Travel Review: Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh

45 Kms south of Bhopal is the world heritage site of Bhimbetka, on the Bhopal-Hoshangabad road. As you travel towards Hoshangabad from Bhopal, on your right you would be able to see rock formations on small hills, which at first sight would look intriguing. As you reach the road leading to Bhimbetka caves, you may have to wait at the railway crossing, which is mostly closed and is opened only when there are enough vehicles to cross and there are no trains in sight. But this is a point where you can refresh and fuel yourself at the MP tourism hotel, just before the railway crossing, as you may not get anything including water after this point. For photographers, this is a good point for taking a long distance shot of the rock shelters.

The Bhimbetka caves are one of the oldest known human habitations, dating back to some 10,000 years ago. The rocks here are estimated from the time when the area was probably ocean and the curved formation of rocks is said to be formed by the hitting of sea waves. There are more than 750 rock shelters that have been found in the jungles, with more than 400 with paintings, in and around Bhimbetka, but only about 20 caves are open to the public. These caves have paintings dating back from various periods during which they would have been inhabited. Paintings are primarily in red and white colors. There are few in green and yellow. Red ones are the best preserved, probably because of the rich color. White ones seem faded and are probably the oldest ones. At a lot of places, paintings have been done one upon the other, indicating that the artists have used the same space to paint and re-paint. The style of paintings resembles the Worli paintings and at times the Madhubani. There is predominance of geometrical drawings to depict figures. Only at one place could I find a non-geometrical human figure that looked like either Shiva or a meditating sage. Some of the paintings looks so fresh that it is difficult to believe that they are olden than a few days, and you have an urge to touch them and see if they have been recently painted. Some of them even seem to defy the dust that is all around.

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Animals form the primary subject of paintings, followed by humans and occasional trees and flowers. Zoo rock, one of the most famous rocks here, depicts all kinds of animals, primarily in white color and some in red. It can be a good exercise to stand below this rock and identify animals. There are scenes depicting wars with the kings and the soldiers on horses. You can make out the king from his decorated horse and at times with an umbrella on top of his head. You can see the swords and other weapons used in warfare then. There are scenes depicting community living, with groups of people dancing, drinking, playing musical instruments, performing rituals and enjoying life. There are couples depicted. Most of the paintings are on the ceilings of the cave. The guide told us that this place was chosen by the painters as the water could not reach there and hence the paintings would survive. But my feeling is that there must have been paintings all around, but the only ones to survive are those where the water could not reach. If you observe carefully, you would see that the paintings on the outer edges are lighter than the ones away from the edges.

Apart from rock shelters, there is an enclosure like formation, which the guide would tell you, is a potential auditorium and this is the place where the community gatherings were probably held. The throne like rock in the middle probably belonged to the headman or the king. I would say in the absence of any references, all this is subject to our interpretation.

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About 100 meters from the entrance of Bhimbetka caves, there is a cave temple, which is still a practicing temple. We were told that this temple was set by the Pandavas during their agyaat vaas or exile. In fact the name Bhimbetka also refers to Bheem, and literally means the place where Bheem used to sit.

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For a change Bhimbetka caves are a discovery that has been made by an Indian, unlike most old structures which were discovered by the wandering British officers. They were discovered as recently as 1958 by V. S. Wakankar, who did the detailed survey of the region on behalf of the Vikram University, Ujjain. He classified the various types of rocks and rock shelters. Later the excavations were carried out by ASI and others. Before the discovery of these pre-historic caves, this area was thought of as Buddhist hills, sprinkled with various stupas. These caves indicate the continuous existence of human life in this region over the ages, from pre-historic time to right up to the medieval period.

The place left me wanting to see and explore more. All reviews of the place and all the previous visitors told us that you can not spend more than 2 hours and most tourists just spend about 30 minutes in the place, but I think I could have spent some more time and if I was allowed, I would have wanted to go and see more rock shelters. There is only one guide, who does a pretty shoddy job and wraps up the whole tour in 10-12 minutes. You can do much better by picking up the ASI guide and using it as your tour guide. With the guide in hand you can find the paintings on the numbered rocks and also read the complete description of the same.

The caves would leave you wondering if the painters would have ever thought that their pastime would become a peep into their lives and times for the generations to follow. You would also wonder do we really need anything beyond a roof on our heads and some food to eat, to lead a happy life.

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A must visit for anyone interested in the history of mankind.

Anuradha is an independent Innovation Consultant based out of Gurgaon. You can see her profile at http://www.anuradhagoyal.com

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