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Guide to Cave Art & Painting

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

Cave Arts
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Cave paintings and rock art were the first expressions of art in prehistoric times. The numerous paintings and engravings found in caves and shelters dating back to the Ice Age (Upper Paleolithic), roughly between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago, are generally referred as Cave Art. Cave paintings are a type of parietal art, found on the walls or ceilings of caves. Most Cave art consists of symbols, which are usually religious or related to some religious function. The exact meanings of many of these images remain unknown. The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, deer etc. Tracings of human hands and hand stencils were also very popular, as well as abstract patterns called finger flutings.

Most common colours in cave art are red and black. Most cave art consists of paintings made with either red or black pigment. The reds were made with iron oxides, whereas manganese dioxide or charcoal were used for the blacks. Many a times cave arts were sculptures. Paintings are known to be easily perishable and it gets destroyed together with the material it has been made on. But cave paintings have lasted for 100s of centuries! This is because, caves and rock structures provide suitable conditions for paintings to survive – paintings on these surfaces, can survive 100s of centuries. Each cave art gives us a glimpse of the life at the time of its creation. Hence cave paintings or cave arts are a big source of information for the archaeologists across the globe. India is no exception. A huge part of the very ancient Indian history has been uncovered, thanks to its cave arts.

Cave Arts Across the Globe

Cave arts have been discovered in almost all over the world where there have been ancient civilization. However until very recently it seemed that the oldest cave art were mostly scattered in Europe. Most examples of Paleolithic cave art have been found in France and Spain.

Some were also found in Portugal, England, Italy, Romania and Germany. Asia has been the other gold mine of cave arts, across multiple era of human civilization. Both East and South East Asia are rich in Cave Art. Indonesia is famous for its cave paintings. The caves in the district of Maros in Sulawesi are famous for their hand prints. In November 2018, the oldest known figurative art painting, perhaps as old as 52,000 years, was discovered in the cave of Lubang Jeriji Saléh on the Indonesian island of Borneo. The art depicted an unknown animal. Cave Arts are also found in Burma, Mongolia and India. Cave Arts are also found in Horn of Africa, South Africa, North Africa, South America, North America, SouthEast Asia and Asia.

Cave Arts in India

India is one of the oldest civilization of the world and many of its history has come to light from its Cave Arts. India is known for its diversified art and culture. Since the beginning of historical times, India has experienced several periods of diverse and flourishing art and culture.

As per research the oldest existing proofs of art in India can be traced back to the stone age. This tells us that the aesthetic value of art is such that it found a way to flourish even at the time when man was not civilized. Cave paintings or Rock Art in India range from drawings and paintings from prehistoric times as in Bimbetka Rock Shelters from around 10000BP, to elaborate frescoes in Ajanta and Ellora caves, extending as late as 6th – 10th century CE.

India is extremely rich with ancient rock-cut cave temples and no other country in the world can even come close to India in this respect. Besides the natural affinity to art and culture in ancient India, the geology of the country has also made this possible. The Deccan Plateau and some more regions of India provides cliff faces and domes, which are perfectly suitable to create rock-cut architecture. The Deccan Plateau is full of basalt, diorite and granite and these rocks are tough and time resistant. So they are ideal basis for painting. The vast spread of such ideal topology in India, together with the diversity of cultures, brought out the diversity in cave art in India, making it rich and valued. There are approximately 1,500 rock-cut caves in India and many more are yet to be discovered.

Very recently, on May 2021, archaeologists in Haryana have discoverted a prehistoric site in Faridabad’s Mangar Bani hill forest which is rich with cave paintings and could be up to a lakh years old. To quote Banani Bhattacharya, Deputy Director of Haryana Archaeology & Museum Department, “On the basis of tool topology, it can be said that the date of prehistoric habitation at the site may be from about 1,00,000 to about 15,000 years ago. But we have also found evidence of later habitation, even up to 8th-9th century AD.” This site is one of the biggest Palaeolithic sites in the Indian subcontinent, where stone age tools were recovered from open air sites as well as from rock shelter sites.

A Short History of Indian Cave Art

Indian Cave Art history is typically divided into Prehistoric, Historic (or Ancient) times and Medieval times, by the archaeologists, for ease of study. However art transcends all timelines.

There have been innumerable natural caves and smaller shelters in India which usually contain prehistoric paintings. Prehistoric art is spread all over India from the Deccan Plateau to the snow-covered Himalayas. Some of the most important Cave Arts from this period are found in Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, with more than 500 caves and smaller rock shelters which contain thousands of paintings. The oldest paintings here are anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years old, making it a site that contain some of the oldest paintings made by humans. Some of the oldest Petroglyphs or Rock Arts, are in Bhimbetka, which are at least 290,000 years old. In May 2021, the world got to know about the cave art in Mangar Bani Hill Forest, in Haryana, India, which seem to be one of the oldest cave art, about 100000 years old.

Historic times or Ancient times are said to begin from 3rd Century BC to 7th Century AD and some of the most popular cave art of this period are found in Ajanta Caves (Maharashtra), Jogimara Caves (Chattisgarh), Pitalkhora Caves (Maharashtra), Ellora Caves (Maharashtra), Bagh Caves (Madhya Pradesh), Badami Caves (Karnataka), and Elephanta Caves (Maharashtra).

