Rock stars

Sheila Kumar and her intrepid aunt Uma
take off to view the
Bhimbetka rock shelters near Bhopal
"Why not Khajuraho? Or the Orchcha temples?
The stupa at Sanchi? We could have chilled
 out at Panchmarhi, or gone tiger-spotting in
Bandavgarh." The person shooting off these
questions is me. The person declining to answer
them is my aunt Uma.

Bertie Wooster had a whole clutch of aunts; I have just
 the one. Sometimes, I think one is more than enough.
 My mother's sister Uma was born under a travelling
star. Age has  not slowed her down much that I can
perceive. At 57, she brings all the curiosity and
enthusiasm of a female Bruce Chatwin to the places
she goes to. As the chosen one who accompanies
 Uma on all her trips inside and outside India, it is I
 who sometimes feel my age. Today, we are 45 kms
 south of the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal,
 driving through barren landscape on bad roads towards
 the prehistoric caves of Bhimbetka. Aunty Uma always,
but always, takes the road less travelled.

The day is a bleak one, the grey slow-moving clouds

overhead matching the boulder-splattered plains,
which in turn complement the ridge of glistening black
 rock that rises above us on the crest of the Vindhya
ranges. Sal forests, now standing stark and shorn of
leaves, line what passes for a road in Madhya
Pradesh. Aunty and the driver Mahesh Kumar are
talking about Bhimbetka.

It's said that Bhima, the mighty Pandava, had rested
awhile here, long ago, hence the name Bhim-bet-ka.
However, it is clear that beyond his muttered
 "etihaasik gufa" (historical cave), Mahesh Kumar's
knowledge of the caves  is desultory at best.
Aunty is about to broaden his horizons
though. Mine, too.

"Bhimbetka has South Asia's richest collection
 of prehistoric paintings," she says, with nary
 a look at her guidebook.

 "The rock shelters date back to the
Neolithic age, 5,500-1,000 BC. This
wilderness we are passing now is the
 Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, famous
for its leopards, jackals
, and sloth bears." Then Mahesh Kumar breaks i
n excitedly, "Ji haan! When the intense cold gives over,

 all the animals Auntyji talked about come out."
Auntyji looks suitably gratified.

The moment we reach the parking lot, a guide, the
lone human out there, comes up. He says the
Archaeological Survey of India  guide is not around
 but he, Shashi, would show us around the
caves. We follow him up the thin gravel path
that leads to gigantic  rock formations standing
majestically against the skyline. "The
caves are 1,000 years old," he begins his spiel
 in a practiced tone.

 "No, they are not," Aunty tells him kindly, but
 firmly. "The earliest paintings go back to

between 10,000 and 25,000 years ago." Not the
 most auspicious of starts.
It's like being in a time warp.
Bhimbetka is a ridge that
rises over what were once
dense forests. Serrated
masses of enigmatic rock
stand stolid, with all indications
 that a ragged river and many creeks may have run through
 here at some time. The rock shelters, grooves and grottoes
 stretch for some 10 km and look like a throwback to biblical
 times, especially the overhanging rock ledges. All of it is
enveloped in an eerie silence with an occasional wind
whistling through the 30 species of trees, all bare now.
We get to see 15 of the 600 excavated caves, set in
rock formations straight out of a Tim Burton film.
It says 600 in my guidebook; Shashi says there
are over 1,000 caves, big and small, in Bhimbetka.
 Aunty wants to speak but catches my eye
and keeps quiet.

The day has become greyer now and a sharp, cold wind

 whistles through the denuded branches. Brittle leaves
crunch underfoot. We really seem to have left all vestiges of
civilisation behind. On the heels of that thought, a crackling
 noise makes me jump. It is Aunty opening a packet of
chips. She is addicted to them, wolfing them down by the
 pack, neatly folding the empty packets and keeping them
 in her handbag till she comes upon a waste bin. Excellent
tactic to stave off hunger when there are no food or drink
stalls around, as is the case here.
Bhimbetka by night, I think to myself, must be the scariest
 place on earth. "This place," pronounces Aunty happily,
"is wonderful. It's like a prehistoric artists' colony." She is right.
What prolific artists these people were! The tracings, going
 all the way back to the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic,
Chaleolithic and Medieval ages, depict the lives of the cave
dwellers executed in red, green, yellow and white
using silk cotton, animal fur or squirrel tail, coal,
haematite, manganese and soft red stone, even the
 fat of animals, and crushed leaves. Some were done
at a height that probably involved the use of
some sort of ladder.

