Friday, April 05, 2013

E is for Edakkal: The Picture-esque Caves

This post is part of the A2Z Challenge. 

The path leading upwards is steep, and we lose our breath within a few meters. It's a good thing that the sky above us is grey with clouds. We're about 4000 feet above sea level, and it's hot only when the sun manages to break through the clouds.

The Edakkal caves are up on a hill surrounded by forests. There are two caves, both natural. Huge boulders lean together precariously to form large shaded cavities. Visitors have to park at the bottom of the hill, and walk up through the greenery.

We pass hordes of teenagers, on their way back down. There are families, some with very young kids in tow. The people we pass speak Malayalam and Tamil and Kannada. Some even speak Hindi and English. It helps, I suppose, that the caves are very close to the the point at which the three states meet. NH 212 runs very close to it, and the road from the highway to Edakkal is well-maintained. Somebody seems to be spending some money on promoting the Edakkal caves as a tourist destination - probably the Wayanad DTPC.

The lower cave is smaller and better-sheltered, but empty of drawings. It stinks slightly of urine. A set of aluminium staircases leads upwards from the lower cave to the upper one. On one of the rocks just outside is an inscription of a more modern sort - four visitors have chosen to inscribe their names, along with the date they visited (some time in 1984).

As we climb the staircase, we pause at intervals to admire the view. The hill falls away steeply in front of us, giving us a magnificent view of the forest we just walked through. Nearer to the horizon is a line of hills, clad in forest and mist. I finally understand why even fellow Malayalees speak in awe-struck tones about Wayanad's beauty.

At the top, we step through a set of grills and climb down a short staircase. The upper cave is larger than the lower one. The rocks form a roof at this end, but the cave is open to the skies at the far end. Through the opening, we can see trees bordering the cave walls on all sides, framing the grey-blue sky. 

The chieftain (a.k.a Fido Dido)
The pictures cover the rocky walls on both sides. They are simple lines on the rock, certain and firm. None of the lines meet, yet stare at them long enough, and the pictures image. There is a man in a headgear of some sort, who reminds me of Fido Dido. That circle with lines must surely be the sun. Another picture shows a woman and a child. On the top left of the wall is an animal of some sort. We try to figure out if it's a goat or a deer. 

The guide finally takes pity on us and draws us close to explain. The pictures in the cave, he tells us, are about 6, 000 years old. They were accidentally discovered in 1894 by the then Malabar SP, an Englishman named Fawcett, when he was descending the hill after a visit with a friend who owned an estate nearby. The caves also have Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions that are newer - a mere two thousand years old. The man in the headgear is a tribal chieftain, while the animal we thought was a deer is, in fact, a peacock. This cave was used as a shelter because the entrance was narrow, and could be guarded from animals.

I stand in the sunlit cave and try to imagine how it must have been six thousand years ago. I summon up images of people in animal skin. They're huddled around a fire - did they have fire back then? - shivering. They look around fearfully at the distant roars of jungle cats, the trumpeting of elephants. 

What made them draw these pictures? Were all the initial paintings done by a single person? An artist who wanted to impress the chieftain by drawing him in his headgear? Was that the woman he was in love with? Did they have the concept of love back then? 

We spend about twenty minutes in the caves, at least twice as long as the other tourists. Large hordes of children and families climb down into the cave. They glance cursorily at the pictures, but seem to be more interested in each other and their mobile phones. Cameras flash almost constantly, as do thousand-watt smiles. They then troop back up, chattering and laughing.

The pictures, the guide, the tourists
I can just see Edakkal five years down the line, a huge tourist spot attracting visitors from all over South India. The path leading to the caves was probably mud and stones a few years ago. But it has been paved with concrete now. It's still steep, but at least it's walkable. Aluminium staircases have been built on the upper slopes, where the climb gets even steeper.

Shops are being constructed on either side of the walkway. They're eating into the jungle space. Man-animal conflict already exists - an entire troupe of monkeys lives on the trees surrounding the shops, and they seem to specialize in stealing the food the shops are selling - slices of raw mango and pineapple  and water melon, popcorn, ice cream, spicy buttermilk.

I suppose I'm a hypocrite, to be wanting the caves to remain as they are now that I've seen them. But I can't help it. The caves seem to have a soul of their own, something distilled from the emotions and thoughts of the people who lived there thousands of years ago. I want to protect them, hide them again inside that green forest blanket. Idiotic, of course.

The caves are located somewhere in the patch of greenery just to the left of the central rock.

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Unknown said...

I been to the Edakkal caves twice, and I loved it each time. Somehow they're always nice and cool even when it's insanely hot outside.

And the killer food just outside helped too..

DR said...

Yeah, the food was surprisingly good! Or maybe we were just so damn hungry.

Mac Pike said...

What a great adventure!