Bhimbetka: India’s Oldest Art Gallery



Large imposing sandstone boulders shaped by the wind, water and elements atop a range of hills, which are the oldest part of the Indian subcontinent - the Vindhyachal ranges. Walk through the narrow path that leads you to the entrance - the cave known as the ‘Auditorium’- of Bhimbetka, around 45 km from Bhopal, and you will not be surprised that this is where some of the earliest humans in India lived, hunted and prayed.

There is something other-worldly about India’s oldest gallery of prehistoric art, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over here, you will find, in vivid colour, the story of man and how life changed for him, over thousands of years.

While prehistoric cave art has been found in many parts of the world, the largest concentration is in Western Europe, South Africa, Australia and India. In India, the first evidence of prehistoric rock art was found in 1867 by A C L Carlleyle, of the then newly formed Archaeological Survey of India, in Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, and then in Rewa in Madhya Pradesh. In the following decades, many more sites were discovered, most of them in Central India – present-day Madhya Pradesh, parts of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

The rock shelters
The rock shelters|LHI

Of all these, the most exciting is undoubtedly the paintings in Bhimbetka and the surrounding hills where over 1000 rock shelters have been found. Almost half of these have some form of art ranging from mythical animals to scenes of war - representing a wide period of time from prehistoric times to even the early medieval era. Interestingly, the name Bhimbetka, comes from the local belief that the big boulders, that can even be seen from far, were used by the legendary Pandava, Bhim as a place to sit hence Bhim-Betka).

So why did early man, decide to make Bhimbetka his home and stay on here? And what does the art here, tell us?

Archaeologist V S Wakankar
Archaeologist V S Wakankar|https://www.bradshawfoundation.com/

Discovering Bhimbetka

It was in March 1957 that archaeologist V S Wakankar chanced upon the cave art at Bhimbetka. The story goes that Wakankar was travelling by train from Bhopal, when he pulled into the station at Obedullaganj. Looking up, he noticed an oddly-shaped line of outcrops atop the hills in the distance. At first, he thought these were remnants of a fort but he wasn’t fully satisfied.

He decided to get off the train at the next station and check out the area. What he found over the next couple of weeks was staggering.

In local history circles, this story is the stuff of legend because, apparently helping the enthusiastic archaeologist survey the hills was a local hermit who had made this area his home. The ‘baba’, whose ashram or retreat you will still find just beyond the entrance to Bhimbetka, had for long been familiar with the mysterious caves around him. He was only too happy to show Wakankar around and the two trekked across the hills for days.

After his initial survey, it took Wakankar more than a decade to return to the site and carry out detailed excavations. What he and subsequent archaeologists found here was much more than just rock art; there was evidence of continuous occupation for over 60,000 years!

The cluster of hills around Bhimbetka
The cluster of hills around Bhimbetka|LHI

Life in and Around Bhimbetka

Bhimbetka is just one cluster of rock shelters with prehistoric cave art. There are four others in the adjoining hills, including Vinayka, Bhonrawali and Lakhajuar East and Lakhajuar West, spread across a very vast area. Most of these sites are in forested areas and difficult to access, with the Bhimbetka hill being the most accessible and where much of the excavations have been done. Today, most of Bhimbetka has been cordoned off to protect this priceless prehistoric picture gallery.

But walk around the clutch of shelters open to visitors and it is easy to see why this area was ideal for early man to settle in. The weathered sandstone rocks formed protective shelters and provided raw material for tools, while the rich vegetation ensured a steady supply of games and food. There was also plenty of water from natural sources.

The trench dug at Bhimbetka
The trench dug at Bhimbetka|LHI

The earliest layer of settlement excavated at Bhimbetka by Wakankar and later archaeologists goes back to the Palaeolithic period, ie, more than 60,000 years ago. There is evidence of rough, pebble tools, later stone-age choppers and cleavers and microliths that get finer and finer over time. The local sandstone seemed to have been ideal for forging tools. Interestingly, it is in the Mesolithic period – around 10,000 BCE – that Bhimbetka seems to have come alive with exuberant life. This is when the rock art becomes prolific.

Dr Narayan Vyas, who was part of the team that excavated the rock shelters in 1970-73 under Wakankar, explains, “In one of the sites here, archaeologists excavated a Mesolithic child burial. This was dated to around 10,000 BCE. As the excavations went deeper, under the burial, we found a lot of green nodules and it seemed that they had been used to extract colour. This was similar to the colour used in paintings in the caves (in Bhonrawali), where we had found hints of a layer of green painting under the prehistoric layer. This was the same pigment used in the art. This indicated that the art was from the Upper Palaeolithic period.”

