Rock art is an excellent example of pre-historic and historic man’s creative thinking. It is a book of valuable historic events in the form of pictures. It has little resemblance with the present tribal art styles.  Research in this area is essential for archaeological and ethnological studies. It gives us an idea about the social life of the people who drew these paintings.

According to S. K. Pandey, “The term ‘cave painting’ is often used for rock paintings in India. The word cave painting has been borrowed from France when the paintings have been found inside the lime caves; none of these have yielded any type of rock painting so far. Since the paintings in India are found in open rock shelters they should be termed as rock paintings.”

During the historic period, the rulers were very keen on promoting artistic works. They encouraged the well-versed artists. In Tamilnadu, several such sites were found out which belong to various periods like Pallava, Pandya, Chera, Chola, etc.

The Armamalai cave is situated in the hill locally known as Arumpairmalai, which is situated about 1 km. from Periya Malayampattu. This village is situated near Ambur in the Vellore district. It is a large natural cave located about halfway up the sloping south face of Armamalai. The height of the cave where the paintings are found is about 6 feet.


Edward Montgomery and S.T. Baskaran measured the entire cave during their survey and gave the dimensions as follows. “This arching natural cave is 131 feet in length, about 10 feet in height at the centre of the opening, and averages about 35 feet in depth.” At the centre of the cave, there are three shrines that are constructed with mud bricks.

In this cave, one can find paintings in three portions. One is located to the east of the mud-brick constructed shrines, the other is to the west of the shrines, and the third portion on the walls of the shrines.

Robert Sewell was the first person who discovered these paintings at Armamalai, situated close to the village of Malayampattu in Gudiyatam in 1882. The local people believed that they had been made by the Pandavas and some said that the stone slab with a human figure engraved is that of Kunti. But the figure does not have feminine qualities. It seems to be that of dwarapalakas. Near this is another stone slab that is broken into pieces. The local people do pooja, as they worship this also as Kunti Devi’s shrine. The burnt camphor in front of this slab causes heavy damage to these valuable paintings.

In 1916, when French archaeologist Jouveau Dubreuil visited this site, he could recognize only the lotuses and the creepers. This resulted in several surveys and investigations made by the researchers like C. Minakshi, Edward Montgomery, S.T. Baskaran and others. In the 1970s, during the visit of Edward Montgomery and S.T. Baskaran, the paintings that were discovered in the above-mentioned three portions, consisted of a lotus pond with lotus buds in blossom, two figures astride animals, birds encircled by foliage, flowers, creepers, etc.

During my visit to this site, very few paintings were left. Maybe they have disappeared because of smoke deposits, weathering, etc. Moreover, the height of the cave was very low and the painted portion is easily accessible to human touch. I could notice perfect paintings only in two portions.

In the portion west of the constructed shrines, there are patches of paintings with creepers and leaves in red and green colours. Secondly, in the portion east of the mud-brick shrine, the depiction of flower designs is comparatively clearer than the previous portion, because the ceiling of the cave is high. This painted panel with the pond with lotus flowers and buds, green leaves, creepers, etc. in red and green colours is similar to the Sittannavasal paintings.


Other than these two portions, there are different colours on the walls of the constructed shrine. But these stick-on colours do not reveal what was depicted. They have completely disappeared, except the colours that were used. The depiction of animals and birds is really excellent. The bull and hamsa, which were beautifully painted in a variety of colours, are seen in the photographs available with the Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamilnadu.

During the survey by Edward Montgomery and S.T. Baskaran, they noticed a panel of a riding scene consisting of two human figures, one male and the other a female, riding on a bull. This painted panel is now missing. Almost all the paintings have faded and disappeared because of various reasons like smoke deposits, nesting birds, weathering, etc. Moreover, this site is easily reachable by anyone, which is why the local people made it into a cave temple surrounded by myth.

A Tamil Brahmi inscription ‘kadaikkottirutta nandhi padaarar maanakakar’ dated to 8th century, is seen near the Armamalai cave. These paintings probably belonged to the Pallava period.

After Rajasimha’s period, no more Pallava paintings are found. ‘There are very few, of which Armamalai is one site. But now almost all the paintings, except the small patches seen in two portions, have disappeared. The remaining few paintings are also in a very bad condition. It is really surprising that no protection was given to this site, which is a valuable historical source. If not conserved, the remaining two patches of paintings will also disappear in another few years.


  1. Dr. Nagasamy, Oviya Paarai, Tamilnadu Archaeology Department, Chennai, 1979.
  2. Dr. Minakshi, Administration and Social Life of Pallavas, University of Madras, Chennai, 1977.
  3. Chandramurthi, Vasanthakalyani, Mutthusamy, Tamilar Naagarigam, Tamilnadu Archaeology Department, Chennai, 1994.
  4. Edward Montgomery, S.T. Baskaran, “The Armamalai Paintings”, Lalitkala, No.16, New Delhi, 1974.

Y. Pavitra
C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, Chennai

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, September 2002.

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