Experts have asserted, with some certainty, that human settlements have existed in and around Bhimbetka since at least 10,000 BCE.
“Hindustan ka dil dekho” goes the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Tourism advertisement tagline, inviting tourists to India’s eponymous centrally-located state.
But not many people are aware that MP is literally the heart of India — the cradle of civilisation.
Bhimbetka, just 45 kilometres from capital Bhopal, situated in the Raisen district, is one of India’s best kept secrets.
It is speculated that right from the late Acheulean period — around 10,000 BCE right up to the late Neolithic period — around 1000 BCE, humans from hominids to homo sapiens, have been present in Bhimbetka, as evidenced in more than 750 rock shelters which dot seven hills spread over 10 kms in a thick forested region.
This area is part of the Vindhya hills range, directly to the north of the Satpura hills range, located inside what is today known as Ratapani sanctuary, famous for its teak forests.
While the Bhimbetka rock art has not been dated formally, experts have asserted, with some certainty, that human settlements have existed in the region uninterrupted since at least 10,000 BCE.
The rock shelters depict a range of human activities. Hunting inscriptions and paintings depict how the activity itself evolved over time and the weapons used in the process. There are also depictions of dances, burials, social activities like drinking and transportation of dead animals and personalised activities of birth and childcare.
Finally, there are depictions of religious symbols like flying chariots, trees as gods and a Nataraja figure holding a trishul.
Worshipping nature is the key theme for pagan civilisations and Bhimbetka paintings reinforce it.
A lot of artwork is devoted to depiction of animals — including elephant, bison, tiger, deer and snake paintings.
Remarkably expressive and descriptive in many ways, depictions vary from the realistic to the stylised, graphic, geometric and the decorative
The paintings are mostly red and white in colour and seem to have used iron and manganese oxides and charcoal.
The accidental discovery of the Bhimbetka site is credited to a British era official W Kincaid, who heard about the rock shelters from tribal communities living in the nearby forests.
The British developed the nearby hill station of Pachmarhi, so the Bhimbetka site remained an object of constant exploration and curiosity. However, it wasn’t until 1957 when the real historic significance of Bhimbetka was understood.
Vishnu Shridhar Wakankar — or V S Wakankar — is considered the foremost authority on rock art in India. Son of the Madhya Pradesh soil, Wakankar was born in Neemuch in 1919.
It was through his efforts that Bhimbetka got the real attention and spotlight. He visited the site in 1957 and reported on the magnitude and significance of the rock art.
In 1971, two archaeologists K D Bajpai and S K Pandey from the Hari Singh Gour University in Sagar district added to this body of knowledge.
In 1972, Wakankar, sponsored by the Vikram University, Ujjain, proposed the nomenclature for the seven hills and associated rock art, which has been followed since then to identify all Bhimbetka sites.
It was only between 1972 and 1977 that the true historic value of Bhimbetka was ascertained. Apart from Wakankar, V N Misra of the Deccan College, Pune and Susan Haas of the Basle Museum worked in parallel on various sites in the region.
The ASI got into the act in the 1980s, deploying its own excavation and investigation teams. The ASI finally took over the management and control of the 1,892 hectares of forested area in 1990.
Wakankar himself documented the rock art extensively. He drew replicas of this art and his works have been well preserved. Not just his Bhimbetka discoveries, but his findings in the areas of numismatics, cave shelters across the Narmada Valley, and collection of Sanskrit, Brahmi and Prakrit manuscripts found by him, form an important body of knowledge to understand how human life evolved in what is today called Madhya Pradesh.
He also contributed extensively to the discovery of the dried basin of the Saraswati River. His works, including the drawings of Bhimbetka art, are preserved at the Wakankar Shodh Sansthan in Madhav Nagar, Ujjain.
Although there has been no direct evidence of any connection of the region with the Mahabharata, the nomenclature of Bhimbetka and surrounding areas seems to have several overlaps with the epic.
Bhimbetka itself is popularly considered a deformation of ‘Bhim baithak’ — the place where Bhim used to sit.
The closest village Bhiyanpura is considered a deformation of Bhimpur.
Pandapur — another village close by — is considered the corruption of Pandavpur.
The locals believe that the Bana Ganga, one of the three perennial springs in the area, was formed with Arjuna shooting an arrow on the earth’s surface.
In 2002, the government of India recommended a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site classification for Bhimbetka. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) carried out a detailed analysis of the Bhimbetka site after the Indian application was received in January 2002.
In March 2003, the ICOMOS report raised some questions about the World Heritage Site tag while acknowledging the importance of the site itself. The World Heritage Committee, however, accorded Bhimbetka rock shelters the tag of World Heritage Site in its 27th session held in Paris in July 2003. The UNESCO reference number for the site is 925.
The Raisen district in MP and the Narmada Valley in general is home to several geological, geographical and historical treasures. Much of this knowledge is localised and rapidly under attrition.
Bhimbetka itself is not easily accessible — perhaps a positive in terms of saving the site from a tourist onslaught, but a negative in terms of attracting the genuine, discerning visitors and of course in maintaining and preserving the area.
For several years, the rich geology studies tradition of universities of Sagar and Ujjain helped explore Bhimbetka. However, there is little contemporary effort to keep the process going.
Perhaps this is symptomatic of how the state of Madhya Pradesh itself has evolved. Turning 63 in its current form after the state reorganisation of 1956, MP is a state of great potential which remains largely unrealised.
Bhimbetka awaits its next set of Wakankars — meanwhile the stories of countless Homo species members remain on the walls of the caves and on the rocks in Raisen, waiting to be narrated.