above the caves are views of the mountainous junction of the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
State‎: ‎Kerala
Country‎: ‎India

Now, the emergence of new disciplines such as neuroaesthetics and evolutionary biology have provided a new tool for the researchers to have a fresh look at them.
“The discovery of Chauvet Cave art in France, which are 32,000-37,000 years old, has demolished old theories on primitive arts. The brain development of the artists who etched on the caves was similar to that of modern human beings,” said A T Mohanraj, retired professor of Malayalam, who has come up with a documentary that throws new light on Edakkal carvings.
“The Chauvet paintings questioned the very category of primitive arts. The findings of neuroaesthetics also helped to change the perception that primitive art is the expression of uncivilised people,” Mohanraj said. The documentary is an effort to decode the enigmatic figures with information gleaned from research in different branches of science and social sciences.
“Evolutionary biology teaches us that art is an attempt by human beings to get adapted to new situations. The people who lived in Edakkal could be successors of the migration that started from Africa around two lakh years ago. Edakkal carvings represent the transition from the nomadic to a settled agricultural life,” Mohanraj said.
The cave engravings at Edakkal could be classified into three groups: The ones related to food-gathering techniques, the ones on origin of life and those on the mystery of death. “These are universal human concerns and we see these themes in Edakkkal paintings,” he said. There are a group of engravings of birds and animals that could be signifying the food the inhabitants had. “We can see male and female genitals, animals with erected genitals and pregnant women on the walls of the caves. We can also see a painting in which a human form comes out of a vulva. The vulva engravings could be the archetype of the worship of female genital seen in various parts of the country,” Mohanraj said.
“In another picture, you could see a female form rising out of a geometrical pattern looking like the vulva. It could be the prototype of Mahalakshmi’s figure in the classical Indian imagination. These engravings also signify that mother worship originated in India,” he said.
There are yet another group of paintings that earlier historians have interpreted as wheel carts. “Like birth, death is also shrouded in mystery and human beings invented burial rites as an adaptation strategy. There is an engraving of a rectangle object with wheel-like symbols on its sides. It was thought to be a representation of wheel cart, but, recent researches have pointed to a different story,” Mohanraj said. In the new readings, the rectangularshaped object is viewed as a stretcher that carries dead bodies and the circle with spokes as the sign of death.
“They could be representing burial rites. The ladder-like image could be the stairs that enable the dead to climb to the world hereafter. There are images of wrapped human bodies and figures with tonsured heads, all symbolising death,” he said. In all these engravings one could see the endeavour to solve the puzzle of life and death. “The figures with uplifted hands and head gears dancing together could be interpreted is such a way. Or they could be the deities that were worshipped during those days,” said Mohanraj.
The angst human beings experience between life and death constitute the central theme of Edakkal carvings. “The hope that we can survive death through birth is what the cave paintings seem to tell. And one can experience the continuity of such a theme in modern artistic expressions too. Edakkal rock carvings tell us that there is an undercurrent that unite the modern man with the primitive,” said Mohanraj.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.