I wanted to share some thoughts and images of the stunning Paleolithic archaeological site of Bhimbetka, which is located in central India, a couple of hours by car from Bhopal (yes, the site of the terrible gas accident years ago).
I rented a car and driver and headed out early in the morning. The drive wove through agricultural fields and small towns. The last half hour we climbed though a vast nature preserve on one side and a animal refuge on the other. There were no people, a very strange experience for me – since I had been living and researching in Pune, a sprawling, crowded city of over 6 million.
By nine in the morning I arrived at the site, now designated World Heritage. There was not a sole person there, other than the single guard who sold me a ticket. The terrain consists of tall, columnar rock formations. The signage told the exciting story of the discovery of the caves. In the late 1950’s an archaeologist named V.S, Wakankar saw from a train rock formations similar to those of cave shelters in Spain and France. He led a team of archaeologists into the heavily forested area and they located first one then several more caves. The area was so isolated that it had never been explored and the only groups living in the region were nomadic tribals, who still lived mainly by hunting and gathering..
I more or less followed the trail of the initial cave find , which wound down off a plateau into a broad river valley. Now, the path is graveled and signage explained the likely sequence of habitation. There are hints of Homo Erectus living in the caves 100,000 years ago, but there is wholly solid evidence of regular habitation in the Upper Paleolithic, the same period, or possibly a bit older than the famous painted caves of Spain and France. Two major excavations of the caves have established various periods of habitation – Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early Historical and Medieval.
The site is completely quiet, except for many birdcalls. The caves are natural formations, broad and low with flat floors and usually only one entrance. It’s easy to see their attraction as a safe place to live. The single door could have been protected with brush at night. Twelve caves range along the developed pathway: most were no more than ten meters across and 2-3 meters high.
What is difficult to convey is the awe I felt in one cave after another. The paintings are high on the back walls. They portray elephants and deer, trees, humans dancing, hunting scenes. Often the animals are huge compared to the people who pursue them. Several of the caves have layer upon layer of paintings, presumably recording events over millennia. I somehow understood how I would have lived if I had been alive at that time and the attractions of the site with its year around supply of water and available game. The earlier dwellers survived without fire.
In the years since Wakankar’s initial discovery archaeologists have located around 750 caves in this area, many of them painted. (Only 12 are open to the public.) Go if you can. I’m still sorting out what the trip meant to me. Of course, the “Europe-first” pattern of early settlement found in older archaeology textbooks goes right out the window. At a deeper level the caves showed the common human pattern of the background of all of us.
Have a look at my Bhimbetka photos via this link. /bhimbetka.html