Rock art is widely found in caves and along shady parts of the rocky Vindhya hills of Central India, where the Panna Tiger Reserve is located. These are truly beautiful paintings, but what is their significance to the present local community?
The mystery of paintings made in blood
A goat herder points towards the distant hills of the Panna Tiger Reserve and announces “You will find Khoon se bana chitre” (paintings made in blood). When I arrive at the spot, I do indeed find the well-preserved rock art and wonder what the paintings mean to locals. What meaning do they construct from these old drawings on stone? If the paintings are important to the people who live here, do they also ensure their preservation? Or are these simply drawings that are forgotten and destined to fade with time?
In India little detailed and reliable information on rock art is available: just a few ad hoc brochures and visitor pamphlets near some sites. It is also very difficult to access published literature describing rock art in India. Adding to this difficulty, I found out that interpreting rock art accurately is a highly specialised skill, and pseudo-experts are plentiful. Since areas around Panna were historically ruled by Gond Adivasis (native inhabitants) of Central India, and since remnants of their extinct kingdom are still found in Panna, I wondered whether the rock art of the region might reveal facets of the life of ancient Gond tribes in the area.
Looking at the images, I discovered considerable differences in the way rock art was drawn. The style of drawing and the subjects depicted varied considerably, suggesting that art on rocks may have been practised for a long time and not just restricted to a certain period. At some of the rock art sites relatively new drawings can be seen beside those that look very ancient. I was curious to understand whether local inhabitants still continue the practice of drawing on rock, and what rock art means to them.
Powerful spirits dwelling in the forest
Forest-dwelling villagers of Panna associate rock art with animistic spirits. They see rock art as the work of spirits and not of any living people. Local people believe that powerful spirits inhabit the natural world, and that such spirits have the power to ensure their wellbeing and also to inflict harm. Therefore, they revere them and worship them. People described to me the dozens of different types of spirits they worship. One such spirit is that of their ancestral Gond king “Sabbal Shah”, who is attended by his invincible army of troops on horseback and on foot.
One evening, my guide Asharam, a Gond tribal who was also a local spirit medium and a respected traditional healer, told me about the powerful Sabbal Shah. At full moon, he said, “during the very late hours, Sabbal Shah and his troops move out in procession and one can hear the snorts, squeals, and blowing of horses, the jingling of the bells tied to the horses’ ankles, and the whispers of troops as they talk and march in step”. “They patrol the villages and destroy evil spirits that cast their spells on the villages.”
I could see that listeners were fascinated by the narrative, and some ladies shifted position and drew closer to one another. Asharam announced, “There is no reason to fear Sabbal Shah. He and his troops are out on patrol to ensure our safety. However, if a person has bad thoughts in his mind, or if a person schemes against another with intent to harm, Sabbal Shah will punish them.” “Even I cannot save you from his wrath”, he added.
The next morning, I showed Asharam a photograph of a piece of rock art (pictograph below) I had come across in the remote forests of the area; the scene matches every detail of his narrative on King Sabbal Shah and his army. Asharam took a long deep breath and said, “Raja Sabbal Shah”. He turned to me and asked, “Where did you find this Khoon ka Chitre (picture in blood)? I have only heard from my elders that such pictures are found in the forests. It must be a truly special site.” Asharam and fellow villagers explained that if a spirit wants to communicate with a person or with people, an image appears on the rocks. Experienced spirit mediums then look out for such images and interpret their meaning and significance.
Villagers revere some species of wild animals and domestic animals as sacred religious symbols and also as animals belonging to the spirits. Such animals are considered sacred, and many norms and taboos influence people’s interactions with and attitudes about these species. As one villager said, “If animals that are sacred to the spirits are harmed, spirits will unleash difficulties on offenders”. A remedy in such a case might involve making a valuable offering to the spirits to pacify them. Most villagers view animals painted on rocks as sacred animals and even worship them. The sacred animals include tigers, leopards, cows, nilgai antelopes, monkeys, birds of many varieties, snakes, and even insects like geckos, scorpions, and millipedes.
Some villagers view rock art as sacred, and as evidence of spirit prophecies. In one drawing, for example, depicting big cats and a hunter (Fig 7), the dotted cats are interpreted as mythical spirit animals (dotted lines), which are beyond the reach of hunters. As my blog on the Panna Tiger Reserve showed, the villagers refuse to accept that tigers can be killed by mortal men, insisting that they are spirits and thus indestructible. They feel that if tigers become extinct in a forest, that forest has lost its spiritual character.
In a rural area such as Panna, where traditions and traditional ways of life still prevail, rock art has relevance even today. For many forest-dwelling people in Panna rock art is spiritual, it is religious , and it is interpretable. It helps maintain a sense of continuity between the present (the living) and the past (the dead), and also constitutes a link between the living world and the spiritual world.