Mountains and caves withhold abundant information about history and civilization as they served as a dwelling place for early humans. As they lived inside caves, they have left a lot of information about their social and spiritual lives. We can extract information from rock-cut temples, architectural designs and cave paintings.
A cave painting is a pictorial representation of the lives of people who were mostly hunters and gatherers. This is evident from the illustration of weapons and domestic animals in many paintings. Most of the temples and monuments in south India are related to hills, caves and stone-cut architecture. This is primarily because early humans lived closer to mountains or water resources, and used caves as a means of protection.
Purpose of cave painting
The real purpose of cave painting is unknown but we can draw certain theories about it. One such theory is abstract thinking. Our ancestors used painting as a medium to bring out their imagination to reality. Whatever they saw, thought or imagined, they painted it so that others can understand. In other words, painting served as a medium of communication when language and speech were not born.
Style and techniques of cave painting
Many styles of diagrams are observed from cave painting. Human beings are depicted with their hands and legs showing actions, driving an animal, hunting, etc. Domestic and wild animals can be seen either as outlines or painted within. Abstract symbols such as sun, moon, stars, etc are also seen which can be related to their spiritual thinking.
Cave paintings are mostly made from natural colours such as ochre, limestone etc. Plant resins were used as a binding material. Ingredients may vary from place to place as they used whatever available objects. They might have used their own fingers or branches of plants for painting.
Cave paintings in Tamil Nadu
The most famous site known for cave painting is Sittannavasal, located in Pudukkottai district. This heritage site hosts a series of Jain beds inside a cave called Ezhadipattam. This cave served as a place of meditation for Jain saints. There are Tamil brahmi inscriptions possibly depicting the names of Jain saints and these inscriptions are dated between 2nd century B.C to 9th century A.D.
The most amazing part of Sittannavasal is the rock-cut temple believed to be built by the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman. The temple is called Arivar koil and has sculptures related to Jainism. This temple has beautiful mural paintings depicting heaven from the jain point of view. Bright orange, blue and green shades present a pleasant view illustrating birds, lotuses, elephant, and fish. Amazing use of colors has made this cave painting very famous in India, next to Ajanta cave paintings.
Much older cave paintings can be seen in Arugaveli, Theni district which is believed to be 10,000 years old. In this cave, a pictorial representation of celebration can be seen. The celebration scene is designed such as a group of people return from war or hunt, mounted on animals, and they raise their hands showing a success. Another group of people welcome them and wave hands at them. Such a beautiful scene is painted in white with abstract lines and strokes. Amazingly such illustrations are still surviving to let us know the life of our ancestors.
Another interesting but not well-known cave paintings are at Sethavarai, on the way to Tiruvannamalai from Vizhupuram. These paintings are mostly red in colour and they have interesting figures such as bull, deer, tortoise, fish, etc. A bull is drawn anatomically with its skeletons. This coincides with the fact that – being hunters, early humans had knowledge about the inner organs of animals. More such cave artworks can be seen in other parts of Tamil Nadu, but most of them are waiting to be recognized and appreciated!
These cave paintings are valuable and must be protected to preserve our cultural identity. They are living examples to prove the ability and brilliance of our ancestors in producing such masterpieces.