Considering how ancient and sophisticated the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) was known to be, it is frustrating that we know so little about them. Researchers still struggle to understand the Indus script, for want of a Rosetta Stone that could give us a frame of reference.
But buried deep within Kerala’s Wayanad hills, almost 2000 kilometres from the site of the IVC, inscriptions within the Edakkal caves suggest the Harappans may have reached further South than earlier thought.
Could cavemen from the first millennium B.C. in Kerala have known more than we do?
The man who rediscovered the caves after thousands of years was not an archaeologist, but a cop! Fred Fawcett was a Superintendent of Police on holiday in the Wayanad hills – there on the invitation of Colin Mackenzie. A local planter drew his attention when he spoke of engravings on a cave. It turned out to be a giant fissure in the side of the Ambakathy hills.
Three large boulders resting atop one another formed this fissure – hence the name “Edakkal” meaning “a stone in between”. Thousands of years ago, it was as good a shelter as any. The engravings were known to the locals and depicted human figures, an elephant, a wild dog, a peacock, plants and flowers, a wheeled cart and other items. The facing wall had geometric signs, and many male and female figures. P.J. Cherian, Director of Kerala Council for Historical Research, calls the motifs the first specimens of drawing in India.
The engravings represent a level of detail only seen 7,000 years ago in the caves of the European Alps and some in Africa. The caves have three distinct types of petroglyphs, with the oldest dating back to 8000 years and the earliest to 1,000 B.C.
The latter suggests a society in transition; for in the first millennium B.C., the Neolithic era would have been ending. Across the world, mankind was making the historic shift from being hunter-gatherers to cultivators. In India, it’s believed that in various regions, this transition occurred independently of one another. Thus, cavemen hunted in Kerala even as the Indus Valley Civilisation operated drainage systems in the same period.
Fred Fawcett was the first to present a scholarly study of the caves. He identified it as Neolithic but also suggested that the local Kurumbar tribals had some understanding of the motifs. As 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.
Documenting what he saw in the cave, Fred took some of the first photographs of rock art in India. But after him, the caves were abandoned to time once again – and it was not until the 1970s that Indian scholars took a renewed interest in their findings.
It was in 2006 that the Indus Valley link was made. Out of the 429 symbols, one was identified as ‘a man with a jar cup’ – a motif similar to one that was found among the Harappans. Soon, Tamil-Brahmi characters were identified as labels to some of the human figures. One label testified to a man with a huge phallus – suggesting fertility, and possibly representing Brahma. ‘Vazhumi’, as the script read, could potentially be the Tamil name for Brahma.
Then another symbol was unearthed – this one in Malayalam. It stated, simply, that ‘this is ancient’. The problem is that these inscriptions may not be as old as the wall carvings themselves, likely to have been added in the fourth to fifth century A.D. If confirmed, this makes it the oldest known inscription in Malayalam.
Some scholars now downplay the connection to the Indus Valley Civilisation, arguing that the urban Harappans would not have had dealings with cavemen from the South.
The caves play an important role in understanding where we are and where we come from. The local Kurumbar tribals have a deep respect for them, even paintings the cave motifs onto their bodies. It’s believed that a sick person adorned with these symbols will be healed.
In the same hills, other cave drawings were found – and only recently studied. In Ambukuthi, Thovary, and Edakkal, it’s possible that the same artists made multiple petroglyphs.
The cave remains an abode of historical mysteries. It awaits UNESCO certification as a World Heritage Site, on account of pending paperwork.
Linking the past to an even older past is a tricky task for historians and archaeologists. But like the findings in Muziris, we know that the past continuously develops new ways of surprising us in the present.
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