On a recent week-long trip to Bhopal, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, I had a day to spare. I felt sure in my knowledge that this city’s fame rested largely on the laurels of the Pataudi Nawabs who reigned in the glamorous realms of the country—cricket and films. Their sprawling havelis, converted into heritage hotels, which attempt to keep the splendor and elegance of the “Nawabi” lifestyle intact, were, to the best of my knowledge, the only other places worth a visit in Bhopal.

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However, during a casual conversation with a taxi driver, I learned that the rock shelters of Bhimbetka, near Bhopal, were far more ancient, if not glamorous, than its nawabs.

Guddu, the taxi driver, did not have much by way of information about the rock shelters. All he knew was that Bhimbetka was the place where early man lived and that tourists occasionally visited. It would take us approximately one and a half hours from Bhopal due to the pitiable condition of the monsoon-battered roads. My curiosity to visit the place won over my trepidation of the broken roads.

We made it to our destination sooner than expected, driving uphill through a reserve forest area. The place looked deserted, almost eerie, in the light of the fact that it contained the memories of our earliest ancestors. I felt a tinge of fear as I walked alone over the cobbled pathway leading to the caves, lugging my camera bag. Relief materialized in the form of a trio of Archeological Society of India (ASI) employees engaged in a huddled gossip under a tree. I was courteously led by one—Manohar Lal—who was not an official guide but offered to help.

Bhimbetka, which looks like a natural amphitheater, has only recently been recognized as a World Heritage Site. Being a relatively recent discovery, it is still not a very common destination in the circle of adventure and travel enthusiasts.  On the fortunate day that I’d chosen to visit Bhimbetka, there were no other visitors, giving me the advantage of Manohar Lal’s undivided attention. “Few people come during the rainy season,” my guide informed me. And then he gave the story of the discovery of the largest collection of pre-historic art at Bhimbetka.

Less than half a century ago, in 1957, archaeologist Dr. Vishnu Wakankar from Vikram University, Ujjain was driving through the ancient Vindhyachal ranges in Bhopal.  As he passed through Miyapur village, in the Raisen district of Bhopal, the adventuresome archaeologist strayed off the beaten road and came upon a forest track. With intrinsic curiosity, he surveyed his surroundings and noticed large rock protuberances upon the hills that lay in close proximity to the village of Miyapur. His inquiry of the villagers revealed to him that he had probably stumbled upon a site of great historical importance. Walking up the hills, through dense forest outgrowths, he came upon a treasure trove of pre-historic times—the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. This pleasant accident of fate brought to discovery the twilight period before the era of recorded history.

Soon an archaeological team, under the supervision of Wakankar, set up camp in the forests of Bhimbetka and began excavations at the site. In due course, the excavations yielded remains from the Upper Paleolithic Age to the Middle Ages. Numerous caves, rock shelters, human skeletons (one as tall as 7 feet!), microliths and other  artefacts that emerged from many millennia of burial form part of an invaluable chronicle in the history of man.

A survey made by the Archaeological Survey of India, Bhopal circle, as recently as 1999-2000, along with students of Prachya Niketan, Bhopal, has revealed 600 rock shelters ensconced amidst a rich, verdant forest cover, spread over a rocky terrain of craggy hills. Bhimbetka is a natural art gallery and an archaeological treasure. The rock shelters or caves here depict rock paintings, created by man from as early as about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, in vivid panoramic detail.

The geometric and linear representations of men and animals, captured and frozen in stone, tell tales from the lives of pre-historic man. One panel shows men engaged in an arrow fight; in another, a full-fledged battle is in progress; at others, there are groups of people holding hands and celebrating with a synchronized dance. One interesting painting shows a man trying to intervene between two others on horse-back who are readied for a fight.

Executed mainly in red and white with the occasional use of green and yellow, with themes taken from the everyday events of eons ago, the cave paintings depict hunting, dancing, music, horse and elephant riders, animals fighting, honey collection, decoration of bodies, disguises, masking and house-hold scenes.

Animals such as bisons, tigers, lions, wild boars, elephants, antelopes, dogs, lizards, crocodiles etc. have been abundantly depicted in some caves. Popular religious and ritual symbols also occur frequently. The colors used by the cave dwellers were prepared by combining Manganese, haematite, soft red stone, and wooden charcoal. Sometimes animal fat and extracts of leaves were also used in the mixture. The colors have remained intact for many centuries due to the chemical reaction resulting from the oxide present on the surface of the rocks.

The superimposition of paintings shows that the same canvas was used by different people belonging to different epochs of time, ranging from the Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic Age, Copper Age, Historical Age, to the Middle Ages. From the nomadic ways of pre-historic man to a settled agricultural life, his interaction with the communities living in the plains and the gradual changes and adaptations towards civilization, Bhimbetka paintings reflect all this and much more in vivid detail. These caves represent the documentation of the evolution of man, aptly seen in the myriad images painted on the rocks, which themselves graduate from being linear representation to more evolved shapes.

Most of the ancient historic sites of India almost always have a story of the five banished Pandav brothers of the epic Mahabharata embedded in their remains; during their 14-year-long banishment the Pandavas are said to have traveled extensively through the length and breadth of the country’s forests, hills, and mountains. Here, too, there is an ancient cave temple attributed to the Pandavas. Bhimbetka, as the very name of the place suggests, is believed to owe its name to the mighty Bhima, one of the five Pandav brothers. It is believed that during their banishment the Pandav brothers had for some period sought refuge in the caves at Bhimbetka, which had once been home to their pre-historic ancestors. The ancient cave temple is claimed by villagers to have been created by the Pandav brothers for their daily worship. I left my shoes a little distance away from the temple, walked a prickly, pebble strewn path, bought a packet of ready-made prasad and entered the temple to pay obeisance in the temple of the Pandavas.

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In Bhimbetka’s womb lie other remains of yesteryears, as walls of a severely ruined fort, mini stupas indicate Buddhist influence in the later period in this area. Numerous houses built of huge rock boulders contain evidence of inhabitation in the past. Inscriptions date back to the Sunga-Gupta period, while many others inscribed in the Shankha script belong to the Paramara Dynasty of the medieval period.

Other remains belong to various periods, right from the Upper Paleolithic Age to the medieval times. Of these, the most important ones are implements belonging to the Upper Paleolithic Age, pottery of the Copper Age, and a punch-marked coin dated to the Historical Period.

The ASI is making a conscious effort to conserve and preserve the paintings so as to maintain their lines and colors for as long as possible. I saw a couple of workers who were employed in the preservation of the paintings, the colors and lines of which get faint due to rain and wind erosion. These workers carefully dusted and brushed away deposits over the paintings and used preservatives to bring out the vivid colors. In order for the footfalls of the pre-historic settlers of the place to reverberate in the caves forever, pathways, in keeping with the ambience of the place, are being laid so as to provide access to even the remotest of the caves.

It took me a few moments to return from my transposition to the Neolithic Age back to the present century when the hour-long tour ended. Only then did I feel the demands of a parched throat that screamed for water, and tired limbs that sighed for a cup of tea to drive away their exhaustion. But in the silence of the lush forest, nothing other than the echoes of our own voices amongst the stone shelters could be found. Manohar Lal informed me that the place had no decent or even indecent canteen or cafeteria, which meant the stark unavailability of not only refreshments but even the most precious commodity WATER! But, from Bhimbetka, I took with me not only my thirst and exhaustion but a new addition to my repertoire of amazing archaeological discoveries.

Anita Kainthla has authored three books (a collection of poetry, a biography of Baba Amte, and a work on the religious and historical background of Tibet) and writes features and travelogues for magazines.

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