Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Painted Houses of Hazaribagh

BULU IMAM, Dipugarha/Hazaribagh

The Painted Houses of Hazaribagh, Jharkhand/India

With 5 figures
Additional notes and 16 photographs (plates XLIX-LVI)
By Lydia Icke-Schwalbe, Dresden


The discovery of the elaborate tribal and folk art tradition in the vast region, which is recently mostly treated and heavily infected by the major industrial development of Heavy Engineering Corporations, Coal and Steel Plants, has been primarily published  in a handmade edition typeset and designed by my son Gustav Imam in 2001. It includes basic records on the rock art sites and comparing studies of the designs and art in history as well in quilt embroidery.
            It was dedicated to Chedi Munda and Khaita Munda,  who helped to find and protect the traditional rock sites full of paintings of their forefathers in the Isco fields. They passed away few years back , now succeeded by their sons Rameshray and Saghan.
            Hand made copies are only available from Bulu Imam, Sanskriti Publishing Hazaribagh.

The Discovery

The Hazaribagh District originally covered the entire North Chotanagpur Division, or the entire plateau of Hazaribagh, which is the northern tract of the massif divided by the Damodar river from east to west, with the Ranchi plateau lying to the south. Today the region is part of the new tribal state of Jharkhand (meaning Forest Land). This is an area rich in Palaeolithic deposits. Acheulian type stone tools such as hand axes and blades, habitation sites, Mesolithic rock art, Neolithic sites, Megaliths and Dolmens, Copper and Iron sites, rivers that are considered sacred such as the Damodar, and hundreds of sacred groves (sarna). The entire region is wrapped in saal (Shorea robusta) forests, throughout the cold months blanketed in mist and ground frost, in the Indian spring festooned with a burst of forest blossom the likes of which is seen nowhere in India.

In 1987 a coal mining project in the upper Damodar threatened over 2500 sq. km of forests and agriculture, with 203 tribal villages. The rich forests, which are still home and transit corridors between the forests of Palamau, Ranchi and Hazaribagh,  are filled with tigers, elephants, leopards, bears, bison (Bos gaurus) moving through and living in over a dozen ranges of hills divided into three major groups, Sati Range in the east, Mahudi Range in the middle, Satpahar Range in the west. Seventy-five opencast mines are planned. The process started in 1986 with the declaration of the North Karanpura Coalfields Project which I have contested from April 1987 to date. Initially Australian turnkey mining technology began the first mine Piperwar Opencast Project rightalong the north bank of the Damodar, destroying one of the last remaining elephant corridors, since much of  the south bank had been turned into a nightmare of three hundred feet mines covering thousands of square kilometers of once forested regions. The only transit habitat remained on the north bank of the river known to history as the North Karanpura valley, named for a small village called Karanpura.

In 1991 after a tip-off from Australian Jesuit missionary Tony Herbert, I discovered in southern Bihar the ancient rock-art site of Isco - now considered among the premier rock-art sites of India. It was to be this and another chance discovery at Isco that led to my involvement with the Khovar and Sohrai art traditions of Bihar and the setting up of the Tribal Women Artist's Co-operative. In the summer of 1992, I was driving with my daughters Juliet and Cherry up the edge of a steep forested hill on the plateau above Isco and I could not find my way in the heavy jungle. Getting out of my four wheel-drive vehicle to find a way to a road, I suddenly saw what looked to me, through the trees, to be a line of running animals and huge birds. Thoroughly dumbstruck I stood for a moment completely taken aback. I was confronting for the first time the very powerful comb-cut visual images of the Ganju Khovar art in its natural setting. Depicted were the animals and birds of the local environment including the rhinoceros and Bengal floriacan no longer found in the region. We watched a small lithe young artist named Putli Ganju creating these wonder filled comb-cut paintings on the walls of her home in celebration of her forthcoming marriage. I called my daughter Juliet excitedly and together we went and met Putli who had painted her inner rooms and coutyard of her home with huge fishes and snakes and the inimitable Putli cow. She had not left an inch un-adorned. (Today, a mural by Putli, painted during a month-long residency with the Australian Museum`s Djamu Gallery, in Sydney during April 2000, hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales).

