A treasure trove of rock art in Bhimbetka

Bhimbetka stands out for the large number of caverns with paintings, containing as many as 762 rock shelters, and more than 400 display a wide variety of paintings.
Prehistoric rock painting in Bhimbetka of (1) A deer on the run; (2) Eight men hunting a bull; (3) A bovine chasing a man
Prehistoric rock painting in Bhimbetka of (1) A deer on the run; (2) Eight men hunting a bull; (3) A bovine chasing a man

Bhimbetka, which is located amid a thick forest, is at a distance of about 45 km from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. It came to the limelight in 1957 when Vishnu S Wakankar discovered prehistoric paintings in the natural rock shelters of Vindhya Range. Fossils of Dickinsonia, which is an extinct genus of basal animal, were also found at Bhimbetka, and hence, the history of living beings at the place dates back to at least 100,000 years. During the 20th century, though many prehistoric sites came to light in several parts of India and elsewhere, Bhimbetka stands out for the large number of caverns with paintings. Seven hills at the place bearing seven different names, including Bhimbetka, contain as many as 762 rock shelters, and more than 400 display a wide variety of paintings, which were done by using natural mineral colours, primarily white and brick red or brown. Some of the world’s oldest man-made floors created by arranging slabs side by side and walls built by overlapping boulders have also been discovered at this site. Many paintings date back to 8,000 BCE, though the rock shelters also contain works drawn in the later times, even up to the medieval period in Indian history.

The Bhimbetka paintings has been classified into several styles by Wakankar and others; but in general, the earliest examples show several animals, which include bulls, cows, elephants, wild boars, rhinoceroses and deer, and a range of birds, snakes and human figures as well. Nearly all figures in the paintings were monochromatic, that is, portrayed in a single colour. One style of figures contains a noticeable outline within which a colour was filled and in another widely-repeated style without an outline, the animal figures were created with a single stroke of a brush or some other tool by using the wash technique. Since the Bhimbetka paintings are monochromatic, like many other similar works across India, they appear two-dimensional or flat without any three-dimensionality. Still, many figures of animals display a great sense of naturalism, which makes it clear that the anonymous painters of Bhimbetka had observed the wild stock around them keenly, grasped their form and behaviour thoroughly before doing the paintings. Many animals are shown static, which means that they are firmly standing on the ground and a few others are shown moving forward or taking a leap into the air; at times, they are shown chasing and attacking human beings forcefully.

In the Bhimbetka paintings, humans are shown thin and linear by using a few lines denoting the hands, legs and torso, and a relatively large dot representing the head that contains no further facial features. In the hunting scenes, humans are shown smaller in size than the animals like bovines. Even wild boars, which are invariably smaller than humans, are shown to be much larger than men who are hunting them. Such a delineation clearly suggests that the prehistoric people had viewed themselves inferior to the strength and power of animals. Some animal drawings have been classified by scholars as X-ray style works; for, the bodies of the animals are drawn with varied patterns of criss-cross lines. These patterns may not represent any decorations done on these animals since they are depicted as prey in a hunting sequence and not as domesticated ones. The lines on the body have been interpreted as representing the animal’s internal parts, like bones, muscles and intestine. One hunting scene that shows about eight nude men chasing a bull is quite well known and frequently reproduced in books, essays and picture postcards relating to the rock art of Bhimbetka. In a few unique examples, the belly of a cow and doe have been shown with a circular or oval line, which contains either vegetation or a figure of an unborn calf. At times, certain animals are drawn without adhering to the actual shape of the species. One such painting has been interpreted by some scholars as that of a bovine, and a few others as a mythical creature as the conical snout of the animal is unusually broad in size. Such a delimitation, in my opinion, had been adapted by the Bhimbetka artist to emphasise the power of the snout with which the animal attacks humans. In the painting, as a matter of fact, the animal is shown attacking a human being, who is very small in size, and also running away in fear. This one, as well as the so-called X-ray paintings, clearly suggest that the Bhimbetka painter had depicted his overall impression of the animals, and not a mere ‘life study’ of the same.

The Bhimbetka paintings of the historic period also depict dancing scenes where groups of people are standing with their hands held together. People of the time had also domesticated a few animals, such as a variety of cattle or even wild elephants. A few unique works show people balancing on the elephants, as if they had no fear of falling down. Paintings of the medieval period show the horse-riding warriors holding swords and shields. Unlike in other prehistoric locations, as for instance at Altamira in Spain or Lascaux in France, successive generations of people had lived for several centuries at Bhimbetka.

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