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The Main Characteristics of Indian Rock Paintings

Somewhat surprisingly for such a wide continent, Indian rock art has often been considered as pertaining to a “cultural unity”, as is the case for Upper Palaeolithic cave art in Europe. Disparities do exist according to the areas, so that regional groups have been and will no doubt be defined (see for example Chandramouli 2002 for the rock art of Andhra Pradesh in the south of India, or Mathpal 1985 for that of Kumaon in the north). However, “in spite of the great distances of the different regions Indian rock paintings bear surprising affinity in forms, subject matters and design elements to their contemporaries” (Kumar 1992: 56).

The only petroglyphs (i.e. rock engravings) we have mentioned are cupules, because we hardly saw any other engraved motifs during our trip. Still, it is necessary to recall their existence and their importance in many parts of India, even if we are here focusing on pictographs (i.e. rock paintings).

Among the colours used red is overwhelmingly dominant, at all periods. It comes from iron oxides such as haematite. White (from a white clay like kaolin) has also been widely used. Other colours are scarcer, like “green and yellow derived from copper minerals” or “blue or coal black obtained from manganese or charcoal” (Chakravarty & Bednarik 1997: 46). Painting was carried out “by rubbing the colour nodule dry, or with water, without any visible use of organic binding material, using finger tips, twigs, hair brush or by spraying with the mouth” (id.).

rock art indiarock art india
Bhimbetka
Fighters with bows and arrows,
shields, swords and horses
Chaturbhujnath Nala
Hunting scene with
bow and arrow

rock art indiarock art india
Chaturbhujnath Nala
Appearance of humped bulls at the
beginning of the Chalcolithic
Chaturbhujnath Nala
Chariots drawn by oxen also
appear in the Chalcolithic

The subjects represented are quite varied and numerous. Depending on the periods and the areas, their relative proportions may change hugely. For example, animals, as we have seen, are less abundant at some Bhimbetka sites than in the Chambal valley and humans are central to Historic paintings.

rock art indiarock art indiarock art india
Bhimbetka
Historical figures:
Man on a white elephant
Bhimbetka
Riders and foot soldiers
in two colours
Bhimbetka
Historical figures:
Dressed man and others

The diversity of the animals and of the ways to represent them is much greater than what is found in European cave art. Nearly thirty different species were for example identified in the rock art of the Upper Chambal valley (Badam & Prakash 1992). The techniques used to render them are also far from stereotyped: for the simplest figures, only the outlines may be drawn or they may be in flat tint with the whole body coloured. A great many animals, however, have a body infilling with sometimes very intricate motifs in the form of parallel lines, grids and all sorts of geometric patterns which make the art distinctive. They may be sexed or not. Sometimes pregnant females have been painted with the foetus showing in a sort of X-ray style. Two (generally red and white) or more colours may be used for the same subject. The animals may be represented in isolation or in herds or in conjunction with humans.

rock art indiaindian rock art
Bhimbetka
Panel including bulls, elephants, stags
big cats with a few small humans
Bhimbetka
Big felines are sometimes represented
This snarling cat is in two colours

Humans may sometimes be dominant (see above about Bhimbetka) but in any case they are nearly always present even among the earliest paintings. In their case too, variety is the main characteristic, even if they seem to have been given less details than the animals, except for the horse riders and fighters of the later ages (Chakravarty & Bednarik 1997: 69). They may be stick figures and be stiff or, on the contrary, quite dynamic, seeming to be running, dancing, hunting or fighting. Others have double lines for the body and arms and sometimes inner decoration, though far less than is the case with animals. Their heads are rarely detailed, even if they may occasionally sport some headgear. They often wield weapons, such as bows and arrows, variously tipped spears or axes. They are often engaged in activities with other humans (dancing, fighting, having sex, curing the sick, carrying loads, eating, sometimes inside a house or a tent…) or with animals (hunting, fishing, riding horses, elephants or oxen, driving carts or chariots, drawing ploughs). The abundance of scenes of all sorts in Indian rock art is one of its major and most appealing characteristics.

indian rock artindian rock art
Bhimbetka
Geometric motif
Chaturbhujnath Nala
Geometric humped bull in two colours

Various objects, as well as geometric signs, can be represented independently of humans and animals. In Historical times, inscriptions have been used to help establish a chronology. Superimpositions are frequent. “The particular portions of rock were probably sacred parts of shelters or the artists painted upon the old drawings simply to enhance the power of his new pictures. It might be a taboo to erase the old drawings” (Mathpal 1998: 9). Establishing a succession of styles from superimpositions has often been attempted.

