Bhimbetka – A Prehistoric Open Art Gallery

‘Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. They are our touchstones, our points of reference, our identity.’ This quote is courtesy UNESCO World Heritage information kit. It aptly describes what a treasure trove of heritage sites Madhya Pradesh has which date back to the prehistoric and medieval period. Khajuraho, Bhimbetka and Sanchi are home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites which were long on our wish list. Read on to find out how we went about exploring Bhimbetka, and another historical place Bhojpur around it.

Nestled in verdant forest covers on Vindhya Hills are the Bhimbetka rock shelters that were once inhabited by early humans, millennia ago. Out of the 750 rock shelters, 500 are adorned with cave paintings dating back to approximately 30,000 years! These paintings bear similarities to the cave paintings of Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, aboriginal artwork discovered in Australia’s Kakadu National Park as well as Upper Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France. 

Our driver arrived at our hotel at the designated time, and we set off to explore Bhimbetka located 46 km from Bhopal. On arriving at the rock shelters, we were keen that a guide takes us around and explain the nitty-gritty of the caves. Our driver introduced us to our guide for the day Vimal who agreed to help us explore the caves.

Bhimbetka derives its name from ‘Bhimbaithka’ which translated into English means ‘The Sitting Place of Bhima’ of Mahabharata fame. While more than 500 rock shelters are spread out over different hills, only 15 are open to the public. Excavation work on the caves began after being discovered by V. S. Wakankar who has been christened as the ‘Father of Rock Art School in India.’ The Adivasis who live in the villages on the periphery of the cave even today follow cultural traditions that can be seen in the rock paintings.

Enormous quartzite cliffs paved the way for a wooden platform that led us to the Auditorium Cave.  Drawings in different pigments of animals, religious symbols, scenes from the lives of early inhabitants, including the handprint of a child could be seen. As we moved further, we saw a rock naturally formed due to erosion and weathering in the shape of a tortoise elsewhere was another rock with the profile of a lion.

Tortoise Shaped Rock, Bhimbetka @Rafiq Somani

Guides explained to bewildered tourists how these rock shelters, some of which were three-storeyed tall, were akin to the modern bungalows. Niches in the rocks were described as balconies, large smooth flat surfaces with low roofs were the bedrooms and so on. One of the impressive caves is the Zoo Rock shelter where the ceiling was the canvas on which were numerous images of wild animals like elephants, bison, deer, and so on. Human figures in a hunting scene with bows, arrows, swords, and shields were painted.

Procession painting in Zoo Shelter, Bhimbetka @Rafiq Somani

These rock art paintings reminded us so much of the Warli paintings done by the tribal of Maharashtra and parts of Gujarat. The communal dance depiction bore a striking resemblance to the Tarpa folk dance performed by the Warli tribal which centres around the Tarpa- a trumpet-like musical instrument. Turns out our guess was bang on as it was confirmed by our guide that the rock paintings are believed to be the inspiration of later tribal Gond and Warli paintings.

Cave Painting resembling Warli Painting, Bhimbetka @Rafiq Somani

Paint markings by the ASI staff get washed away by rains in a couple of years. While quite a few of the rock paintings have survived the ravages of time over a millennium, explained our guide. Some researchers suggest that the cave dwellers used vegetable-based pigments from roots and leaves, coloured earth and these were mixed with animal fat. Others claim that the cave dwellers mixed manganese, hematite, soft red stone and wooden coal. We could see red, green, yellow ochre and white colours in different tints and shades. Pieces of fibrous plants were used as paintbrushes.  

Layer upon layer of superimposed images that were done during several different time frames makes these paintings unique. Imagine the same canvas being used by artists from Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early historic to Medieval ages! One wonders why the cave dwellers chose to paint on an already painted rock. What was it that they were trying to convey? Did it have religious or social connotations? Why were the caves abandoned? Bhimbetka rock caves aptly described as ‘India’s oldest art gallery’ had left us intrigued and amazed.

Twenty-five kilometres from Bhimbetka is Bhojpur which was founded by Parmara Raja Bhoj after whom the town gets its name. The 11th century Shiva temple here is often described as the ‘Somnath of the East.’ On approaching Bhojpur, we got the first glimpse of the temple, located on a hillock, from a distance. As we drove through the narrow lane leading to the temple, we could see large swarms of faithful who had assembled at the temple to pay their respects.

The sanctum stood on a plinth with a seven and a half feet lingam. The wall at the entrance had a few sculptures of apsaras, ganas and goddesses. The ceiling inside the sanctum was carved and supported by pillars. Unlike most Hindu temples which have curvilinear shikhara (rising tower), this temple had a flat roof. There were jharokhas or balconies on three walls of the temple, these were not accessible and purely made for ornamental purposes. One of the walls had a pranala which served as a drainage outlet for the liquid used to bathe the lingam.

The temple was left incomplete.  Detailed architectural plans, engraved on the rocks close by, indicating that the original plan was to build a massive temple complex with many more temples. Had the execution been complete, it would have been one of the largest Indian temple complexes! No one knows why it was never completed, but even then, it is awe-inspiring due to its sheer size. It was time for us to return to Bhopal.

Bhimbetka rock paintings are an archaeological gem whose vivid imagery provides a glimpse to the life of prehistoric man depicting their collective existence, rituals, religious beliefs and symbolism. They provide an invaluable record of the history of man from the earliest Paleolithic era to late Medieval ages. A visit to this Prehistoric Open Art Gallery is definitely worth undertaking.  

Nearest Airport: The nearest airport is in Bhopal with connectivity to major cities of India. From Bhopal, you can hire a vehicle to Bhimbetka.
Distances: Bhopal to Bhimbetka is 46 km by road. Bhimbetka to Bhojpur is 25 km by road.
Where to Stay: We stayed in Bhopal and chose to make a day trip. Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s Highway Treat in Bhimbetka is an option, or alternatively, you can do a net search.
Travel Trip: You won’t find any decent eating joints between Bhimbetka and Bhojpur, so have your lunch at MPT Highway Treat in Bhimbetka.

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