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Bhimbetka Cave Paintings

Surrounded by the northern fringe of the Vindhyan ranges, Bhimbetka lies 46 km south of Bhopal. This world heritage site is a natural art gallery and an archaeological treasure. The rock paintings have numerous layers belonging to various epochs of time, ranging from the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic age to the protohistoric, early historic and medieval periods. The most ancient scenes here believed to be commonly belonging to the Mesolithic Age. These magnificent paintings can be seen even on the ceiling of the rock shelters located at daunting heights. Here in vivid, panoramic detail, paintings in over 500 caves depict the life of the prehistoric cave-dwellers, making the Bhimbetka group an archaeological treasure, an invaluable chronicle in the history of man. The oldest of all the paintings dates back to around 15,000 years back, while the most recent are around 1000 years old. Out of the many caves in Bhimbetka, only 12 caves are open for visitors. These caves are like the colourful shards of a broken mirror that unite to provide a rich glimpse into the lives of our predecessors. It is a valuable repository that acts like a sentinel to the prehistoric art and architecture of India. In fact, these caves claim a distinction as the largest treasure house of prehistoric art in the country.

Dr V. S. Wakankar, one of the most renowned of Indian archaeologists, discovered these caves. It was a fluke of luck that he noticed these caves dotting distant hills, while on his way to Nagpur, in 1958. The word 'Bhimbetka', derived from 'Bhim Baitka', has mythological connotation. These caves are named after 'Bhima', one of the five Pandavas of Mahabharata.

Bhimbetka cave paintings show a striking similarity to the aboriginal rock paintings of Australia, the paintings of the Kalahari Desert and the Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings of France. Since these caves actually formed dwellings for primitive people belonging to various ages, the paintings here demonstrate their lifestyle and mundane everyday activities. Inventive designs & deft handling of colours has brought to life the remote activities of our ancestors.

Various community activities, like birth, burial, dancing, religious rites, hunting scenes and animal fighting find a place in these paintings. Executed mainly in red and white with the occasional use of green and yellow, with themes taken from the everyday events of aeons ago, the scenes usually depict hunting, dancing, music, horse and elephant riders, animals fighting, honey collection, decoration of bodies, disguises, masks and household scenes. Animals such as bison, rhinoceros, tiger, wild boar, elephant, antelope, dog, lizard, crocodile etc. have been abundantly depicted in some caves.

The colours are a combination of manganese, hematite, wooden coal, soft red stone, plant leaves and animal fats. These chemicals have, over the time, reacted with the rocks and contributed in preserving these precious artworks of Bhimbetka. Scrupulous observation shows differences in patterns, which are archetypal of various periods. Huge linear figures of animals are the trademark of Palaeolithic paintings. With the passage of time, paintings became smaller, precise and more delicate.


Key attractions

On the walls, hundreds of images very often superimposed upon one another, constitute a fantastic canvas that has been many times re-used to paint white and red figures. Yashodar Mathpal, who has recently studied most on those sites, has established the following succession for the art in Nine phases summarily summed up hereafter:

Prehistoric

Depicting the Life and Environment of Hunter-Gatherers

Phase 1

Large size animals (buffaloes, elephants, wild bovids and big cats), outlined and partially infilled with geometric and maze patterns; no humans.

Phase 2

Diminutive figures of animals and humans, full of life and naturalistic. Hunters mostly in groups. Deer are dominant. Colours are red, white and emerald green (the latter with humans in S-shaped bodies, dancing)

Phase 3

Large size animals with vertical strips and humans.

Phase 4

Schematic and simplified figures.

Phase 5

Decorative. Large-horned animals drawn in fine thin lines with body decoration in honey-comb, zigzag and concentric square pattern.

Transitional

Beginning of Agricultural Life

Phase 6

Quite different from the previous ones. Conventional and schematic. Body of animals in a rectangle with stiff legs. Humps on bovines, sometimes horns adorned at the tip. Chariots and carts with yoked oxen.

Historic

Phase 7

Riders on horses and elephants. Group dancers. Thick white and red.

Phase 8

Bands of marching and facing soldiers, their chiefs riding elephants and horses, equipped with long spears, swords, bows and arrows. Rectangular shields, a little curved. Horses elaborately decorated and caparisoned. White infilling and red outlining.

Phase 9

Geometric human figures, designs, known religious symbols and inscriptions.

 


Best time to visit

July – March


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