The rock shelters of Bhimbetka are less than 50 Kms from Bhopal: an easy drive on a good road. In less than an hour we traveled from the city to this magical world. The paintings were discovered in 1957 by Vishnu Wakankar, a historian involved in studies of rock art in France and Spain, when he was beginning his work in India. Wakankar was traveling by train to Bhopal and noticed rock formations similar to ones he had worked on abroad. He went there and discovered the paintings.
Work is still going on in this area, but some of the shelters are open to the public. These are not closed caves with little openings. The picture on the right shows what they are: overhangs, some low, some high enough that we could stand upright. It rained quite heavily while we were there, and we could find shelter under some of the rocks, more or less like our prehistoric cousins would have. But the fact that the shelters are exposed also means that there has been more weathering here than in closed caves. In spite of this, many of the paintings are spectacular.
These shelters were inhabited till the medieval period. The earliest paintings are made with a single pigment, either red, which is the oldest, or white. Art from later times used multiple colours: yellows and greens appear. I wanted to know how old the earliest paintings are. There is no clear answer yet. Excavations have yielded stone tools, the oldest from the late Acheulian period. Some are in display in the museums in Bhopal. Acheulian tools in India were dated recently as more than 1 million years old. This is the deep Paleolithic, from long before Homo Sapiens arrived. However, the oldest paintings are thought to be more recent, and estimates quoted in plaques in Bhimbetka say they are probably from the Mesolithic period. That means they were painted by humans.
Near the entrance to the complex we saw this outline of a human hand. Apparently these are common in rock art, and it is believed that they were made by putting an actual hand on the rock face, and painting around it. I put my hand over it, the outline was substantially smaller. The Family compared her hand with it; it was smaller than hers. This fits with our understanding that early humans were relatively small compared to us. I have seen Ashoka’s stone inscriptions, the Rosetta stone, Hammurabi’s code etched on a stone. They are barely a few thousand years old. This connection of our hands was with another human who lived tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps even a good fraction of a hundred thousand years ago. The sense of deep time overwhelmed us for a while. Walking the streets of Rome, Patna and Xi’an, you are aware of the history of a couple of thousand years. The people who lived here would have been walking on ground familiar to other people tens of thousands of years before them!
We saw enigmatic holes in the rock face, like in the photo above. They are associated with rock paintings across the world and are called cupules. There are no experts on these. There is a consensus that they are deliberate, and that they are not functional, but served some artistic or symbolic need. They are older than rock paintings, and some people date them to a hundred thousand years before the paintings. Could this be the art of Homo Habilis, the art of an alien species?
We spent several hours at the site. Some caves were like zoos: full of animal figures, sometimes layers painted over previous layers. Elsewhere, you would come to an exposed rock face and see maybe a line of faded red colour, the whole painting would appear slowly to your eye as you stood and followed the faint lines. In some paintings, like in the boar pictured at the top, the pigment would be bright and eye-catching. We left, but we are not finished with Bhimbetka. We plan to return. And now that we have seen this, and read about rock paintings in India, we plan to explore many other sites across the country.