It was from this chance discovery that we explored further afield finding village after resplendent village each boasting virtuoso artists working in timeless ancestral Khovar and Sohrai artistic traditions. The work of many of these artists, including Putli Ganju have been exhibited widely abroad and in India. Khovar, meaning bridal chamber, is associated with the annual marriage season from January to May. Sohrai marks the annual harvest cycle and celebrations from October to November. Both styles are painted in natural earth ochres and iron oxides. It was apparent that the Khovar and Sohrai mural paintings and rock-art sites, including Isco, were inextricably linked. Over a dozen sites were subsequently brought to light by us in the upper basin of the river Damodar in the North Karanpura valley. Unquestionably, these Tribal communities, the Adivasis of that region and their ritual village art as well as the archaeologically significant rock-art sites, including Isco, came from a prehistoric tradition, and these Tribal communities and the rock-art sites, including Isco, required protection from open-cast coal mining proposed by the North Karanpura Coalfields Mining Project. Such destructive development would ensure the displacement of two hundred and three villages. Open-cast coal mining brings no economic benefit to Tribal communities but merely ensures destruction of the cultural and environmental heritage and eco-systems, including over two thousand square kilometers of finest agricultural lands and forests.
In 1993 we brought the mural art to provided paper and requested a two-year development grant from the Australian Government to document the Khovar and Sohrai mural traditions of the North Karanpura Valley. The significant arrival of Australian curators Ace Bourke and Claudia Hyles in early 1995, led to the first exhibition of works at the Hogarth Galleries in Sydney. Very soon afterward the Gallery Chemould exhibited the work in Mumbai.

Art by definition is the expression of an existential predicament of human society and from the very earliest times these has been, various types of such expression during different periods of history. Much of this art was religio-cultural, that is, it had fixed motifs symbolizing certain specific manifestation of the social calendar.

The Khovar painting of Hazaribagh

The Khovar art depicts the socio-religious tradition to prepare a marriage room. The khovar is, strictly speaking the bridal room, and the decorated nuptial room is a tribal tradition. The decoration is done in this room, in the bride’s house by the bride’s mother and aunts. Because in the tribal system bride-price is paid, and the bride-groom spends the nuptial night in his wife’s house, which is the influence of the original matriarchal system. Since the tribal woman is revered as Devi, the mother goddess, the woman is a very special person. Upon marriage she becomes Devi and anything made by her hands is considered the gift of the mother goddess. The Devi is the sole person allowed to draw or embroider ritual sacred icons relating to marriage and harvest seasons, and it is an ancient tradition.  Bride price is still paid in the tribal villages of Hazaribagh.  The marriage season runs from January till the onset of the monsoons in June and overlaps the summer months when the great annual spring and summer hunts take place.

The custom of  Khovar decoration  is  being carried out by the local village societies among the agriculturists, the Ganju and Kurmi, but also among  various artisan groups such as the Rana (carpenter), Teli (oil-extractor and –seller), Ghatwar (originally the guards of mountain passes), the Prajapati (originally “creators in earth” – clay-modellers) and the Kumhar (potters, workers in clay). However it is most original and significant  among the tribal groups of Oraon, Santal and Munda in Hazaribagh. (1)  The Khovar art is a marriage-room decoration full of jungle plants and animals. Even today the forest is considered by the tribes with nomadic traditions the place where a couple have to go to consummate the marriage.(2)  The Khovar art is done by scraping the upper coating of white or yellow liquid earth ochre which reveals the black or red under-coat when it is scraped off with a comb. Similar methods are also found in the Greek vase paintings in the middle of the first millennium B.C. and similar artistic comb decoration traditions have been found among tribal potteries of the north western South Asian sub-continent, but even in the Pacific region (Lapita) to the east. Such art as that of the Ganjus and forest dwelling Kurmi reveal the highest naturalistic art in the Hazaribagh Khovar and Sohrai palette among our tribes.

