On deep caves and shallow rock-shelters around the
world, Stone Age artists painted their fears and hopes on overhanging
rocks, weaving an enchantment that still ensnares us.
In Madhya Pradesh we
looked at the world through eyes that were 35,000 years old. Some
other people, not many, have done similar things in other parts of
the world. In Spains Altamira, Frances Lascaux Perus
Toro Maurto and in Algerias Tassili, the people of today have
looked at a world seen by our forefathers who lived 350 centuries and
Questing for this ancient
vision we drove out of Bhopal, heading towards the green hill-station
of Pachmarhi. 45 kilometers out we turned, bumped across a level
crossing, and ascended a rocky, scrub-covered, hillock where palas
(flame of the forest or Butea frondosa) trees spread their
clotted-blood blooms. A short while later we turned into a parking
lot on the left.
To our right a fence
stretched and its gate accessed a stone-flagged path. It headed,
die-straight, into a towering outcrop of rocks. At the gate, an
Archaeological Survey of Indias board said :
Biggest repository of prehistoric art in India.
Continuous habitations from the Early Stone Age
We walked on, climbed a
short flight of stone steps and stood in front of a high, open-ended
cave. It was the portal to the ancient gallery of Bhimbhetkar. And
what a gallery!
Early humans had lived
here for one hundred millennium. They had created their own stone
floors, left behind hand-axes, cleavers, scrapers to remove flesh and
fat from the skin of slaughtered animals and tiny needles made from
hard quartz in all its sharp and colourful forms. Also stone hand
mills for grinding grain and nuts and the coloured earths called
For one hundred and
seventy-five times more than our approaching second millennium,
people had lived, married, given birth and died here. And they had
painted the rock-walls of their dwellings with pictures.
To really appreciate this
incredible place do what we did. Walk around Bhimbhetkar, slowly.
Examine every smooth boulder, every overhanging rock. This was our
fourth visit and, on every visit, we have discovered something we
must have missed earlier.
Our greatest discovery
this time was the huge bison. We spotted it quite by accident. We
had rounded a massive rise of rock when the sun lanced down through
the sal trees, straight into our eyes.
Instinctively we raised
our hands to shield our vision
and we glimpsed it. Something
shone red on a rock high above us. We stepped right, left, forward,
backward. It blurred, vanished, glistened again. And from only one
place did it leap out, clearly. A huge red bison had been caught,
charging, head-lowered, at a desperately fleeing man.
The bison was enormous,
blown out of all proportion by the terror of the man, running for his
life. Somehow, we feel, he never made it. But the agony of his last
frightened seconds was frozen for untold centuries on this rock.
After that, our
discoveries came fast and thick.
There was the crowded
Zoo Rock filled with elephants, sambar, bison, spotted
deer. They all seemed to be thundering in a stampede, caused by
hunters, driving them into a swamp where they would get bogged down
to be slaughtered at leisure.
Elephants were common
around Bhimbhetkar in those ancient days. On a plum-coloured rock
two bull elephants, with huge tusks, stood out. One had two hunters
on its back, slaughtering it with a spear.
On a lighter coloured
rock there was a more graphic hunting scene. Here the warriors
carried swords, bows and arrows, and shields. One of them, on the
top left-hand corner, wore a horned head-dress, an animal mask and
He was probably a shaman,
casting spells on the animals and psyching the hunters. On this
rock, too, for the first time we saw a hunter leading a horse: its
bridle and saddle clearly drawn.
This was, obviously, a
more recent painting: not more than about 30 centuries old. Horses
were introduced into this area, an expert told us. In Bhimbhetkar,
recent is a mere 3,000 years ago!
Clearer horses appeared
on a pale, grey, rock. A rider raced across this petrified canvas so
swiftly that another horse reared back, startled. We could almost
hear its shrill whinny of alarm!
The most intriguing
pictures, however, appeared on a rock-face fissured by the black,
water questing, roots of trees. Horned deer had been painted,
probably sambar. Curiously, however, two of them had loops on their
backs which looked oddly like saddles.
In fact there was a
chair-like structure above these animals which could well be a
primitive saddle. If this vignette does depict saddled deer then
this is quite a discovery.
Today, the only deer used
as pack and riding animals are reindeer used by the Lapps of Finland.
This practice could, therefore, prove that the art of domesticating
deer existed, and was lost, in India in the distant past.
Then, when we looked
carefully to the left of this rock-painting, we saw someones
right hand with a clearly amputated index finger. The line of the
amputation has been clearly shown as has the upper bit of the finger
that was removed. We know that early humans did surgical operations
but this is the first time we have seen graphic evidence of one in
Wandering around this
open-air gallery, in this dry deciduous rocky terrain, another
ancient world began to emerge. It was a moist world and densely
forested. Elephants, bison, deer and tiger lived in these dark
jungles. Early mans survival depended on his skills in hunting
But hunting is always a
matter of luck: the animals could have wandered away to more distant,
inaccessible, parts of the forest; or the arrows and spears of the
warriors might not strike death-dealing blows; or predators could
attack the hunting party; or injuries could cripple a huntsman;
.the list of possible misfortunes are endless.
To even the balance,
therefore, the tribe called on its shamans; people who, dressed as
animals, could work themselves into a frenzy and communicate with the
spirits of the prey. And to help them empower their wishes on the
rock-walls of their shelters.
In order to exert power
over the animals they captured them in pictures.
If, after chanting and trances, they could depict beasts being
killed then, by sympathic magic, they would be able to kill them
Whatever they could
paint, realistically, would come true: even a festering finger
successfully amputated, a saddled sambar, escape from an enraged
And so, mixing coloured
earths, vegetable dyes and soot with animal fat, they either applied
them with brushes shredded out of fibrous twigs or filled charcoal
outlines with fat then blew on powders through hollow bones. And all
the while the sounds of the chants and spells and dances convinced
the artist that his paintings would never fade.
And, in a way, he was
right. In the course of time, the natural pigments became absorbed
by the cellular structure of the rocks and slowly, they became as
permanent as tattoos on human skin.
Which is why we, who live
today, can still view that magical world through eyes that are 35,000
Bhopal, capital of the
state of Madhya Pradesh is accessible by air, rail and road.
Bhimbhetkar, 45 km away, can be reached by tourist taxi from Bhopal.
available in Bhopal to suit all budgets.