The Bhimbetka Rock Shelter near Bhopal has the oldest-known rock art in India and is one of the largest prehistoric complexes in the world
The first time I went to Bhimbetka caves was way back in 2005. Though they had been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, they were still relatively unknown. I remember the sheer awe of discovering cave paintings dating back nearly 30,000 years.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit them again. And am happy to report that the awe factor had not diminished.
The Bhimbetka Rock Shelter, a 45-km drive from Bhopal, has the oldest-known rock art in India and is one of the largest prehistoric complexes in the world. An archaeological treasure, Bhimbetka has around 760 rock shelters of which 500 are adorned with paintings, though only around 20 are open to the public. The paintings found in the rock shelters here have a striking resemblance to the ones discovered in Kakadu National Park in Australia; to the cave paintings of Bushmen in Kalahari Desert and Upper Palaeolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France.
The caves depict paintings belonging to the Paleolithic (10000 BC), Mesolithic (5000 BC) and the Neolithic (2000 BC) periods.
The most famous cave is the Zoo Rock where one can see paintings dating back to 10000 BC made with limestone. There are also paintings made between 5,000 years and 7,000 years ago with vegetable colours and iron.
The Zoo Rock depicts a variety of animals from horses to elephants and from bulls to antelopes. There is a distinct difference between the paintings made in 10000 BC and those made in 5000 BC. It makes one wonder about the evolution of animals as well as that of man as an artist.
Some of the caves depict paintings of man’s daily life thousands of years ago. Man was and continues to be a social animal. So you have paintings showing group dances, music and hunting scenes.
Some caves have paintings which date back to 2000 BC. Here man is shown wearing clothes and the weapons are more sophisticated. The paintings too have improved. For instance, while horses were shown as nothing but line sketches in the 10000 BC paintings, a horse painted in 2000 BC could give Hussain a run for his money.
Legend says Bhimbetka is derived from ‘bhimbaithka’ meaning ‘the sitting place of Bhima’, from the Mahabharata. Similarly, it is believed that the nearby Lakhajuhar forest is where the Pandavas had their lac palace.
The Bhimbetka caves were discovered in 1958 by an archaeologist from Ujjain who saw these rock formations from a distance while crossing this area by train. Later he came back to these caves and on closer inspection discovered the paintings inside the caves. The area was pretty much deserted except for some tribals who lived here and the paintings had been ignored for centuries.
Different teams undertook excavation in and around the area from 1958 to 1974 and various skeletons and weapons/tools were found dating back thousands of years. All these are now displayed at various museums including one at Bhopal.
Besides the paintings, which of course, are a wonder, the caves and rock formations themselves are worth marvelling at. There is a rock formation that looks like a tortoise and a cave the entrance to which resembles the open mouth of a snake. Some caves are small while others can accommodate up to a 100 people.
Recently, one of the rarest fossils in the world has been discovered at Bhimbetka. Researchers believe that they have found the first ever fossil in India of a Dickinsonia – the Earth’s ‘oldest animal’ dating back 570 million years – on the roof of what is called the ‘Auditorium Cave’ at Bhimbetka. The fossil was discovered by chance when two experts from the Geological Survey of India who were sightseeing at Bhimbetka spotted the leaf-like impression.
Suddenly, Bhimbetka’s 30,000-year-old rock art seems rather young compared to its latest discovery.
Nearest railway station and airport is Bhopal – 46km away.
Best time to visit: From July to March.
Timings: 7:00am to 6:00 pm
Stay: Bhopal has several hotels catering to different budgets. Check out Jehan Numa Palace Hotel or Courtyard by Marriott Bhopal