Friday, February 5, 2010


The hill country of the Wayanad, in the Western Ghats, was occupied by agriculturalists from the Kerala coastal area in the South, around two centuries ago, when it was found that this country was rich in forest vegetation, and suitable for growing Rubber, Sandlewood, Pepper vines, Coffee, and many other valuable crops. In the tropical rainforest of this area we find many trees that are unique to this region, and there is a bio diversity which it is now realized must be protected against the exploitation of this land by those who come to mine its rocks, and harvest its wealth of plant life.


In February 2010 Margaret Shillan and Jyoti visited the Wayanad, to see how the tribal communities there were adapting to the changing situation. We learnt from a tribal leader who was from a village near to Paakkom Kotta, that whereas the shrines in the ancient sacred grove, situated in the old fortress, had been managed by high caste people, the tribals had now claimed this place as their own ancestral heritage. Here the ancestors of the Paniyas and Adiyas who were called Meloracchan and Keeyorithi had laboured, one in cultivating the land, and the other in serving in the landlord's kitchen. A tree in this sacred grove is held to have the spirit of the ancestors in it. This tree is supposed to have healing properties, and the Spirit residing in this tree had appeared to a local tribal person who had gone to the grove in search of a remedy for his ailments. The tree had asked that a worship of the Primal forefathers of the Tribal community in the Wayanad (who consist of Adiyas, Paniyas, Kurumas and Pulayas etc)should be established. This had now been achieved, which has helped the local tribals to feel that they have an identity and dignity of their own.



In what used to be the fortress of the landlord in whose service the primal ancestors of the Adiya (slaves) were put to work, there is now a sacred grove which is managed by a local tribal community. It was here that the Pakkanthappan, or lord of the Pakkankote (fortress of Pakkan) lived. In February 2010 Shirly and Baby K.J. took us to see this place, and Margaret Shillan and I made some sketches of the forest with its cluster of shrines.


One of the sacred groves that we find in the forests of the Wyanad is near Pakkam, where it is believed that the primal ancestors of local tribal people were enslaved by Land Lords who built a fortification and cultivated the land by cutting down the trees. What is left of this fortification is an enclosed area which is surrounded by prehistoric earth works, that create a kind of moat around what is now preserved as a sacred enclosure.


The Mother Goddess is often linked with the cattle, but she is also seen as riding on the tiger. The Goddess provides life and fertility, but is also dangerous. In the myths of the Adivasis known as the Adayars, the Mother Goddess is called Mali, and is associated with a terrible energy which is supposed to frighten the primal peoples who wander in the forest, making them run for shelter to the Lords who own the land, and live in enclosed fortresses.Thus the tribal peoples become the slaves of the mountains, and also the fields, preferring to work for the land owners, rather than face the dangers of the Spirits who preside over the wilderness.


Though the Horse is not indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, clay figures of horses are found in many tribal areas, and are linked to a cult of the Spirit world. The horse, like the Elephant, and the Tiger, inspires awe, and is associated with Divine energies. The Horse is thought to embody the spirit of the wind, and the whole cosmos is sometimes compared to the sacrificial horse. On the other hand the elephant is linked with the waters, whereas the Tiger is often connected with the spirit of fire.


A figure who plays an important role in the Spirit World of Primal societies across India is that of the Horseman, who is both a guardian of the human settlement, but also a link with Nature. Here the Horseman is an aspect of the Hunter, but also the Herdsman, in that the Horse (Aswa) which is a symbol of the swift, and free Spirit of Nature, is tamed, and mounted by the Hero. There are many myths about the white horse which is left free, and followed for a whole year by mounted heros. Where the horse wanders, the accompanying knights claim as the domain of the Chakravartin, or World Ruler, who symbolizes the sun.


An essential feature of Primal cultures is a belief in the Guardian Spirits. These Guardian are both protecting but also terrible. They inspire a sense of Awe of Holy Dread. This reminds us that Spirits of the Wilderness are both givers of life, but also can take revenge on those who do not respect them. It is often said that Primal religious belief includes a fear or dread of the Spirit world. In a sense this Fear is the source of a kind of wisdom. It ensures that the human respects the environment, and does not think that nature is simply for human use. Nature, and the Spirits of the Earth, and the Trees, have an integrity, which the human community ignores at its own cost, and final destruction.


