Once in a while, on the long road of a longer journey, you come to a place where time has no measure, where the shadows of ancient past seem to linger on the rocks. Your journeys seem no more than a brushstroke in comparison to the antiquity of the place. Bhimbetka is one such place.
Modern man’s ancestors have lived in the caves of Bhimbetka some 100,000 years ago. Situated on the hills and surrounded by dense forests filled with tigers, leopards, boars, sambars and deer, this was ideal ground for these hunters and gatherers. They had no language nor words. They might have communicated by way of sounds. Their writing was to paint on the sheltered surfaces of the rocky caves which they inhabited. Some of these prehistoric pictures survive even today, The earliest of these are said to come from 12,000 years ago.
Getting to Bhimbetka was slow this morning. I waited for buses. Most were going only till Obdullahganj. I had no idea if this was on the way to Bhimbetka. Bhopal-Hoshangabad buses are not that frequent. I then got a lorry passing Bhimbetka. Lorries transport factory workers in the mornings along this route. They charge half of the bus fare and are supposed to be faster. Unfortunately I had boarded the slowest vehicle on the highway. It would stop frequently and would not push the needle beyond 30 kmph. Every other lorry and bus was overtaking us.
To keep company on this slow journey was a bearded Muslim, chewing his paan and talking at the same time. Dressed in a white kurta, he also wore a jacket to keep off the cold. A white cloth patterned with red lines wrapped his shoulders. It is quite common for men of his community to wear such a cloth. It is used as a sun shade but also as a ground mat when they say their daily prayers. Some people have the gift of engaging an audience with idle talk. He spoke in fluent Hindi. Everyone listened without interruption. He was a good storyteller. Every emotion, action and gesture was sketched. He would quote verbatim from the mouths of his actors. He would break off at a cliffhanger, forcing the audience to listen for more. He would evoke responses from the audience by way of acknowledgement. The subject of his narration – his days in some prison in Haryana. It is not the sort of company you would want to be with for long.
I got off for Bhimbetka along the highway. From here it is about 3 km uphill to the caves. I must have walked only a third of the distance when I got ride from some tourists from Indore. These days they charge an entrance fee of Rs. 10 for the caves. I gave a fifty rupee note. The guard let me go for free as he had no change.
Out of the few hundred caves scattered about hte rocky hills, only about 15-20 are open to public. I suppose the more adventurous may hire a guide and venture through the forests to the more isolated ones. Those that are accessible are enough as a sample of prehistoric art.
Figures are mostly in red, ochre and white. Some yellow and green feature, particularly in Cave 9 where there is a flower vase and flowers beautifully painted on the rock. This must be more recent after prehistoric man had mastered fire and the art of pottery. The older ones mostly depict warfare, hunting and dancing. Different animals are recorded beautifully. Many figures are line drawings but there are equally many others which have full form and solid colouring. In one case I observed that a rider on his horse was painted in solid red. Another figure in white was line drawn over it. This is the evidence that the same canvas was used many times by different generations of cave dwellers.
For all that was primitive about our ancestors, their art tells of their keen sense of observation. Though the animals are stylistic, there is still much realism in the flight of a boar that’s being hunted, the hooves of a horse truthfully sketched or the relative proportions between a deer and a sambar. In one of the hunting scenes, each bristle of the boar has been painted from its nose to its tail. It gives the boar fear, flight and fight all at once.
I walked back to the highway where M.P. Tourism runs a restaurant. I had a simple lunch of rice and rajma for Rs. 75. The rice was clearly cooked in microwave and not fully done. The rajma was spicy and salty. Someone at the next table ordered Gulab Jamun. They were told that they had run of Haldiram’s packets. Quite disappointing that they don’t even make the dishes.