The colours are subtle, and have remained intact

owing to the chemical reaction from the oxide on the
 surface of the rocks - an example of nature helping
art. The artists seemed to have a particular fondness for
 animals, since depictions of deer, boar,
leopards, tigers, panthers, rhinoceroses, antelope,
 fish, frogs, lizards, squirrels
and birds abound. The more predatory the animal,
 the larger it looms next to
insignificant man in these paintings.
It was a busy life for prehistoric man.
Hunting, dancing, horse and
elephant rides, gathering food,
 attending animal fights and
 masked ceremonies, drinking
 bouts, burials, the paintings
 chronicle lives long gone but not
 forgotten. Not as long as these amazing
paintings exist. Interestingly, superimposition
on some paintings shows that some of the
canvases had been used again and again
by different artists. Apart from some skeletons
 - the dead were buried under the floor of these
 very caves and the excavated grave of a 12-ft skeleton
 is now in the Museum of Natural History
in Kolkata - blades, scrapers, cleavers, axes and
even the remains of food-stuff were
excavated from this area.

It is a play of darkness and light as we walk in the
 wintry sunlight, peer into shallow caverns.
 Aunty observes, "There are no signboards or
historical details in English. Most irritating."
Shashi isn't going to let that one be. "We are
there to give 'Englees' tour, no?" he asks
 indignantly. We opt for a tactful silence.
We turn for last looks at the rocks as we drive off.
 "It seems that when construction work was
 on in these parts, sometime in 1956, a whole lot
of prehistoric tools and implements were
dug up," says Aunty. "It was as if a museum full
of Palaeolithic relics lay just under the
topsoil." I look around at the singularly monotonous
 scenery and reflect that life is never
as one-dimensional as one perceives it to be.

"Did you notice?" asks Aunty suddenly, with some

asperity. "The prehistoric woman was
the archetypal Indian woman. She cooked, cleaned,
 bore children, and did nothing else."
And then, inspiration strikes me. "Aunt Uma,"
I say, earnestly. "How do you know the
 artists weren't women? The paintings are
classic home décor." Aunt Uma falls into a
 reverie as she ponders this probability.

The drive back to Bhopal is a relatively silent one. 
Good trip, this, I tell myself on a
satisfied note. The caves were simply fascinating,
 a page from a history book
coming alive. And it isn't often that
I can have the last word with Aunt Uma.

How to get thereBhimbetka is 45 km away from Bhopal but owing to the bad roads, the journey to the caves takes almost three hours.
Taxi fare:Aproximately Rs 1,200 to and from Bhopal. Bargaining is mandatory.
Air:Bhopal's Raja Bhoj Airport has flights coming in from Mumbai, Delhi and Indore
Train:Bhopal is a major junction with trains coming in from the north, west and south
Cave timings:10 am to 5 pm; Mondays closed
Entry fee:Rs 14 including vehicle, $5 for foreigners
Where to stayBhopal has a couple of deluxe hotels, like the Noor-Us-Sabah Palace, a Welcom Heritage property, and the Jehan Numa Palace, privately owned by the Nawabs of Bhopal, and other more modest ones like the Ranjeet Lake View Hotel.
MP State Tourism Development Corporation4th Floor, Gangotri, TT Nagar, Bhopal-4620030755-2774340/42/
Jehan Numa Palace157, Shamla Hills, Bhopal0755-2661100
Noor-Us-Sabah PalaceVIP Road, Koh-e-FizaBhopal-4620010755-5223333
Ranjeet Lake View HotelVan Vihar Road, Shamla Hills, Bhopal0755-2660600

Featured in Harmony Magazine
March 2005

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