The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

A World Cultural Heritage Site

A journey that leads to different eras and opens the pages to India’s cultural heritage, is indeed worth traveling for. The Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh is one such destination.

Bhimbetka lies about 47 km south-east of Bhopal, and house the largest collection of prehistoric art in India. These 700 rock-shelters stand testimony to the continuous habitation of early man in this region for over 5,000 years.

The massive caverns with their rough pathways and 500 or more prehistoric paintings offer a unique and incredible experience. It’s not surprising that UNESCO declared Bhimbetka  a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2003.

Pathways through the cave – Image courtesy: Suman Bajpai

The Seat of Bhima

The name Bhimbetka is derived from the term ‘Bhimbaithaka’, or the seat of Bhima, one of the five Pandav brothers in the epic Mahabharata. The caverns spread across seven hills in the Vindhya ranges, occupying an area of roughly 25 square kilometers. Bhimbetka is flanked by the Betwa to the north, and by the Narmada in the south.

Legend has it that the hills were a resting place for Bhim and his brothers, the Pandavas,  during their exile. There, on the hilltops, outside the caves, Bhim would meet local people from the area.

In 1958, the eminent archaeologist Dr. V.S. Wakankar discovered the caves on his way to Nagpur after noticing the rock formations from his train window. Wakankar was familiar with such structures, having studied similar rock formations in France and Spain.

His team of archaeologists discovered the shelters, which date back to the lower and upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and to the Medieval periods. The oldest paintings at Bhimbetka are rendered in green pigment, depicting human figures doing different activities.

A Rare Glimpse into Prehistoric Life In India

About 15 caves are open to visitors.

The cave walls displays art, style and use of color that offer a unique glimpse into the life of some of the earliest human settlements in   India, that have endured through the ages.

The paintings are creative expressions of early man’s life, portraying his fears, joys, and happiness with deep realism. Rock art covers the cave-walls with scenes from day-to-day life such as women adorning themselves in front of a mirror, activities like dancing, drawing and singing, and pursuits such as men hunting, riding horses and elephants. Some the caves also depict figures of animals including tigers, boars, elephants, antelopes, deer, and lizards.

Boar Rock – Image courtesy: Suman Bajpai

The artists mainly used red and white in the paintings, but some paintings include a touch of yellow, and black. Four rock shelters contain 5,000 year old paintings of spotted deer in white. In one drawing, the figure of a masked hunter with bow and arrow can be traced back to the Mesolithic period. It stands alongside 8,000-year-old paintings of boars with red parallel stripes and paintings of hump-backed animals that belong to the Neolithic-Chalcolithic age.

Deer depicted in white – Image courtesy : Suman Bajpai

Art Through the Ages

Th agricultural scenes in the caves are said to date from the Bronze Age while drawings of tree gods and magic chariots represent the Middle Ages.

One of the most notable caves is called the Auditorium Cave,  due to its elongated shape. It is about 39 metres long, 4 metres wide, and 17 metres high at the western end. The composition adorning its walls portray bulls, buffaloes, deer, antelopes, a peacock, a tiger, the left-hand print of a child, and an unfinished basket-like object painted over older faded lines. These are the most attractive drawings in this shelter. Further to its left, are line drawings of human and animal figures.

The size and shape of Zoo Rock, gives it a cathedral-like feel.  It’s the largest rock shelter at Bhimbetka and may have been used for ceremonies and celebrations.

Huge Structures at Bhimbetka – Image courtesy: Suman Bajpai

The Use Of Natural Colors

The cave dwellers used natural pigments and colors made from a mixture of manganese, hematite, soft red stone, and charcoal, with the occasional use of animal fat and vegetable extracts as a binding agent. When exposed to water and other solvents, the minerals are oxidized and leave a residue color on the rock surface. The colors have not faded or spoiled for centuries because of this chemical reaction.

In Bhimbetka, visitors are advised to bring their own food and water as there are no restaurants or hotels nearby. The caves are spread over a vast area,so hire a guide.

The drive to Bhimbetka from Bhopal takes about an hour.

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 17 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from...