Rock Art and Rock Music: Petroglyphs of the South Indian Neolithic

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Rock art studies in India

Rock art in South Asia exhibits a wide geographical and chronological distribution. Petroglyphs and pictographs on natural stone surfaces are found across the subcontinent, and date from the Palaeolithic period through to the present day (Bednarik 1993, 2002; Brooks & Wakankar 1976; Chakrabarti 1999; Chakravarty & Bednarik 1997; Neumayer 1983). Nonetheless, South Asia has been largely overlooked in more recent studies that have sought a more theoretically-informed and interpretative approach to rock art (e.g. Chippindale & Tacon 1998; Goldhahn 1999; Helskog & Olsen 1995; Whitley 2001). In keeping with patterns in other realms of archaeological study in the subcontinent (see Boivin & Fuller 2002; Fuller & Boivin 2002), the study of rock art in South Asia remains largely descriptive and theoretically uninformed.

As such, rock art studies in South Asia have generally failed to contribute significantly to an understanding of the South Asian past, or of rock art production in general. This preliminary study offers an attempt to demonstrate the benefits of moving beyond a purely descriptive and image-focused approach to rock art in South Asia. An associated aim is the generation of interest in rock art traditions, both past and present, that are threatened by economic and social transformations currently underway in the region. South Asia badly needs scholars to study and record both ongoing rock art traditions and the remains of past rock art practices in the face of unprecedented social change and site destruction.

The south Indian Neolithic

This study will focus in particular on the rock art of the Neolithic period of south India, and specifically the site of Kupgal in Karnataka (see Figure 1). Although it is later in date than the proto-Harappan Neolithic of the Indo-Iranian border region (dating from the early third to first millennium BC, the south Indian Neolithic actually overlaps with the Mature phase of the Harappan Civilisation), the Neolithic of south India may in some ways be considered of greater interest than this latter period. This is because, in contrast to the Neolithic of Baluchistan and eastern Afghanistan, which has much in common with the Neolithic of neighbouring South-west Asia (Allchin & Allchin 1982; Piggott 1950), it features a distinctively Indian, and probably independently domesticated crop package (Fuller 1999, in press, forthcoming; Fuller et al. 2001), a distinctively Indian emphasis on cattle pastoralism (Allchin 1963; Korisettar et al. 2001; Paddayya 1998; Paddayya et al. 1995), and a distinctively Indian form of ritual involving the burning of large quantities of cowdung (Zeuner 1960; Allchin 1963). The latter is a particularly unique feature of the south Indian Neolithic, and resulted in the formation of large 'ashmounds' up to 30 feet high at specific places in the landscape.


Despite the obvious richness of the south Indian Neolithic, this archaeological entity has received surprisingly little sustained attention from South Asian archaeologists. Raymond Allchin's Neolithic Cattle-Keepers of South India, published in 1963, remains the major synthetic work on this period. Recent years have, however, seen somewhat of an upsurge in interest in the Southern Neolithic (as it is known within India), with the launching of a number of new excavation and survey projects aimed at systematically addressing particular questions concerning the origins and development of the Neolithic in the central Deccan (Devaraj et al. 1995; DuFresne et al. 1998; Fuller 1999, in press, forthcoming; Fuller et al. 2000-2001, 2001; Korisettar et al. 2001; Paddayya 1993, 1998; Paddayya et al. 1995).

In 2002, I initiated one such project, in collaboration with Ravi Korisettar of Karnatak University (Boivin forthcoming; Boivin et al. 2002, 2003 and forthcoming). As one small component of this project, I made a preliminary investigation of some of the rock art associated with the south Indian Neolithic. …