In the late 1980s whilst cycling around his neighbourhood, Sudhir Risbud recalled seeing as a schoolboy a strange and enigmatic rock relief pattern just off the road near the village of Niwali, 15 km from Ratnagiri, Maharashtra.
The mesmerising pattern caught his attention, with the strange geometric shapes, interlocking curls and concentric circles, and this relief seemingly cut short prematurely by the recent road construction. At the time he had absolutely no idea that what he was seeing was a prehistoric petroglyph, although he did know that the local tribal people identified it as a legacy from their ancestors and treated it with reverence.
In the following 25 years Sudhir, now an electrical engineer and avid bird watcher, would often go out exploring the Konkan landscape with colleagues Dhananjay Marathe and Surendra Thakurdesai. In that time they identified more examples of these strange rock carvings, but it wasn’t until a historian accompanied them on one of their trips that they finally learned the significance of their discoveries.
Fired up by this revelation, in 2010 Sudhir created an informal group called Adgalnavarche Konkan (Unexplored Konkan), and started a campaign to explore the Konkan region more systematically and informally record the sites. This plan was expanded yet further in 2012, engaging with the local villages who had knowledge of the landscape they would travel over long before new roads were built.
This new strategy was sparked by a chance meeting with a local shepherd at Barsu Sada, who recalled seeing similar rock carvings at a place called Gowal. Subsequent investigations of this site by Sudhir and his friends resulted in the discovery of a new petroglyph site consisting of 42 figures, including animal representations and geometric patterns.
Six years later, and as of January 2019 there have been 52 confirmed and explored sites, and over 1,000 petroglyphs discovered. A further 16 sites have been confirmed but yet to be fully explored and recorded.
Although some of the petroglyphs (primarily at the road side Niwali site) had made it to the archaeological record as far back as the 1990s, it took an astonishing two decades before the state archaeological department finally got involved in exploring and recording the sites, an effort that commenced in 2018. A fund of 240 million rupees ($3.2m; £2.5m) has been set aside by the state government to study and record in detail 400 of the identified petroglyphs.
An ongoing project to visit local schools is also underway, not just to learn of potential new sites, but also to educate the children on the significance of these petroglyphs and how they need to be identified, recorded and protected in the landscape.
The majority of the petroglyph sites are in quite remote locations, away from villages on the laterite plateaux. They are believed to date to the mesolithic and neolithic period, potentially as far back as 10,000 BC. Some of the carvings may be associated with the period in human history when we transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (mesolithic) to a more settled existence when farming started (neolithic), but the lack of material culture associated with these petroglyphs has thus far prevented us from making any firm conclusions.
This lack of concrete dating evidence is unfortunately a by-product of the way in which they were discovered. Whilst amateur archaeology probably accounts for up to a quarter of all the world’s archaeological discoveries, the removal of soil from around the carvings by keen and enthusiastic discoverers has probably removed key evidence that was locked away in a sealed context for thousands of years.
The sites themselves are also at huge risk of being lost or damaged from road construction, mining, plantations (mango and cashew), erosion (human and natural) and, somewhat ironically, from the well natured attempts by locals to preserve the sites themselves.
I cannot stress enough how critical it is for the state archaeological department and the local community to work together in ensuring these sites are properly explored, recorded, and then protected for future generations to see and research further.
In the case of new sites that are still being discovered, there needs to be a process in place where targeted archaeological excavations occur at the time of discovery, so we can tease out as much evidence as possible from that thin layer of soil that sits on top of and around the laterite carvings.
Similarly for preservation, a clear strategy needs to be in place that ensures the right course of action is taken. Many of the local communities are rightly proud of the discoveries on their land, and can see the opportunities it may present in terms of visitors, tourism, and the subsequent boost to the local economy. However, all this enthusiasm channelled in a slightly misguided direction can result in the permanent and irreversible damage to the areas around the petroglyphs and to the carvings themselves. Everyone involved needs to pull together and jointly ensure the safeguarding of these sites under often challenging circumstances.
Over the course of a weekend I visited just 7 of the 68 confirmed sites around Rajapur and Ratnagiri, and they are all utterly astonishing. The links below will take you to a separate blog post on each of the sites, giving a brief overview of what there is to see, and some of the risks that currently hang over them.
What struck me when visiting these sites is the huge variety of carvings they have. Some sites have clear and obvious depictions of animals such as elephant, rhino, buffalo, pig, tiger, deer, rabbit, varieties of bird, aquatic animals (fish, sharks, stingray), and humans – often life size, whilst other sites have abstract geometric patterns that are often incredibly complex and symmetrical. . Thus far there has not been any correlation between the types of petroglyphs found and their geographical location in the landscape.
In a wider context, similar petroglyphs have already been discovered in Usgalimal, south Goa, and just last month a new site in Kollur, Kanataka has been reported. I get the feeling that we may be just scratching the surface (no pun intended!), there are likely to be many more discoveries yet to be made.
Please ensure you read my advice on visiting these sites at the end of this blog post.
Click on a tile below to read more about the sites I visited.
If you decide you’d like to visit any of the petroglyph sites in the Konkan region, here’s a few pieces of advice :
- Do not attempt to visit the sites by yourself. The petroglyph locations are on private land, and I strongly recommend you have a guide to help you both locate them and help interpret carvings. You are welcome to contact the following people:
- Sudhir Risbud
- Tel: 9422372020
- Rutwij Apte (State Archaeology Department)
- Tel: 7507134624
- Sudhir Risbud
- Do not walk on any of the carvings. Some may think that laterite is a very hard rock that is not prone to erosion, but you only have to look at pathways and tracks across the plateaux to see the irreversible damage human activity has on the landscape. Besides, these are wonderful works of art and should be treated with the utmost respect, would you walk all over the Mona Lisa ?
- Do not take any drone photography. The environment needs to be respected, and regardless of how good you might be at flying your drone, a crash land by mistake on the petroglyphs will damage them.
- Do not make any attempt to mark out the carvings with paint, chalk or by some other method. Not only will you be walking over the petroglyphs to do this, but applying substances to the carvings can itself damage them.
- Do not attempt to clean the carvings with abrasive brushes. Again, you might think that the laterite can take this activity, but over the years and decades it will have an impact on the petroglyphs.
- Be aware of snakes. The laterite plateau is the perfect habitat for snakes that will not like being trod on. Wherever possible please stick to the paths.
- Take your litter home home with you. Always.
Finally, I would like to thank the following people who made my trip both possible and unforgettable. That weekend was definitely a highlight of my 21 visits to this amazing country.
References for this series of blog posts:
- Tejas M. Garge, B.V.Kulkarni, Rhutvij R. Apte and Sudhir Risbud. December 2018. Petroglyphs In Konkan : Historiography, recent discoveries and future endeavours.
- Derek B. Counts, Bettina Arnold. 2010. The Master of Animals in Old World Iconography.
- BBC News Marathi. October 2018. Prehistoric art hints at lost Indian civilisation.
- The Hindu. October 2018. The petroglyphs of Ratnagiri.
- Wikipedia. 2019. Master of Animals.
- Wikipedia. 2019. Aquarius (constellation).
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