The actual technique of comb cutting is as follows. The wall is completely repaired and plustered with mud, after which it is in some instances  only, as in the case of Bhuiya art, given a coat of cow dung and mud mixture. There after it is covered with a coat of black earth, so called kali mati, applied in a circulatory half moon stroke called the basera, bas  - “bamboo”; era – “goddess”. After the black earth coating has dried (or in some instances when it is still only half dried) the Devi covers it over with a coating of either brillant white earth (charak) or subdued cream coloured mud (dudhi), or plain yellow earth (pila). Pila means child, mati means earth. Before the white or cream or yellow earth has a chance to dry, it is immediately “cut” by a sgraffito technique, or modern scraper board style, with a piece of broken comb. The Munda painting is often done with the fingers instead of with the comb, and the Bhuiya comb painting is also often done with the fingers only, a style also practiced by some Oraons. The Prajapatis or potters like the Kumhars also use their fingers instead of combs sometimes, but generally Prajapati art is always comb cut and small fine bamboo combs are made by the women specifically for the purpose. The Oraons sometimes use the curving Basera motif similar to the Bhuiya. This design is a series of semi-circles, and has a sacred significance as a mountain (Mesopotamia) and bamboo (India) and is always drawn along the top of walls on which the Khovar art is painted. The cutting reveals the black ground beneath the over-coat, in a striking design pattern. The Khovar is a highly symbolic art filled with aniconic forms and mandalas which are ritually connected with marriage.

(see illustrations 6-8)
In the contemporary Tribal Art Project to produce mobile pictures for sell manganese black is dissolved overnight in office glue and tap water (or well water, or stream water, polluted or unpolluted). It is thereafter spread by hand, cloth, or brush, over a surface, which is generally handmade high rag content watercolour art paper, and then allowed to dry in a cool place. After this a similar mixture of kaolin white or yellow ochre is applied over it in the same process, and then with a broken comb (or a finely tooled special, quarter-inch bit of bamboo comb), a design is cut, quickly, sharply, taking in the ends swiftly, as in the case of a bird’s beak, or a feather tip end. Sharp snouted snake headed plant limbs, arching trellises with curved lotus petals, and equally curved fishes, float up in sgraffito from the dark undercoat, bringing to light a new monotone. Yellow ochre of various shades is used depending upon the locality where the art occurs. In Isco a beautiful lavender earth colour is found, in Kharati a brillant white, in Jorakath a beautiful natural earth colour. It has the two-dimensional folk magic with the primitive simplicity which can be found also in such artforms known from the Warli, from Madhubani women, Kalighat-patas as well as from the pata paintings of the coastal Orissa.  (see illustrations 1- 5)

The Sohrai Art

After the monsoon rains the village houses again require repair while the paddy has to be harvested. Sohrai is the festival celebrating plough agriculture done by cattle as well as the domestication of the cow. The art on the walls painted by the Devis marks a distinct change from Khovar in that it celebrates a male god, Pashupati the Lord of Animals. It is celebrated the day after Divali and is connected with the return of Lord Ram. In the murals in the village Prajapati is shown standing on the back of the Bull, very Sumerian in design and conjectures the link with West Asia and the Sohrai art of the Nile Valley as well as the Warli art. This is a Hinduizd iconic art. The body of Prajapati is in shape akin to Shiva's drum (damru) and around him is a wheel of six lotuses representing the Six senses, and we are reminded of the enigmatic yogi An from the Mohenjodaro seal, who was obviously the chief deity of the Indus Valley. Shiva as the forest god is shown in the form of a tree called Bhelwa (Aegle Marmelos, ROXB.), and a similar form is the "Flowery Trident", as I call the vertical lotus headed form sprouting five or six triangular horned triangles like the Animal Wheel. He is also called Shiva and associated with the Bhelwa tree.(3)    -  Ills. 9-11

