The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka are in the foothills of the Vindhya range on the southern edge of the Central Indian plateau. It is a group of rock shelters, part of craggy sandstone formations, rising over 100 metres above the Deccan traps amidst the Ratapani wildlife sanctuary .Within massive sandstone outcrops, the five clusters of natural rock shelters, display paintings that appear to date from the Mesolithic period right through the Historical period. The outcrops with painted rock shelters run east-west for a length of more than 8 kms. Its eastern and southern slopes are steep, while northern and western slopes are gentle. The hill is topped by a chain of dissected vertical tors rising sometimes upto twenty metres high that are eroded remanants of a former continuous rock mass.
Excavations from time to time has shown that the site had a continuous cultural remains from Palaeolithic to Historical period.
The site of Bhimbetka is spread over 10 km in length and has more than 700 rock shelters, of which over 400 have paintings. The natural setting with geological formations with which the human culture was associated is noteworthy. Bhimbetka reflects a long interaction between people and the landscape, as demonstrated in the quantity and quality of its rock art. It also got the evidence of living tradition in the form of art among the aboriginals of the area.
The continuity of human settlement from the Lower Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic period is exhibited by array of stone tools with characteristic features. Bhimbetka witnessed a drastic change in the Mesolithic Period in tool typology and raw material.
Though Bhimbetka is known for prehistoric remains, evidence of Buddhist structures in the form of small stupas have also been discovered. Some of the caves also bear inscriptions datable to Maurya and Sunga period.
The painting composition portraying bulls, buffaloes, deer, antelopes, a peacock, a tiger, a left hand print of a child, and an unfinished basket like object depicted over older faded lines are the most attractive depictions in one of its shelters. Also, there are a number of human and animal figures depicted in line drawings. Besides, the cave also has a number of cupules depressions on stone, which are the man’s earliest manifestation of creativity, probably associated with Lower Palaeolithic period.
In another cave drawings of a horseman and a soldier are seen higher up. In the depression on the rock face below, the elephants and a bull is depicted, wounded by the arrow of a hunter.
Bhimbetka is being inhabited from early days. To study the cultural development of human beings many excavations were carried out. Summarizing the evidence from all the excavations the following cultural sequence emerges at Bhimbetka:
In the Lower Palaeolithic period (C. 1,00,000 – 40,000 years) evidence of Pebble tool assemblage below the Acheulian deposit with a sterile layer in between is a remarkable finding.
The notable feature of Middle Palaeolithic (C 40,000 – 20,000 years) is that a number of tools are made on flat natural stones instead of on flakes.
The characteristic feature of upper Palaeolithic period (20,000 -10,000 years) is the increase in the proportion of smaller and slender blades.
The Mesolithic (10,000 – 2500 years) people used micro lithic tools on siliceous material like chert and chalcedony. During this period maximum number of shelters and caves were occupied, that clearly show an increase in human population. The Mesolithic people regularly used fire as is testified by the presence of ash, charcoal and charred bones and antlers. These people made floors with flat stone slabs and stone boulder wall to partition the cave into compartments. The Mesolithic people used to bury their dead within their caves in the living areas. The dead body was placed either in an extended position or in a crouched position with head usually to the east, but sometimes also to the west. Stone querns, rubbers, antlers, bone tools and hematite nodules were placed with the dead as grave goods.
The painted caves of Bhimbetka
Bhimbetka displays paintings that appear to date from Mesolithic period right through the Historical period. The paintings shows gradual development of social-cultural life of mankind. The rock paintings of early phase comprises human and animal figures in line drawings. The rock paintings of Mesolithic period are demonstrated by hunting scenes. Most of the hunting scenes belong to the earlier phase confined to Mesolithic and Chalcolithic periods whereas horse riding, elephant riding and battle scenes which appear more refined are associated with Historical period.
The colours were derived from locally available minerals such as ochre colour from hematite and white colour from lime. The corroborating evidence of the use of various mineral colours for paintings has also come from various excavations at Bhimbetka. The binding medium used for pigments are both water and fixative like animal fat and plant extract like gum etc. In the presence of water and other solvents minerals gets oxidised so as to leave their colour on rock surface.
The rock paintings are made on bare rock surface without any preparation of the base by plastering, grinding or smoothening. The naturally exiting soft and smooth fibres, hair and fingers might have been used as brush so as to run on the uneven and unprepared surface of the rock. figures at considerable heights were probably painted by artists standing on some sort of scaffolding or on branches of trees. Sometimes the earlier painted surfaces were used several times by artists of later periods without obliterating the older figures. The superimpositions of such paintings of different styles and periods can be seen in many of the rock shelters at Bhimbetka. As many as fifteen layers of superimpositions have been recorded at Bhimbetka.
Bhimbetka was brought to the notice of the academic world by Shri V.S.Wakankar in the year 1957-58. This landmark discovery led to further research in the area of rock art. Subsequently different academic scholars and institutions discovered many more sites and which threw light on the dynamics of shelter life by excavations and analysis.
The excavations carried out at Bhimbetka have yielded evidence of continuous human occupation from Lower Palaeolithic till Medieval times. In the long span of time, there were numerous changes took place in the social and cultural life of human being. The cultural remains such as stone tools, pottery, burials and significantly rock paintings depict the development in the human life. Of these rock art is the best source to know about the contemporary society from the time of Mesolithic to medieval period. In general, the subject matter of the paintings are human and animal figures, composite figures such as hunting scenes ,battle scenes and cultural scenes that include dancers and musicians, daily life and many more, painted with mineral colours mainly ochre and white. The untouched natural settings of Bhimbetka, water bodies and landscape add the scenic beauty and splendour of the area. Due to its integrated entity the painted rock shelters at Bhimbetka were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2003. Two of criterion for selection were:
- Bhimbetka reflects a long interaction between people and the landscape, as demonstrated in the quantity and quality of its rock art.
- Bhimbetka is closely associated with a hunting and gathering economy as demonstrated in the rock art and in the relics of this tradition in the local adivasi village on the periphery of this site.
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)