Bhimbetka, 45km south-east of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, is the best known rock art region in the Indian subcontinent. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, the area extends over 1,892 hectares covering five hills within the Vindhyan Range; Vinayka, Bhonrawali, Bhimbetka, Lakhajuar east and Lakhajuar west.
For the visitor, only Bhimbetka hill is easily accessible, with 15 painted shelters open daily for the public to explore. Whilst often referred to as Bhimbetka Caves, these are in fact natural sandstone formations, the passage of time and exposure to the elements has led to the various shaped rock shelters with their unique natural architecture.
Amazingly, the Bhimbetka rock art site did not attract scientific attention much before 1957. The story goes that Dr Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar noticed these peculiar sandstone rock formations whilst traveling along the hills by train, and had a hunch that they might be interesting to explore…hence he discovered Bhimbetka !
What followed was 31 years of studying these rock shelters until his death in 1988, with numerous books, research papers and articles published. Several archaeologists have led excavations here, including K.D. Vajpai, S.K. Pandey, V.N. Mishra, S.Haas, Y. Mathpal and Wakankar. Since 1988 the studies have mostly been conducted by Yashodar Mathpal.
The sandstone Vindhyan range is roughly 600m above sea level and 100m above the Deccan plain. Even from several miles away the Bhimbetka hills are prominent in the landscape with the big masses of rocks that crown them. It is obvious that the spectacular and unusual character of the place must have attracted people since the most ancient times. It is of course also the reason Wakankar became curious about this site in the first place.
The name Bhimbetka is a corruption of the Hindi word “Bhimbaithka” meaning “seat or sitting place of Bhim”, one of the Pandavas brothers. Bhima is either a deity or a hero to each of the several tribes inhabiting the forests and hills in the surrounding area.
Out of the five groups of hills mentioned earlier, only Bhimbetka is easily accessible to the public. This is the third (III) group with shelters, which lies between Bhonrawali hill and Lakhajuar (east). Bhimbetka is then subdivided into a further six groups named alphabetically (A to F). Then each individual shelter in each cluster has then been assigned an arabic numeral. A simple letter was used for the missed out shelters in previous surveys. In total there are 243 rock shelters in this area of which 133 contain paintings.
This division and subdivision of rock shelter groups in the region, as devised by Dr. V.S. Wakankar and Y. Mathpal, is often quoted in publications. However, the rock shelters that are open to the public also have a separate numbering system as designated by the A.S.I. (simply numbered 1 to 15).
For the visitor this can become very confusing as not all the rock shelters are visibly numbered on the ground, and most of the publications (ironically even A.S.I’s own guide to Bhimbetka) revert back to Wakankar and Mathpal’s more complicated (but obviously necessary) numbering system.
So, during the course of writing this blog I have done my best to associate Wakankar and Mathpal’s numbering system with the A.S.I’s own numbering system. In some cases an ASI number actually seems to map to two separate shelters as identified by Wakankar and Mathpal’s. In other instances I simply can’t find the Wakankar and Mathpal’s designation at all. I hope some people will find it useful, I certainly wasn’t able to find such a mapping of the two when I was doing my research.
The subject matter of the rock art at Bhimbetka is particularly rich, representing many aspects of life from the Upper Paleolithic through to Medieval times. The subjects of the rock art have been classified into different categories, such as human figures (man, woman, indeterminate), animals (different species), scenes (hunting, battle, music and dance, rituals and family), mythology, nature, decoration and material culture. According to Mathpal, human figures alone totals 2,330 pieces of art.
The oldest paintings at Bhimbetka are around 30,000 years old. The colors used are vegetable colors which have endured through time because the drawings were generally made deep inside a niche or on inner walls.
The drawings and paintings can be classified under seven different periods :
Period I – Upper Paleolithic
These are linear representations, in green and dark red, of huge figures of animals such as bison, tigers and rhinoceroses.
Period II – Mesolithic
Comparatively small in size the stylised figures in this group show linear decorations on the body. In addition to animals there are human figures and hunting scenes, giving a clear picture of the weapons they used: barbed spears, pointed sticks, bows and arrows. The depiction of communal dances, birds, musical instruments, mothers and children, pregnant women, men carrying dead animals, drinking and burials appear in rhythmic movement.
