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Bhimbhetkar - Our Stone Age Gallery

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 Spain’s Altamira, France’s Lascaux Peru’s Toro Maurto and in Algeria’s Tassili, the people of today have looked at a world seen by our forefathers who lived 350 centuries and more ago.

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 India’s board said :

“BHIMBHETKAR….130 rock shelters…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 ochres.

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 leggings.

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 someone’s 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 Bhimbhetkar.

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 man’s survival depended on his skills in hunting these animals.

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; or….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 while hunting.

Whatever they could paint, realistically, would come true: even a festering finger successfully amputated, a saddled sambar, escape from an enraged tiger!

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 years old.


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.

Accommodation is available in Bhopal to suit all budgets.

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