India’s Bhimbetka Rock Shelters
The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, a collection of more than 600 prehistoric cave paintings, was one of the main reasons we wanted to visit Bhopal, India. Boasting the oldest traces of human presence on the subcontinent as well as cave paintings dating back to the Mesolithic period, this just might be the best contender for the title of “the birthplace of India.”
Just an hour by bus from the bustling city of Bhopal, Bhimbetka’s rock shelters are hidden away in a patch of sal and teak forest, which gives the place a remote, off-the-track vibe. Walking through the forest on the shadowy paths shielded from the scorching sun, the first thing we noticed was how quiet it was. Hardly any tourists, and no hassle at all.
As we wandered from shelter to shelter, our eyes adjusted to the darker surroundings and we noticed more and more of the white and ochre rock paintings. Some lay high up clinging to the stone ceilings of massive caverns, others sat just inches away from the ground along the side of the path. Yet others were hidden away in dark caves accessible only through a narrow crawl space.
Considering some of the cave art dates back over 10,000 years, it is quite impressive how well preserved these paintings are, and even more incredible how accessible they are. We saw only two guards hanging out under the trees, but they were very low-key and kept to themselves. Other sites of this caliber would surely have been strictly guarded or not accessible at all. We did notice a couple of barriers around the more important shelters such as the so-called Zoo Rock Shelter, known for its variety of animal paintings.
Depictions of animals made up the majority of the cave paintings but there were plenty of other scenes depicting hunting warriors and childbirth as well as people dancing. Spectacular.
What was most interesting to me was to see how the artistry had changed over time. Contrary to what I would have guessed, some of the older paintings, which are estimated to be up to 12,000 years old, were so much more detailed and life-like than the newer paintings dated to the Middle Ages. It’s amazing how artistic skills can be unlearnt and completely forgotten over time.
Tips for Bhimbetka
As with most attractions in the Indian state of Madya Pradesh, Bhimbetka is for adventurers, for those who seek something different. The specialized site will appeal most to those who appreciate art and history – and those who are not in a rush.
Travelers can reach the site by public transportation, or they can arrange a private tour from Bhopal. If you come all the way to Bhopal, make sure to check out the spectacular stupas at Sanchi as well, one of the most significant Buddhist sites in India.