Which is the oldest monument or site you have visited?

The Taj Mahal? It’s 364 years old.

How about the Golden Temple? 413 years old. 445-year-old Macha Pichu? Or the intricate stone temples of Khajuraho? They’re a thousand years old.

Let’s go as far back as Harappa and Mohenjodaro, both of which thrived around 5,000 years ago, as did the Egyptian pyramids of Giza. Can you think of any site older than that?

Now, what if I told you that there was a site, in the heart of our country, that was inhabited by humans 100,000 years ago? You read that right: 100,000 years ago.

In fact, it exhibits the earliest signs of human life on the Indian Subcontinent—the first signs of humans in India.

When I heard about Bhimbetka, I thought it was a rumour. At best, there would be an exaggeration about the era. Were there really signs of the Stone Age here in India? Memories of my history books came flashing by, with pictures of caves with stencilled drawings of matchstick men.

In all this time, I never knew that such a treasure was lying right under our nose. I immediately booked my tickets to Bhopal to see it for myself.

The caves find mention in archeology records from 1888. Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
The caves find mention in archeology records from 1888. Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

In fact, the caves, or rather rock shelters, were not discovered until 1957, when V.S. Wakankar sighted them during a train journey to Bhopal. Having dedicated his life to rock shelters, he had seen similar formations in Spain and France.

Interest piqued, he returned with a crew of archaeologists and went on to discover this prehistoric site.

The caves did find a mention in Indian archaeological records back in 1888, based on information shared by local adivasis (tribals). However, no one went and followed through on the lead and thus many years went by until Wakankar chanced upon them.

Out of the 750 shelters in the area, 243 are collectively known as Bhimbetka. Local folklore suggests the presence of Bhim, one of the Pandavas from Mahabharata, at this site. Thus the name.

A nearby village called Pandapur is said to have been named after the Pandavas, whereas the Lakha Juhar forest is believed to have once been the site of the famed lakh (wax) palace of the Pandavas.

Only a dozen or so rock shelters are open to the public, and the visit can take up to half-a-day as the site is 45 minutes away from Bhopal.

Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

At first glance, the larger-than-life rocks are imposing and majestic. It is easy to believe that they have been standing here since eternity—come rain, hail or sunshine. In fact, the smooth surfaces of some rocks also suggest that they were partially underwater at some point.

But the beauty of Bhimbetka lies in the paintings it holds within its folds. Easily making the caves the oldest art gallery in India, and perhaps even in Asia, the paintings date back 30,000 years. What is also interesting is that the paintings are not from one era. Instead, there are many which are superimposed on older ones, giving evidence of the caves being used by humans through various periods. This allows historians to study continuity in human evolution and civilization.

Red paintings superimposed on older white ones. Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
Red paintings superimposed on older white ones. Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

The oldest drawings are from the Upper Paleolithic Era and are in hues of green and red. Large animals like bison, elephants and tigers are depicted. The paintings from the Mesolithic Era bring in the addition of humans hunting such animals with weapons like spears, bow and arrows and sticks.

The caves feature paintings from different eras in human history. Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
The caves feature paintings from different eras in human history. Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

Depictions of communal gatherings are also evident, including scenes of dances and pregnant women. These suggest that it was largely a hunter-gatherer economy in this period.

As time went on, the paintings showed trade and religion. The colours changed to red, white and yellow and tunic-like dresses adorned the humans now. The most recent set of paintings are more geometric and schematic. One particular painting shows a horse, which leads historians to believe it is only a few thousand years old as horses are not native to India.

Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

A walk through Bhimbetka is like a crash course in history. It transcends beyond the colourful stories of kings and queens, of war and strife.

Instead, these rock shelters take you back to the beginning of human life itself. They are a humble reminder of how insignificant a few years or decades are.

These paintings, made with vegetable dyes, have stood the test of time through 30,000 years and still shine bright enough to dazzle us with the stories they tell. Yet another wonderful reminder of how India truly is a bottomless treasure box of unexplored beauty.

Harnoor Channi-Tiwary is a marketing specialist who wandered into the world of writing and never left. She has been writing about food and travel for more than a decade. She blogs at TheThoughtExpress, tweets as @HCdines.

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