The Bhimbetka rock shelters and paintings of India

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Khursheed Dinshaw (India)

The naturally formed rock shelters and caves of Bhimbetka in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India (Fig. 1) have a number of interesting paintings, which depict the lives of the people who lived here (Fig. 2). These rock shelters exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India. The Stone Age rock paintings can be seen on the walls, ceilings and hollows, and were created during a period when microliths were evolved. The paintings date back to the Mesolithic period.

Fig. 1. The first rock shelter that greets you at Bhimbetka.
Fig. 2. Rock art showing daily life at Bhimbetka.

Due to their integrated nature, the Bhimbetka rock shelters were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2003. From the UNESCO website, it is clear that two of the criterion for the selection were:

  1. Bhimbetka reflects a long interaction between the people and the landscape, as demonstrated in the quantity and quality of its rock art.
  2. The area is closely associated with a hunting and gathering economy as can be seen in the pictures below, as shown in the rock art and in the relics of this tradition in the local Adivasi village on the periphery of this site (The name ‘Adivasi’ is an umbrella term for a heterogeneous group of ethnic and tribal groups, which are thought to be the aboriginal population of India.)

The excavations carried out have yielded evidence of continuous human occupation from the Lower Palaeolithic until Medieval times. During this long span of time, there were numerous changes that took place in the social and cultural life of humans. The cultural remains include stone tools, pottery, burials and, significantly, rock paintings. Of these, rock art is the best way to learn about contemporary society from the Mesolithic to the Medieval. In general, the paintings show human and animal figures – composite figures, such as hunting and battle scenes. Cultural scenes are painted with dancers, musicians and daily life.

Fig. 3. A hunting scene depicted on the rock shelters.
Fig. 4. Another hunting scene, where human stick figures have bows and arrows.

Bhimbetka was brought to the notice of the academic world by VS Wakankar of Vikram University, Ujjain in 1957-58. He was awarded the Padamshree by the government of India for his discovery and researches. (Padamshree is an award given by the government of India and is the fourth most prestigious civilian (non military) award.) There are over 700 rock shelters in this region. Of these, more than 400 are distributed over five hills in the core area. Bhimbetka rises over 100m above the Deccan Traps, in the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. The latter comprises of a hill range, which has been formed from the sandstone of the Lower Bhander Group of the Vindhyan Supergroup. This medium grained sandstone has been metamorphosed and turned to orthoquartzite.

The painted rock shelters run east-west for a length of more than 8km. The eastern and southern slopes are steep, while the northern and western slopes are gentler. They are a chain of dissected vertical tors, which are eroded remnants of a former continuous rock mass. There is also a temple to the Goddess Durga (Fig. 5), which is next to the rock shelters.

Fig. 5. The temple of the Goddess Durga, located next to the rock shelters.

In mythology, the word Bhimbetka is said to be derived from Bhimbaithaka, which refers to the seat of Bhima. Bhima was one of the five pandavas of the epic Mahabharata.

A majority of the paintings are in red and white, and made using mineral colours (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. A rock painting using mineral red colour.

One of the paintings at the site shows a shaman or wizard. He has been named Nataraja or the Lord of Dance. The painting shows a masked dancer holding a trident-like staff in his left hand. Both his arms are copiously decorated. Another painting of the Mesolithic period shows a boar, whose body decoration was found to have been restored several times, especially the design in the middle and upper area, where water has eroded the upper layer of paint, exposing the lower and earlier design. The eye might also be a later addition.

One of the caves is known as the Auditorium due to its long shape and is 39m long and 70m high at the western end. The painting displays bulls, buffaloes, deer, antelope, peacock, tiger and a left hand print of a child. The Auditorium also has some cupules that have been made in the rock. These are considered by some scholars as man’s earliest manifestation of abstract creativity (because the art here is depicted in the form of the shape of cup rather than pictorial paintings), probably associated with Lower Palaeolithic Period.

Shelter 4 is elaborately painted and is known as Zoorock (Fig. 7). It comprises of 252 painted animals of 16 different species.

Fig. 7. The zoorock, which comprises of 252 painted animals of 16 different species.

Another shelter, which is shaped like a mushroom, is called Boar Rock (Fig. 8), because of a gigantic boar, which has been painted on its surface.

Fig. . The painting of a boar as seen on Boar Rock.

This has two crescent shaped horns, a snout with whiskers and bristles down its back. Near its snout, a figure of a man fleeing has been painted, along with that of a crab. There are three human figures near its forelegs and a fourth behind its hind legs. Other animal and human figures have also been painted on the rock.

Another shelter contains silhouetted paintings of two elephants (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. The rock painting of two elephants, with a man riding the smaller one.

A man rides the smaller of the two. He is holding a goad in one hand and a spear in the other. The elephants are painted with long, uplifted tusks. Other rock shelters contain paintings of a horseman and soldier, a bull wounded by the arrow of a hunter and stick-like figures engaged in the various activities of daily life.

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