Bhimbetka Caves, also known as the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, is an archaeological site located in the Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh. The rocks are believed to have been a witness to the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. Spanning across 10 km, there are close to 750 rock shelters and seven hills in the area. These caves have now been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, owing to their historical significance.
An Accidental Discovery
In 1957, archaeologist Dr. Vishnu Wakankar noticed these structures from the train window on his way to Nagpur. They were similar to the rocks that he had previously studied in France and Spain. He went to the area with his team of archaeologists and discovered these shelters which dated back to the pre-historic times. This was in 1957.
Several studies later on showed that these caves dated back to the Stone Age and served as some of the first human settlements during that time.
The Bhimbetka rock shelters are a canvas for some of the oldest paintings in India. Most of these are done in red and white on the cave walls. A multitude of themes were covered in this form of rock art and it depicted scenes like singing, dancing, hunting and other common activities of the people staying there. This also adds strength to the argument that the caves used to be home for hundreds of people sometime during 300 BC. The oldest of the cave paintings in Bhimbetka is believed to be about 12,000 years ago.
The paintings have been divided into various periods like Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early History and Medieval history. They are present in 500 caves out of the total of 750. However, experts are of the opinion that there may have been many more which got eroded with time.
Bhimbetka is named after Bhim, the second brother among the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Some locals believe that Bhim rested here after he was exiled along with his brothers. Legends also say that he used to sit outside these caves and on top of the hills to interact with the people in the area. The caves get its name from this mythological character and roughly translates into ‘Bhim’s Resting Place’ or ‘Bhim’s Lounge’.
Another story says the cave was inhabited by demons. Hence, they are also occasionally called ‘dant’ meaning teeth, and in this case, referring to the teeth of the demons who lived here.
These rock caves are believed to be the oldest petroglyphs in the world. Some of the rock paintings in the area are very similar to aboriginal rock art found in Australia and the Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings discovered in France. Despite there being more than 700 rock shelters, only 12 to 15 are open and accessible to visitors.
The sudden discovery of these caves allow us a rare opportunity to look into the past and the lifestyle of the times. It bears witness to the lives of our predecessors and is a rich source of history.