Prehistoric Cave Paintings in India | Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic Paintings in India

IN this session, we are going to learn about the prehistoric rock paintings in India. We will be looking at some important rock paintings.

The distant past when there was no paper or language or the written word, and hence no books or written document, is called as the Prehistoric period.

Piecing together of information deduced from old tools, habitat, bones of both animals and human beings and drawings on the cave walls scholars have constructed fairly accurate knowledge about what happened and how people lived in prehistoric times. Paintings and drawings were the oldest art forms practised by human beings to express themselves using the cave wall as their canvas.

The drawings and paintings can be categorized into three historical periods.

  • Period I, Upper Palaeolithic;
  • Period II, Mesolithic;
  • Period III, Chalcolithic.

Paleolithic Age Art

  • The prehistoric period in the early development of human beings is commonly known as the ‘Old Stone Age’ or ‘Palaeolithic Age’.
  • The Paleolithic period can be divided into three phases:
    (1) Lower Palaeolithic (2.5 million years-100,000 years ago)
    (2) Middle Palaeolithic (300,000-30,000 years ago)
    (3) Upper Palaeolithic (40,000-10,000 years ago)
  • We did not get any evidence of paintings from lower or middle paleolithic age yet.
  • In the Upper Palaeolithic period, we see a proliferation of artistic activities.
  • Subjects of early works confined to simple human figures, human activities, geometric designs, and symbols.
  • First discovery of rock paintings in the world was made in India (1867-68) by an Archaeologist,Archibold Carlleyle, twelve years before the discovery of Altamira in Spain (site of oldest rock paintings in the world).
  • There are two major sites of excellent prehistoric paintings in India:
    (1) Bhimbetka Caves, Foothills of Vindhya, Madhya Pradesh.
    (2) Jogimara caves, Amarnath, Madhya Pradesh.

Mesolithic period Art:

  • The largest number of paintings belongs to this period.
  • Themes multiply but the paintings are small in size.
  • Hunting scenes predominate
  • Hunters in groups armed with barbed spears pointed sticks, arrows, and bows.
  • Trap and snares used to catch animals can be seen in some paintings.
  • In some pictures, animals are chasing men and in others, they are being chased by hunter men.
  • Animals painted in a naturalistic style and humans were depicted in a stylistic manner.
  • Women are painted both in nude and clothed.
  • Young and old equally find places in paintings.
  • Community dances provide a common theme.
  • Sort of family life can be seen in some paintings (woman, man, and children).

Chalcolithic period Art:

  • Copper age art.
  • The paintings of this period reveal the association, contact and mutual exchange of requirements of the cave dwellers of this area with settled agricultural communities of the Malwa Plateau.
  • Pottery and metal tools can be seen in paintings.
  • Similarities with rock paintings:Common motifs (designs/patterns like cross-hatched squares, lattices etc)
  • The difference with rock paintings:Vividness and vitality of older periods disappear from these paintings.

Some of the general features of Prehistoric paintings (based on the study of Bhimbetka paintings)

  • Used colours, including various shades of white, yellow, orange, red ochre, purple, brown, green and black.
  • But white and red were their favourite.
  • The paints used by these people were made by grinding various coloured rocks.
  • They got red from hematite (Geru in India).
  • Green prepared from a green coloured rock called Chalcedony.
  • White was probably from Limestone.
  • Some sticky substances such as animal fat or gum or resin from trees may be used while mixing rock powder with water.
  • Brushes were made of plant fiber.
  • It is believed that these colours remained thousands of years because of the chemical reaction of the oxide present on the surface of rocks.
  • Paintings were found both from occupied and unoccupied caves.
  • It means that these paintings were sometimes used also as some sort of signals, warnings etc.
  • Many rock art sites of the new painting are painted on top of an older painting.
  • In Bhimbetka, we can see nearly 20 layers of paintings, one on top of another.

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