The rock paintings at Bhimbetka

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An hour's drive from Bhopal, in a peaceful area of natural beauty, are the rock shelters of Bhimbetka.  These shelters show evidence of continuous settlement from 100,000 to 1000 years ago.  They are remarkable for the survival of wall paintings which chronicle the ways of life of successive generations.  Gopa Roy gives an account following her visit there this year.

The rock paintings at Bhimbetka

The Vindhyan Mountains rise in dense deciduous forests of teak and sal about forty-six kilometres south-east of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. The abundant plant and animal life of the area, both in the hills and the alluvial plains below, have enabled humans to flourish here for millennia. Now within the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, the northern fringes of the mountains at Bhimbetka are home to around 700 ancient rock shelters, 500 or so containing paintings. The naturally-formed sandstone shelters and their extraordinary contents seem to have been overgrown and forgotten until 1957, when the hills caught the attention of a passing archaeologist, Dr. Vishnu Wakankar of Vikram University, Ujjain, on his way to Bhopal by train. Excavations eventually followed in the 1970s. These revealed material remains and burials spanning a long period of continuous occupation from the Palaeolithic (about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago), through the Mesolithic (10,000 to 2,500 years ago), the time of the earliest paintings, to historic times (there are inscriptions in the Brahmi script dating from the second century BCE to the fifth century CE).

The smooth curves of the naturally-eroded sandstone provided shelter during the monsoon rains and from the sun. The walls furnished a protected surface for the paintings, drawn by successive communities using red or white mineral pigments. There is easy access for visitors now to fifteen or so shelters with paintings. They still have a sheltering feel, as one takes in the views of the surrounding countryside.

Some of the paintings have faded, but others, sheltered from the elements in an area relatively pollution-free, have remained in remarkably good condition. The paintings provide an extraordinary and moving chronicle of aspects of lives of the inhabitants over thousands of years, suggesting their connection both with their habitat, with previous generations and with one another; from nomadic hunter-gatherers to agricultural communities: hunting (and being chased by animals), fighting, with armed warriors depicted on foot or on elephant or horse-back; and peaceful activities from later periods: farming with ploughs, dancing, drumming. They depict ways of life still followed by some local communities and a long and continued interaction between people and the landscape.

The animals are recognisably creatures which are or were once found locally: they include bulls, gaur (Indian bison), bears and boars; various species of deer; lions and tigers and rhinoceros; birds and rodents; then from the historic period, horses, elephants, oxen and goats; and the occasional mythical creature. Later again, there are paintings of subjects relating to Hindu mythology (Ganesha, Shiva, Shiva linga). Some earlier paintings have been painted over, though elsewhere the same surfaces have been used but without obliterating the earlier paintings; other shelters show paintings presented almost in a chronological series, the later ones painted beneath the intact earlier paintings; and touchingly, to a similar scale. On one wall, hunting gives way to farming with ploughs; and elsewhere, simple but poignant, there are several shelters with human handprints.

Bhimbetka is absorbing, thought-provoking and moving, in a peaceful area of natural beauty, an hour’s drive from Bhopal.

Photos: Gopa Roy