VELLERIKOMBAI — A ROCK ART SITE IN THE NILGIRIS
Kumaravelu, Environmental Educator, C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, Udhagamandalam
Rock art sites in the Nilgiris
In the Nilgiris, rock art sites are found in Sigur, Iduhatty, Konavakoral, Thengumarahada, and Vellerikombai. Of all these five sites, the Vellerikombai Rock Art site differs from the rest of the sites both in coloration and style, apart from the depictions. For instance, Vellerikombai Rock Art is in red ochre, with stylized figures depicting various human forms, a humped bull, and a hand.
Location and study of the Vellerikombai rock art site
This rock art site understudy was first identified by Mr. Allen Zackerel, Professor of Anthropology from the USA in 1984. Later, it was studied by the State Archaeology officials of the Nilgiris. The rock art depictions in this site come under the category of ‘petrographs’ (“rock paintings”) – the other being the ‘petroglyphs’ (“rock engravings”). In other words, petroglyphs are totally absent in this rock art site.
Nilgiris tribals, in general, believe that the Vellerikombai rock art depictions are belonging to the ancestors of the indigenous people of this area, namely, the Kurumba tribes. Contrary to this popular belief, archaeologists and musicologists maintain that they are definitely, prehistoric, belonging to the Neolithic period in particular.
They attribute the presence of a humped bull, among the various depictions, in support of this conjecture. Interestingly, the local indigenous people – the Kurumba tribes – regard these rock art depictions as their ancestral heritage.
Setting aside the above two schools of thought, the Vellerikombai rock art site could be regarded as unique, as its depictions are full of stylized forms, deviating from the general depictions of animals and human activities such as hunting and dancing scenes in the other rock art sites of the Nilgiris (the other rock art site at Iduhatty differs from other sites, including the Vellerikombai site, with its geometric depictions of circles, triangles, rectangles, squares, etc.).
Several attempts were made to interpret the rock paintings of this site. R. Poongundran, the then Registering Officer of State Archaeology Department, Coimbatore considers that these depictions were done by the Neolithic cattle keepers who wandered from nearby Karnataka to the fringes in the Western Ghats area of Tamilnadu. M. Basavalingam, Professor, Department of English, Government Arts College, Ooty, interprets the same depictions as extra-terrestrial, possessing magico-religious powers. In his recent article published in the Downtown Chronicle, a weekly news magazine of the Nilgiris, he made a fair attempt to compare the so-called extra-terrestrial figures with some of the Australian rock art depictions.
This author believes that all the depictions in this rock art site are aboriginal in nature belonging to the Kurumba tribal ancestors, based on the oral narratives of the present-day Kurumba tribes during a field trip.
Possible deterioration of rock art sites
Rock paintings, in general, are remarkably fragile and can be damaged in many ways by wind, sun, fire, and dust. Further, they could be damaged by the activities of birds and certain insects that choose to build their habitation over them. Lower plants such as moulds, fungi, algae, and lichens could cover the rock art depictions and cause deterioration. Tree roots can also cause a crack on the rock art sites. Even dust could coat the rock art surface and may physically abrade and or chemically react with the paints.
Present status of Vellerikombai rock art depictions
The Vellerikombai rock art depictions, in comparison to the other rock art depictions of the Nilgiris, retain their original red ochre for two reasons:
- The rock art site is situated over a steep rock.
- This site is located in a highly inaccessible rocky terrain surrounded by thick forest cover.
It is observed that as both human activity and faunal activity are almost nil, the deterioration of the rock art site is minimal. However, as the art depictions are carried out over a withering rock surface, there is a danger of deterioration in the long run. In this connection, the author of this paper wishes to suggest certain protective measures:
- Creation of a silicone drip line to divert the flow of water away from the decorated surfaces
- Periodical removal of vegetative cover and vegetation management
- Avoiding possible bushfires.
- Local People refer to this rock art site as eluthu paarai (Tamil: ‘inscribed rock’). It is not out of context to mention here that the ancient Tamil grammatical tradition refers to the script as eluthu. Here it is also interesting to recollect that script has evolved from pictures.
- Maheswaran, C., “Nilgiris: from Prehistoric Period to the Present”, The Downstown Chronicle, Vol. I: No.7:11.08.1995.
- Basavalingam, M., “The Mysterious Rock Art”, The Downstown Chronicle, Vol. I: No.31:08.03.1996.
- Basavalingam, M., “Rock Art in the Nilgiris”, The Downstown Chronicle,
Vol. II: No.29: 10.05.1997.
- Aboriginal People: Aboriginal Australia, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commas. Canberra, 1992.
The field trip and survey of the Vellerikombai Rock Art site was made possible by a grant from the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Chennai.