The first time i came across the UNESCO World Heritage tag for a place was way back in the early nineties when we were visiting the famed thousand year old Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. A traveller’s curiosity was aroused and thus began the addition of these sites to our must-visit-places-list. Till i had last checked, there are thirty such sites in our country, of which twenty four are supposed to be cultural and the other six are natural sites. A further list of some 30 more sites awaits UNESCO approval. Over the years on our various travel-jaunts it has been a constant aspiration to seek out and visit such sites.
And so last year on a visit to Bhopal we set out one early morning to see the UNESCO Heritage site of Bhimbetka.The drive along the Bhopal-Hoshangabad highway (the place is around 45 Kms from Bhopal) at 7 in the morning was traffic free and we were there within an hour. At the turn-off from the highway to the rock shelters is the MP Tourism run Highway Treat Bhimbetka, with a pleasant restaurant-cafe (that is open 8am to 10pm), decent washroom facilities as well as a children’s playground and a couple of comfortable AC rooms. It’s a good place to stop for refreshments on your way back from Bhimbetka. The ticket office is halfway up the road to the rocks from here (charge of Rs 25/- per person for Indian tourists) and further ahead vehicle parking space is marked out. Since April is not really the tourist season there were hardly any tourists around and we were able to engage the services of an ASI certified guide easily (for Rs 250/-). Although the 15 most accessible rock shelters are numbered, signposted and linked by a concrete path, and you can read all about the charming story of how these caves were discovered by chance on the internet, a guide is still recommended to describe and point out the prehistoric paintings on the rocky surfaces.
What strikes you first upon reaching are the massive craggy cliffs screened by a forest of teak and sal. These are the natural rock shelters that contain some of the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings. Apparently there are more than 700 of them of which 500 have paintings of different eras adorning their rock surface in natural red and white pigments with yellow and green in some places. The Zoo (as rock shelter 4 is called) is the most famous for its sheer variety of animal paintings…here you have gaurs (Indian bison), tiger, rhinoceros, wild boar, elephants, monkeys, antelopes, lizards, peacocks etc. At other places horses, elephants and others are depicted along with scenes of hunting, battle ceremonies, communal dancing, drinking, religious rites and burials. In one shelter there were even paintings on the roof! Surprisingly the colours are remarkably well preserved specially when you think about the fact that some of these are over 10,000 years old! At one place the rocky indentations called ‘cupules’…are said to be 100,000 years old!
Before returning we also spent some time (upon our guide’s recommendation) at the Devi temple a few minutes walk away…it’s mythological antecedents a charming contrast to the more scientifically documented rock art. The priest there told us of how as per local folklore the Pandavas spent a part of their banishment in these caves (…and once again they pop up in another corner of the country!!) In fact the name itself is derived from the fact that the massive rocks seated the gigantic frame of Bhima, the second Pandava.
The most humbling thought of course is when the realisation dawns that you have just been witness to a site from the Paleolithic age, a site that exhibits the earliest traces of human life on the Indian sub-continent and possibly the beginning of the South Asian Stone Age!
(Photo cedits: Surinder Sharma)