Creative expression through the ages: Bhimbetka Caves

Mid-January marks the start of the harvest festival celebrations in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India. Two years ago, I took the opportunity of a long weekend to travel to Bhopal to view two UNESCO world heritage sites- Sanchi and Bhimbetka caves. It was an eventful journey getting there what with fog delaying the departure of our flight from Chennai, missing the flight connection from Delhi and having to argue with folks at the counter in Delhi to get confirmed seats on the next flight from Delhi to Bhopal. But it was all worth it.

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Entrance to the archaelogical site of Bhimbetka Caves

The first day of our trip in Bhopal we took a taxi to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka caves. On our drive there, my mother and I noticed a strange rocky outcrop atop a hill in the distance and we wondered what it was. This turned out to be part of the Bhimbetka archaeological site. An interesting fact that I later found out was that the archaeologist who discovered these caves in the 1950s, V S Wakankar, also noticed these rock formations from a train and was drawn to the similarities between these rocks and rock dwellings he had apparently visited in France and Spain.

Excavations at the site have revealed that the rock shelters at Bhimbetka had been continually inhabited from the late Acheulian period (at least 100,000 years ago) to the end of the mesolithic period (around 9,000- 5,000BCE). Bhimbetka is most famous for its prehistoric rock art. The paintings that one can see at Bhimbetka were not all done at the same time but vary in age anywhere between tens of thousands of years and to a few hundred years. As with any ancient art, you are drawn to what seems to be the basic human urge to leave an imprint and for creative expression. We’re fortunate that some of these paintings have survived the ravages of time by virtue of the fact that they were well protected on the underside of these rock shelters.

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The first painting you encounter

One of the first paintings you see as you enter the site is one of a man on an elephant facing a larger elephant. The man is armed with what seems to be a spear and he also seems to have a sword. Just below this you can see a bull and an axe(?) painted below. BUT allow your eyes to keep looking at the photograph and you can see that there are other fainter images of earlier paintings that appear to the left. Do you see the horseman just above the bull? Or the horseman and a standing man to the top left of the smaller elephant? Look closely and you will find more paintings of men on the left (there is one just at the bottom edge of the photo).

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A closer look reveals many more details

This is the beauty of Bhimbetka- you will see a faint discolouration on the surface of the rocks and you will tend to think that this is simply natural. However as I discovered, in almost all cases, you could detect a faint trace of painting -ochre, yellow and white were the colours I could make out the most but apparently there are even art works in green.

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Canvas and the hand imprint

There is also at one point a very touching imprint of a human hand. The descriptions on site say that it is an imprint of a child’s hand on the wall. Some child thousands of years ago made an outline (or an adult made it for the child) on the wall and it is there for us to look at until today. Talk about posterity. Ars longa vita brevis- even if the art is just a crude paint blob.

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Close up of the hand

You can see that I earned my lunch on that day- I had way too much crawling around in the small spaces and photographing rock painting that the other tourists ignored.

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Discovering the details

This one has a scorpion painted with other animals.

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Scorpion and other animals

It’s easy to mistake this as just discolouration of the rock but it isn’t.

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Not just natural discolouration

I don’t know much about rock art but I have ambitions. When I visited the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi (exactly a month ago, now that I think about it) I picked up this book from the gift shop. It does have the airs of being a very serious scholarly book thereby going completely above my head but I hope to glean at least a few nuggets of information.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lav says:

    That was very insightful! It just goes to show that we should never stop looking…

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      I know- there’s so much waiting to be discovered

  2. Nirmala says:

    I wonder if that book has section on Bimbetka?

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      It does have references to Bhimbetka- I checked in the index

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