Every time I think I am “different” as a generation or a nationality, I am reminded of how alike I am to my ancestors and to those in other geographies. There is nothing unique about me. Nothing at all. But it is not really such a bad thing at all—this commonness or ordinariness of human existence—for it creates a bridge which spans time and space.
Okay, let me explain. I too record my life around me because I am consumed by a need to do so. And so did my prehistoric ancestors. I too express my joys and fears, and so did they. And so do you, dear reader, sitting in another city, another country. And so did your prehistoric ancestors in South Africa or France or the USA.
When looking at it from today’s digital lens, it comes as no surprise. But when one sees it from a stage set 10,000 years ago, it is a wonder how prehistoric people in disparate communities around the globe were expressing themselves in a similar way, using the same forms and tools, no matter where they lived and whom they were with. And we, in 2018 are to a large extent, the same as them.
If you are wondering what triggered this philosophical train of thoughts, it is a morning I spent in a series of 15 rock shelters bursting with prehistoric art, set deep in the forests of Madhya Pradesh—the UNESCO listed Bhimbetka rock shelters containing the largest collection of prehistoric rock art in India.
When Dr. Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar from Vikram University in Ujjain got off his train in 1957 in Bhimbetka, little did he know his “discovery” would throw light on an entire chapter of prehistoric Indian history and art. All he knew was the craggy rock formations topping the Vindhya mountain range along the railway track reminded him of the prehistoric rock shelters he had visited in Europe. Did these, back home, also house such wonders, was all he could think.
His meticulous research, supported by studies carried out by other Indian and global researchers and institutes unearthed many more sites. There are, as of now, over 700 rock shelters distributed over five hills covering an area of 25 sq. kilometres. About 500 contain prehistoric rock paintings. 243 of these rock shelters are on Bhimbetka hill. Of these only 15 are accessible to visitors.
Bhimbetka, meaning “seat of Bhima” [one of the five Pandava brothers in the Indian epic Mahabharata] was in continuous habitation from the Lower Palaeolithic (100,000 – 40,000 BC) to medieval times. Crucial changes took place in the economic, social, and cultural fabric of human life during this span—changes that are reflected in the stone tools, pottery, and burials found at the site. But the most vivid record of human life in this period is, without a doubt, the art its people painted in these rock shelters during the Mesolithic (12,000 – 2,000 BC) and Chalcolithic (2,000 – 700 BC) Ages.
Filled with narratives of hunting, battle and festival scenes, daily life and its related chores, dancers and musicians, and animals of all kinds, they illustrate the dynamics between humankind and nature in all its complexity. Mineral colours, mainly ochre from haematite and white from lime, bound with water, animal fat, and plant extracts were used to paint the figures directly onto the unprepared rock surfaces with fingers and bamboo brushes. Sometimes artists of later periods painted over existing paintings without removing them, creating super-impositions of upto 15 layers.
What makes Bhimbetka even more spectacular is that the rituals and customs it depicts continue to exist in the lives of their descendants, the local Adivasi villagers living on the fringes of the site. These tribes, comprising Bhils and Gonds [the latter get its name from the 200 million-year-old super-continent Gondwanaland] are amongst the world’s most ancient people.
Heading back to Bhopal a good few hours later, I could not stop smiling to myself. Never had my own commonness and ordinariness felt so good to me, as it did in the presence of Bhimbetka’s wonders.
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- The best time to visit the Bhimbetka rock shelters is early morning.
- Ticket and timing: Rs. 300 per car; Open every day from sunrise to sunset; Photography allowed.
- Bhimbetka is 47 kilometres south-east of Bhopal, inside the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary.
- There is no public transport to the site. You will need to hire a car to reach it.
- The walking trail through the 15 rock shelters is 1.5 kilometres long.
- Do use a guide as it is not easy to spot some of the rock paintings. There are ASI guides at the entrance. If there are none on duty, the security guards do a fantastic job as well of pointing out the paintings.
- The Highway Treat on the highway, just before the turn-off for the sanctuary, offers awesome meals.