Less popular Indian cave paintings from this period are found in many cave temples of Maharashtra – Karsamble, Thanale, Kuda, Lenyadri, Shivneri, Tulja Lena, Manmod, and Bhaja Caves. Ravana Phadi, a cave temple from 550 AD, in Karnataka is also from this period.

The next period is the Medieval period, which is after 7th Century AD. In the early medieval times, the most beautiful Indian cave paintings were created in South India. Some of the more popular ones are Sittanavasal Cave, Armamali Cave, Thirunadhikkara Cave Temple, Murugan Temple and Olipathivishnu Vishnugraham, all in Tamilnadu and Undavalli (Andhra Pradesh).

Rock-cut cave temples and dwellings for monks were also made in the north of India, in the Himalayas. Saspol Caves in Jammu and Kashmir are amazing rock-cut temples from the 13th – 15th century AD. Four of these caves are lavishly adorned with Buddhist paintings. The dominant color here is bright blue, and the paintings re a fusion of Tibetan and Indian Buddhist art forms. Tabo Monastery in Himachal Pradesh also boasts of excellent cave art. Several cave temples with beautiful paintings are also found in Tibet and Nepal, bordering India on its northern side.

Medieval paintings are also found in Bhimbetka Rock Shelters (Madhya Pradesh) right next to some of the pre-historic ones. Kanheri Caves (Maharashtra) and Manmod Caves (Maharashtra) are also from the medieval period

Techniques of India Cave Art

Ancient and Medieval Indian Cave Paintings have made extensive use of the techniques called Frescoes and Tempera, which has helped in their preservation.

Fresco painting is a method of painting water-based pigments on freshly applied plaster, usually on wall surfaces. Tempera on the other hand, is an ancient medium, which has been frequently used in ancient art work globally. It’s a binding substance or an emulsifier. Ajanta and Ellora caves used the Frescoe technique extensively, while Bagh Cave murals were made in Tempera technique. Frescoe was considered as Southern style and Tempera was the Northern style. However many a times Northern style was found in Southern caves and vice versa, This proves that artists used to move around for work and this also proves that the concept of an artist guild existed even in the ancient times. Armamalai Cave in Tamil Nadu is one such example. This southern cave temple of 8th Century AD, contained murals made in northern tempera technique.

Mostly natural colours were used in Cave Arts. Ancient and medieval artists had profound knowledge about the natural pigments. Colors made of plants and minerals when mixed with lime withstood the test of time. There were several colors, for example, in Sittanavasal cave, painters used black, green, yellow, orange, blue, and white pigments. Today it sounds simple but back then these chemical compounds had to be tested as to how they react with plaster, each other, with water and glue and how they change after the plaster has fully dried.

Three Famous Indian Caves

Ajanta Cave

In Ajanta there are approximately 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments with exquisite art work. They are located in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. The first set of monuments date back to 2nd and 1st Century BC. During 5th and 6 th Centuries AD, many more richly decorated caves got added to the original set of monuments. The paintings and sculptures of Ajanta are considered as one of the finest surviving examples of ancient Buddhist religious art and even now draws tourists from all over the world. The paintings are expressive and present emotions through gesture, pose and form. The site is a part of UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 1983 and its protected and cared for by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The caves, cut into the face of a mountain, and form a horseshoe shape around the Wangorah River. The paintings at Ajanta mainly depict the Jataka tales, i.e. the stories of the Buddha in his previous lives, when he was still on the path to enlightenment. The paintings and murals inside the caves were bold and artistic and we see the admiration for physical beauty of men and women. They were colourful and sensuous. Many paintings depicted the life of people, their rituals and day to day life. Some paintings also depicted indigenous animals.

Ellora Cave

Ellora Cave is located 29 km (18 mi) to the north-west of the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra. It has been built by Kalachuri, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasties during (6th and 9th centuries). There are 34 caves, which have been excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills. These caves are dedicated to Hindu (17 caves), Buddhist(12 caves) and Jain (12 caves) religions. The Ellora Caves were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, along with the Ajanta caves. Cave 16, in Ellora, is also the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world. Its called the Kailash temple, and it’s a chariot-shaped monument dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Kailash temple was later destroyed by the Mughal king Aurangzeb.

The 5 Jain caves belong to the Digamvar sect of Jainism. Most popular of the Buddhist caves is cave number 10, a Chaitya hall (chandrashala) or 'Vishvakarma cave', popularly known as the 'Carpenter's Cave. The confluence of the 3 religions in the Ellora Caves illustrate the spirit of tolerance, which was characteristic of ancient India, which permitted these three religions to establish their sanctuaries and their communities in a single place. Ellora caves showcase finest variety of sculptures and paintings both.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Bhimbetka is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, situated in Madhya Pradesh. It has around 760 rock shelters of which 500 are adorned with paintings .The paintings found in the rock shelters here have a striking resemblance to the ones discovered in Kakadu National Park in Australia and also to the cave paintings of Bushmen in Kalahari Desert and Upper Palaeolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France. One of the famous paintings in Bhimbetka is that of an enormous red bison attacking a man and its visible only when the sun is just right.

According to popular belief, the name Bhimbetka is derived from 'bhimbaithka' meaning 'the sitting place of Bhima'. Mahabh

Cave art is of utmost significance because they depicted the lives of the people in prehistoric times. We get to learn about ancient history and culture from the cave arts which date back many hundreds of centuries.

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