The fantastic ancient petroglyphs located in a rock shelter at Edakkal in Kerala, awe onlookers with their fascinating figures, motifs and antiquity.
Views of green paddy fields, hillsides carpeted with tea gardens, coffee plantations, rubber tree groves, natural forests and more make the Wayanad district in northeastern Kerala a treasure trove for travellers. Among its many delights that span exploring monuments and experiencing Ayurveda, tribal culture, culinary specialities, plantations, natural life and craft centres is a prehistoric wonder. And this surprise is located at a height of about 4,600 ft on a hill named Ambukuthimala, which intriguingly means ‘pierced by an arrow’ in Malayalam. The dizzying height adds to its charm as one enjoys an uphill trek past shops, plants and trees home to birds especially the endearing bonnet macaques.
The Best of Nature
The first glimpse of Ambukuthimala presents itself from a distance as one drives from Kalpetta, the district headquarters. A hill with a craggy summit stands out in the landscape indicating the location of the Edakkal Caves. The path to the caves is edged by tall trees and propitiously marked by an open-air church with a large cross, an image of Mother Mary and other revered icons. There are shops on both sides selling a choice of fruits soaked in brine, a Kerala speciality, spices, homemade chocolates, freshly ground coffee, delicious bamboo rice payasam, and one offering foot massage convey the travails
of the trek ahead. The buzz of the stores, the shade of trees and the capers of bonnet macaques prancing through the branches ease the effort of the climb. The last stretch of the climb makes its way past rocks and boulders, up roughlyhewn steps, and then wonderfully ends in a large cave.
There is a small platform that was probably used for sitting and resting by people who dwelled here thousands of years ago. This space also serves as base for the second shelter ahead. A mountain spring at one end of this cave ensures a steady supply of water. A few more flights of metal steps and you are out in the open with a panoramic view of the countryside and mountains.
While walking towards the second shelter, there is a space formed by a huge rock that was wedged overhead between two mammoth rocks thus forming a cave-like rock shelter with the area beyond it being open to sky. Interestingly, the word Edakkal literally means `stone in between’ and this formation explained its provenance. And this amazing natural formation is full of manmade treasures: the rock faces on either side of the entrance area are profusely decorated with prehistoric stone etchings that are credited with possibly being the richest variety of petroglyphs in the world.
Rare Rock Art
Rock art is divided into rock paintings and rock engravings, with the latter being rarer in India thus making the profusely etched Edakkal rock-shelter a wonder of times past.
The variety of subjects and their interesting attributes (such as the head-dress of certain figures) speak silently of the time when the cave was inhabited and the skill, beliefs and creativity of those who etched these patterns using the simplest tools. The fact that the etchings were possibly rendered at different periods of time with the earliest dating back to 4,000BC, make them a precious heritage. Adding interest to the etched surfaces are Sanskrit and Northern Brahmi inscriptions dated to a much later period during the second to the fifth century AD. The engravings could be interpreted differently by different scholars. The engravings have been linked with religious beliefs and practices of tribal societies in the region; some figures have been identified as possessing divine attributes (due to the head-dress and weapons carried); and some have found resonance with figures seen on objects of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
While the origins of the rockshelter go back thousands of years, they were lost to common knowledge and ‘discovered’ by Fred Fawcett, Superintendent of Police of the erstwhile Malabar district in 1894. Some four feet of debris was removed from the shelter, which revealed the rock face graced with etchings. Debris was further removed in 2011. As no stone artefacts were found, it was surmised that the rockshelter was not used for habitation and was probably a place of worship. Taking in the isolation of the space, its sanctity of being enclosed by stone and sky, and the beauty of the etchings, 21st century visitors can experience a fascinating moment of prehistory, frozen in time.