Sohrai is the harvest festival art. The name itself coming from an ancient palaeolithic word, “soro”, meaning literally to drive with a stick. It is the festival of the early winter months when the paddy has ripened and is about to be harvested. Thus it is connected with the origin of agriculture.(4)  Among the Kurmi people in the Bhelwara location the cattle have been taken out to the jungles very early in the morning, and washed after grazing in the forest ponds. Then they are brought back ceremonially to the village where they are welcomed with special painted carpets called "aripan". The welcome of the cattle on Sohrai day is the mark of domestication of wild cattle, and the origin of this event is attributed to Ram the great ancient king of the tribes, probably a pre-Aryan tribal king who has been seen in the Ramayana, as Parshu-Rama of the Indus king lists, and sometimes also associated by these simple people with the creator and lord of the animals, Pashupati. The figure seen on the backs of the cattle painted in the Sohrai murals are the form of Pashupati. The name pashu means animals, pati- the father of animals, or image maker of animals, creator of animals. The male deity is represented by a vertical figure, often associated with the Bhelwa tree and Shiva as I have earlier observed. The day after the Sohrai is a mock bull-fight in which sacred cattle, both bulls and buffaloes, gaily anointed with coloured spots and oiled horns are taken to posts in the crossroads of the village where the three wise men sing to them. They are tied to a stake or Khuta so the festival is called, simply, Khuta-bandhan. Bandhan means to tie. The women anoint and colour the animals before they are brought to the sacred post.
Ills. 15-16
A Pashupati song verse :

When the oil lamps of Divali are over

Then the lord of the animals, Pashupati,
Comes with the animals from the forest.

The song of the three wise men is like this:
Where have I seen such a beautiful horse?
Where have I seen such a beautiful cow
Where have I seen such a beautiful family?
You are the beautiful sacrificial cow,
Such a beautiful horse, such a beautiful cow!
Such a beautiful family, such a beautiful cow,
Such a beautiful horse, such a beautiful cow,
Such a beautiful family cow.

The mandalas to welcome the cattle back from the jungle are made from rice flour and milk in a kind of gruel which when dried on the sparse brown earth is brilliant white. The mandalas are in the form of hoof-prints, and sacred dots of vermillion (bindu) are put at line junctions. Ill. 16
The inference of these songs and these paintings, here on the southern hand of the Asian Highway, the great Grand Trunk Road, which cuts right across the Chotanagpur plateau in Hazaribagh, the thoroughfare of ancient trading caravans, a region that saw the earliest thrust of cavalry and horses from northwestern India with the Aryans, shows that the cow is being confused with the horse. This is natural in an artform which has steadily been evolving in the context of cultural contacts on this sensitive high road between northwest and southeast Asia.

The women's role in the festival as we have seen, is crucial, and points back to an ancient matriarchal society.
The Oraons have three distinctive artistic styles. One is very similar to the Khovar of the agrarian hinduized Kurmis and may be seen in a way an ancient progenitor of the style now in danger of being lost among the Oraon themselves. They only paint these anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms indoor.  See ill. 12- 14  The second great art form of the Oraons are totem poles or khuta for the ancestors. The third is a delicate realistic flowery style with a freshness of insect, bird, and animal life not found elsewhere in Sohrai art.
Nearby to the villages of the Kurmis painting their harvest art are the Santals, who celebrate the cattle in the spring month with simple floral and bird designs. During marriages Santal bridegrooms paint their courtyard with these designs. Down in the valley of the Damodar we have the delicate floral art of the Prajapatis who are potters, and the dark, heavy forms of the Ranas who are carpenters, both comb-cut. Another heavy style is that of the oil extracting Telis. The basket-making Turis have a light painted art. The Ganjus are a farming tribe who depend on the jungles for subsistence. Their densely forested environment in the southern part of the Hazaribagh plateau has given them a close observation of the wild flora and fauna. This is inevitably reflected in their paintings,. Their art is most vividly depicted in painted murals done during the Khovar marriage season from February to April.