Period III – Chalcolithic
Similar to the paintings of the Mesolithic, these drawings reveal that during this period the dwellers of this area were in contact with the agricultural communities of the Malwa plains, exchanging goods with them.
Period IV & V – Early Historic
The figures of this group have a schematic and decorative style and are painted mainly in red, white and yellow. The association is of riders, depiction of religious symbols, tunic-like dresses and the existence of scripts of different periods. The religious beliefs are represented by figures of yakshas, tree gods and magical sky chariots.
Period VI & VII – Medieval
These paintings are geometric linear and more schematic, but they show degeneration and crudeness in their artistic style. The colors used by the dwellers were prepared by combining manganese, hematite and wooden coal.
Now onto the rock shelters themselves, and what rock art lies within them…
The following guide takes you through the rock shelters in numerical order as designated by the A.S.I.
As you can see from the site map above, there are a couple of loops in the path which means you may see the rock shelters in a different order.
Note : All the photos in this post have been slightly digitally altered to add clarity and contrast. This makes the art stand out a little more in the photographs, but I have not done this to extreme levels, and therefore the photos are still a good representation of what you would see if you visit the site yourself.
Rock Shelter 1 (No. III F-23)
This rock shelter is over 20m high and balanced on a narrow base. Major excavations took place here between 1973 and 1976, excavating down nearly 4m of cultural deposits containing evidence of humans to the end of the Mesolithic period.
The shelter only has a few examples of rock art. On the upper ceiling is a painting of two elephants, the smaller one driven by a man standing on its back holding a goad in one hand, a spear in the other, and a sword attached to his waist. Both elephants have uplifted tusks.
Rock Shelter 2 (unknown)
I was unable to find a Wakankar and Mathpal identification number for this rock shelter, and whilst clearly it would act as a rock shelter it didn’t seem to have any significant rock art that I could easily see. This was in fact the last rock shelter I visited, so by then I had already seen plenty !
Rock Shelter 3 (No. III F-24) – Auditorium
This rock shelter has four openings, two to the east and two to the west. It has been given the nickname “Auditorium” because of the sheer scale of the interior, measuring 39m long, 4m wide, and 17m high at the western end.
This shelter contains some examples of cupules at the western end, which quite possibly date back to the Lower Palaeolithic.
Much of the rock art in this shelter is quite faded, but the standout examples are at the south-west entrance. This is a composition of two bulls, two buffaloes, three deer, three antelopes, a tiger, a peacock and a left hand print.
It is thought the handprint is that of a child, and interestingly is not a silhouette that you can often see in ancient rock art, but instead the outline of a hand.
Rock Shelter 4 (No. III C-50) – Zoo Rock
This shelter contains a huge number of naturalistic and elegant animal paintings, hence it has become known as Zoo Rock. There are 453 figures in total, comprising 252 animals of 16 different species, 90 humans engaging in several activities, two rodents, one bird, six decorative designs and 99 fragmented figures. Tigers and lions are also represented.
All of this is depicted in as many as ten separate layers, often images painted over the top of existing ones. The primary colour for these depictions is white, the figures date to the Mesolithic period, with a few from later periods.
The later Historic Period paintings are mostly in red, and consist of 19 horses, 8 elephants, 6 oxen, 4 goats and 22 unidentifiable animals.
This appears to be a collection of foot soldiers and horsemen, some holding large spears, swords and shields, many with long hair.
Rock Shelter 5 (No. III C-43)
This rock shelter has a main chamber with a smaller cell above on the western face. The paintings here are all from the Historic Period, with the best preserved examples in the cell.
The paintings include seven soldiers on horseback accompanied by three foot soldiers, a woman, a panther, a jungle fowl, two chickens and a centipede.
There’s also a clear example of the over painting of rock art that occurred at Bhimbetka, with white figures drawn over existing depictions of men on horseback.
This shelter is reported to contain a lot more rock art than I managed to see or photograph. Some may be considerably faded now, or perhaps this is a good excuse to return one day 🙂
Rock Shelter 6 (No. III C-48)
One of the highlights for me was this rock shelter, which contains some beautifully depicted natural animal drawings in a ghostly white colour.
No engravings have been found in the Bhimbetka region. The paintings are made with three different techniques:
- Transparent Technique – mixing the colour with a lot of water for it to be thin.
- Opaque Technique – mixing the pigment, possibly of several colours, with water .
