Memos from Asia

Bhimbetka: A Prehistoric Art Gallery in India’s Oldest Natural Residential Complex

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It is a bit challenging to answer the question of the origin of modern human beings in the world.

However, the rock shelters at Bhimbetka near Bhopal in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh are believed to have been a human settlement about 100,000 years ago. This archaeological site spanning over 10 km area has archaeological evidence of human inhabitance from the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods through the Chalcolithic to the Mediaeval period.

Interestingly, the Bhimbetka complex also comprises a magnificent repository of paintings on the walls of the natural rock shelters. These paintings are said to be of the prehistoric era, and the earliest among them are about 10,000 years old.

The oldest petroglyphs in the world

The caves at Bhimbetka are said to be the oldest petroglyphs in the world. Some of the rock paintings in the shelters have similarities with the aboriginal rock art found in Australia and the Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings discovered in France.

The Bhimbetka rock shelter complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of seven hills and over 750 rock shelters. Some of the natural rock caves were found to have been inhabited more than 100,000 years ago. These caves indicate the earliest traces of human life on the Indian subcontinent.

Gigantic rocks with caves at bottom sheltering prehistoric people at Bhimbetka near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, India, Asia

The first mention of Bhimbetka was found in the scholarly papers of a British official, namely W Kincaid, in 1888. He had collected the information about the site with the help of local tribes.

But it took decades together to bring out the archeological importance and value of the natural rock shelters. The first archeologist who visited the site was an Indian – VS Wakankar in 1957. The finding was accidental. Wakankar noticed the rock shelters while traveling on a train. The railway line is passing close to Bhimbetka rock shelters.

In fact, Wakankar had seen similar rock formations in Spain and France, and this made him curious to go for a check at the site too. Soon, he visited Bhimbetka with a team of archaeologists and reported the existence of several prehistoric rock shelters.

However, it was only in the 1970s that the vastness of the Bhimbetka rock shelters was discovered and put it on the record.

Over 750 rock shelters have been found after this in the area. The Bhimbetka group has 243 of these, while the Lakha Juar group nearby the site has as many as 178 shelters.

The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) says that as per the evidence collected, the complex had regular human presence right from the Stone Age through the late Acheulian age to the late Mesolithic until the 2nd century BCE. This is based on excavations made at the site, the discovered artifacts and wares, pigments in deposits, as well as the rock paintings.

The Bhimbetka site also features the world’s oldest stone walls and floors.

A nearby village, Barkheda, is the place from where the early settlers had sourced the raw materials used in some of the monoliths. It was discovered during excavations at Bhimbetka.

The site was declared as protected under the laws and brought under the management of the ASI in 1990.

Bhimbetka was declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2003.

Among the rock shelters, the auditorium cave has its unique features. It is surrounded by quartzite towers that are visible from even several kilometers. It is also the largest shelter in Bhimbetka.

The name Bhimbetka derived from the word Bhimbaithaka meaning the seat of Bhim, the second brother among the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. The locals believe that Bhim rested at the rock shelters while he, along with his brothers, was on exile. According to the folklore, Bhim used to sit on top of the hills to communicate with the local people.

Rock paintings

The rock shelters and caves of Bhimbetka have a large number of paintings. The paintings at Bhimbetka’s rock shelters are seen as early humans’ way of displaying creativity and communication method.

The cave paintings at the Bhimbetka site exhibit the incidents and things related to the human beings lived there. They include animals, festivals, battle, and hunting. The rock paintings also explain the conflict between humans and the wild for survival.

The Bhimbetka shelters have the oldest-known rock art in the Indian subcontinent, and this complex is one of the largest prehistoric complexes in the world, according to the findings of the ASI.

The Bhimbetka rock shelters are an archaeological site of the Paleolithic, exhibiting the earliest traces of human life on the Indian Subcontinent, and thus the beginning of the Indian Stone Age.

The colors used for the rock paintings are vegetable colors which survived millenniums together because they were generally made deep inside a niche or on inner walls.

An ASI official said they did the paintings with planning. “They selected the interiors of the cave to preserve the paintings from the damage of rains,” he said.

The paintings, which are mainly in white and red colors, portray a record of the varied animal life. They also display the forest environment with the prehistoric people and the social and economic aspects of the peoples’ lives.

The cave paintings primarily comprise human beings and animals. The subjects of nature and their living atmosphere are rare. Apart from these, the cave paintings also give a narrative on the events such as large processions of men on caparisoned horses and elephants, battle scenes displaying spears, bows, arrows, shields, and swords highlighting the historical period.

Inscriptions painted in white and red, and engraved on the rock surface in Sunga Brahmi (second century BC), post-Gupta Brahmi and Sankha Lipi (first century BC – 7th century AD) and later paintings also prove that the shelters were used in the Historical and Mediaeval periods.

The Bhimbetka paintings can be classified under seven different periods starting from Upper Paleolithic to medieval periods.

In the Upper Paleolithic era, the drawings are in linear representations, in green and dark red, of huge figures of animals such as bison, tigers, and rhinoceroses.

The artistic skills of the settlers are seen to have improved in the Mesolithic period. The figures get small but are stylish. More action scenes involving human beings besides their weapons, including barbed spears, pointed sticks, bows, and arrows that they used are seen during this time.

Community dance, birds, musical instruments, mothers and children, pregnant women, men carrying dead animals, drinking, and burials also appear during this time.

The Chalcolithic era paintings reveal that the residents of this area were in contact with the farm communities of the Malwa plains and transacted goods with them.

In the Early Historic era, the drawings gained a schematic and decorative upgrade and red, white, and yellow colors were used. There are mentions of religious symbols, and religious beliefs were represented by figures of yakshas, tree gods, and magical sky chariots.

Medieval period paintings are geometric linear and more schematic but are found to be crude. During this period, the colors were a combination of black manganese oxides, red hematite, and charcoal.

Here, separate rocks were used as their canvas. One rock shows drawings of elephants, swamp deer, bison, and deer.

Another rock has drawings of a peacock, a snake, a deer, and the sun. On another rock, two elephants with tusks are painted. Hunting scenes with hunters carrying bows, arrows, swords, and shields were also drawn. Another drawing in a cave portrays a bison is shown chasing a hunter while two of his companions appear to stand helplessly nearby.

According to the nature of paintings, they have been classified into two groups: one as a depiction of hunters and food gatherers, while others as fighters, on horseback and elephant carrying metal weapons. The first group dates to prehistoric times, while the second one belongs to the historical times.

Most of the drawings from the historic period display battles between the rulers carrying swords, spears, bows, and arrows.

It is believed that paintings in at least 100 rock shelters at the complex may have eroded away.

The largest concentration of prehistoric places and rock paintings in India is found in the central part of the country over three distinct mountain systems: the Vindhyachal and Satpura in the states of Madhya Pradesh, neighboring Chhattisgarh, and a part of Uttar Pradesh; and the Aravalli in Rajasthan.

Though the protected Bhimbetka site comes under the notified Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, the wild animals that appear in the cave paintings are no longer seen in the habitat.

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