Yesterday at Van Bhavan I got all the information I needed to go in search of pre-historic India. There is village named Isko that has some rock paintings. There is a megalith at the village of Pankhri Barwadi. The region of Hazaibag has many rich sites of pre-history but these are the only two for which I have got time today.
I take a bus to Barkagaon then change for a jeep for Hurli. The jeep is packed and I am forced to sit on the roof. The rural scenary in these parts is simply stunning. There is a ring of hills that surrounds the wide green plains. The hills define a landspace separate as it were from the outside world. In such a setting, the jeeps weaves it way through narrow roads and dirt tracks.
‘It is better to get off at Napo than at Hurli. From there you can get to Isko,’ I am advised.
When I arrive at Napo, I find that everyone has been wrong about how far Isko really is. A Congress official at Napo tells me that Isko is 5 kms from here. Even from Hurli, it would be about that distance or perhaps more. He would only be too glad to take me to Isko but he has a party meeting to attend. It is Sunday.
I am just about to start off on such a long walk when a man on a two-wheeler passes by. The Congressman stops him. This man, a social worker who works with an NGO (Karanpura Vikas Sangh) is going to Isko. He gives me a ride all the way to the village. Not only that, he tells only of the workers at the village to show me the caves and the paintings. So this poor worker, who has been busy washing some aluminium vessels, leaves off his chore to lead me to the caves.
The village and the surrounding area is remote to say the least. The air is clean. There is not a single piece of litter to be seen anywhere. Tourists don’t come here at all.
The first cave is uninteresting. A low narrow passage, whose entrance has fallen rocks, leads inside into deep darkness. I wonder if there are paintings inside. I crawl a little bit inside and shine my torch.
‘No one goes there. We don’t know what’s inside. There is no path,’ tell the village man. I find his language difficult to understand and he finds it difficult to respond properly to my Hindi.
We leave this cave and head to Marwateri Cave. This is a large cave. It has no paintings at all. I am beginning to feel my search of pre-historic India is not going anywhere. This cave has marks of prayer and worship.
‘There is talk of bringing pilgrims and development here,’ says the man through his gaping mouth and half broken teeth.
We then head back towards the village past rocky ground. Large areas of the land here are rocky, evidence of ancient lava flows. We turn left and walks down a steep surface. Facing us is a large rock wall its top shaped like the hood of a cobra. This is called the Kohbara.
Kohbara is simply a treasure house of ancient paintings. The rock surface is packed with paintings in ochre and white. Symbols, geometric shapes, human and animal figures are the primary themes. The style consists of repetitive lines and concentric shapes.
‘These things have fallen off,’ tells the villager and points to some parts of the surface that have come off. These paintings have no protection except the raised hood of the ‘cobra’. I wonder how much longer they will last.
Earlier today on my way to Hurli I have seen village house walls painted in styles similar to what I have seen at Kohara. Historians believe that this ancient rock art has survived to present day or at least modern generations have been influenced by their pre-historic ancestors.
The NGO worker, Devendra Prasad Mehta, then takes me around Isko to show his work. They are digging 10 tanks in this area for water storage. The water will be used for cultivation. Presently villager are surviving on government stipends but these tanks will help them survive on their own. Each tank is 40 x 50 square feet and 10 feet deep.
‘The government is paying us only Rs 20,000 per tank. The minimum estimate is at least Rs 55,000. Our organization is making a loss doing this,’ he says ruefully.
Men and women are busy digging and carrying mud and stones from a couple of tanks.
‘The villages refused to dig. Work was very slow. We had to do it with machines. Now they are emptying the tanks,’ tells Devendra.
He then takes me to a recently planted orchard of mangos, guavas and lime.
‘We have five varieties of mango here – Allahabadi L49…’ he goes on to name all the five varieties.
As we walk around the orchard, we find a mango sapling broken off.
‘This is the problem. These villagers are not taking care of these plants. They are not bothered about their future. Each sapling costs Rs. 125,’ he shakes his head in disappointment.
‘Did you see the well near the village?’ he asks.
‘If they wanted, they could have used that water to cultivate channa or something but they have taken any initiative.’
‘What will happen when your NGO hands over this project to the villagers?’ I ask.
‘We hope at least some will be responsible and take care of what we have prepared.’
He drops me off at Barkagaon. I meet the President and the Secretary of the NGO. I offer a donation but they refuse. Apparently they take donations only from the government. Devendra volunteers to show me some more caves in the region.
‘There is a cave 12 kms from here. When you clap, water drips off the rocks,’ he says.
‘Some people visited it two days ago. They say cave has dried up,’ adds the Secretary.
‘Anyway, that cave is far. We will visit other caves nearer.’
So off we go on dirt tracks and between fields. As this morning, the ride is bumpy and my buttocks are becoming sore. The views are stunning. There are lots of sugarcane fields. Devendra says that they were brought from Karnataka, good for making jaggery but not great for juice. I found a man prepare a large pan for making jaggery. Once sugarcane is harvested, the fields are planted with cucumber or pumpkin.
The caves are rock-cut caves, not the natural ones I had expected. They are small and not impressive in any way. After Ajanta and Ellora, it seems child’s play.
‘Do you see that building?’ Devendra points to a ruin about 50 meters away as we stand on a hill.
‘That used to be the sentry point for the soldiers of Raja Daleel Singh. The ground around is unusual,’ he continues.
My curiousity is aroused.
‘No one is supposed to till that land. One villager tilled the land some years ago much against the advise of everyone. He found a large gold bar. He soon turned mad. He remained that way for two years until he returned the gold bar to the land.’
‘Also, nothing cooks on this. Food gets burnt or something strange happens,’ tells Devendra.
We walk down the hill passing many fields of paddy and peas. Devendra calls out to a villager. After some talk, the villager gets busy picking fresh peas from the field. Soon he climbs up the slope and fills my bag with about quarter kilo of fresh peas. I have seen people in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand eat peas in the raw. I try it for the first time.
‘This is ordinary variety. Hybrid ones are sweeter. The same thing tomorrow will not taste as sweet,’ explains Devendra. He turns to be quite a good guide for me and I have enjoyed much of today because of him. Not to mention the hours saved in walking.
He then points to the villager who had just delivered us the peas. ‘He used to cultivate beetroot last year but even at Rs 4 per kg there was no market. So this year he has stopped growing beetroot.’
We head back to Barkagaon and I am keen to move on but Devendra will not be satisfied unless he treats me to tea and snacks. So we sit down for a ragulla and a namkeen which he calls “veg-chop”. It is a crisp ball with a soft filling of potato, peas and carrot.
When I finally leave Barkagaon it is late afternoon but I have enough time to catch the Megalith. I find it in the middle of an large open field. The field is really a large circular mound. At the center is a group of standing stones arranged in a circle. Some have fallen. Others seem to be displaced a little. It is said that on the days of solstices the sun shines exactly in the little space between two stones.
Pre-history here is not all that old as Bhimbetka but it is old in itself and make a visit to Hazaribagh region very interesting.
When I return to the village of Pankhri Barwadi I find some house walls painted in the manner of Isko. I request a few village woman if I can take a couple of pictures. A crowd gathers around me. What happens next is another story.