The hills of Madhya Pradesh hide an ancient art, prehistoric human shelters and a chronological testimony to human evolution
Located around 50 km away from the capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhimbetka is a cradle of civilisation lost to time. It looks like just another rocky outcrop. However, what you wouldn’t notice at the first glance is exactly what has kept archeologists burning the midnight lamp ever since its discovery. Declared a ‘World Heritage Site’ in 2003, the sturdy rocks of Bhimbetka still protect the ancient paintings on walls of rock shelters.
In the year 1957, Indian academician VS Wakankar discovered the site and led many research excavations. Eventually, more scholars and institutions followed his footsteps. More than 700 caves and rock shelters have been discovered at this site, 400 of which are shelter paintings from the Mesolithic to Medieval age. It still remains the largest rock painting complex in India.
The area around Bhimbetka is rich in wildlife with tigers, panthers, wild boars, hyenas, wolf, foxes, jackals, sambhars, swamp deers, chinkaras, pythons and vipers hiding in its nooks and crannies. As a matter of fact, the wildlife has been featured a lot in the ancient rock paintings.
As one enters the ticketed campus, modern life-size sculptures of prehistoric humans vie for attention. The ancient paintings of two elephants above the sculptures dazzle you. Painted in white, the image of a man standing atop the smaller elephant with goad in his hand, is worthy of appreciation.
There is an impressive 39 mt cave called auditorium which has paintings, some in bold colours, some faded over time. The cave is 4 mt wide and 17 mt high. According to many, the most attractive painting is that of a faded tiger and the palm imprint of a child from the Mesolithic period. The other paintings depict wildlife such as deers, buffaloes, antelopes, bulls, peacocks, etc., along with human figures.
Cup-shaped depressions dot the caves in large numbers, signaling towards human creativity in that era. Nearby is a grave from the Mesolithic era. It was a practice in those times to bury the dead within the caves in the living quarters. Many evidences of the activities of the early man are also seen at Bhimbetka. Some of the shelters here were inhabited by human ancestors 1,00,000 years ago. The rock paintings, some even 30,000 years old, are still well preserved, thanks to the material used and the obscurity of the place.
ZOO ROCK SHELTER
It’s interesting to know that the earlier painted surfaces were used many times by cave dwellers of later periods, without obliterating the original artwork. Such superimposition of paintings of different styles and eras is most evident on the famous Zoo Rock Shelter. Semicircular in shape, this shelter has paintings of 252 animals of 16 different species on its walls. The total number of figures on this wall is 453, including 90 human figures engaged in several activities.
Most of the paintings from this enclosure belong to the Chalcolithic and historical period with few specimens from Mesolithic era as well. As many as 10 layers of superimposed figures are found in this rock, indicating the popularity and significance of this rock. The natural projection saved the paintings from weather damage.
On another rock, there is a depiction of a royal procession. Painted in dark ochre colour, the horsemen and soldiers are accompanied by drummers. Sitting atop a group of horses, the human figures are shown carrying swords, bows, arrows, and shields.
One also comes across a rock mass which is art in itself. It is popular amongst tourists despite the lack of any painting on its surface. Exposed to elements, what makes it eye catching is its resemblance to a tortoise. Right next to it is a rock formation shaped like the head of a cobra. Another interesting artwork fashioned by nature is the odd looking Kari tree. You can see two different colours of its branches very clearly.
The ancient open air art gallery has no dearth of natural and man-made masterpieces. The unique and at times quirky shapes of rocks and caves are a result of years of erosion and enlargement of cavities through physical and chemical weathering.
A rock that resembles a wild boar is depicted with two crescent-shaped horns and an unusually massive snout. Many such mythical creatures are found elsewhere in the campus too.
Three techniques were employed to carry out the paintings at such large scale in that era. Wet transparent colour (water color), wet opaque colour (oil colour) and crayons (dry colour) dominate the paintings of Bhimbetka. 53.5 per cent paintings are made with transparent colours while 45.5 per cent are opaque and rest are made with crayons. Locally available minerals were widely used in paintings while water and fixatives were used as binding agents. The brushes used for painting must have been soft and smooth to run on the uneven rock surfaces. It is indeed incredible that much of the original artwork is still in good state. A visit to this place is an eye-opener for the discerning traveller.
Text & Photos: Abhinav Singh