From animal figures to mythical creatures, the walls of the caves at Bhimbetka are inscribed with narratives of human history, notes Abhinav Singh
From the highway, the rock shelters of Bhimbetka looked ordinary and listless. I would have missed them had I ignored the sign board. When I reached the ancient caves, they were nearly empty. I had been looking attentively out of the window of my taxi as we had driven up the road that cuts through Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. Wild animals like hyenas, tigers, panthers, wild boar, wolves, foxes, jackals, swamp deer, chinkaras, pythons and vipers inhabit the sanctuary’s untamed expanse. My disappointment at not having been able to spot any wildlife was compensated for, however, by the many wildlife motifs that inundated the walls at Bhimbetka. The rich fauna of the area is a recurrent theme in these ancient rock paintings.
Before exploring the rock art in the caves, I first visited a modern shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is a little ahead of the ticketed area. The absolute silence of the space exuded a mystical aura. I sat down on a rock, imagining prehistoric times when this area must have been abuzz with human activity and creativity. Some of the shelters here were inhabited by humans around 1,00,000 years ago. The rock paintings, some nearly 30,000 years old, are still well preserved, thanks to the materials used and the obscurity of the spaces they occupy.
The term ‘bhimbetka’ translated literally means ‘the place where Bhima sits’. Bhima is one of the important mythological figures from the Mahabharata. However, the place has nothing to do with the epic or Bhima. In fact, the rock clusters were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, courtesy the concentration of rock paintings that appear to date from the Mesolithic to the Medieval age.
With 700 caves and rock shelters, out of which 400 boast rich works of rock art, this is undisputedly the largest rock painting complex in India. The rock paintings at Bhimbetka have survived the test of time due to the quality of the materials used and the rock projections that act as natural protectors from the weather. Some paintings have been done on surfaces that are shielded by natural canopies and some at spots that are difficult to access.
Upon discovering the marvels of Bhimbetka in 1957, Indian academician VS Wakankar initiated many research projects and was followed by other experts in the field. A little more than an hour away from Bhopal, Bhimbetka was unknown to modern civilisation till the 19th century. W Kincaid first mentioned Bhimbetka in 1888 in his papers, referring to it as the ‘Bhimbet’ hill and mentioning it as a Buddhist site.
The Auditorium Shelter is the first cave in the series. It is the most beautiful cave and the perfect entry point. I spotted very interesting rock art here. A faded tiger, a variety of wildlife motifs, the palm imprint of a child from the Mesolithic period and a Mesolithic grave characterise this cave.
A little further, the Zoo Rock Shelter amazed me with the figure of a Mesolithic boar painted in dark red, apart from animals such as the elephant, rhinoceros, barasingha, spotted deer and snake amongst others. This rock has the highest number of paintings, many of which were done over a period of time, displaying different styles and techniques.
The Boar Rock derives its name from the huge figure of a mythical horned boar, several times larger than the humans chasing it, painted on its surface. It is the last among the rock shelters accessible to tourists. Depiction of royal processions, tribal dance, horsemen, soldiers, swords, bows, arrows and shields on the rocks signal the advancement of civilisation in the region. The cave complex is a time-warped marvel. A walk through its interiors transports you to a bygone era.
The author is a travel writer and the views expressed in this article are his own