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Solo in MP: Bhimbetka

By Anamika Mukherjee

Bhimbetka is a little-known set of rock shelters, home to paintings that date back to prehistoric times. Forty-six km from Bhopal, Bhimbetka is not an easy place to reach, unless you come by car. I was dropped by a bus on the main road from Bhopal to Hoshangabad, 6 km (says Lonely Planet) past Obaidullagunj (pronounced “abdullagunj”). I crossed the road and the railway line right next to it and trudged down the path leading to the seemingly distant hills, a distance of 3 km, as I was been informed by a roadside sign and, of course, my faithful Lonely Planet.

It was, in fact, a very pleasant walk through the still, silent countryside. Silence was my first and most striking impression of the area: the most pervasive sound was the drowsy buzzing of insects. Bees, mostly, or wasps, perhaps, but also house flies, fruit flies and dragon flies. My ears also picked up a deeper humming, like that of a cellphone on vibrate mode (it isn’t mine – I checked: there’s no signal here), the instrument of which I can’t identify.

There was practically not a soul around. I would worry for my safety, but there wasn’t even anyone to worry me. For a brief while, a dog spotted me and trotted along next to me, wondering if I might feed him. Then he decided it was a vain quest and, in the usual doggy way, sat down to scratch himself and think it over.

Eventually, there came a barrier. There were two men. Am I on the right track, I enquired of them? Yes, but it would cost me Rs 2 to continue on it. I coughed up and carried on. The road rose, gradually at first, then, in parts, steeply. The countryside fell away, sloping down to the railway line, already nothing more than a thread in the distance. A train passed and I watched it go busily on its way shouting and whistling happily.

At length, I reached. I knew I had reached, because there was an improvised car park (with no cars), a solar-powered shed (of no discernible purpose), a sign pointing towards toilets (I was not brave enough to venture near those!) and a couple of guides sitting under a shady tree.

I engaged one of them to show me around, which he did with a degree of eagerness. He was clearly unhappy about escorting a lone female, but was unhappier still to leave me to my own devices, though I assured him I would be fine. At first there was only one other party of tourists apart from me – two Polish women – but later in the morning more tourists arrived. My guide made several attempts to persuade me to leave with some of the more respectable groups (i.e. those with women), but finally he gave up. Clearly, I was an inconvenience to him, but I must be tolerated. If only I had some companions with me, he assured me, he would take me deeper into the forest, to see the other caves (there are 133 known caves), which are not yet on the map.

As it was, I got a guided tour of the 15-odd caves that were on the map, then persuaded him to leave me to linger as I pleased. I walked around the area slowly, finding my way around, getting used to the shapes, colours, smells, and sounds. These were not caves at all, really, mostly they were overhangs of rock, cut by wind and water over the years. Cave 15 reared its head up, broadening at the top like the hood of a cobra. Cave 5 sprawled wide and gaping, like a giant’s mouth stretched into a grin. Cave 8 was like an envelope open at both ends. Its low ceiling lent a feeling of safety, warmth, making light of the weight of the rock it supported.

Each of these caves had paintings: some high up on the wall, others at eye level; some in red and white, others in yellow and green; some of animals, others of humans and others of humans and animals together, hunting and being hunted. Some of the paintings were stick figures, but others had almost a refined shape and form. It was hard to believe they were all thousands of years old.

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Bhimbetka on the Map

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.