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Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka

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45 km south of Bhopal is the Bhimbetka Hill around which are clustered massive sandstone rock formations, some of them served as rock shelters to pre-historic man.

Situated in the foothills of the Vindhya Mountains on the southern edge of the central Indian plateau amidst forested vegetation are five clusters of natural rock shelters displaying paintings that appear to date from the Mesolithic period (middle Stone Age) right through to the Historical period. The mural paintings, largely in white and red, are essentially a record of the varied animal life of the surrounding forest and of various facets - economic and social - of peoples' lives. Images include extinct fauna, mythical creatures; domesticated animals, carts and chariots; designs and patterns, inscriptions and Buddhist symbols of the Historic period and also pictorial narratives of events such as large processions of men on caparisoned horses and elephants, and battle scenes. Some paintings contain a few images, while others have several hundred. Depictions vary from the realistic to the stylised, graphic, geometric or decorative. Sizes of the paintings range from five centimetres to an immense impression on a ceiling of an animal nearly five metres in length and two metres across. The most intriguing fact about these paintings is that they have remained un-faded over thousands of years. What material could these early people have used to make their paints? What technology did they have?

Taken on their own, the rock shelters and associated rock paintings are extraordinarily well preserved, both from a cultural and geomorphological point of view - largely because they remained unknown to the outside world until just over 50 years ago and thus have a very high degree of authenticity. Besides, the forest cover is a key factor in preventing land degradation. It protects rock surfaces (and rock art) from the effects of wind, sun and rain.

The rock art images demonstrate hunting and gathering traditions that still persist in a modified form in the local villages. The tradition of painting symbols and pictures, seen in huge quantities and spanning many millennia in the caves, is still carried on in local villages on shrines and on houses.What is important is these similarities. This points to the cultural continuity between the rock shelter art and the culture of the local surrounding villages in art and in hunting and gathering traditions. The significance of the Bhimbetka cultural landscape is about the connection between the people who created the rock art and the way they sustained a living from the surrounding countryside over many millennia. It is also about the way people have apparently shifted from living near the rocks to the villages in the surrounding areas - but still keeping their cultural links, particularly in the use of natural resources and in their artistic forms.

The site complex is a magnificent repository of rock paintings within natural rock shelters. Together, the paintings and archaeological evidence provide an undisturbed continuous sequence of living culture from the Stone Age to within the last few hundred years. The richness and variety of the large concentrations of paintings, within a site that demonstrates a progressive sequential use throughout the ages, remains unparalleled.

The rock shelters have been inscribed on the World Heritage List, a gesture indicating that the exceptional universal value of a cultural or natural site deserves protection for the benefit of all humanity.

Information sourced from

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