Bimbetka Caves -Where the theatre is the drama

As you drive from Bhopal to Bhimbetka, the forty- five kilometer stretch is the first hint of the drama that awaits you. The lustrous broad-leaved evergreen jungle abruptly gives way to vast plains carpeted by lambent meadows and lush shrubs. For miles, there is no sign of any habitation, no landmarks, except the winding road. And you begin to wonder whether you’ve lost your way and are going round in circles. But then, like the Grand Canyon, you don’t see the caves until you’re actually upon them.

The first glimpse of Bhimbetka caves is so stunning that you would be forgiven for thinking this is nature’s very own stage – a stage which itself is the drama. Long before pre-historic man discovered Bimbetka to engrave his angst-filled messages on the walls of these caves, nature appears to have chosen them to practise her chiseling skills. She has sculpted dramatic shapes out of this rock cluster, chipping away a little here, slicing off a chunk there, the icicle shaped rocks forming a festoon overhead. And it appears to be in the fitness of things that the sun should take charge of the light effects in this theatre.

This afternoon, it casts filigreed patterns of shade and light to complete the setting. The geological formation originally of sandstone has been polished over aeons into smooth and lustrous rocks which scientists call orthoquartzite. The exposed portions are covered with moss, but if you scoop it away, the rocks will reveal a range of colours from rust to brown to ochre, cream, white and even bluish. You don’t have to crouch into Bhimbetka caves. They are high and stately and come in different shapes and likenesses that remind you of pre-historic monsters. And some of them are so precariously balanced as to heighten the dramatic effect. The cluster has over six hundred and forty caves spread over seven hillocks and was discovered quite accidentally in the year 1958 by Dr.V.S.Wakankar, a legendary archeologist. Wakankar and his associates spent several years studying and documenting these caves and the artifacts that were found in and around it.

And when you enter the caves you know why pre-historic man chose them to record his life and times in one of the earliest ever documentaries on human life on this planet. When the outdoor temperature is a sizzling 38 degrees Celsius, the entrails of Bhimbetka feel as if they are centrally air-conditioned. Shielded from whistling winds and nagging rain, here, early man could indulge his yearning to communicate. As you stroll from cave to cave, you witness an unfolding drama of a different kind. The walls tell you tales of dreams, hopes and aspirations of men and women who lived several thousands of years ago. Unaided by lenses, microfilms and binary digits, these pioneering men and women have managed to bequeath almost intact, a rich tapestry of images that capsule priceless vignettes from their life and times.

Historians have identified more than one carving tool from images superimposed on one another, implying that the caves were a favourite haunt of men and women through the various Stone Ages. According to them, the caves must have been inhabited from over a hundred thousand years. Apart from the cave engravings, archeologists have also unearthed a sequence of Stone Age relics from the Acheulian times to the Mesolithic period reinforcing the theory that these caves were continuously inhabited over very long periods. In fact, the cave paintings provide almost continuous documentation on the evolution of man from a nomadic hunter-gatherer to cultivator and home-maker. Archeologists have also found pieces of pottery, iron and copper tools and even some punch-marked coins.

The starkness of the images reveals an uncluttered grasp of the essentials of form and shapes. Simple lines manage to convey a range of emotions: of celebration, joy, fear,anger, pride and sorrow. The cave man must have had an uncanny grasp of geometry. Straight lines, squares, triangles, rhombuses, parallelograms and hexagons dominate the paintings. Birds and animals are well-proportioned, and humans have been sketched with such minimal strokes that they would put a modern-day cartoonist to shame.

Vignettes of community life can be gleaned from figurines holding hands in a dancing gesture or from processions and celebrations depicted so evocatively. Hunting scenes also abound. Stone Age man’s menagerie is wide and varied – wild boars, bisons, tigers, lions, monkeys, deer, elephants, horses and even rodents and insects. Masks and ornate headgear made of antlers and horns hint at some form of hierarchy in their society. If one mural depicts pathos in the form a man mauled by an outsized wild boar, there is an element of bathos in another where a deer is portrayed as having swallowed an elephant. Daily chores of hunting, cooking, chopping firewood and fetching water also feature in these murals. While a few of the murals could be interpreted as having religious significance, the predominant theme is secular.

Early man didn’t stop with just engraving. He knew how to colour them. Some of the colours are still in tact, albeit faded. Sixteen colours are said to have been identified, although white and red seem to be predominant. The painters must have used twigs and reeds as brushes. Your guide tells you they also used porcupine quills and needle like sharp implements to obtain those sharp lines. Magnesium, charcoal and vegetable dyes supplied the colours. The cave paintings are so evocative that it is not difficult to imagine how keenly observant early man must have been.

The theory that early man etched and painted to adorn and beautify his surroundings has few takers today. The desire to communicate a message, to grapple with one’s own fears and doubts through descriptive images must have driven him to express himself in these cave paintings. Yet, early man must have been a natural aesthete as well. Uncluttered as he was, by the trappings of modern life, his expressions stand out for sheer clarity and starkness.

The rock murals at Bhimbetka are a treasure trove of valuable information to archeologists and historians, no less significant than their counterparts in the Altamira caves of Spain. It is only in the fitness of things that UNESCO has recently accorded World Heritage Site status to this marvel of human creativity. Now Bhimbetka will not only rub shoulders with other natural and man-made marvels like the Grand Canyon or Hampi, but will also be able to access funds and technology to preserve this priceless heritage.