Reunion with history on the rocky hills of Madurai

Reunion with history on the rocky hills of Madurai | Pro Club Bd

On the rocky hills surrounding Madurai, students revisit history and document rock art dating back 5,000 years

On the rocky hills surrounding Madurai, students revisit history and document rock art dating back 5,000 years

Just before the pandemic broke out, Ahil Rishi Rajasekaran was watching birds in Usilampatti when some locals in the forest area mentioned it Chithirikal podavu (cave with paintings). Little did the 20-year-old American College student know at the time that the unique motifs would lead him to embark on a journey of discovery of rock art in and around his hometown of Madurai.

Between 2020 and now, Ahil Rishi, along with his friends Hariharan, Praveen and Paul Moses, explored a treasure trove of 16 rock art sites with such passion that the Thanjavur-based Nerunji Literary Movement has now published their documentation of the rock art forms. There are several publications in Tamil, however Rock Art of Madurai: The Prehistory of a Civilization is the first in English.

Ahil Rishi, who has just completed his MSc (Microbiology), says there are at least 25 rock paintings in the temple city and it is his dream to describe each find in detail so that it can be protected from future quarrying and mining. “It’s important to work with local landowners to protect these caves and the forests that surround them, so that the cultural heritage and wildlife depicted in the drawings are preserved for future generations,” he says.

Cave paintings are a fascinating study

Cave paintings are a fascinating study | Photo credit: SOMA BASU

Inscriptions on rocks were initially unknown to college students. Then they joined the trek to Samanar Malai Jain Caves with Green Walk, a popular initiative based on the concept of trekking and visiting heritage sites around Madurai to raise awareness.

“Having seen the two-story cave with multiple paintings at Usilampatti, this was the first time we saw in detail early paintings that decorated cave walls and learned how rock art, the cultural and natural heritage, is a means of communication,” says Ahil Rischi. It was also the beginning of a journey for the youngsters who have spent the past three years making several trips to the hills of Madurai.

Hard climbs

“Most of the hills around Madurai are not overgrown, and in places like Yannai Malai and Tiruparankundram it’s a huge single piece of rock. Many places were arduous to climb, but it didn’t lessen our curiosity or excitement while exploring,” says Ahil Rishi, the book’s author.

Fascinating Rock Art: At Usilampatti

Fascinating Rock Art: At Usilampatti | Photo credit: SOMA BASU

The boys made several visits to Kidaripatti, Azhagar Malai, Karungalakudi, Keelavalavu, Puthurmalai, Kongar Puliyankulam, Thiruvadhavur, Devankurichi, Thummanaickenpatti, Melakuyilkudi, Vikramangalam, Anaipatti, Peraiyur, Keezhapatti, Maanoothu to photograph and video the graffiti, cupules and petroglyphs record and pictograms. They enlisted the help of historians and archaeologists to research and identify the key components of rock art forms and subjects.

While this has led to an extensive fundamental study of both the rock art within and between the sites and the unveiling of exclusive features, Ahil Rishi regrets that the people of Madurai are unaware of the existence of such wealth. “Not even a single sign indicates the existence of these sites. They are not easy to find and reach; We also found several limestone cliffs with deep ancient carvings,” he says.

Fascinating Rock Art: Bird Faced Man in Azhagar Hills in Red Ocher

Fascinating rock art: bird-faced man in the Azhagar hills in red ocher | Photo credit: SOMA BASU

What further fascinated him was that, despite the distance between the rock sites, with differently themed pictographs in red ocher and white kaolin, some motifs show similarities in strokes and patterns, indicating a link between the cultural and communal zones of the period.

Estimating the age of rock art is challenging, but researchers believe the Madurai rock art is no less than 5,000 years old. The estimate is based on a stylistic comparison and a relative dating method that analyzes and compares the types of motifs depicted on the rocks, their location in the landscape and other recognizable features with locations where similar dateable information is available, says Ahil Rishi.

Fascinating Rock Art: Pictograms by Kongar Puliyankulam

Fascinating Rock Art: Pictograms by Kongar Puliyankulam | Photo credit: SOMA BASU

“Studying the new finds will help understand the purpose and meaning, as several rock art motifs have been found to resemble Indus signs,” he says, adding that the relationship between what art represents and what it is symbolized, can be complex.

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