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Published: April 15th 2017
Caves are cool in so many ways, from literal to geological to historical and the Edakkal Caves in the Wayanad district of Kerala are no exception. We find out that we are about to see unique neolithic rock carvings rather than the more usual paintings that were des rigour for the cave dweller artists of the day in other parts of the world.
But first we find out from Suresh, our new guide for the day, a bit about the area we are in. Wayanad is at between 700m and 2100m above sea level and with its Chembra mountain rising to 5000 feet (strange mix of measurements I know but that's how we were given them) the area is known as a hill station. Wayanad actually translates as 'The land of rice paddies' but not so much rice is grown in the area now. Spices, bananas, coffee, tea and pepper are more common crops for farmers here.
The area is protected by a UNESCO designation for the mass of biodiversity in its unique Nilgiri biosphere. It has three different kinds of woodland habitat and two major problems are faced by those managing the forests; firstly climate change (a marked
increase in temperatures and humidity has had a damaging effect on plants and wildlife); and secondly government corruption (in an attempt to win votes politicians have been telling porkie pies to the locals, promising them rights to cut down trees and build in areas of UNESCO protected forests that aren't theirs to give). It's obviously making it very difficult for forestry staff to protect this special area and creates bad feeling among local people who believe what the politicians say and therefore get mightily pissed off when they find they can't build where they want after all!
Forestry problems aside, the area is really beautiful and we are soon winding our way through coffee plantations. The coffee bushes are planted beneath tall trees to provide shade (mostly beetle nut palms) with banana plants dotted about as well. We pass a gap in the trees and see across the valley some rocky mountains, one of which is being quarried for the white granite that is used for building. Unfortunately the rock is what holds the ground water so removing it creates problems with water supplies. Suresh shakes his head and calls all this destruction 'a natural disease'. We also pass
through some of the more diverse woodland with trees such as Indian Rosewood, White Teak and Black Rosewood making up much of the forest treescape. These are all protected trees and as such belong to the government, though from the sound of it this isn't always necessarily a good thing!
So to the Edakkal Caves. Until 1894 they remained undiscovered, hidden away in the hills, their Neolithic secrets left untold. It was only by chance that the British police official Fred Fawcett found the caves while on a hunting expedition. He took photos of the rock carvings and wrote up an article that then gave notoriety to their uniqueness and people started to visit the caves to study the carvings. Today we are among quite a few hardy tourists, mostly Indian, but also us and a few Spanish visitors, trekking up the steep slopes and steps hewn into the mountainside that lead to the two caves. Before we start our climb, made way harder than normal for this kind of trek by the sweltering heat, we have to check in our plastic water bottles with a deposit and sticker system that's intended to cut down on rubbish management. I
find it really weird therefore to have to run the gauntlet of many tacky souvenir stalls on the lower sections of the climb. Funnily enough we've all come to the Edakkal Caves to see the Edakkal Caves not to buy bad copies of The Scream mask! It's a tough and very steep hike but we do eventually make it to the first cave, dripping with sweat, bright red in the face and completely knackered! There's not much to see here other than some cool tree roots growing around the rocks so we carry on up, up and then up some more. The main attractions are in the second cave and they don't disappoint. There are depictions of people, animals and lots of abstract patterns carved into the rock face. I'm fascinated by the perspective used which I never would have noticed without explanations from Sunesh. There is a figure of a woman who looks as if she's standing on top of some bars or a box or something similar when actually the perspective used means the item is meant to be in front of her. She's pushing a cart! Archaeologists think the patterns and style of the rock carvings have
a similarity to those of the more recent Indian tribes of the area who they believe are probably the descendants of the people who created the carvings.
There are also two rows of script, one in sanskrit and one in an ancient form of Tamil, that date from about the first to the fifth century AD. I always find it a bit trippy being in these places with links to the ancient past thinking about the people who lived thousands of years ago in the very place I am now standing. There seem to remain echoes of their passing filtering through the cave in the shadows and dappled pools of light that caress the visitors of today.
We leave this presence of the past and make our way back down the mountain side, the hassling from sellers at the trashy souvenir stalls breaking the spell. We sit in the shade drinking coconut milk straight out of the coconuts through straws before collecting our plastic bottle deposits and making our way back to our minibus. What a fantastic way to spend a morning, communing with the echoes of our ancestors.
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