Ancient Rock Art

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.

bhimbetkaWork 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.

Mysterious Mitawali

The approach road to Mitawali temple, seen from the hill

Somewhere between Gwalior and the Chambal River, off National Highway 3, in the middle of nowhere, is the serene temple of Mitawali. Why do I say in the middle of nowhere? Because even 10 kilometers away, villagers give you blank looks when you ask about this place. We learnt to ask for Morena and Thekari, and drive slowly, keeping an eye out for the completely missable signs. Our attempt to find this place was not helped by the dense fog two winters ago, and the fact that the driver ignored the GPS and got lost inside an industrial area just outside Gwalior.

Eventually we saw an isolated hill with a flat structure on top. Preciousss, who was the only one who had bothered to look at the photos on the web was certain that we had found the place. We drove towards it, and found that we had to leave the tarred road at some point and go on to a dirt track. This track ends at the bottom of the hill. As you can see from the view above, the only road leading to the hill is a dirt track. At least the road was better than the reports we had read of it.

External view of the Mitawali temple

At the top is a strange temple: flat and round, unlike any temple we had seen before. There seems to be a family taking care of the structure. They keep it locked up and open the door for tourists. There is some speculation that the structure was copied in the architecture of the parliament building. There is no evidence for this, and it seems to be a traveller’s tale which joins up the circular shape of this temple with the only other famous Indian building which is circular. When you read that the temple originally had shikharas, the connection with the parliament does seem far-fetched.

The temple is almost bare of decorations, unlike most Indian temples. Around the middle of every major pillar on the outside is a small decorative carving (as you can see in the photo above). They are very nicely executed, but I did not see anything unique about them. The inside is also equally bare of carvings. Perhaps this started off as a reasonably normal-looking temple, but the interesting carvings were stolen over the centuries.

Internal view of the Mitawali temple

The inside looks even less like a temple. The outer circle contains cells: sixty four according to some; I’m afraid I did not count them. They look like bare cells of monks, but may (or may not) have contained idols earlier. Separated from this is an inner circle with what looks like a recognizable inner sanctum (garbhagriha) of a temple. The base of this inner circle is set with intersting carved stone grilles. Could they be meant for drainage? Since there is no other obvious drain, it seems likely.

According to an inscription found here, dated V.S. 1380 (A.D. 1323) the temple was constructed by Maharaja Devapala.
ASI Website

There was no ASI board at the site, so I do not even know how old the temples are (some sources say 9th century, others date it to the 14th century). Some members of the family which stays here claimed that the temple is a thousand years old, but then they also claimed that their family has been here since the temple was founded. The chances of both statements being correct are negligible.

[Note added: The 14th century dating is borne out by the ASI]

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

Wonderful as the temple is, a discovery on the climb up to it turned out to be as spectacular. The path has been carved into steps, faced with stone blocks which seem to be quarried from the surrounding stone. I saw lovely fossils in these stones. Many of the steps have patterns of ferns and branching leaves. You could be fooled for a moment into thinking that they have been carved there. But then a careful look is enough to convince you that they are really fossils.

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

There is no way to find out how old the steps are, although the workmanship and wear suggests a recent origin. If the stone was quarried in the same hill, a very likely supposition, unfortunately, then perhaps the hill is full of fossils. The exposed stone on the climb is clearly not igneous, consisting instead of almost perfectly horizontal strata. So perhaps the hill is full of fossils. There are so many mysteries about this place, and so little seems to be documented.

The general lawlessness around this area had allowed the nearby temples of Bateswar to be lost, until perhaps a decade ago. Is the family in residence in the Mitawali temple actually in legal residence, or have they occupied the place? Is this even a protected monument? If so, which part is protected?

[Note added: The ASI website suggests that this is a protected monument under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India]

I’m never sure. Are you?


The camel has a single hump;
The dromedary, two;
Or else, the other way around.
I’m never sure. Are you?

I was airlifted to Bhopal for a day. Three minutes out of the airport, on the side of a road, I saw two camels. They were content to sit under a tree as the nomadic shepherds from Rajasthan who had got them there busied themselves setting up a pen for the sheep. Watching the camels (or, possibly, Dromedaries), a poem by Ogden Nash came to mind.


I saw nothing else of much interest. That is a lesson not to go on unplanned trips, even if they are business trips, because I know that Bhopal has many things to see. The lake, Bharat Bhavan, the Museum of Man, the Bhimbetka caves, and Sanchi are just the tip of an iceberg, the parts that every traveller sees.

I had visited Bhopal once before, that time for a holiday. The Family and I stayed in a wonderful hotel called the Jehan Numa Palace, and had dinner in their courtyard restaurant every night. Their Shammi and Galoti kababs remain fresh in our minds. We saw the usual sights with a wonderful driver. One day we asked him what he would like us to see. It was one of the best questions we asked on that trip. He took us into parts of the town where the ghosts of the old Nawabi past linger in locked houses with ornate doors, crowded courtyards surrounded by walls with faded paintings, dazzling glass set in windows looking out of grimy facades. The area surrounds the world’s biggest industrial accident: the Union Carbide plant, which is still slowly releasing its poisons into the groundwater. I have so many photos from that day to remind us that we have only scratched the surface of Bhopal on our one holiday there. We will be back, but don’t hold your breath; the world is large and strange.