Cavemen's canvas

Cavemen's canvas

Bhimbetka rock shelters near Bhopal are canvases for India’s prehistoric life depicted through paintings, writes Meera Iyer.

Two things you learn very quickly at Bhimbetka. First, you cannot escape superlatives. Consider this: it has the world’s largest concentration of prehistoric rock art, and it is home to one of the world’s oldest petroglyphs. Second, age has an altogether different magnitude here, with at least some human artefacts dating from more than 1,00,000 years ago.

Bhimbetka is about 45 km from Bhopal and lies within the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary. The forested hills here boast some magnificent, layered sandstone outcrops, some rearing up dramatically above the tree canopy, some forming long gentle slopes. They have over 700 caves or rock shelters, of which more than half contain prehistoric paintings made by people who lived here several thousand years ago.

Lively forest

We had travelled 1,500 km just to see these cave paintings. Yet, a short walk through Ratapani’s beautiful deciduous forest and we were entranced before having seen a single painting. All around us, trees emerged from the brown-red soil and twisted and stretched their way up towards the sky. The forest was a melange of green, brown and ochre. A treepie hopped about on a nearby branch and a group of langurs sat watching idly from atop another tree. In the background, I could hear unidentified birds chattering busily. Truly, the forest teemed and hummed with life. It was no wonder prehistoric people chose to live here.

Bhimbetka’s rich repository of rock art was discovered in 1958, almost serendipitously. Archaeologist V S Wakankar was travelling hereabouts by train when he noticed the sandstone hills in the distance. His archaeologist instinct kicked in and he realised they would have been ideal locations for prehistoric people. He got off at the next station to explore the area. Wakankar’s report the following year in the journal Indian Archaeology — A Review is bland and concise: In a place known locally as Bhimabetka, he found nearly 50 caves with paintings in red and white colours, he says. It was only in the early 1970s that Wakankar and others thoroughly studied the caves. In 2003, Bhimbetka was declared a World Heritage Site. 

One of the most spectacular shelters is the enormous, T-shaped, Auditorium Cave. Here, on the left wall, are deer walking off across the undulating rock, bulls that seem to be prancing, some people dancing... and is that an equal to sign? It was our first glimpse of Bhimbetka’s rock art and I was astounded by how very modern these ancient paintings seemed — no photographic realism here, and yet, with a light stroke here, a deft touch there, ancient artists had managed to imbue the humped bull with a regal majesty, the peacock with a swagger. But my eyes kept straying to an enigmatic figure below the animals — a neat outline of a small left hand, drawn about six feet above ground level.

 Researchers estimate it was of a seven or eight-year-old child. Was it merely a playful child’s graffiti? Did an indulgent parent help her child draw it? Or was there something more sinister behind it? A story hovered there tantalisingly but frustratingly out of reach. A few metres down the trail is another large shelter named Zoo Rock by Wakankar. What a feast for the eyes! There are more than 450 paintings in just this one shelter, of which 260 are of various kinds of animals. They jostle for space on this vast rock canvas, edging each other out, sometimes almost literally. 

Were these paintings records of everyday life and events? Perhaps they served some ritualistic purpose. For now, we do not know. Once again I was struck by how you could sense the movement and even the mood in some of the animals. Panic-stricken herds of deer seemed to be running hither and thither across the vast rock canvas, antelopes were trying to flee hunters who were bearing down on them with spears, and elsewhere, humped cows and bulls ambled by, grazing placidly. 

Bhimbekta’s earliest paintings, including the ones depicting hunting scenes, are believed to date from the Mesolithic period, 10,000 to 4,500 years ago. Scholars date the geometric and other abstract designs to about 2,500 to 4,500 years ago. Paintings depicting horses and riders on elephants are thought to be from the historic to the medieval period. So far, this dating is based on styles, correlations with tools and pottery, and on the sequences of superimpositions, rather than on direct dating with radiocarbon, Uranium-Thorium, or other methods. 

Rock art is clearly the star of the show in Bhimbetka, but there are other artefacts here that date from our primordial past. On a nondescript, unpainted, quartzite rock called Chief’s Rock in Auditorium Cave are nine small, round depressions. These are cupules, human-made circular depressions, usually 2-10 cm in diameter. Such forms of rock art that are pecked out of the rock are also called petroglyphs.

Penchant for petroglyphs

A few feet away from Chief’s Rock, in a trench first excavated in the 1970s by Wakankar, Robert Bednarik, an Australian archaeologist and President of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations, discovered another cupule about 7-8 cm in diameter, and next to it, a short undulating line. These petroglyphs were found in 1990, beneath layers of deposits resulting from thousands of years of habitation. The petroglyphs were found on a boulder in the upper part of a layer of deposits from the Acheulian, a period characterised by the particular kinds of stone tools that were used then. Assuming the Indian Acheulian is similar to that in Europe, Bednarik dated these petroglyphs to between 290,000 and 700,000 years ago. Recently, however, some Indian Acheulian sites have been dated to between 125,000 and 1.5 million or so years ago, which would imply the cupule-and-line petroglyphs were made at least 125,000 years ago. 

Because cupules are not found anywhere else in Bhimbetka, and because of their proximity to each other, Bednarik believes the cupules on Chief’s Rock were made at the same time as the now buried cupule-and-line motif. 

According to scholars, our species, Homo sapiens, arrived in India about 45,000-70,000 years ago. Acheulian tools and artefacts were made by one of our ancestor human species, Homo erectus. This to me was the most startling thing about Bhimbetka — that I could actually see something made by a hominin species that I had only heard of in magazines like National Geographic or in articles about Robert Leakey. Here in front of me was this very tangible thing that had been made by a Homo erectus man or woman standing right where I was standing, but at least 1,00,000 years ago. I confess I got goosebumps thinking about that!

If you think cupules are the result of some ancient shepherd whiling away time, think again. Archaeologist Giriraj Kumar and his colleague tried making cupules on a quartzite rock using stone tools. What emerged was that cupule-making was no idle pastime. Apart from great physical strength, workers also needed to remain focussed. It took them more than 21,000 strikes to produce a small cupule!

Scholars have various theories on what cupules were made for: memorials to the dead, trail markers, indicators of ritual spaces. One set of cupules in California was found to resemble a constellation. A megalithic site near Hampi has an arrangement of cupules that brings to mind the game alugulimane. In Bhimbetka, Bednarik found traces of a pigment in some of the cupules.

Both cupules and rock paintings are ubiquitous relics from the past, found in all continents across the world except Antarctica. But both are also the most inscrutable, and we can only guess at their purpose. There are exciting new directions in rock art research, with neuroscientists trying to understand motivations and meanings behind paintings. Until such studies open a door into the minds of prehistoric artists, we can only marvel at their creative output.

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