Bhimbetaka To Bhojeshwar: Breathing Life Into History

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Nov 16, 2018 12:21 PM +05:30 IST
Bhimbetaka To Bhojeshwar: Breathing Life Into HistoryA Bhimbetaka cave painting
  • The grand cave paintings of Bhimbetaka and sculptures of Bhojeshwar in Madhya Pradesh are impregnated with history kept alive by expert archaeologists.

    Yet, a lot more can be done to make them more memorable, and visits to the sites more worthwhile.

Bhimbetaka has always been a dream. The caves house in them some of the earliest paintings anywhere in the world. They were discovered in 1957 by Dr V S Wakankar (1919-1988) the grand old man of Indian rock-art studies.

Initially based on the style of the paintings, they were thought to be not more than 1,000 years old, and hence the importance would have been lost to the world. However, as early as 1955 Dr Wakankar proposed a method by which the superimposed layers of the paintings were identified and then studied separately. This clearly established the very old nature of Bhimbetaka. Later an engraved ostrich egg shell from Bhimbetaka was dated to be more than 25,000 years before present (BP). Studying the paintings is not a simple task and the next most authoritative work on Bhimbetaka paintings was done by archaeologist Dr Yashodhar Mathpal. In a painstaking effort, Dr Mathpal copied and studied a total of 6,214 paintings made in 400 compositions in the ceilings of 133 rock-shelters, which had been made in 16 superimposed layers for a period stretching to 8,000 years.

Visiting Bhimbetaka, hence, brings in both the thrill of a deep-rooted history of humanity and the reverence for initiatives taken up by great savants of Indian archaeology like Wakankar and Mathpal, who are seldom introduced to the younger generation as role models or their contributions appreciated. At the same time, there was a lurking fear. Coming from Tamil Nadu, I know how the state can be an abysmal failure in protecting monuments of historical importance. Pranay Lal in his book Indica says how most of “the early human sites like cave paintings and rock structures remain neglected are neglected in India”.

I was not sure what I was going to see. Will I see smashed beer bottles under the ceilings of caves displaying age old paintings? How would the rock paintings stand out? Would there be crowds who care little for these paintings, but leave the place filthy with food leftovers? Or will I see well-maintained rock shelters that bear its history and clear explanations of its attributes? Can I bring home some memories, some postcards of these paintings or a replica of the Acheulean tools?

Bhimbetaka rock shelter
Bhimbetaka rock shelter

I was in for a pleasant surprise. This site is well maintained with a good, non-intrusive pathway. We visited the caves during the weekend, and the crowd was moderately good, and was surely not littering. No. No smashed beer bottles that you see around monuments in Tamil Nadu. The Madhya Pradesh government needs to be congratulated for what they have done here.

However, as these caves occupy an important place in the history of humanity, one would expect much more. What can add value are a knowledge centre that speaks about the contributions of archaeologist pathfinders like Wakankar and Mathpal, and memorabilia that will help the visitor take home a very tangible memory (apart from selfies). There is not even a coffee table book available on these paintings. Surely, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) can train local youths as guides and arrange tours for visitors, which would also generate jobs. Visitors, right now, go around wondering at these paintings as there is almost no information about them except whatever has been provided on small boards, though remarkably presented, at the entrance. It will be highly beneficial if visitors are given an introduction about the Bhimbetaka paintings in a professional manner, and encouraged to view them in the light of global cave art.

The Shiva Linga in the Bhojeshwar Temple ... one of the tallest in India.
The Shiva Linga in the Bhojeshwar Temple ... one of the tallest in India.

On the way from Bhopal there is also the famous Bhojeshwar Temple built by legendary king Bhoja (reign 1010-1055 CE) of the Paramara dynasty. The temple was left unfinished, perhaps, because of an accident, according to tradition. The Shiva Linga in its sanctum sanctorum is 2.3 metres in height and is one of the tallest in India. Coming from Tamil Nadu I could not resist comparing it with the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, built around the same time by another legendary emperor, Sivapadasekara Rajaraja Chozha (985-1014 CE). The Thanjavur temple was built in the year 1010 CE the same year Bhoja’s reign began. A coincidence? Clearly a Saivaite wave should have been there. This might also explain why Bhoja is said to have defeated the Turks, perhaps, he attacked and gave chase to Ghaznavids who raided Somnath, another famous Siva temple.

