Bhimbetka: A treasure of prehistoric art

Lalit Shastri

Bhimbetaka rock artThere is hardly any signboard on the road to announce that one is heading towards an important World Heritage Site and the prehistoric Bhimbetka rock shelters suddenly emerge on the southern horizon as one drives down about 40 kms leaving behind the industrial town of Mandideep on the Bhopal-Hoshangabad highway.

Leaving the highway and taking a ninety degree turn towards Bhimbetka, one has to travel on a narrow road winding through a rocky terrain before reaching a barricade. Near this spot, the State Tourism Development Corporation has set up its “Highway Treat”—a new boarding and lodging facility for the discerning tourists interested in eco-tourism.

On payment of a small fee, at the barricade, which is the gateway to Bhimbetka and Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, one gets the permission to drive towards the famous rock shelters. Reaching here one is at once greeted by the glory of timelessness and the grandeur of prehistoric exhibits revealing bits of life in this part of the world from the mesolithic period.

Any one arriving here is at once surrounded by tourist guides, who appear desperate for business as the number of tourists is on the low side during the hot summer season. After some cost-cutting and haggling, the guides are generally too willing to lower their fee and take the visitor around for just a hundred rupees. Besides the specially erected iron railings at this site, which is managed by the Archeological Survey of India, there is no other mechanism to control the movement of tourists or regulate the use of cameras and flash lights in these rock shelters.

The rock shelters at Bhimbetka in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh are spread across a sprawling hillock on the foothills of the Vindhyan Mountains on the southern edge of the central Indian plateau. The site draws its name from Bhima, one of the Pandavas of the great epic Mahabharata.

UNESCO has listed Bhimbetka as a World Heritage Site and declared that Bhimbetka reflects a long interaction between people and the landscape, as demonstrated in the quantity and quality of its rock art. Bhimbetka’s importance is that it is closely associated with a hunting and gathering economy as demonstrated in the rock art and in the relics of this tradition in the local adivasi (tribal) villages on the periphery of this site.

A section of historians have claimd that there are signs of the domestication of horse around 6000 years ago on the shores of Black Sea in present day Ukraine. Many Bhimbetka rock paintings also depict the domestication of horse, cattle and elephant. They show how horses were used for hunting as well as war purposes. The rock paintings here have defied the vagaries of time and reflect the rhythm of life dating back almost 10000 to 5000 years ago. They show how hunting parties armed with spears, shields, bows and arrows rode their horses and there was also time to celebrate with the whole community dancing to the drumbeats.

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