When someone mentions pre-historic rock art, the first thing that comes to mind are the famous caves with ancient art across Europe - Chauvet and Lascaux Caves in Southern France and the Altamira Caves in Spain dating back to anywhere between 20,000-8000 BCE. So famous are these caves that each year hundreds of thousands of people visit them, to marvel at their beauty.
But you don’t have to go that far to see the art of the our ancestors. The small village of Pansaimol, in south Goa has an extraordinary collection of petroglyphs or etchings on rock surfaces. Traced back to thousands of years ago, this find on the west banks of Kushavati River has come to be known as the Kushavati Culture of pre-historic times.
The discovery of the carving at Pansaimol was a lucky coincidence. In 1993 a team under archaeologist P.P. Shirodkar was exploring the region nearby and chanced upon this site at the Pansaimol village. Since the river takes a sharp turn here, a part of the laterite rock bed was exposed with some etching on it. After clearing the soil and debris the team found many rocks with engravings, scattered around the area. The engravings depicted human beings in various postures, different variation of cattle, elephant, deer and other animals along with geometric and abstract designs. There were as many as 140 engravings found here.
Over the years, scholars have debated about the period during which the site was occupied. Due to the lack of scientific dating of the site, archaeologists have drawn parallels with other petroglyphs on the basis of the pattern of carvings. Dr. P.P. Shirodkar compared them with the rock bruising ( as these etching is called) in Europe and Bhimbetka in India, and assigned a date of 8000-6000 BCE i.e. the Mesolithic period. While another Archaeologist Dr. Kamat, Professor at University of Goa, suggests that the site could be more recent, from around 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE.
However, Dr. Varad Sabnis, current Assistant Superintendent of Department of Archaeology in Goa is of the opinion that the petroglyphs found at Panasaimol were not a one time phenomenon. In his report he says “Looking at the carvings and their styles one can be sure that they were made in different periods. The carving occur from Mesolithic period (8000 - 6000 BCE) to Medieval period (10th – 12th century CE)”
While the exact date is not known, the rock art does give us crucial insights into the day-to-day life of people who lived here thousands of years ago. Rock shelters and caves where they settled are located mostly in thick forest regions near the source of water. The proximity of water source not only provided food - wild fruits, roots, tubers and other edible forest products but also was a source of small game. There is also evidence of stone tools being made and used.
Diorama of earliest human species (Homo erectus) sheltered in a cave with rock art | Wikimedia Commons
Robert Bednarik, an Australian prehistorian and cognitive archaeologist, in an article titled ‘Paleolithic art in India’ draws a link between the settlement patterns of prehistoric societies and rock art. He states that ‘These shelters were generally close to water sources and the forests that were full of wild flora and fauna, some of which were the source of food. Easy availability of food gave primitive man time for rock art. A single factor of man’s creative genius in the form of rock-paintings is prevalent throughout the world, and this aspect of human creativity is a fascinating theme of the primitive world.’
Based on studies at the site, here are some of the recurring symbols in the art of the Kushavati culture and what it means !
Decoding the Symbols: The Bull
One of the oldest and most common carved symbols is that of the bull. In fact at one point there are 14 bulls standing facing the same direction. Another interesting carving depicts a bull with what looks like a skeletal structure. The carving is accurate and looks like an X-rayed figure .
The human figures standing on one leg with outstretched hands is also one of the old carvings. A similar rock painting of a human figure is found at Sugriv cave in the Hampi area, belonging to the Iron Age or Megalithic period (800 to 200 BCE).
Among the geometrical designs comprising concentric circles labyrinths are the most enigmatic motif. They are the common designs noticed in rock art from different parts of the world and interestingly from different periods. Time and again, throughout history this symbol has been depicted on pottery, coins and other forms. The labyrinths found on the rock surface at Winnemucca Lake, Nevada, USA are considered to be the oldest dating back to 8500 - 12800 BCE. “The symbol is found in Europe in Galacia caves in Spain (dating to 2000 BCE) and Rocky Valley in England from early Bronze age (1800 – 1400 BCE)” says Dr. Varad Sabnis. The use or symbolism of this engraving is still unknown. World labyrinth experts have now identified the Panasaimal labyrinth as one of the oldest if not the oldest of such forms on Earth.
Trishul with animals
This figure includes a trisula and three cattle mostly two bulls and one unknown animal. The characteristic horns and the prominent hump of the bulls are stylistically different from others. The other animal with a linear elongated body resembling a deer or antelope, with the horns and the long neck, is depicted in front of a trident. The style of trident is similar to the iron trident found occasionally in Iron Age Megalithic sites from South India dating to 1000 BCE.
“Engravings found here are of a peacock and large pair of footprints belongs to a very late period possibly late historic period (4th century CE – 10th century CE). The curves of the peacock carvings are well defined which is not the case with the early carvings.” points out Dr. Varad Sabnis.
Over the last three decades, there has been an upsurge of discoveries of such petroglyphs, on the western belt of the country especially in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Goa. Similar engravings are found in places like Sonda (Karnataka), Holaluru (Karnataka) along with engravings on a basalt rock boulder at Kazur (Goa) and lateritic engravings at Mauxi (Goa) near Panasaimol. Archaeologists have also drawn a parallel between the Panasaimol engravings and the discovery of the rock bruising found at Maski in Raichur district of Karnataka.
This rock art site of Panasaimol, throws light on a very little known chapter of the prehistoric culture of Goa and in fact the entire subcontinent. It is a pity that not even a handful of the millions of people who visit Goa every year, go and see this.
– DID YOU KNOW
The oldest prehistoric rock carving (petroglyphs) in the world are the Bhimbetka rock carvings in Auditorium cave. The Auditorium cave is the largest cave in Bhimbetka complex and the petroglyphs here were created between 290,000 and 700,000 BCE, during the Acheulian period of the Lower Paleolithic. The Bhimbetka petroglyphs are much older than the Blombos Cave in South Africa dated to 60000 BCE, which is the next oldest site of Stone Age art.
Do catch our exclusive video on petroglyphs in Konkan, Ratnagiri
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