The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 30, 2002

Stone Age man lived in these rock shelters
N. P. Mehta

People lived in these shelters many centuries ago
People lived in these shelters many centuries ago

IN 1958, in the middle of June, an archaeologist, V. S. Wakankar, was travelling by train to Bhopal. Near Bhimbetaka, he saw some rock formations the likes of which he had seen in Spain and France. At that time of the year, the vegetation being quite thin, the rock formations were quite visible they remained hidden under thick grown though during most of the year. He decided to visit the area along with a team of archaeologists. The team members got a pleasant surprise when they discovered prehistoric rock shelters there.

Bhimbetaka is situated at the southern tip of the Vindhyachal mountains. Towards its south are successive ranges of the Satpura mountains covered with dense vegetation. This forested area has now been declared a wildlife sanctuary as the area abounds with various species of wildlife. The northern side presents a magnificent panoramic view of a wide stretch of plains down below, with rocks jutting here and there.

Nearby is a temple surrounded by dense forest. As evening gives way to night and the surrounding, forest is engulfed in darkness, wild animals, including tigers, bears and antelopes, start emerging from the undergrowth to quench their thirst from a huge tub which the temple priest has kept close by. Footprints of these animals are quite visible near the tub.

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The rock shelters have astonishing formations. People lived in the area more than 30000 years ago. Seen from a distance, the entrance to the shelter looks like that of a dilapidated ancient castle. Close by are even more extraordinary, ridged and serrated masses of yellow and reddish rocks which appear to have been formed eons ago. The great slabs and boulders are so precariously balanced upon one another it seems as though they may come down anytime. At the gate, an Archaeological Survey of India board says.

"Bhimbetaka...130 rock shelters...biggest repository of prehistoric art in India. Continuous habitation from the early stone age."

The slabs are so precariously balanced that it seems they may come down any time
The slabs are so precariously balanced that it seems they may come down any time

The sight of the rock shelters was judiciously chosen by the early dwellers, as it is situated at a considerable height and the plains are clearly visible, which was probably meant to enable the inhabitants to keep a watch on the surrounding area. It is situated on the edge of the hills, which enabled the inhabitants to cultivate land in the plains below, while the shelters provided protection and safety at night. The shapes of the shelters are such that many people could sleep under the rocks at night. The entrance to the shelters is very narrow and one can only creep in on all fours. This must have given extra safety to its inmates from bad weather as well as from an enemy. On the top of the shelters there are niches in the rocks where a sentry could stand.

There is concrete evidence that these shelters were not for temporary use but were permanent habitation. Human skeletons, axes, cleavers, scrapers and handmills for grinding grain have been found at these places. A guide told me that a human skeleton, about 7 feet in length, was excavated from this place and sent to the Kolkata museum.

Some entrances are so small that one can only creep in on all fours
Some entrances are so small that one can only creep in on all fours

There are very interesting paintings on the walls of the shelters. On the wall of one shelter is drawn the picture of a bison in pursuit of a hunter while his two companions stand helplessly nearby. The snout of the bison dwarfs the hunter, nearly touches him and blocks his escape. A rock, known as "Zoo Rock", depicts pictures of elephants, sambars, bisons and deer. They all appear to be rushing as if chased by the hunters. On another rock, two elephants with huge tuskers are painted. On one of the rocks, hunting scenes are graphically painted. Here the hunters carry bows, arrows, swords and shields. A strange human figure wearing a horned headgear, an animal mask and leggings is prominently depicted. He is probably a witch doctor. On this rock, a hunter leading a horse with a saddle on its back is also painted.

On another rock a horse-rider races across so swiftly than another horse rears back alarmed by the speed of the running horse. On one corner of this rock is an intriguing picture of a manís right hand with a clearly amputated index finger. From this it appears that these people did surgical operation in that age.

On one of the rocks there is an exceptionally beautiful picture in which a calf elephant is being dragged away with the help of a huge tusker and the mother elephant is following her calf in a state of sheer helplessness. The agony and mental torture of the mother elephant is depicted in a masterly way. This picture excels any other in beauty and shows that the shelter dwellers used to capture and tame wild elephants.

A fort-like rock formation at Bhimbetaka
A fort-like rock formation at Bhimbetaka

On yet another rock a peacock, a snake, deer and sun are painted. The guide explained that the sun represents the availability of water in the vicinity of the shelters, while the deer indicates that there is plenty of wildlife. The snake shows the power of punishment of the chief. The picture shows that while there is plenty of wild game and water, but if someone commits any wrong, he will be punished by the chief. This interpretation shows that there was some purpose behind this art.

For making paints, the dwellers probably mixed coloured earth, vegetables dyes and roots with animal fat. They applied them with brushes made of fibrous twigs. The quality of the paints is so good that even after thousands of years they have not fadesd.

In the earliest paintings, which are predominantly in colour, men are carrying spears, and are either naked or sparsely clad. In later paintings one finds people properly clothed and some of them riding on horses and elephants. At another place, a tiger and a deer are being hunted with bows and arrows. There is also a scene of a detachment of an army being led by the chief on horseback, carrying a big sword, while other horsemen are following him in a single file. The opposing group is also horseback. The soldiers on both the sides are carrying swords, bows, arrows and spears.

There is another marvellous picture of a tiger hunting drawn with masterly skill. An enraged tiger is surrounded by hunters from all sides. The fierce expression on the face of the tiger is clearly visible. The deer and other wild animals are seen running helter and skelter. The hunter is trying to control the horse, which is reeling back due to fear of the tiger. These pictures seem to be have been painted in some later period, about 3000 to 5000 years ago.

From the study of these pictures we can surmise that these people were culturally quite advanced and at the same time they were living in war-like conditions, as most of the pictures depict fighting scenes. They lived after the Stone Age as the pictures do not depict them hunting animals and they are fully dressed, particularly in the later pictures. Peaceful activities like dancing and playing of children are not depicted, which again shows that they lived in a war-like atmosphere. Why and when these people abandoned these shelters is any oneís guess.

Whatever the reason for abandoning of these shelters, they have left behind wonderful relics of their period in these rock shelters.