EDAKKAL CAVES

G. Balaji

The Western Ghats are a mountain range and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is a place where biological diversity is still under preservation.  A total of thirty nine properties including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests were designated as world heritage sites twenty in Kerala, ten in Karnataka, five in Tamil Nadu and four in Maharashtra.

We come across several pre-historic human habitational sites like caves and rock shelters with rock art often as accidental findings. These sites were inhabited by prehistoric people several thousands of years ago and are found hidden in deep forests and on the high mountains because they were not continuously inhabited.  Iduhatti, Vellari kombai, Konavakkarai, Idukki, and Edakkal are some of the pre-historic sites found on this mountain range. Perumukkal pre- historic site can be dated to about 4000 to 1000 BCE, is located about 10 km from Tindivanam. It is also the third petroglyph site in the country where scripts and symbols have been carved on rocks, the other two being Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh and Edakkal in Kerala.

Among these rock art sites Edakkal is a large site found so far in south India with petroglyphs i.e. pictorial writings, drawings of human and animal figures as engravings on the surface of the rock with the help of sharp tools like hand axe and nail.  This site consists of three natural caves or rock shelters. These natural caves are found at a remote location in Edakkal Village, 25 km from Kalpetta in the Wayanad district of Kerala.  They lie 1,200 meters above sea level on Ambukutty Mala, beside an ancient trade route connecting the high mountains of Mysore to the ports of the Malabar coast.  In the late nineteenth century F. Fred Fawcett, a former Superintendent of Police who served the British government in Kozhikode, came across Edakkal cave by accident. He had gone to Wayanad on an invitation from Colin MacKinzie, a planter who wanted him to join him on a hunting expedition.  The planter showed him rock engravings in a cave and some very old implements which were found in his estate in 1890. The interest on anthropology and the knowledge of archaeology lead Fawcett to draw the inference that these were pre-historic. Out of curiosity to know more, he revisited the caves in 1894 and in 1895. After several visits, he came to a conclusion about the importance of the cave and the drawings found there.  His article, written in collaboration with R.C. Temple, Colin MacKinzie, Hultzsch and Bruce Foote was first published in `Indian Antiquary in October 1901.

The pictorial engravings found on these caves were dated between 6000 to 1000 BCE.  It was a very wide time span because scholars noticed different types of style in writing which were found among these petroglyphs and few inscriptions belonging to the historical period 300 CE.  These are not technically caves or simply rock shelters, but rather a cleft or rift approximately 96 feet (29 m) by 22 feet (6.7 m), a 30-foot-deep (9.1 m) fissure caused by a piece of rock splitting away from the main body. On the top of the cleft is a rock weighing several tons that covers the cleft and serves as a roof i.e. Edakkal in Tamil and Malayalam is known as stone in between.  However, most of the portion of this cave is open to the sky which brings in more sun and rain and is not a suitable place to livein.  The shelter contains the petroglyphs at the lower level approximately up to 12 feet high from the floor level.

The prominent figure was identified as a priest who was in standing posture with two of his hands uplifted halfway in the air and in the attitude of either worshiping or blessing.  Apart from human figures, there are several symbols and undeciphered motifs. The major problem in these engravings is that they were drawn one over the other in the way of overlapping the images.  Some scholars identified a few symbols which looked like the Indus script and associate these engravings with the Indus valley civilization (IVC).  However they have not given any clear relative findings to justify their theory.  Moreover, the IVC is a highly urbanized and well planned city with highly developed civilization and it is not to be expected that they would have had any dealings with the primitive people.  Here in Edakkal we do not come across any ruins of a planned city and pottery remains of IVC.  In IVC we come across the signs and scripts engraved on steatite tablets and they are believed to be utilized for trading purposes.  Although we assume that the Indus people had trade contacts with western and eastern coasts of India, there were no material remains have been found so far to justify this theory.

For a comparative study I have chosen a similar rock art site in the Western Ghats i.e. Ezhuthuparai near Vellari Kombai in Nilgiri district, identified as one of the oldest (2500 BCE) rock art sites in Tamilnadu.  Although this is not a site with petroglyphs but it has human figures, animals and other images painted in red ochre on the rock surface in style similar to the Edakkal caves.  Nearly nine human figures are seen drawn not in a row, but in different levels even some figures overlapping the other as in Edakkal.  The body of all the figures are in rectangular shape and decorated differently with dots and lines.  The hands and legs are not clearly drawn.  The heads are very prominent and each has a different style of head mask or dress.  The head decorations are seen done with horns of the bison, leaves and feathers of birds.

Another interesting feature is that this site is that it is situated near a Kurumba tribal hamlet Vellari Kombai from which it derives its name.  The tribes of this village still have the practice of painting the similar type of motifs on the walls of their houses and temples during the festivals. They also claim that this practice has been followed by them for many centuries.  A Kurumba medicine man told me that they have the practice of drawing these motifs on the body of a  person who is ill to cure them of evil diseases.  This kind of practice demonstrates that these drawings have some social and religious values among these tribes.  According to Fawcett, the Edakkal carvings might be the work of the Kurumba or Kurumbar tribe of Wayanad. He wrote, The curious reluctance of the Kurumbars to approach the cave, combined with the simultaneous want of reverence for it both on the part of the Paniyas and the local Hindus, who are very small in numbers and not long resident in the Wayanad, might tempt one to hazard the theory as to the carvings being the handiwork of Kurumbars of a bygone day.

The engravings, occupation area and position of the rock shelters and its habitational style leads us to conclude that the Edakkal caves have some religious value. Although it may have been utilized by the pre-historic people as a shelter for their dwelling; later on the local tribes occupied this place and practiced some rituals and ceremonies.

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