The Sohrai art of Hazaribagh for me is the grand painted ghodas , horses, and the animal wheels, the intertwining anthropomorphic floral Shiva, the almost unbelievable creative originality of leafy forms, painted in Bhelwara during the Sohrai festival. (Ill. 12) It is as creative as the Khovar art and evokes a highly individual charm different in many ways to the marriage art with its fertility symbols taken as auspicious ritual symbols. Fresh and highly spontaneous in its original outline made with a nail, (which the Ganju artists sometimes use in making the first line of a stupendous animal form). This is a long trailing line later gone over with in a more studied if not less whimsical line. In the Kurmi art of Sohrai in Bhelwara village a running red line, is later outlined with a running white line; or sometimes a black line is outlined with a red and then a white line. Vast whimsy at its natural best is the irrepressible quality of Sohrai art. The huge glyptic spaces made with black and red ochre on the floors is sometimes echoed in red and white glytic geometrical designs on the walls.(5)

Meaning is the last important aspect of a picture, and yet paradoxically it is the most important. This is an eternal value transcending mythology and art aesthetics. The painted houses of Hazaribagh carry meanings for the tribals of fertility and fecundity, of abundance and prosperity, from familiar forms less than a few dozen in number. Unavoidably, Hindu icons have entered here and there, but very few. Popular motifs are plants, fishes, birds and animals as we have seen, and some familiar icons of the mother goddess. The need to tell a story, as in the sense the Aboriginal art of Australia has been portrayed in recent times, is alien to our most original Tribal art. The Western viewer, ever keen to read strange tales from foreign lands will be disappointed in our art! When Australian art critic Adam Geczy wrote about our Khovar and Sohrai art that he hoped that "the murals in Bihar be only effaced by the monsoons", I think he hit a vital chord: for the natural death of all the village art as a result of the seasons (i.e. monsoons) does not mean the end of the art in the fatal manner of destructive development which is destroying Tribal homelands and ecosystems in India, and literate education in non-Tribal literate traditions bringing with it new cultural histories, religious and social significances, new value systems is destroying oral education. The Tribal tradition continues strictly upon and according to its own foundations. Similarly, when our Tribals cut trees from the forest for building their homes, or for firewood, the forest does not die, it replenishes itself. The threat is from modern development with its nasty need to remodel everything according to exclusive needs; which speaks of conservation while clear-felling forests, and which speaks of saving and museumizing culture while it destroys the roots of culture from one valley to another through big dams or mines or senseless industrialization. This has been the price which Tribal India has had to pay in the past five decades for the cost of development in rural India.

At this juncture the novelty and naivete of Tribal art is surpassed by a wider reality - where the curiosities and thin wedges of excitement from encountering something new are overcome by a greater reality In countries like Australia museums are fighting to preserve culture in situ rather than museumize them. The actual nature of indigenous art is a far remove from an artform that has become mercantile and already in some way been shaped by the effects of art aesthetics and merchandise. The original images left on the walls for a few short months before they are wom away by sun or rain, are the real strengths of Khovar and Sohrai mural painting in the villages of Hazaribagh. In the tradition house paintings of the painted houses of Hazaribagh we may mark small slight changes by the younger women but the web of tradition is so thorough in rural India that the ancient forms continue with majestic continuity. The art on the village houses is not to be compared with what passes as Tribal art in the shops of Delhi or Bombay with but few exceptions.

Stylistic modes of  Khovar and Sohrai art:  
Stylistic Mode
Paint Khovar
S.C. or
Mother Goddess Shiva, Floral, Anthropo-morphs

