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The Caveman's Easel
... Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh
Text and photographs: Vaihayasi P Daniel
The caves are well located, with a great view of fertile Vidisha below, in the midst of a thickish teak and tendu-trees (used for making bidis forests. One is almost envious of the life these artistic cavemen must have led. Like the rooms of a fancy house each cave is separated from the next by a few metres.
Most of the cave paintings are quite faint. One can hardly suppose the reds and whites to be fresh 10,000 years later. However, that does not detract from the fact that the subject of each etching is extremely clear.
On the Zoo Rock there is a concentration of etchings of animals. They are easily identifiable -- though not easily photograph-able -- wild boars, cattle, horses, bison, leopards, tigers, bears, elephants, rhinoceros, deer, foxes, jackals and monkey. Grazing. Standing, Running. The hair on their backs is even discernible. The woods around here are still home to bears, leopards and boar, Krishna confirms. The animal drawings are all in white, which suggests they are 5,000 years old.
Those in red are dated at 8000 BC. And the striped outlines are just 2,000 years old. So says Krishna who picked up his facts from Archaeological Survey of India archaeologists who worked at the site for a decade or more.
Other caves have scenes from every day life. Group dancing. Men racing into a hunt. Warriors advancing. Processions. Horse riding. Or men walking with their horses. Each scene of stick figures is about a foot high.
According to the information available at the site, the cavemen probably used brushes made from twigs to execute their work. The colours available were extremely limited. Red and white was the norm. Yellow and green colours are apparent in a few caves. But these colours were probably not as durable as the standard red or white because the flowers and other subjects etched in yellow and green are hardly visible. The colours that have stained these walls were derived from magnesium, red stone, charcoal, plant extracts and haematite.
The drawings and implements have been classified into several periods -- among them the Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Upper Palaeolithic, Middle Palaeolithic, Acheulian periods. The animal etchings, for instance, date back to the Mesolithic period. This was when it is believed the caves had the highest occupancy. Of great interest too is the fact that the caves were inhabited as late as the age of the Guptas. The proof? Some caves have writings in the Ashokan and Gupta Brahmi script.
Krishna took us on 35 to 40 minute tour through some 15 caves. But there are hundreds and hundreds to explore for those with time on their hands. And a more adventurous spirit. The caves that do not fall within this tour apparently have even more interesting sketches. It is likely that the etchings are far better preserved, far way from the hands of inquisitive tourists or school students. There are drawings of religious symbols. Shiva. Samples of the Brahmi script. And detailed plates of daily life.
Historians are still debating about the significance of this rock art. A theory tendered is that these shelters were transient homes for this hunting community and the etchings were a ritual to ensure good game on their hunting forays. There are, of course, a number of contradictions. Like the fact that Mesolithic man was not in the habit of partaking of elephants and tigers... but they are on the walls of Bhimbetka.
As one departs from this peaceful scrubby ridge, once probably a humming community aeons earlier, one wonders about the advantages of modern life. Perhaps the sadhus in their hillltop cavern have the right idea.
Fast FactsBhimbetka is a 45 km, an hour's drive from Bhopal, four kilometres beyond Obaidullaganj on the Berasia road. It would cost about Rs 700 to do the drive by a hired taxi. Doing it by bus could prove rather difficult and involves a change at Obaidullaganj and a 3 km trek off the National Highway 12, across the railway tracks, up the hill to Bhimbetka.
There are no facilities of any sort available on the hill -- no food, water or accommodation. You are advised to do Bhimbetka as a day trip from Bhopal.
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