Yet another World Heritage Site (I’m racking them up), Bhimbetka is a group of… well, not caves precisely, more like big rocks with overhanging bits. And painted on the sheltered undersides is one of the most impressive and important collections of prehistoric art in the world.
It’s in quite a remote location, about an hour’s drive from Bhopal, and they didn’t really seem very prepared for visitors. The ticket office attendants and guards, sitting around at the entrance, seemed surprised to see me at all. I’d already decided that I’d probably hire a guide – something I’ve rarely done elsewhere – as my guidebook had no map and little information on Bhimbetka other than how to get there. But India being India, the one time you want a guide is the one time you’re not being followed around by half a dozen men, all ruining your day by refusing to accept that you don’t want any of them to be your guide.
I hung around the ticket office for a bit, trying to look as if I might be persuaded into a bribing a guard, and eventually someone came forwarded and asked, “guide?” Maybe, how much? “200.” How long is that for? [Pause] One hour, two hours? [Pause] “Sorry, no English.” Well you’re not going to make a very good guide, then, are you? It was one of the worst sales pitches I’d heard in my whole time here. I thanked him, bought a book from the ticket office instead, and set off into the woods alone.
I was glad I did, because it was much more fun exploring Bhimbetka solo. As you follow the path into the scrubby forest, huge surreally-shaped boulders loom out above and around you, full of protrusions and recesses. You’re still marvelling at the size and weirdness of the landscape when you realise you’re already looking at some prehistoric cave art. Your eye catches an unnatural line or shape on the wall, then your brain cottons on and identifies a whole lot more, and suddenly a 30,000 year old mural of stick men and animals is right there in front of you.
In some places there are barriers to keep you back from the paintings, but in others you can walk up to it, or turn a corner to find it right by your head. Unfortunately it seems that’s expecting too much in the way of respect and responsibility from the general public, as some of the reachable artworks in the first cave have been greased halfway into oblivion.
A path guides you around 15 of the nearest painted rock faces from the entrance, but there are dozens more further out into the woods, or around the back of the same rocks but not visible from the path. I wasn’t sure what was allowed and what wasn’t – probably going off the path was ok, and the occasional patrolling guards were there to stop people crossing barriers or climbing up the rocks. But I still felt naughty going off-piste, to find paintings around the back or beyond the last of the 15 on the set route. It made it quite exciting, sneaking about and hiding behind boulders to discover the more obscure artworks.
At previous places, like Ellora, Ajanta and Sanchi – even all the way back to Amritsar – I’ve enjoyed seeing the artistic and cultural creations of mankind, but been disappointed at the motivations behind them. At Bhimbetka, the reasons are too long past and obscure to do more than speculate on, so the work itself – even though it’s much cruder than the later masterpieces – seems almost pure and perfect in comparison. I love the fact that prehistoric humans, despite living short, brutal lives of constant struggle, managed to find a little bit of time, energy and creative inspiration to record some of those experiences in artistic form. Also the fact that it seems to be a universal tendency of our species, not to be satisfied with mere survival, but to want to be surrounded by beautiful things too.
There are also images of rows of men, facing each other, possibly soldiers about to fight a battle. So maybe there are hints of less laudable activities being glorified, such as territorial conquest by violence. There are signs of narrative creativity, such as the giant bison image above, which presumably depicts a mythological scene, rather than an everyday occurrence. And I’m not sure – because the otherwise very thorough pamphlet I bought doesn’t mention it at all – but this image seems to be the product of pure imaginative vision: