Bhimbetka Rock Shelters. India’s Oldest Art Gallery

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Bhimbetka Rock Paintings


(Published first in Mumbai Mirror, Feb 2015)


Humans have been hunters and gatherers for more than 99 percent of our  evolutionary history.  Our adoption of agriculture and the concomitant ‘civilization’ began barely 10,000 years ago. Therefore historian’s obsession with this tiny sliver of our past, often at the expense of over 7 million years of cave dwelling , is truly astounding.

What is more remarkable is the view now increasingly held by  many important biologists is that with better diet, no diseases, and more leisure time, we were probably more successful as hunters and gatherers. Biologist Jared Diamond author of ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ famously  called our adoption of agriculture as, “the worst mistake in the history of human race”.

 Our trajectory from stone-age to science, the view goes,  has not necessarily been a boon.  With our   sophisticated weapons, our exploding  populations and our environmental destruction, we could  spell the doom soon for ourselves and the estimated 8.7 million species we  share this planet with.

The visit to Bhimbetka Rock Shelters  is therefore a humbling tryst with the history. It is here where humans lived as hunters and gatherers stretching from the Paleolithic period (over 40,000) years ago to Medieval times- the longest habitation of humans on the Indian Sub-continent.

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Humans have been fighting with each other for millions of years as this painting reveals. Bhimbetka

But Bhimbetka Rock Shelters perhaps best exemplifies our unwillingness to engage with this large chunk of our past. It’s a past we are happy to have emerged from and today in common parlance cavemen or Neanderthals are words used only pejoratively.

Therefore it  did not come as a surprise  when on both  my visits -set apart by a few years- to these remarkable caves in central Madhya Pradesh, I was the only visitor in the morning. The caves officially open  to  public at  6 am but both times I had to go looking for the gatekeeper first. Not that there is a problem getting in. One can walk right past the barricade without any hindrance and vandalize if one wished, the prehistoric  paintings  preserved on these rocks over millennia.

On both visits the gatekeeper had to be summoned and they showed  surprise and irritation at  having to come to give a ticket to someone so early in the morning.

There are no pesky guides here and though these art galleries are barricaded , the rock shelters are themselves not fenced in. They remain open to the jungle that surrounds them.

Bhimbetka has over 750 caves with only 15 or so open to visitors. Etched on the walls of these caves are paintings , most of them depicting  simple sketches of animals both domestic and wild, including bison, tiger, rhinoceros, elephant, wild bore, monkey, antelope and peacock. There is the  depiction of hunting scenes and battle. The more recent paintings depict dance  resembling the dance formations of the Gond tribes that inhabit the region today.

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Painting of a wild bore chasing a terrified human, Bhimbetka

Because Bhimbetka saw a wide swathe of  human habitation it has layers upon layers of human history.

The oldest painting here goes back  to over 30,000 years ago making it the oldest art gallery in India. However UNESCO deigned to grant Bhimbetka  a World Heritage Site status as late as  2003 , decades after bestowing the honor on monuments it thought more  important.

But then it was only in 1957 when Indian archeologist V.S. Wakankar discovered these caves. Until then , perhaps because of their close proximity to the Sanchi Stupa and other Buddhist monasteries- they existed in archeological records only as Buddhist sites.  Until then we thought that the oldest record of human existence in the Indian sub-continent hark back to the Indus Valley Civilization.

The name Bhimbetka came  from  the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The Pandav, Bhim , the legend goes , had rested here on his travels.

Bhimbetka Rocks Shelters  are a sandy outcrops, jutting out from the foothills of the Vidhyanchal hills in Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, 46 kilometers from modern Bhopal.  They lie hidden deep in a forest, one reason for their late discovery and their preservation. It is easy to see why our ancestors chose to inhabit them. Concealed in the forests with vaulted wide tunnels, deep enclaves , the shelters provided excellent protection from the wild animals , the weather and other marauding tribes.

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Hunting Scenes at Bhimbetka, MP

All pre-historic paintings including the ones at Bhimbetka invalidate the view that we always had it rough as cavemen and that leisure time; a prerequisite of art , came with agriculture.  In fact the paintings are testimony to the fact that cavemen had a lot of leisure time. Archeologists believe that the earliest art-work  would have been in wood, clay and other perishables that did not survive for our scrutiny.

A mixture of vegetable dyes, animal fat, manganese, coat and red stone was used for the Bhimbetka paintings.  The paintings themselves are simple etchings on the walls but they reveal an intimate relationship humans had with their environment.

How to get there


Bhimbetka is 45kms from Bhopal. One can hire  a taxi from Bhopal. Bhopal is well connected both by air and rail to all major cities in India including Mumbai.

Where to Stay

Bhopal is the nearest big town where one can stay. Bhopal has accommodations for all budgets.

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Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, MP

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