The artistic ceiling done by Dr Muhammed and his team.
The artistic ceiling done by Dr Muhammed and his team.

The temple itself stands on a small mountain facing the dam and river front that the king had built and this pillar had to be taken 30 feet up the mountain. Dr Muhammed and his team also closed the ceiling which had long before collapsed allowing the water to seep in further, weakening the building. The closure had been done in an artistic manner that again blends with the original sculpture in a seamless way that it is hard for anyone to differentiate, except that this new structure is made of fibreglass so that the load on the old structure would not be heavy.

One can see that Dr Muhammed had also taken efforts to create a museum and knowledge centre to remind visitors of the history of the temple, its architectural marvels and the scholarly ruler Bhoja. However, now that he had retired, the government machinery had turned the old socialist way and the museum was closed when we visited and the sculptures around the place, which the archeologist had gathered and preserved, just lay there, scattered. The ASI had also done a wonderful work of preserving the original temple plans carved in the rocks, marking them and informing the visitors of their importance to the temple building.

Experts like Dr Muhammed are rare and a blessing to India’s rich heritage. It is very essential that our system course-corrects itself, frees itself from the slumber of socialist state and reinvigorates itself to preserve its rich heritage. Indian archaeology has been blessed with some of the best and finest archaeologists in the world. Dr Wakankar, Dr Mathpal, Dr S R Rao, Dr B B Lal, Dr K K Muhammad - each of them has made contributions that should make us all proud as Indians. Yet their contributions are not known outside their domain even as the fruits of their contribution are enjoyed by us all and the future generations. So let the state and central governments and the society at large celebrate their achievements. Unfortunately, the media and academia today are enamoured with a stranglehold of just one school of theoretical historians who with their ideologically vested interests have been destroying the rich possibilities of our society becoming culturally sound and scientifically literate.

A mother holding a dead child ... a monument in Bhopal
A mother holding a dead child ... a monument in Bhopal

In the evening, as we were on our way back, I express a desire to see another important place in Bhopal. Reluctant friends, who accompanied me, give in to the unexpected plan, and instruct me to return as soon as possible, as they waited.

The complex has a dark look to it, Auschwitz like. The buildings inside even in their dilapidated conditions look ominous. It is strange what memories can do to your present perception. Otherwise it could have been just another old industrial complex that fell into ruins when it became economically unsustainable. But this is the building that was home to the world’s worst industrial chemical disaster till date. We still do not know the exact number of people who fell victim to the tragedy.

The name Bhopal became a byword for chemical disaster for a generation on that December month of 1984. So the absence of a befitting monument honouring the victims of an international betrayal, a mass murder in its own way, sparks a strong feeling of being let down. There is a roadside memorial Dutch artist Ruth Kupferschmidt, which is becoming more and more non-descriptive and neglected as days pass by.

The UCC complex has a dark look to it, Auschwitz like
The UCC complex has a dark look to it, Auschwitz like

The whole complex could be converted into a huge museum complex that can not only focus on the Bhopal gas tragedy but also provide a complete history and science of ecological movements in the world. The victims of Bhopal gas tragedy are in a way victims of both colonialism that depreciates human lives in post-colonial countries like India, and Nehruvian socialism which stifled Indian entrepreneurship, which could have otherwise made Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) Warren Anderson more accountable.

After all, ecology and environment protection are integral to Indian way of life and Hinduism. Here we have an opportunity to honour the victims and inspire ordinary citizens as well as entrepreneurs to make their lives and industries clean and green. In 2005, the then BJP government had indeed considered the idea of a memorial, but it still remains an idea. Bhopal UCC complex is an Auschwitz in its own way. It is important that we honour the victims of that Auschwitz properly.

Pictures by Aravindan Neelakandan

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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