- Crayon Technique – applying the pigment directly on the wall.
In the early phases the first technique (transparent) was more common, as with these examples.
There’s also figures of dancers, drummers and horse riders in this rock shelter. These have been applied on top of at least two underlying layers of paintings, some of the earlier levels just faintly visible now.
Here we have stick-shaped men dancing arm in arm, accompanied by drummers.
Rock Shelter 7 (No. III C-47)
All the art in this shelter belongs to the Historic Period, with no superimposition visible. Clearly depicted are men on horseback, some holding swords and spears.
The remaining art in this rock shelter has faded significantly, and is hard to make out.
Rock Shelter 8 (No. III C-6)
This rock shelter has many paintings in white, on many superimposed surfaces. There’s so much going on that’s it hard to make sense of any of it at first.
At the very least I spotted chickens, a scorpion, horses with riders, deer, stags, dogs, a lion…you can probably view the pictures and help me add to the list !
Rock Shelter 9 (No. III C-30)
This shelter contained some art a little different to what we have seen up until now, a floral design in yellow and green.
Nine yellow dots, a flower pot, three white lotuses, two buds and two leaves in green. A horse with a faded rider is immediately to the right
Higher up near a passage is an elephant followed by a shrouded human figure.
Rock Shelter 10 (No. III C-29)
The inside wall of this shelter has depictions of a bird in a tree (see below), a swordsman, a deer and eight figures of drummers and dancers, all painted in white.
Lower down is a horse rider painted in red.
There are other scenes in this rock shelter, extremely faded and very hard to make out.
Rock Shelter 11 (unknown)
This rock shelter depicts many horse riders with swords and shields, standing in front of soldiers on foot. This could almost be interpreted as a scene of war.
Rock Shelter 12 (No. III C-21)
Another highlight for me. This is huge shelter with a ceiling of about 5.5m and containing some of the most interesting art to be found at Bhimbetka.
Here is what appears to be a hunting scene in dark orange, men with bows and slings are appearing to chase after galloping animals.
Higher up to the right is a triangular composition of 19 buffaloes drawn in a darker crimson colour. Notice how their mouths appear to be open, with raised hair painted on their shoulders, giving you a real sense of both motion and drama to the scene.
This shelter is awash with imagery, and much of it very easy to make out.
Rock Shelter 13 (No. III C-21)
This has the same Wakankar and Mathpal designation number as the previous rock shelter, but a separate A.S.I number as the art here is to be found on the northern face of the shelter.
Although hard to see, and equally hard to figure out exactly what is happening, the depictions are of a ritual scene. It comprises of a man bent over another man who is lying on the ground. Some sort of rite is being performed with a circular stick. This partially overlaps a faded bull. To the right are two men painted in white, with potentially a pregnant woman with outstretched arms. Next to them are figures of buffalo, a man, a goat and a deer.
It’s extremely hard to see all of this, what is more clear is higher up. Here there is an interesting depiction of an animal with a sturdy body decorated with honeycomb patterns. It appears as though the animal is grazing, with tapering legs and large horns.
Rock Shelter 14 (unknown)
There’s not much rock art in this rock shelter, aside from a figure of a boar (again, with the hair on the back clearly depicted), and an image which perhaps is a rhinoceros.
Rock Shelter 15 (No. III C-19) – Boar Rock
This, the final rock shelter on the Bhimbetka trail, is a giant mushroom shaped rock, and has perhaps the most famous image of all those to be found on the hill.
Here, on the western face of the rock, is a large silhouetted figure of a boar with horns and a massive snout, together with mustaches and bristles on the back.
Near the snout is the figure of a fleeing man, and just in front of him you can just make out the image of a crab. A somewhat unusual scene, almost comical in the way it has been depicted. There are other human figures around the fore and hind legs of the animal.
Elsewhere are other groups of paintings, much faded and hard to pick out in isolation. You are of course slightly distracted by the main visible image here, and quite rightly so.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to everything you could see at Bhimbetka, but I hope it gives an insight into some of the rock art that is on show, and most importantly exactly where it is within the site.
I would suggest a significant amount of time is dedicated to visiting the rock shelters, at least half a day. This is a site that should not be rushed, and it does take a little time to get your eyes accustomed and trained to spot what can often be quite subtle and faint images.
Finally, remember to bring food and water, options for purchasing anything there is pretty much non-existent.
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