Bhimbetka - exploring Neolithic India

The Bhimbetka rock shelters depict the earliest traces of human life in India.

Having no plans can be a blessing in disguise. With my business trip getting over quickly and no concrete plans in hand, I had another day to spare in Bhopal, capital city of Madhya Pradesh – the state now having a repute to be known in Hindi as ‘Hindustan ka Dil’, meaning ‘Heart of India’. But, someone suggested making a quick hop to Bhimbetka, which is 46 km from the city and takes one back many ages. The very thought of going back in time was enticing enough and I made a quick decision to head that way. The best way to reach the spot is a cab. It was a journey unlike any other; stepping back in time.

The cab started on National Highway (NH) 12 from Bhopal and after crossing the city limits, took on NH 69 for my destination Bhimbetka. After a 20 minute drive, I passed some small names like Mandideep, Nayapur, Nowgong, Bisan Kheda and Obedullaganj. This highway connects to a popular hill station of Panchmarhi, Hoshangabad and finally reaches the ‘Orange City’ of India - Nagpur. I arrived at my destination in less than an hour. A small cut on the right of the road displays a plaque with Bhimbetka etched on it, with a sign that says ‘Pre-historic Rock Shelter & Paintings - a UNESCO World Heritage Site Monument.’

Bhimbetka

A sense of the unknown was rushing through. For a moment, I was pondering over the word ‘monument’ i.e., whether it is an apt reference for those rock shelters. But my confusion had answers in my destination. Maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), this site has vivid, panoramic detail paintings in over 500 caves depicting the life of the prehistoric cave-dwellers, making the place an archaeological treasure. I felt like a treasure hunter after seeing the first group of paintings of elephants near the cave entrance. The patterns on the rocks of the cave had distinct shapes showcasing the artistic outlook of nature created over ages. As I moved from one cave to another, there were splendours waiting for me to explore.

Cave paintings

The paintings were executed with a high degree of deftness in colours of white and red. In some cases, it was easily recognizable that a patch of green and/or yellow was there but time had faded the warmth of those colours. The paintings were theme based, individual episodes, progressive in nature i.e. visible through the way human figures were clothed. I could see warriors on horses, hunters, dancers, elephant riders, depiction of honey collection, household scenes, and decoration of bodies and so on. Further, animals played a much important role in the life of the Neolithic man which was shown through paintings of bisons, tigers, lions, wild boar, antelopes, dogs, lizards, crocodiles, hens, etc. The religious sentiments were depicted through designs and decorations that told a lot about the strong society or community oriented ethics and lifestyle. Depiction of day-to- day life and situations can be seen clearly etched on the walls of numerous caves. In some places they are done very subtly, so that only a trained eye can catch them. However in one of the caves, it was right above me on the ceiling.

Bhimbetka

According to a research there are seven different periods, which can be divided, based on the evidence: Period I – Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age, Period II – Mesolithic, Period III – Chalcolithic, Period IV &V – Early Historic and Period VI & VII – Medieval. Each depicts a different set of characteristics as far as representations are concerned like, sizes, colours, agricultural activities, community requirements, etc. It was interesting to note that the colours used by the cave dwellers were prepared combining manganese, haematite, soft red stone and wooden coal. To an extent of being precise, they also used animal fat and extract of leaves. The colours of the paintings have remained intact for centuries due to the chemical reaction resulting from the oxide present on the surface of the rocks.

Rock shelters

The cave shelters are amazing too, the rocky patterns demand attention. The region is surrounded by the northern part of the Vindhya Range. Bhimbetka gives a feeling of being secluded from the entire landscape with rocky terrain, dense forest and craggy cliffs. These 600 rock shelters belonging to the Neolithic Age were discovered in 1957-58 by Dr. Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar. Out of the 750 rock shelters, only 500 have paintings from linear depiction of human figures, warfare, dancing to day-to- day activities of the ancient man. An ASI note states that the cup marks (a form of prehistoric art) made on the rock surface at Bhimbetka has been dated back to 1,00,000 B.P. This pushes back the date of the cognitive development of man at Bhimbetka to many thousands of years earlier than that of similar sites in various parts of the world; making it one of the earliest cradles of cognitive human evolution.

Anyone heading to this part of the country should not make the mistake of missing it. It is certainly a worthwhile expedition for history lovers and seekers of the human past through the creative by-lanes that were painted ‘ages’ back.

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