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Palaeolithic cave paintings found could be among oldest in the country

By Sadia Akhtar,

The caves are nestled amid a maze of quartzite rocks in the Aravalli mountain ranges, just outside NCR.

Cave paintings found in the Aravallis by the Haryana government’s museum and archaeology department. (Sanchit Khanna/HT)

Archaeologists have discovered cave paintings in a rocky and forested corner of Haryana, not far from the national capital, that they believe belong to the Upper Palaeolithic age, which could potentially make them one of the oldest cave arts in the country.

The caves are nestled amid a maze of quartzite rocks in the Aravalli mountain ranges, just outside the national capital, and a stone’s throw from the region’s only surviving patch of primary forest, a holy grove called Mangar Bani.

While the residents of Manger village, and adjoining villages such as Selakhari, say generations have been aware of the paintings, it is only recently that the Haryana government’s museum and archaeology department took note of them. It sent a fact-finding team to the area in the last week of June.

“So far, cave paintings in Delhi-NCR have only been found here. Most pre-historic sites have been traced in the Aravalli region. The paintings are yet to be dated but at least some of them belong to the Upper Palaeolithic period in all likelihood. We are viewing the paintings in continuation with the Soanian culture which has been found in Shivalik hills, Narmada and Aravallis,” said Banani Bhattacharyya, deputy director of the department of archaeology and museums.

The team encountered cave paintings comprising images of human figurines, animals, foliage, and geometric, some that have paled over time, but others that are still very visible. It also encountered rock art and open-air ceremonial sites. While some could be spotted in the open air, a majority of them are on the ceilings of the rock shelters. The findings may well change the history of Haryana. The Upper Paleolithic Age began around 40,000 years ago and lasted till around 10,000 years ago.

Bhattacharyya, who was part of the team, said the discovery is extremely significant. “Though tools from the Palaeolithic Age have been identified earlier in parts of the Aravallis, it is for the first time that cave paintings and rock art of a large magnitude have been found in Haryana.” To be sure, the findings have to be validated, dated, reviewed, and published.

The caves and the paintings themselves are reminiscent of Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh, which is home to the oldest known cave art in India, dating back to the Mesolithic Age (around 10,000 years ago).

The Mangar cave art is 20,000-40,000 years old, according to Bhattacharyya, but this is something that can be established through archaeological dating. Experts also use qualitative techniques, by comparing the cave art to other cave art, and that found in other excavations.

While explorations and excavations in the Aravallis have been undertaken in the past, it is for the first time that cave paintings at the current site have caught the attention of researchers. Bhattacharyya believes the site may have possibly remained relatively undiscovered due to thick vegetation.

“Stone age tools and technology dates to a particular time period. We explore what tool belongs to which time period. In sites such as these, we can conduct dating by studying the pigment. The pigment contains proteins (mainly organic material) which can be dated. At present, we are dependent on typo-technological dating. Tools such as hand cleaver, blade, evolve with types. Starting from the Lower Palaeolithic to Middle Palaeolithic then Upper Palaeolithic, we see the evolution here. We have found significant remains from Lower Palaeolithic till Middle and Upper Palaeolithic period too,” she explained.

Most of the paintings are ochre, but some are white. Experts say cave paintings in white are usually from a later stage (early contemporary era), while Stone Age paintings are more often than not, ochre. “Stone age paintings generally use red and ochre colours. Stones of these colour used to be available locally and inhabitants crushed the stones for preparing the colour for paintings,” said Bhattacharyya. Palaeolithic artefacts have been reported earlier from various parts of Delhi and Haryana. In 1985-86, Dilip Kumar Chakrabarty and Nayanjot Lahiri surveyed and mapped prehistoric sites in Delhi and Haryana. They traced 43 sites. In 1986, AK Sharma discovered the Palaeolithic site of Anangpur in Faridabad. ASI later undertook excavation at the site.

Ota said that while the Aravallis are known for prehistoric remains starting from the Lower Palaeolithic period, unlike Central India and other places that are rich in rock paintings, no rock paintings have been found in Aravallis until now.

“That engravings formed part of Aravallis was known through earlier publications but what was not known so far was the presence of paintings in rock shelters. The paintings never got washed away due to these rock shelters. We do not know the date at the moment but this is a clear indication that there must have been many more paintings which might have been destroyed over time,” he said.

Ota emphasised the need for conservation after investigations and assessment of the importance of the paintings. “The Aravallis demonstrate the earliest evidence of the Stone Age which we call the Lower Palaeolithic Acheulean culture. The area can be easily protected since the Aravalli hills also derive protection from various Supreme Court orders.”

The Aravalli’s are India’s and the world’s oldest mountain range, and have been ravaged by time, the elements, and increasingly over the past few decades, man.

Ashok Khemka, principal secretary to government, archaeology and museums department, Haryana, said that while a team from the department has conducted a preliminary study, further investigations will be undertaken since the site requires extensive documentation. He said the department will grant protection status to Mangar forest. “We will definitely be giving the Mangar Bani forest state protection under the Archaeological Act because of the presence of a large number of Stone Age cave paintings that have been found there.”

Khemka said his department plans to hire scholars for an extensive survey. “We will be hiring a team of research scholars who are experts in prehistoric cave paintings. Locals and a few research scholars from the nearby universities will also be involved in the extensive survey.”

Shalaish Baisla, an archaeology student, said he had spotted tools and cave paintings from the prehistoric age in Mangar. “The region shows continuous evolution from Lower Palaeolithic to Mesolithic period. While conducting my study, I found pre-Acheulian tools and cave paintings as well,” said Baisla.

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