This is a destination that is on the World Heritage list of 23 cultural sites in India, but not prominent on many tourist routes. It was not on my list of travel destinations for a long time. However, when I had a chance to spend time in Bhopal, and was trying to make the plans, Bhimbetaka was definitely on that list – and I was lucky to do both Sanchi and Bhimbataka on the same trip, just a week after my trip to site 16 at Champaner.
Even though it was only early April, the days were already warm – typical of the Deccan peninsula, which has earlier summers that the North. We decided to set out early to beat the heat and had done the hours drive from Bhopal by 8am – and we were the very first visitors of the day.
Bhimbetaka has sandstone formations extending over an area of 20 sq km and a buffer zone 100 sq km or so. These rock shelters were discovered only in 1957, although mention of it has been found as far back as 1888. I distinctly remember that my school books talking of early history had cave paintings of Lascaux in France as evidence of pre-historic life – cerainly no mention of cave art from India. The site comprises of a group of “five clusters of rock shelters” and the findings of skeletal remains and tools etc have dated the site to as early as the Lower Paleolithic (C 100,000 to 40,000) age. The paintings are probably dated from the Mesolithic period (C 10,000- 25000, marked by the gradual domestication of plants and animals and the formation of settled communities) onwards.
The rock art has been discovered in nearly 400 painted shelters, although only a few are open to visitors. A young guard who became our self appointed guide, did tell us that the others can be visited with special permission from the ASI office in Bhopal. It was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage list only in 2003 as a “unique cultural property representing a convergence displayed in the art form between the people and the landscape with links to the hunting gathering economy of the past”. The shelters (not really caves) lie amidst a dense reserve forest rich in the diversity of its flora and fauna.
The paintings represent a wide variety of subjects and depict hunting and battle scenes and many aspects of daily life. Men, women and children, variety of animals and birds are represented. A wonderful variety of colors, white and white with yellowish or bluish hues, shades of red, orange, crimson, purple, green, black etc…. to imagine that all these effects have been achieved from the resources available locally at the time, is amazing. Just to stand there in the silence and awe and try to internalize the fact that you are gazing at something made by our ancestors tens of thousands years ago – it was just an incredible feeling!!
Having had this wonderful morning, we had enough time before lunch to make a quick visit to the Museum of Man, along the lakeside in Bhopal city. This is an excellent attempt at capturing the wealth and diversity of our traditional crafts and cultures, for which the MP Government has to be complimented.The building has the usual signs of sarkari maintenance (or lack of it) and needs air-conditioning – not for the comfort of visitors but for preserving the carefully collected material. Many of these traditions are dying so fast, that we need to hang onto what we have – it is a pity that the efforts to do so are so sluggish. In this inertia, we stand to lose the collection almost as fast as the tradition itself.
Finally, I must add that Bhopal has many museums, a good art gallery and plenty of other places to visit, including the Taj-ul-masjid Mosque which is the biggest in Asia, a fact that is not well appreciated. I have seen this on a previous visit and its courtyard, which is supposed to accomadate 100,000 people for prayer is indeed impressive – as is the rest of the structure. On this visit, the mosque was not on the itianary, due to lack of time. Bhopal is a very picturesque lake city, which somehow is so much less in our minds than the much smaller one in Udaipur. I suppose it is all in the marketing, and MP Tourism needs to learn form Rajasthan. But, I would say that it is a great destination for a 3-4 day stay and if more time is on your hands, a trip to the nearby hill station of Pachmarhi can be added.