The name Bhimbetka is associated with Bhima, a hero in the epic of Mahabharata. the word Bhimbetka is said to derive from Bhimbaithka, meaning “sitting place of Bhima”.
The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka lie in the Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh, 45 kms south of Bhopal at the southern edge of the Vindhya hills. South of these Rock Shelters are successive ranges of the Satpura hills. The entire area is covered by thick vegetation and has abundant natural resources in its perennial water supplies, natural shelters, rich forest flora and fauna, and bears a striking resemblance to similar rock art sites such as Kakadu National Park in Australia, the cave paintings of the Bushmen in Kalahari Desert and the Upper Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France.
As reported in the UNESCO citation declaring the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka a World heritage Site, Bhimbetka was first mentioned in Indian archaeological records in 1888 as a Buddhist site, based on information from local adivasis.
Later, V. S. Wakankar, while travelling by train to Bhopal, saw some rock formations similar to those he had seen in France and Spain. He visited the area with a team of archaeologists and discovered several pre-historic rock shelters in 1957. Since then, more than 750 such shelters have been identified, of which 243 are in the Bhimbetka group and 178 in the Lakha Juar group.
Archaeological studies revealed a continuous sequence of Stone Age sculptures (from the late Acheulian to the late Mesolithic) as well as the world’s oldest stone walls and floors. Barkheda has been identified as the source of the raw materials used in some of the monoliths discovered at Bhimbetka.
The rock shelters and caves of Bhimbetka have a large number of paintings. the oldest paintings are considered to be 30,000 years old, but some of the geometric figures date to as recently as the Medieval Period. The colours used are vegetable colours which have endured through time, because the drawings were generally made deep inside a niche or on inner walls. The drawings and paintings cane be classified under 7 different periods. —-
Period — 1 : (Upper Paleolithic) These one-linear representations, in green and dark red, huge figures of animals such as bison, tigers and rhinoceroses.
Period — 2 (Mesolithic) Comparatively, smaller in size, the stylised in this group show linear decorations on the body. In addition to animals, there are human figures and hunting scenes, giving a clear picture of the weapons they used : barbed spears, pointed sticks, bows and arrows. The depiction of communal dances, birds and musical instruments, mothers and children, men carrying dead animals appear in rhythmic movement.
Period — 3 (Chalcolithic). These drawings reveal that during this period, the cave dwellers, in this area, were in contact with the agricultural communities of the Malwa plains exchanging goods with them.
Period —- 4 and 5 (Early Historic) The figures of this group have a schematic and decorative style and are painted mainly in red, white and yellow. The association is of riders, depiction of religious symbols, tunic-like dresses and the existence of scripts of different periods. The religious beliefs are represented by figures of Yakshas, tree gods and the magical sky chariot. Period —— 6 and 7 (Medieval). These paintings are geometric and more schematic, but they show degeneration and crudeness in their artistic style. The colours, used by the cave dwellers, were prepared by combining manganese, hematite and wooden coal.
One rock, popularly referred to as ZOO ROCK, depicts elephants, sambar, bison and deer. Paintings, on another rock show a peacock, a snake, a deer and sun. On another rock, 2 elephants with tusks are painted. In one of the caves, a bison is shown in pursuit of a hunter, while his 2 companions appear to stand helplessly nearby.
Part of the site is now open to the public, and this has necessitated the construction of paths and railings, signs, access roads and tracks.