Isko Caves: A Journey into the Past

If you are looking for a place to explore the ancient history and culture of India, you might want to visit the Isko Caves in Jharkhand. These caves are not only natural wonders, but also treasure troves of prehistoric art and artifacts.

The Isko Caves are located in a remote village called Isko, about 45 km from Hazaribagh town and 15 km from Barkagaon block. The caves are situated in a dense forest area, surrounded by hills and streams. It is considered to be a site of archaeological significance, with evidence of human habitation dating back to the Stone Age.

Isko Village is famous for its rock paintings which are said to be of the mid-stone age. Archaeologists excavated the site and found that an ancient civilization used to reside in this area from 250,000 BP, and these paintings are from the Meso-chalcolithic period (9000-5000 BCE), while some experts believe these paintings are from late Stone Age period (20000-25000 BCE). These caves were discovered by Bulu Imam, an environmental activist working for the protection of tribal culture and heritage in Jharkhand, in 1991.

I came to know of Isko caves and rock arts about a decade ago and planned with my son, Judhajit, to visit the place. But we could not visit the place despite making a couple of plans. This time, we decided to go there on 2nd Feb as it was an off day for Judhajit.

India is one of the few countries where the rock art is a living tradition.  Here some ethnic communities still practice rock art as a form of ritual and wall paintings for totem or supernatural belief. It’s important to note here, that the tradition of rock art practice is still alive in the tribal art of India, especially in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and Karnataka, the tradition of printing hands on the gates, sacred places at ritualistic ceremonies, auspicious occasions like the birth of a child, marriages, is still continuing.

Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand is home of several Indo-Austric linguistic Families. The North Karanpura  valley  which lies on the southern extremity of the Hazaribagh plateau, there are several villages like Isko where Munda, Birhor, and Oraon live. In some of the villages, these ethnic groups practice the mural art and rituals related to the nearby rock art sites. Their valuable cultural heritage is still alive in their mural art and rituals. Basically, the mural paintings of this area are divided into two categories- Khovar and Sohrai. Both of them have specific meaning and use in a socio-religious aspect. They believe that these rock art sites belong to their ancestors and their village deity who protect them.

On 1st Feb, I talked to the famous megalithic explorer Subhashis Das about the road, etc. We have not met each other but got connected via his blog and Facebook. He is working to ensure the safety of the ancient rock structures and making a lot of efforts to preserve the rock paintings in Jharkhand.

He suggested we go via Hazaribagh (145 km, 3 hours’ drive) although there is another route from Ranchi via Patratu (77 km, 2 hours and 44 minutes’ drive as per Google). Since there is not much of a difference in the time, we agreed to go via Hazaribagh.

On 2nd Feb, we, Judhajit, Tania, and I, planned to leave home at around 10 AM as suggested by Mr. Das, so that we reach the rock art site afternoon and then there will be sunlight to see the drawings. We got a bit late as Judhajit had to go to his clinic to see a patient who was waiting for him.

We reached Barkagaon and asked for the road to Isko. One shopkeeper gladly showed us the route and said that he visited there three days ago. Although we were using Google Maps, it’s always better to get it cross-checked in rural areas.

There should be adequate signage showing the road, but tourism does not seem to be a priority of the Jharkhand government. At one point, we got confused. One government signage shows that we should turn left, while Google Maps was showing that we should take the next left turn. Local inquiries confirmed the Google Maps and we proceeded accordingly.

We reached Isko village. There was a gate installed and we drove through it on the metalled road, and it finished at a ditch. Some cemented chairs are also placed there. So, that was the last point where we could drive in. Our destination is there in the midst of rocks and Sal forests. Again, there was no signage to give the direction to the cave.

The network was hardly there so Google Maps was not working. On our own, we started walking through the forest following a trail. We walked for some time, and we couldn’t see any sign of a cave. We reached a flat rocky surface. It was at a height, and we could find the network there. Google Maps showed that we went in the wrong direction.