The Hero sacrifices himself, and in that process becomes a guardian spirit of the whole community. The legend of Kanappa, a young tribal hero who offered his own eyes which he needed as a huntsman, by gouging out his eyes with an arrow, while placing his foot on the sacred place where a Lingam had emerged from the ground, shows how the hero figure is related both to hunting, and also taking on the role of being the victim, who is hunted.


The Hero is often represented as suffering, and even dying. He is sacrificed to the very forces of nature from which he has emerged, and with which he has to contend.


The Primal figure of the Hero in a Mohenjodar seal, shows a Being seated in meditation, with a horned head dress. He is surrounded by animals, and is seated in a yogic posture. He is a symbol of life, and later it is from such a concept of the hero who becomes one with the Cosmos, that the archetype of the Buddha emerges. It is said that when the Buddha was first discovered seated in meditation under a tree he was mistaken as a Yaksha, or Tree Spirit. The Yakshas play an important part in Buddhist iconography, as we see in the Barhut railings.


All over Karnataka we find Snake Stones under trees. These represent the creative forces of nature, which are protective, healing, and also fertile. The worship of trees goes back to tribal Adivasi cultures, and can be seen in the earliest images that we find in Buddhist art, where representations of offerings made to the sacred trees can be found on the railings of Stupas like that of Barhut and Amaravati.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


When I first visited these Edakkal caves about fifteen years ago, there were hardly any visitors, and the place was only known to specialists in ancient art forms going back to Neolythic and Megalythic times. But since then the caves have been described in school text books, and tourist guide manuals, so that now we see a whole tourist industry building up around this ancient site, which probably in prehistoric times represented a Holy Place to which tribal communities went on a spiritual quest. Of course, it is not easy to distinguish between that archetypal vision quest, which was so central to primal initiatory rites, and what we are now witnessing in the Tourist quest for places of cultural and historical interest. Many of those who come to climb the steep ascent to these primordial caves, have a hidden, or perhaps even conscious agenda, to discover the roots of our own culture, and the primordial symbols which still play a vital role in our imagination, and dreams.


Walking up the steep mountain towards the Edakkal caves, I was recalling the importance of pilgrimage in Indian spiritual traditions. We have various sites where from primeval times people have gone on a journey to discover a source, that is both cultural and spiritual. Scholars have suggested that the path taken by pilgrims often follows ancient routes taken by migrating tribes, whose routes often followed a seasonal pattern, and cyclical rhythm, which had a seasonal rational. The Edakkal caves, lying in a range of the Western Ghats, not far from what is known as Sultan’s Battery (Bathery), has been a path through a very ancient pass in the mountains that lie at the edge of the Nilgiri range, where we know that very ancient tribes found a place to settle. This part of the Western Ghats has been frequented as a trade route from primordial times.


When we finally reached the cathedral like space of the Edakkal cave, we found ourselves surrounded by many young people who had come in parties to look at this famous centre of primeval rock art. Margaret Shillan, who was accompanying me in this search for the primal sources of folk art, made a number of sketches, one of which shows the whole enclosed womb like space, with the crowds of visitors pouring in through a narrow opening. Once in the cave they would group themselves, sitting on the rocks scattered around, very much as visitors to this house of the spirits must have done from prehistoric times.


The numinous space of the cave like opening, which has been formed by the way in which great rocks have slipped into position, one forming a kind of roof over the upper portion of what is called the Eddakal cave. This is strictly speaking not a cave in the usual sense in that it is formed by huge boulders lodged one against the other, creating a space beneath the rocks. In this way an opening to the skies at the back of the enclosed space, provides a source of light that helps throw the engraved forms into relief. The play of light and darkness is a very important aspect of the total theatre, which becomes like a drama of contrasting shapes.


Animal forms have a vitality in primal art, which relates to a deep sense that the human is closely linked to the animal world. Animals often act as guides, or as omens pointing to the spiritual world. The archetypal hero is also a hunter, but he is also helped by animals in his quest. Animals are also associated with the spirit world, and serve as mounts, or vehicles of the spirits, in particular the Mother Goddess.