Pictures: Possibly 12,000 Years Old

Before there were books, before there was writing, there was art. We don’t know why that instinct welled up in early humans to make a mark, to render their world in images, but we know it did because the results endure today. In the Ratnagiri District of the Indian state of Maharashtra, I saw petroglyphs carved into the porous laterite rock beds that lie scattered among fields, in this area famous for its distinctive Alfonso mangoes.

Here is an elephant, its eye-folds delicately marked, its tusks and ears and trunk clearly defined, recognizable even after millennia of exposure to sun and wind and blowing sands:

Ukshi.jpgDocumenting the petroglyphs has been an entirely voluntary enterprise, led by two men, both engineers by profession, both with deep connections to the region and with driving interests in birds and butterflies respectively: Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe. With the help of volunteers, they have located up to 1,500 discrete images at over 50 sites. They’re also speaking to local villagers about the importance of the sites and the need to protect them–and trying to decide what form such protection would take.

Some of the carvings are bold and representational. Here’s a monkey. Ukshi2.jpg

The seashore’s pretty close, so as one might expect, there are fish.  Ratnagiri3.jpgAnd peacocks, and tigers, and rhinos as well, in an area far from current rhinoceros habitat. And then there is this strange figure, stylized and enigmatic:Rajapur.jpg

There are other sites with prehistoric rock art elsewhere in India–the rock shelter paintings of Bhimbetka,  the carvings in the Edakkal caves in Kerala’s Wayanad, and others.  We don’t know yet how the Ratnagiri sites fit in with all those others. That is yet to be studied.

What now? What do you do when you have a treasure like this on your hands, scattered over a large area, across a patchwork of private and public lands? Marathe and Risbood both speak of a holistic  vision–of a region designated not only as a site with historical and cultural significance but also a biosphere, rich in plant, bird, and butterfly species, and home to people with real-life stakes in the place. Stewardship is only possible, they argue, when you create it from the ground up. It can’t be imposed by governmental fiat and it shouldn’t be dictated by politicians and bureaucrats who don’t understand local concerns.

As we left the last figure–who is it meant to be and what is it saying? No one knows–I felt strangely moved. When a vast work of art lies at your feet, almost too large for your eyes to take in all at once, you cannot help but think about the mind or minds that dreamed it up, and the hands that held the chipping quartz. You cannot help but wonder what meaning we should draw from this human urge to think about the world around us, to recreate it in stone.

As the documentation and protection of these sites progresses, Sudhir Risbood can be contacted via old-fashioned post at the following address:

B-09 Shri Datta Sankul
Ghanekar Alley
Subhash Road
Ratnagiri 415612
Maharashtra
India