We started returning to the place where we started. We found a local villager emerging from the forest. We asked him for the path to the cave. He agreed to walk with us to show the cave. He told us that it is the Marwadwar cave, and the rock art cave is at a different place, nearly 1 km from that place.

Marwadwar is a rock shelter. According to a legend, a king and queen spent their nights in this cave after their marriage. Near the caves, there is a small river called Marwatari. After the king got married in the marwa (cave), the river came to be known as Marwatari. According to Mr. Das, caves were deemed as the womb of the Great Mother, all appendages of the now obsolete fertility cult.

The Isko Caves are not only a source of historical and archaeological information, but also a place of spiritual significance. The local people consider the caves to be sacred and believe that they are inhabited by spirits and deities. They perform rituals and offer prayers at the caves, especially during festivals and auspicious occasions.

After exploring the Marwadwar cave, we moved towards the Isko village for the rock art site. There were a few kids playing on the road. I enquired them about the rock site. They showed us the direction. On my asking three kids agreed with us to walk to the rock art site guiding us the way through the village.

Our three young guides: Jiwan Munda, Pawan Munda, and Hans Munda

We reached the fantastic rock art site. It’s amazing to see 10,000-year-old rock art in front of our eyes. The sun was just facing the rock and then I realized why we were advised to visit the site in the afternoon. It’s an amazing site and a wonderful experience. Really, memorable.

The rock paintings of Isko Caves are among the oldest and finest examples of prehistoric art in India. They depict various scenes of hunting, fishing, dancing, fighting and ritual activities. The paintings are made with natural pigments such as red ochre, yellow ochre, white kaolin and black manganese. The paintings show a high degree of artistic skill and expression, as well as a rich cultural and social life of the ancient people.

Some rock art sites (like Thethangi, Isko, Rahaman, and Sidpa) of North Karanpura valley also show the magico-ritual connection between present-day ethnic communities and the rock art site. The performance of rituals is also present in the Isko rock shelter site where the villagers of Isko village use to worship rock art and the Devi Sthan (place for village deity) near to rock shelter. 

According to Shubham Rajak, the anthropomorphic figures in Isko, therefore, likely represent numerous concepts simultaneously: shaman, ancestor, deity, and mythic character. The anthropomorphic figures and symbols in rock art which still continue in form of ethnic art provide us a source for archaeological interpretation and cultural link with the past and present.

These Isko caves and rock art needs protection and maintenance. The ASI and the state government must take immediate steps to protect this heritage. This will promote tourism and bolster the local economy too.

The Isko Caves are a hidden gem of Jharkhand, waiting to be discovered by curious and adventurous travelers. They offer a unique opportunity to witness the ancient heritage and culture of India, as well as to enjoy the natural beauty and tranquility of the forest. If you are planning to visit Jharkhand, make sure to include the Isko Caves in your itinerary.

From Isko, we planned to return home after visiting the ancient megalithic observatory site near Barkagaon, which will be discussed in our next story.

18 thoughts on “Isko Caves: A Journey into the Past

  1. Nilanjana Moitra

    Wow, excellent images and information. Government apathy is a problem in our country regarding the conservation and preservation of heritage items.


  2. Pingback: Prehistoric Megalithic Observatory near Hazaribagh (Jharkhand) – Indrosphere

  3. Pingback: Khovar | Ancient Indian Wall Art – Indrosphere

  4. Justin Imam

    Hi, it was great reading your text and enjoyed the photos, could you meet the Iman family whi found it. Bulu and living in Sanskriti museum Dipugarha in Hazaribagh. Look us up next trip. Fondly with regards, j 9430124991 l 7258048074

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I have heard a lot about you and wanted to visit you once. One of my uncle-in-laws stays in Hazaribagh. I will visit one day and will call you before visiting Hazaribagh. It would be my honour to meet you and Bulu Imam in person. Thanks for visiting my blog.


  5. Pingback: Sohrai: Unique Indian Festival – Indrosphere

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