Bhimbetka was probably the place about which we had least information prior to making the trip. We did recollect it being mentioned in our History textbooks, but never once did it occur to us as a travel destination! It holds a very unique place in understanding the evolution of human life in our country. Human settlement here has been traced from the Paleolothic period (around 30,000 years ago) to the medieval times and each of these settlements has left behind their mark (literally!) in this mountainous terrain right in the middle of our country. The Rock Shelters lie in the Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, 45 km south of Bhopal at the southern edge of the Vindhyachal hills.
Continuing with our horrid encounters with public transportation in Central India, our ride of 45 kilometres from Bhopal was completed in a rather quick time of three hours. The bus dropped us off the highway from where we had to trek around four kilometres to reach the actual rock shelters. This trek can be avoided if you can hitch a ride with any of the vehicles going along to the tourist spot, but we decided to hike it, so as to take in the flora and fauna of the place as the shelters are actually located in the confines of the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. Most of the trees had shed their leaves and were devoid of any greenery at that time of the year and Langurs kept giving us company till we reached the actual rock shelter site.
The moment you reach the site, you can imagine that something special was happening here. The rock formations are very different to those you usually encounter in Southern India. Legend has it that as V. S. Wakankar (famous Indian archaeologist) was traveling by train to Bhopal he saw some rock formations similar to those he had seen in Spain and France. He visited the area along with a team of archaeologists and discovered the prehistoric rock shelters in 1957.These rocks form different shapes and are named accordingly like mushroom rock, turtle rock etc. No wonder man felt the urge to exhibit his creative prowess on the surfaces of these beautifully shaped rocks.
The entire place has been charted and different rock caves have been numbered so as to ensure that visitors do not miss out on any. Adjacent to each cave, sign boards have been placed to inform visitors on what paintings and figures to look out for. Detailed information on which period these were drawn, what tools were used, and who were the inhabitants are also provided in aptly placed signboards. As we moved along from one cave to another, we slowly begin to understand how life would have been for what we simplistically term ‘the early man’. They used to live along the cave shelters, hunt in the nearby forests and prepare various tools for self-protection from the wild. All these activities have been shown in these marvelously preserved frescoes. The most common theme depicted here are animals. Tigers, Elephants, Crocodiles, Bisons, Boars, and Dogs are shown plenty in number. Various human activities, like hunting, dancing, communal drinking, are also depicted. The concept of living as a family also makes an appearance, with images of children with their mothers and pregnant women with their husbands. As societies evolved, so did the rock paintings. Religious symbols start making appearances, so do chariots and war processions indicating the changing nature of life for the inhabitants of the area. The most amazing aspect of the paintings is their wonderful state of preservation. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out how these paintings have managed to withstand the furies of nature for so long, with some attributing it to the mysterious concoction of colored earth, vegetable dyes, roots etc.
The best part of our trip to Bhimbetka was the peace and serenity the place offered. Located in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary, the wilderness surrounding it is breathtaking. Standing on those rock formations one can gaze at wide stretches of the wildlife sanctuary. Looking out, one begins to imagine why this was an ideal settlement ground for the earliest inhabitants of our country. The rock shelters provided ideal vantage points to observe the nearby surrounding forests, to search for food and also to prepare against any incoming danger. Only once you come here and experience the surroundings can you begin to understand what inspired our ancestors to display their creative urges on the largest and most natural of all canvases.