Prehistoric Goan Shamanism

By Dr Nandkumar Kamat
Exactly 17-years-ago a new leaf was turned in archaeology, cultural and ecological anthropology and paleoecology of Goa. It was also a mothers’ day on Sunday, May 9, 1993 when I was standing on the banks of the Kushavati River.

We had made a discovery of the prehistoric petroglyphs of Goa. More than 125 forms were found scattered in the area. There in front of me was the evidence of prehistoric Goan shamanistic practice.
On a platform rich in metals, iron and manganese, we were witnessing an age before the use of metals. The factory of the artists’ tools was before us - the stream bed littered with polymorphic polished heavy pebbles. One could pick up any stone hammer and chisel and begin cutting a line.
For hundreds of years the Kushavati rock art gallery of Goa was known locally as “goravarakhnyachi chitram” or pictures made by the local cowherds. But people did not know about the antiquity of the work nor could interpret it. I made several visits since May 1993 to the site and completed a detail morphological, morphometric and typological study of the various forms. Since expertise on such works was lacking in Goa I had to undertake self study to compare and contrast the rock art forms which I correctly named as petroglyphs and not just bruisings or engravings. Subsequently this terminology became common. I provided a scientific basis to objective understanding of these petroglyphs by correctly classifying them as zoomorphs, phytomorphs, anthropomorphs, X-ray forms, geometric forms and cupules.
My studies led to identification of the creators of this art as the forgotten people of “Kushavati culture” during 1993-5. But this was not the same group which made acheulian handaxes found at Shigao, Sanguem. My paper ‘Animal diversity in rock art’ was published in 1995. The basic theme was to highlight the paleobiodiversity of wild animals as found at Kushavati rock art site. Many of these species are now extinct from that region. My attention was specially focussed on the form which was mistaken as ‘mandala’ or a ‘triskelion’.
My article in 2000 on ‘ritual art of Goa’ referred to work done on global rock art by Grant McCall who explained same impulses driving ‘universal shamanism’. Deeper studies and analysis over a period of 10 years showed me that it was an exquisitely carved ‘ocular labyrinth’, one of the best in India and Asia. In fact Lony Perry who has studied labyrinths around the world wrote on November 1, 2009 - “The earliest labyrinth ever found was in the form of a petroglyph found on a river bank in Goa (west-central India), although other examples were found throughout India from about the same time. Most of these were cave art except for a labyrinth carved into a dolmen shrine in the Nilgiri Mountains”.
After digital image analysis, I found a remarkable homology with a typical Cretan labyrinth and hence it raised several questions about its’ origin and dating. But its’ ocular nature also clinched the evidence of prehistoric shamanism. My views on entoptic Kushavati shamanistic art were presented in 2005 at local history seminar and then uploaded for global expert peer review (Weblink:- http ://
I have been richly profited by the works of J David Lewis Williams and Thomas Dawson. It provides rich insights about creators of Kushavati rock art because the impulses were common. What was the spiritual and material world of Kushavati shamans? Were they males or females? The zoomorphs and the dominance of bovids indicate that it was semi-nomadic hunting group. The Kushavati hunters scoured the dense jungles, laid traps, ambushed wild animals and used composite weapons - made of stone and wood or bones. They consumed psychedelic plants and mushrooms to go into a trance. The bioactive substances alter the state of consciousness. It has been known under laboratory conditions that under such a trancelike state human optic system generates luminous geometric forms - entoptic phenomena - such as grids, dots, lines, nested catenary curves, zigzags and filigrees. The shamans visualise these forms behind their eyes and project the same on the stream bank. Then in a frenzy they seemed to work on them thus creating the rock art gallery over several sessions.
Research on South African rock art has shown that the production and consumption of rock art, like all image-making, was embedded in the social, economic and intellectual circumstances of the community in which it was made. The Kushavati culture was a hunter, food gatherer culture embedded in the knowledge of local natural resources and processes - water, fish, plants, game, animal breeding cycles, seasons and natural calamities. It was obsessed with water security, so the camp was set up near the stream. It was looking for food security, so the jungle near the steam ensured plentiful food. It was also confronting the mysteries of illness, death and birth.
I am writing about a society which existed a minimum 6-8000 years ago. Earlier researchers believed in art-for-art’s sake and hunting magic as explanations for Southern African rock art. Today most researchers accept that much of this art was implicated in the beliefs and rituals. Kushavati rock art has no other explanation. In South African rock art, Bushman shamanism is dominant. The Bushman cosmos comprised three levels: (1) the surface of the earth, the level of daily life; (2) a spiritual underworld that was associated particularly but not exclusively with the dead; and (3) a spiritual realm above the earth that was associated with god, the spirits and also widi shamans.
More or less the Kushavati hunters’ cosmos also had three levels. The material world was depicted by the Kushavati shamans by zoomorphs and phytomorphs. The spiritual underworld was depicted by anthropomorphs and the spiritual realm above the earth was represented by geometric forms, the labyrinth, the cupules and other intricate forms.
On basis of recent DNA based work on human migration I have ruled out the possibility of Kushavati shamans belonging to the first wave of humans to step in Goa. They were not negritoes or austrics. Most probably they were the earliest Dravidians also known as Mediterraneans who had descended the Western Ghats probably in their search for sea salt on Goa’s coast. As they transited to a Neolithic society, domesticated animals and were in the last phase of using stone tools – the entire realm of shamanism underwent a radical transition. Today we see its’ metamorphosis in masked dance drama ‘Perni jagor’ in the same cultural region.