India's rock of ages: exploring the earliest evidence of human life at Bhimbetka
Bhimbetka is located within the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, which is populated by tigers, leopards, deer and snakes that hide in rocks and nooks
Mammoth quartzite and sandstone outcrops tower all around me, glowing a brilliant shade of orange in the afternoon sun. An open-air museum and library rolled into one, these historic rocks offer an awe-inspiring history lesson told entirely in pictures.
I am here to see the earliest evidence of human life on the Indian subcontinent. Zoo Rock, one of the oldest examples of cave art here, is festooned with the paintings of nearly 200 animals, with sixteen different species roaming across the rock wall – from deer and antelopes to huge elephants. In between the animals are small stick-like human figures.
I am in the Bhimbetka caves, near Bhopal, in one of India’s largest states, Madhya Pradesh. These quartzite rock formations are home to pictographs on ceilings and walls, and have been sheltered from the elements for aeons. There are as many as 10 layers of paintings to be found on the walls, long protected by the rock overhang.
In 1957, Indian archaeologist Vishnu Wakankar, who used to travel past here on the train to Nagpur, noticed the impressive landscape from his window. It reminded him of the rock shelters he had seen in France. One day, he alighted at the station and headed up to take a closer look, inadvertently discovering a treasure trove of prehistoric art. A number of archaeological excavations followed and, in 2003, the site was added to the Unesco World Heritage list.
Bhimbetka is located within the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, which is populated by tigers, leopards, deer and snakes that hide in rocks and nooks. The word Bhimbetka translates to “the place where Bhima sits”. Legend has it, Bhima, an important mythological figure from the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, rested here with his brothers after they were exiled from their kingdom.
I take a tour of the complex with local Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guide Bimal Rai. Bhimbetka sprawls across a vast area, with more than 750 rock shelters – 15 of which have been made accessible to tourists and are now signposted and fitted with wooden walkways. The drawings span many centuries, with the oldest dating back to the Upper Paleolithic era. Near the entrance is the gargantuan Auditorium Cave, a Stone Age, 17-metre-high space that feels like a Gothic cathedral in its scale and soaring arches. With the sunlight filtering through large openings in the rock wall, it is shaped like a cross, with a huge rock at its centre.
Near the exit is a pit from the Mesolithic era, where bones and some stone implements were found and moved to a museum in Bhopal. Hammered out by ancient tools, cup-shaped depressions called cupules dot the walls.
The pictographs and petroglyphs throw much light on how our ancestors lived. There are images of bulls, buffalo, deer, antelopes, peacocks, tigers and even the left handprint of a child. Various community activities are illustrated – from dancing and burial ceremonies to hunting practices from the Mesolithic through to the Medieval eras. One cave has a depiction of a royal procession, with horsemen, drummers and musicians in tow.
These are said to be some of the world’s oldest petroglyphs and remind me of the aboriginal art of Australia. They are like storybooks of old – offering a glimpse into an ancient world. One of the signboards calls Bhimbetka the earliest cradle of cognitive human evolution: “The site was in use as early as 100,000BC, even before painting evolved,” Bimal says.
Some rocks are smooth, some textured with grooves, others are craggy and imposing. Some shelters are as cool as air-conditioned offices and populated by colonies of bats. What is amazing is the height at which some of the paintings are found. How did the artists get up there and how did they paint? Did they stand on the branches of a tree or create their own ancient form of scaffolding?
I am overwhelmed by the fact that these masterpieces were created with no easel and no technology, using basic, crude instruments. “The ancient artists used rough brushes made from twigs of trees and paints made from local minerals and organic elements,” explains Bimal. Sometimes they also used animal fats and the extracts of leaves in the mixtures. Most of the paintings are in red and white, with an occasional splash of green and ochre.
The devil is in the details. There is one cave painting done entirely in red, with hunters chasing a herd of animals with arrows and spears. One rock painting shows the skeletons of horses. “This was development,” says Bimal. “The ancient man now realised how an animal looked under its skin and painted that.”
At the time, human survival depended on animals, which is why wildlife features so prominently in these age-old illustrations. In one cave, a bison is shown in pursuit of a hunter whose companions watch on helplessly. “The hunter being hunted,” says Bimal. The paintings also show the evolution of man from a nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmer, and later with advanced weapons, riding a horse and elephant.
Bhimbetka is all the more surreal because of the absence of crowds. It is easy to imagine how that prehistoric man might have felt as he painted the inside of his cave with the scenes he saw around him.
Besides the rock art, nature presents some showstoppers, which Bimal is eager to point out. A rock shaped liked a tortoise is a marvel of nature silhouetted against the surrounding landscape of fields and small villages. Some distance away is another rock formation that looks like the head of a cobra.
It’s interesting to note that the cave-dwellers of later periods did not obliterate the work created by earlier artists, instead drawing over existing images to create an eternal canvas. If not for Bimal, I would miss the minutiae – such as how horses were introduced by the Mongols and that’s why Indian artists initially drew them in stylised X patterns, as they were unfamiliar with the animal.
More than anything else, I am fascinated by the fact that these oldest forms of human expression and creativity can inspire us even in today’s digital world.
Published: July 10, 2019 08:00 AM