From what we can clearly see and date, the art ranges from the Prehistoric (Mesolithic) period, around 10,000 BCE, to the Chalcolithic (copper age), Early Historic and the Medieval period. In fact, spend some time here, and you can clearly see how life and art evolved in tandem.

What the Prehistoric Art Reveals

The Prehistoric art at Bhimbetka, which can be identified by the red pigment used, depicts the life of hunting communities from 10,000-8000 BCE. The main material used for this art was haematite, a reddish-black mineral consisting of ferric oxide, an ore of iron. Almost 20 variations of it, which were used to produce different shades of red, have been found in the area. Archaeologists believe that the paintings were made with thin brushes, probably made of twigs.

This early art of Bhimbetka is characterised by its closeness to nature, which can be seen in the dominance of animal figures and hunting scenes. These are interesting because they also give us a peek into what life was like then. For instance, these paintings indicate that a variety of techniques was used to hunt and trap animals like chital (deer), buffalos, wild boars and nilgai (blue bull). They also give us a sense of people’s beliefs.

A man being hunted by a beast
A man being hunted by a beast|Wikimedia Commons

One of the most spectacular images from this period is that of a large animal with an enormous face like that of a boar and the horns of a bull, its hair raised on its back (Shelter Ill F-1 9 or Bull Rock). This ‘unreal’ animal seems to be attacking a small, fleeing human figure. Archaeologist Dr V N Misra, who too has carried out extensive excavations at Bhimbetka, says this is “probably a mythological scene” with the large boar or bull being “a deified animal”. He says this is supported by the fact that the same scene, albeit on a slightly modified scale, is also seen in two other paintings.

Chalcolithic art
Chalcolithic art|LHI

By the Chalcolithic period (or copper age which has a wide range of dates and could be anywhere between 3000 to 1000 BCE here), there is a change in the style of art and subjects in Bhimbetka’s paintings. The art of this period is mostly in white and, Misra explains, belongs to the stage “when the hunter-gatherer society had begun to receive economic, technological and artistic influences from the settled Chalcolithic farmers of the Betwa plains”. There is also evidence of the domestication of animals as men are seen grazing animals and leading herds.

Misra also points out that the geometric motifs of Chalcolithic pottery designs are seen in the decoration of the animals’ bodies in this phase of art. Designs like lattices, zigzags, wavy lines and spirals are extensively employed to decorate the human and animal bodies.

By the later period, perhaps Early Historic, around the start of the common era, life seems to have changed in and around Bhimbetka. The art in this phase reflects the presence of horses and more settled life. By the Later Medieval Period by the 10th - 11th CE, these images undergo a further change, with paintings depicting riding warriors and elephants charging in battle. Their subject-matter, for the most part, consists of royal processions. Wild animals on the other hand, virtually disappear from the artists’ repertoire.

The Early Historic art
The Early Historic art|LHI

Clearly, by now, people had long moved out of the caves in these hills but, amazingly, they still came back to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka, to draw and leave their mark on the rocks here. This indicates a different facet of these ancient caves and their story.

Misra says there are many clues to suggest that Bhimbetka’s art had ritualistic and spiritual significance. He points out in a paper The Prehistoric Rock Art of Bhimbetka (1981), “The paintings are not always restricted to the caves or dwellings and this indicates that they were not used just for decorative purposes. The fact that there is a lot of evidence of paintings superimposed over earlier ones indicates that they may have been a mark of magico-religious beliefs and rites, over many centuries. This is a practice common in many tribal societies even today. These shelters might have served as holy places or shrines for the initiation of young members.”

The rock shelters
The rock shelters|LHI

The Vindhyachal range, where Bhimbetka is located, is in the oldest part of India and the area around Bhimbetka is dominated by tribals, many of them Gonds – who are among the oldest tribes in India – after whom the term ‘Gondwana Age’ was coined.

In fact, the Vindhyachal range, with the Narmada River flowing west on one side and the Satpura range beyond, has been home to the subcontinent’s earliest life. This is also where some of the oldest dinosaur fossils in India have been found. It is not surprising then that it is in the oldest part of India – at its very heart – that man found his earliest home in the subcontinent.

The rock art of Bhimbetka is one of the finest examples of prehistoric art in India and is well known across the world. Yet, the region and its beautiful rock paintings remain largely a mystery. There is so much more work to be done.

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