Floral, Animal



Teli (Oil









Birds, Animals


Birds, Animals, Anthropo-morph






Birds, Animals,


Concluding Remarks

The ancient rock paintings discovered in and around the North Karanpura Valley represent a prehistoric tradition of painting that belongs to the Mesolithic age, and perhaps much earlier since the earliest levels seem to have faded out due to exposure and the harsh weather conditions. But the presence of Upper Palaeolithic and Middle Palaeolithic habitation sites close to the rock- art caves has given credence to the claim for a connection, and maybe the strongest claim for a continuous evolution of indigenous societies anywhere. The nomadic hunter-gatherer Birhor's claim that their ancestors painted the rock-art, (and indeed village traditions in the present Munda village of Isco associate Birhors with the rock-art caves) is not to be taken lightly. The Prajapatis also say the ancestors of the Birhor painted the art. The rock-art has since time immemorial been considered sacred and therefore not spoken about and for the Tribals of the Valley these paintings signify their origin as a people and their notion of personhood, as well as reflecting their deep connection with their ancestral landscape. These rock paintings and continuing traditions of village paintings signify their spiritual symbiosis with their ancestors and hence their past.6

Thus the Painted Houses of Hazaribagh may appear as a pro-Tribal document in a new light in contemporary India. In Bastar for example, the traditional stone memorial epitaphs are being painted with crude human figures, by so called modern Tribal artists for fancy prices, while the best of their an-iconic art languishes at paltry prices in the village bazaars. In Madhubani a similar fate has overtaken their art. Warli art has become stylized. The Kantha in Bengal, Pata in Orissa, are valued in terms of labour. Khovar and Sohrai have made a remarkable tribute to artistic freshness by continuing their tradition into new spaces. But the threat to the art comes mostly from within in the changing scene - - the facades of many a modern Tribal home bears ancient images cut from concrete by masons!

Additional Notes

Additional literature

DANI, A.H.: Recent archaeological discoveries in Pakistan- UNESCO Paris, Tokyo, 1988
Elwin, V.: The Baiga. repr. Delhi, Gian Publishing House,  1986
Elwin, V.: The tribal art of Middle India. London,  1951
Hoffmann, John:  Encyclopaedia Mundarica. In 16 volumes. repr. Delhi, Gian Publishing House, 1990
ICKE-SCHWALBE, Lydia: Identity formation in Jharkhand. - Aus:  .....Berlin,  2002, pp.)
Icke-Schwalbe, Lydia:  Die Munda und Oraon in Chota Nagpur. Berlin, 1980
Roy, S. C.: The Mundas and their country. Ranchi 1912, repr. Delhi,  1974
IMAM, BULU: On Rockart.- In: Man in India, Vol83 (3-4), Ranchi 2003, S.453-461


Figures: drawn by Juliet Imam
Photographs 1-3, 7-9, 11, 12 (2002): Lydia Icke-Schwalbe, Dresden
6, 10, 13-16 (2002): Nils-Gregor Icke, Dresden
4-5: Eva Winkler, Dresden


1.  Prajapati Rukmini Devi prepares a sheet of paper for Khovar art making
2.  Scrabing the soft white surface for Khovar art , producing a palm motif.
3. Prajapati Rukmini Devi  demonstrated Khovar art  with a comb-like cut piece of wood.
4. Khovar painting by Devi,  Bhelwara, now in the SMVk Dresden, Kat. Nr.
5. Khovar painting  by now in the SMVk Dresden, Kat. Nr.
6. Khovar wall painting for marriage party in Sugiya Devi’s house in Kharati village.
7. Sugiya Devi, the Khovar artist of  the Prajapati peasants in Kharati,   prepares the Kovar for her daughter’s marriage
8. The painted entrance to the marriage room in Sugiya Devi’s house in Kharati
9. Painted houses of the Kurmi  in Bhelwara for the Sohrai festival
10. Wall painting and carved doors at Sohrai festival in Bhelwara, Kurmi
11. Horses and riders, Sohrai art of  Kurmi in Bhelwara
12. Sohrai painting with white and red lines in Bhelwara,  inner house wall painted by the married daughter of the house, Parvati Devi.
13. Elaborate Sohrai wall painted in the inner court of the house, full of fertility motives, “written”  by Parvati Devi of the Kurmis in Bhelwara.
14. Sohrai wall painting with flower, fishes and tortoises. Bhelwara.
15. The decorated cattle at the Sohrai festival in Bhelwara.
16. The cattle move on the cleaned and ornamented floor at the Sohrai feast morning, Bhelwara.