Within the precincts of Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh lies Bhimbetka. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Bhimbetka is home to unusually shaped rock formations that gave man a canvas to express his creativity on. Viewed from a distance, these rock formations resemble a small fortress, rising nearly 100 m above the surrounding area on the hill upon which they stand. They are the result of intense chemical and physical weathering by natural elements over centuries.
While the caves and potholes within the rocks became a place for man to shelter within, the flat surfaces of these rock formations turned into an easel for his creative instincts.
All over the rock formations here is a riot of rock art that showcases not just man’s imagination but in the process depicts his evolution as a social being and thus acts as a treasure trove for historians to piece his story together. According to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), excavation at Bhimbetka has revealed human occupation from the lower Paleolithic period to the Medieval era. Given that the former period is recorded between 100,000 years to 40,000 years ago, the time span of occupation is incredible.
The rock paintings depict human forms, animal figures, trees and geometric patterns. Figures depicted on walls are engaged in activities ranging from hunting to battle to cultural aspects such as dancing. Some figures look to be moving stealthily towards animals, while on a hunt. Many creatures find a place among the rock paintings, virtually bringing alive the place. The geometric patterns resemble signs from a Da Vinci code equivalent. There is the wheel, various other circular patterns as well as half-circles, dotted lines, hand prints and finger prints. Clues to a vast human jigsaw that historians have been piecing together.
Several figures are represented only in outline form while many others have been filled in, either by using patterns or in the same colour as the outline. Red and white are the dominant colours with hints of blue and yellow. Natural mineral colours mixed with water and even animal fat have been used to create patterns and outlines using thin brushes made of twigs. While most paintings are on flat surfaces, some are found in corners while others appear at a considerable height, making it apparent that the artists were standing on a high rock that has since disappeared. The rock formations here are surrounded by thick forest, making one wonder how the site was discovered.
As per ASI records, Bhimbetka was first referred to in a paper published in 1888 by W Kincaid who spoke of the “Bhimbet hill” as being a Buddhist site on the opposite side of Bhojpur Lake. True exploration took place only with the arrival of Dr Vishnu Wakankar. A scholar who had explored rock art sites in the Chamal Valley and in Europe, Dr Wakankar was once travelling by train through the region. Seeing the similarity in landscape, he broke his journey and found these strange rock formations. The rest, as they say, is history. He was back a year later, accompanied by a group of students. A detailed survey report was prepared which went unheeded till the 1970s when exploration began in right earnest. Tools found at the site revealed its antiquity and timeline.
The paintings form a pictographic record of man’s evolution. Some pictures show him as a hunter, walking through forests and climbing trees. Latter ones show him on a chariot, depicting a different era. But Bhimbetka’s rock art goes beyond just one site. Bhimbetka hill is one of five such sites spread over an area of 1,892 hectares with nearly 700 rock shelters between them. It is a mind-boggling number of nearly 400 having rock art. Beyond immediate vicinity, a line of rock art sites, punctuated by hills, forest and fields, runs all the way to the Shyamla Hills near Bhopal. The sites, though documented, are difficult to reach and hence, see few visitors. The intrepid few who reach are able to see one of man’s finest treasures.