Walking through the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka in central Madhya Pradesh, a set of sprawling galleries of ancient wall art, I find myself wondering whether there really is a big difference between modern and prehistoric art. Some stick figure drawings make me think of Giacometti’s sculptures, other more abstract sketches bring to mind works by Picasso. There are mystical geometrical patterns that could be modern naïvist art. It feels a bit as if I’ve come to an ancient source of world art.
Bhimbetka is vast. Out of an estimated 750 rock shelters, 400-500 are adorned with paintings, and 15 of the best have been made accessible to tourists via walkways and signposting. It is splendid; like a Stone Age version of the Louvre.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is very peaceful on the weekday that I visit. Starting down the path, I find myself facing a gigantic Stone Age assembly hall—39 metres long and 17 metres tall—known as the Auditorium Cave. Maybe this was where ancient artists got together to listen to painting lectures by their gurus.
Here, I find a drawing of two elephants and one mahout with a prod in hand, a Mesolithic hand imprint, several cup-shaped indentations thought to date from around—hold your breath—10,000 B.C. And finally, as if to demonstrate the wide temporal range of work on display, there is one comparatively recent Sunga Era edict (100 B.C.) carved onto a side wall near the cave. I’m a bit put off by the tacky modern sculptures of Stone Age people that seem to be recently installed in some of the initial caves, but fortunately the rest have been more or less left the way they were discovered.
Some of the cliffs of Bhimbetka soar high, like monuments or temples created by nature. It is little wonder that these rock walls attracted prehistoric artists. Photo: Jagdish Agarwal/Passage/Corbis/Imagelibrary
Walking under a dramatic cliff, I reach the famous Zoo Rock, with paintings of over 200 animals on it. There are deer with majestic antlers, bulky buffaloes, massive elephants, a giant chicken, and a dozen other species running helter-skelter across the rock wall. Here and there, I spot paintings of human figures who, like me, are trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of the chaos, one mahout is goading an elephant through the zoological traffic jam. At another spot, a hulking man with a giant upper torso looks like he might be suffering from road rage. To add to the chaos, there’s a royal procession with warriors on horseback rattling their weapons. It all seems to imply that traffic could get wild already around 4,000 B.C., which is when this particular rock is believed to have been painted.
A bit further down the hillside is Rock Shelter No. 8, shaped like a pocket which I crawl into. While squatting, I’m able to study several paintings of humans and animals in various poses up-close.
At the next rock shelter I find a crazy hunting scene depicted in blood red— arrows and spears fly as hunters chase a herd of animals. Most of the artworks are in white, but some artists also used ochre, red, and green. Another rock I study, features rows of people dancing and a man beating a drum so huge that I can almost feel the beat some five or six thousand years later. Is this a successful hunt being celebrated?
I bump into some teens on holiday. One of the boys shouts to the other, “This surely isn’t worth wasting time on. Let’s go.” In this age of multiplexes and 3D action movies I suppose the caves might seem unimpressive to some, but I feel we need to put them in context and see them for what they are.
After the boys leave, the quiet helps me concentrate as I sit there, surrounded by black-faced langurs and lizards. Were these caves a dwelling for some ancient tribal headman? Maybe they were a religious spot; some of the cliffs soar like temple spires. My favourite theory is that it was an art school, because here and there newer paintings have been made over older ones, suggesting recycling or imitation.
Some representational sculptures of Stone Age humans have been placed in the first few caves. Photo: Zac O’Yeah
Whatever the case, this is a great location for an arts space. The hill is part of the Vindhyas, offering charming vistas of thickly forested, gently undulating countryside to the south. To the north is the Hyderabad highway. But too far away to disturb us. I’m struck by the jungle soundtrack of birds, animals, and the wind rustling the trees, perfectly complementing the cave paintings.
As one signboard puts it, Bhimbetka is considered “one of the earliest cradles of cognitive human evolution.” That probably means that the relics here are some of the very early signs of human creative expression on the planet. It is a thought that humbles me.
Although most of the art is between six to nine thousand years old, archaeological researchers think that the site was in use as early as 100,000 B.C., well before the art of painting evolved. The most current artwork seen here dates to 400 years ago and is comparatively modern, showing kings on horseback, and sword- and shield-wielding soldiers. From that time the caves were forgotten, until everything was rediscovered by Indian archaeologists in 1957.
As I continue down the face of the hill, I come to a monkey-infested rock that has the iconic, huge red painting of a boar or bison or bull (experts differ) attacking tiny stick figure people. If it wasn’t for the irony of seeing this after the previous wild hunting scenes and the post-hunt parties, I’d almost feel sorry for those hunters of long ago who suddenly became the hunted.
Rocks tell lots of stories. Maybe they’re the equivalent of a Stone Age cartoon strip that to its people felt like a depiction of their day-to-day lives. The occasional party scenes and dances interpolated into all the action make me think of Bollywood movies; it just takes a bit of imagination to see it all come alive.
In the late afternoon I travel back towards Bhopal and decide to have a look at the rather eccentric Bharat Bhavan Art Gallery, designed by the architect Charles Correa in 1978. The modern art section located in a cavernous hall with multiple levels immediately makes me recall my walk through the Bhimbetka caves. In the more tucked away tribal art gallery, with a large number of canvases painted by local Adivasi artists, I recognise motifs, artistic styles, and ideas from the caves. The dancing and celebrating stick figures are surely not a coincidence? I realise that the art forms and traditions practised at Bhimbetka never died out, they just moved on to being everyday decorations on the walls of village huts. Now, with the increasing recognition being given to Madhya Pradesh’s tribal artists, the same school of art has found its way here, into a modern gallery. The passage of art through the ages seems to have come full circle.
Bhimbetka caves have walkways and fencing and are well signposted making it easy for visitors to stroll around and appreciate the art even without a guide. Photo: Jagdish Agarwal/Documentary/Corbis/Imagelibrary
Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “Rock of All Ages”.
The Bhimbetka caves are located within the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, a 45km/1.5-hr drive south of Bhopal, on the way to Hoshangabad. Taxis charge ₹2,100 for the return trip, which includes waiting time and a detour to the magnificent Bhojpur Shiva temple, built by Raja Bhoj, founder of Bhopal. There are frequent buses from Bhopal to Hoshangabad, and you can ask to be dropped off at the Bhimbetka junction from where the caves are a 3-km uphill hike. You can also get off at Obdullaganj, some 5km before the Bhimbetka junction and hire a rickshaw to take you up the hill. (Open daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Entry fee Indians ₹50, foreigners ₹100; guides available at extra cost although main caves are well signposted.)
– Due to the hilly location, the site isn’t disabled-friendly, although the approximately 1,400-metre walk through the caves follows well-kept pathways.
– Try to go on a weekday when you’re less likely to run into other tourists.
– There are no facilities at the site except for semi-broken, never-cleaned toilets, and I noticed many tourists opted to do their business in the gardens instead.
– The MP Tourism restaurant and café, the Highway Treat, located 3km downhill from the caves on the main road (25km from Bhojpur), serves tea and food and has better loo facilities (open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.). They also have three air-conditioned guest rooms in case you want to stay the night (07480-281558; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles ₹2,590).
– Bharat Bhavan The performing arts centre and art gallery is located in the Shyamla Hills district on the shore of Bhopal’s Upper Lake (entry ₹10; free on Fridays). The complex has several art galleries, a theatre, library, and a nice, affordable canteen.
is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).
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