As always, dating the art is a thorny problem which has been tackled in various ways, with not completely satisfying results, right from the first discoveries in the 19th century until now.

In general, Indian rock art has been divided into three main periods each with (or without) a number of phases. Leaving apart the possibility of Palaeolithic art, which until recently was discarded by a number of scholars and is still being discussed, the “traditional” chronology distinguished the Mesolithic art of the hunter-gatherers, with naturalistic animals, from the Chalcolithic art of the agriculturalists, with the appearance of cattle and chariots, and finally the Historical periods, with an emphasis on fighting (Neumayer 1992). Pandey (1992: 25) brought in the weathering of the art, as, according to him, Mesolithic paintings were invariably patinated, whereas those of the Chalcolithic sometimes were while it was never the case with Historic art.

The latest attempt is due to Dr. Giriraj Kumar, who, after establishing the presence of rock art in thirteen of the Indian states, in nearly 700 “complexes” -which means in fact many thousands of indvidual sites-, has most clearly stated the methods which have been used by him and others to provide a chronological classification of Indian rock art: “Using archaeological evidence obtained from rock shelters, comparison of animal drawings in rock art with that on Chalcolithic pottery, superimpositions and stylistic developments in rock art, observation of the mode of human life, wild and domestic fauna apparently depicted, etc.” (Kumar 2000/2001: 8). These methods, pending systematic radiocarbon datings which sooner or later will bring new data, have been the time-honoured ones to assign a chronology to rock art the world over.

In addition, Kumar’s “fresh attempt” “involves three approaches (…): 1. Classification of rock art on the basis of evolutionary traits visible in the development of forms, motifs, styles, inventions, technology, fauna, and human cognitive and creative abilities. 2. Periodization on the basis of internal evidence from the rock art and rock art sites, and external evidence provided by other scientific disciplines. 3. Establishing antiquity of the rock art by a) indirect dating methods, and b) direct dating methods” (Kumar 2000/2001: 9).

Kumar’s new scheme is not really contradictory with the preceding classifications, though he now considers two main groups, separated by the advent of cattle-rearing:

I. The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.
II. The pastoralists and agriculturalists.


Each group, though, is subdivided into different phases.

Group I. Hunter-gatherers.
Non iconic, pre-pattern, pre-design. Acheulian.
Pseudo patterns of cupules. Middle Palaeolithic.
Linear patterns of cupules. Middle Palaeolithic.
Appearance of simple motifs. Upper Palaeolithic 1, with dynamic dancers in green.
Appearance of simple forms of humans, implements, wild bovids. Upper Palaeolithic 2.
Exuberance of human creativity and activities. Mesolithic.

Group II. Cattle domestication, etc.
Appearance of first domesticated humpless cattle. Transition Mesolithic-Neolithic.
Appearance of humped cattle.
Pre-chariot breeders of cattle. Metal implements. Neo-Chalcolithic 1;
Chariots and charioteers with metal implements. Neo-Chalcolithic 2;
Appearance of post-Harappan! Letters with figures. Neo-Chalcolithic 3;
Appearance of inscriptions in Ashokan Brahmi characters, religious symbols and figures. 3rd century AD;
Appearance of caparisoned horses, elephants and warriors with iron implements. Historic.


indian rock artindian rock art
Chaturbhujnath Nala
Woman carrying objects on shoulders
Chaturbhujnath Nala
Sexual scene

indian rock artindian rock art
Bhimbetka
A person is bending over another
in a probable curing scene
Chaturbhujnath Nala
A man lying prone and three
others walking towards him

indian rock artindian rock art
Bhimbetka
Green and red figures attributed to
the end of the Upper Palaeolithic
Chaturbhujnath Nala
Dynamic figures have been
attributed tothe Mesolithic

India with its innumerable monuments –including the one (the Taj Mahal) which in my opinion is the most fantastically beautiful in the world- stands in the top rank of all nations for the importance of its cultural heritage. This has long been known. Indian rock art, on the other hand, is just starting to achieve the fame that it deserves. In the years to come, much more work will be done on its dating and on registering its innumerable paintings and engravings. The amount and the quality of the work achieved since V. Wakankar began his famed work in Central India are a good omen of what is in store

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