Bhimbetka Rock Shelters. Art in the Stone Age

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Elephants. Rock paintings Bhimbetka


(The story was first published in Mail Today, Jul 2014.)

It’s a strange irony that the oldest record of human existence in the Indian sub-continent was one of our latest finds. Till as close  as 1957, we thought Indus Valley People (who lived from approximately  3300-1300 BCE)  were our  oldest   known ancestors.

But Bhimbetka Rock shelters, pushes our antiquity back to the stone ages. Records of  humans  exist here from as far as Paleolithic Period (30,000 and before ). A rich treasure trove of  their paintings adorn the walls of these shelters to this day.

And it was not just our ancestors, the homo sapiens, who inhabited them. There is a theory that homo erectus – the now extinct human species – also lived in these sandstone outcrops, jutting out  from the  foothills of Vindhyachal hills in Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, 46 kilometers from modern Bhopal.

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Hunting scenes at Bhimbetka Caves

From Prehistory down to Medieval times , man lived and left his indelible mark on these caves, displaying through art the crucial stages of his evolution from a hunter- gather to a pre-modern agriculturist and animal domesticator. But it was only in 2003 that Bhimbetka got  the UNESCO world heritage site recognition. Until V. S. Wakankar, a peripatetic Indian archeologist discovered them in 1957,  Bhimbetka existed in archeological records only as Buddhist sites.  Not far from Bhimbetka lie the Sanchi Stupa and the Buddhist monasteries and temples and the assumption was made due to this close proximity. The name, however,  came from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The Pandav, Bhim, the story goes,  had rested here  during his exile.

Call it a characteristic lack of interest in our history or lack  of publicity, Bhimbetka hardly gets any visitors.  Most of the tourists throng the other more popular monuments  and  pilgrim spots that litter this part of Madhya Pradesh.

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Wild bore hunting a man. Painting Bhimbetka Shelters

I hired an early morning cab from Bhopal to Bhimbetka  to avoid what I thought would be a  deluge  of tourists  and long queues. But for much of the morning I was the only visitor. There were no pesky guides either and the attendants, not used to morning visitors , took  their own time to come and man  their posts.  Though these ancient art galleries are barricaded, the rock shelters themselves are not fenced in. They remain open to the jungle as they always have been for millennia. With no extra surveillance or manpower one shudders to think what a vandal could do to these historical  treasures.

Only about 15 or so of the total of 750 caves are open to visitors.  The caves lie hidden in the forest,  a possible reason for their late discovery and their preservation. It is not hard to imagine why our ancestors from the Paleolithic period down chose to inhabit them. Concealed in the forests with vaulted wide tunnels,   deep enclaves and  caves,  the shelters provided excellent protection  from the wild animals, the elements and other marauding tribes.

Tunnel Rock Shelter, Bhimbetka

Devoid of the myriad preoccupations that distract  the modern man, the Bhimbetka dwellers drew at leisure on the walls that hemmed them in. The paintings,  some of them elaborate and realistic, some    just lines and strokes – reveal the Bhimbetka dwellers keen observation of their world. It also reveals the intimate interactions they  had with nature.

Most paintings depict animals,  both domestic and wild,  including the bison, tiger, rhinoceros, elephant, wild bore, monkeys, antelopes and peacocks.  Other depict hunting expeditions and few others scenes of battle. Some of them also display dance formations which have an uncanny resemblance to the dance of the local Gond tribes.

The oldest paintings are almost  30,000 years old. Some of the more famous paintings are of a wild bore attacking a man even as his friends  look helplessly on. There is another which looks like a man walking a dog on a leash. The rock dwellers sometimes used the same canvas, so we have one era superimposed upon another.

Red and white were the  different shades used for the paintings. The paint was a mixture of  vegetable extract, animal fat, manganese, coal and red stone.

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A buddhist monk at the ancient Buddhist temples at Sanchi

Other attractions:

Bhojeshwar Temple: Only 24 kilometer from Bhimbetka lies the incomplete Bhojeshwar Temple, dedicated to Shiva. Its lingum which is crafted out of a single stone is the largest in the world. It is a mammoth 18feet tall  and 7.5 feet in  circumference.

Sanchi Stupa and the Buddhist monasteries and temples : The Stupa which is said to house Buddha’s relics  is only  hours drive from Bhopal. The Stupas at Sanchi  and the monasteries  and  temple are one of  the finest example of Buddhist art and architecture.

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The largest Shiva Lingam at Bojeshwar Temple, Bhojpur






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