Bhimbetka – An Ode To Stone Age People, M.P, India

Oh! That sinking feeling, ephemeral sorrow of that living creature caught in the lure of temptation, tormented by the thought of warm vapors gently brushing against the body on a cold rainy day met its oily doom. Seeking an unholy union with oil rich pot of unpleasant odor, the poor creature going against its own judgment sealed its fate. Perhaps it had the same honor to protect as the Japanese WWII pilots. The Kamikaze fly flew right into my oily paneer butter masala yelling faintly “Why are you eating this crap?”

Bhimbetka Caves

I wanted to show my respect and admiration to the cave men that lived in Bhimbetka by eating the dead fly dish prepared during their era.  Driving through heavy traffic on badly graded road was no fun. Successfully completing a handful of complex overtaking maneuvers, the road widened itself as a reward for all the effort. After taking the diversion to Bhimbetka caves the dusty roads paved way to lush green meadow just the way a World Heritage Site is meant to be.  No sooner I entered the premise, a realization that I was only soul present at the site struck me.  Overwhelmed by the sacredness of the site, I stood there staring for few minutes unable to move. It felt like I was in a Bollywood movie with the camera going around in circles focusing on the protagonist (me in this case). I was woken up from this temporary daze by a guard yelling “No Botthal not allloud inside” (No bottles allowed inside). Cave hoping was never this much fun. There were hardly any boards to explain about the paintings so I had to figure out the location of the paintings on the caves by myself.

Kushan Period (100 C.E - 300 C.E): Horse men on the hunt.

Observing the ancient cave paintings the obvious question was who painted these paintings? While there is no conclusive written evidence, there are hints based on which certain assumptions can be made. The rock paintings in India started showing up in the Upper Paleolithic age around 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. The style of paintings can be often matched to many other paintings found worldwide. This perhaps is due to common ancestry of all human beings out of Africa. The interesting part is the rock paintings of Mesolithic era (8000 B.C to 2500 B.C). The Mesolithic paintings are very unique to India and often depict the lives of people in constant confrontations with wild life (Hunters).

White horse and flower pot: This style is usually associated with Gupta or Shanka script, which suggests the presence of religious recluses from vally cultures

For a long time Archeologists had believed that these were the Dravidian speaking people of South India. New studies have shown with comprehensive evidence that Dravidians were not indigenous tribes of India. They were outsiders just like the Indo-Aryans.  However this does not mean that the Dravidians were not present in the Indian sub continent during the Mesolithic era.  Evidence points to unaltered tribal coexistence during the Mesolithic and Neolithic era with more advanced cultures like the Dravidians and Indo Aryans.

Tribal Battle: Post Gupta period (500 C.E - 800 C.E): The fighters have a metal sword and a shield

This can be proved by existence of many languages spoken by the tribals which are widely regarded as predecessors of both Aryan and Dravidian speaking people. In considering this evidence it is important to note that at least 4000 years from the Neolithic period of settled agriculture and domesticated animals to the present day, two quite separate cultures have existed side by side in many parts of India. Hence the rock paintings belong to the tribals of central India.

A Buffalo represented with great variety of geometric patterns belongs to Mesolithic or earlier era

Why did they paint? We cannot know with any degree of certainty why Stone Age people painted the walls of their shelter. But we can infer from the subject matter and nature of the paintings.

Cavalry & Infantry Battle: It is represented by horses, elephants and soldiers painted in think red line. Picture probably represents a Hillman’s eye view of valley conflict

Religion: Early man in many parts of the world probably experienced attitudes of wonder, reverence and fear towards many wild creatures. In India, early man may have experienced this attitude towards animals such as elephant, tiger, leopard, bison because of its enormous size, power and numbers. It may be that to propitiate them before or after the kill, hunting clans felt the need for an act of worship.

Brown Buffalo from the early Neolithic era

Magic: Although most anthropologists agree that there is a broad overlap between religion and magic, there is an important distinction. Magic is manipulation of objects, images, symbols, and rituals to produce a specific and immediate result. It is less concerned with awe, reverence and worship than with killing an antelope, curing or inflicting an illness, exorcising an evil spirit, or make the rainfall.

Rider of horse with a sword: Kushan period (100 C.E - 300 C.E)

Secular Records: There is a shift from pictures possibly reflecting religious or magical intent to pictures recording the daily life of the shelter dwellers, important events in the valley cultures or conflict between the two societies.  There are now more depictions of raids by hill people on the domesticated cattle of the plainsmen, fights between tribes, battles between hill people and valley people all over the shelters probably reflecting the shift in attitudes of that time. Times had changed and the pictures have changed with them.

Early Mesolithic representation of a Ghor

Decorations: It’s possible that some of the markings may be no more than decoration. There are many endlessly repeated designs probably just a good decoration for the shelter.

Bison shown in faint red outline with filling following the muscles and viscera belonging to the Mesolithic or earlier

These highly specialized paintings reflect work of some of the people of ancient India. It is astonishing to note tribals such as Gonds of Central India, Saora of Orissa have rituals and practices that are represented in these paintings even today.

Triangular Humans Dancing: Neolithic/Chalcolithic era. Thick white lines as though done with a finger is outline only.

Yet they are completely unaware of their ancestry and the origin of their practices. The paintings reflect the utmost human expression and desire to communicate with fellow human beings. There is no conclusive evidence to point that paintings and art for form existed even before language, but it would not be a surprise if it did.

The Mesolithic Image: A tiny human wearing a mouse head mask flees in terror form a gigantic bison, while two other humans abjectly watch

Reference:

  • Stone Age Paintings in India – Vishnu S. Wakankar & Robert Brooks
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5 responses to “Bhimbetka – An Ode To Stone Age People, M.P, India

  1. Varun great piece you have done lot of research for this …was very informative. I was interested about 3 phase migration to India as well. May be knowing better about the language of tribes may unlock the mystery of Indus valley language.

    • Thanks man! 3 phase migration is quite a complex theory. lack of evidence to support this the main reason. Written history of India begins 600BC with cyrus invasion followed by Alexander the great. Lot more work needs to be done on that front, however ill be very interested in mapping tribal language to an origin point. The problem is that lots of tribes depending on where they were present might have developed their own language each independent of the other. Iam sure none would have had language when they stepped out of Africa.

  2. Excellent blog, and I love the petroglyph pictures. I have seen a lot of petroglyphs left behind by ancient Indians in N. America (mostly in Arizona, northern Nevada and Southern Utah) and the resemblances to the ones in Bhimbetka are stunning.

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