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Romancing The Stone

Sepoy Mutiny

The dramatic rocky landscape of Bhimbetka, an hour from Bhopal, is full of natural niches where prehistoric paintings have been protected from direct sunlight or rain. Fifteen rock shelters are open to the public. They feature images of elephants, bison, sambar deer and other species of deer.  Also, while on one of the rocks two tusked elephants are portrayed, on the other beautifully carved peacocks are depicted dancing alongside the rhino, now extinct in this region. Next, scenes of hunting, pastoral and community lives are featured on the boulders. Then, more skillful Chalcolithic renderings of cattle, dancers, fighters with bows, spears and shields and impressive medieval battle scenes depicting horses, chariots, elephants and swordsmen poised to attack can also be witnessed here.

An hour away from Bhopal and the town of Raisen, heading on a dusty road, one comes across a small village, namely, Pengavan which has a population of 300.  Nevertheless, a visitor can, at the most, come across not more than one hundred villagers. Then, the landscape represents an alien site with natural steps of short, wide and flat rocks. As a matter of fact, the village is home to 35 rock shelters featuring Mesolithic art including a drawing of seven concentric circles that resembles a primitive labyrinth. A similar drawing has also been discovered in the prehistoric caves of Spain and France.

Chaturbhuj Nala, located deep inside Gandhi Sagar wildlife sanctuary (situated near Bhanpura), is considered as the world’s longest rock art gallery. Over 16 kilometres long, almost continuous chain of hundreds of figures and scenes can be witnessed along both sides of a river. This pictographic view resembles, at times, a film script that charts the progress of man from the Mesolithic period through the medieval period.  Next, the abundance of paintings with no human or animal remains at the site leads researchers to consider the place as, then, an occasionally visited zone for a purpose than being used for dwelling.

Additional prehistoric marvels can be witnessed upon climbing the Indragarh hill situated near Bhanpura Nagar Panchayat of Madhya Pradesh. During the climb, one may have to traverse many loose rocks, prickly bushes and even poisonous reptiles such as cobras. Subsequently, one comes across the world’s primitive engravings covering the walls of a narrow grotto. They are in the form of 28 circular depressions, each no bigger than the size of a cricket ball, arranged in rows. Archaeologists call them cupules.  Being more than two lakh years old, they are placed on a timeline preceding the Metal Ages, preceding the cradle of civilization and, of course, much before the idea of India. Next, the cave of Daraki Chattan in the Indragarh hill is home to 530 cupules like these; they fascinate researchers from across the world.

Pradyumn Bhatt, a retired school Principal with no formal training in archaeology, not only has helped discover many of them, but also is the informal (and irrepressible) guardian of Bhanpura’s prehistoric treasures. He has guided hundreds of academics to the cupules’ sites since the ‘90s. Then, being worried that the hill’s vanishing tree cover was, at one time, exposing the cupules to rain, UV damage and vandals, he roped in forest rangers, bureaucrats and school kids to reforest the hill a few years ago. Next, along with being the resident expert on the prehistoric rock paintings of Chaturbhuj Nala, located 20 kilometres away, he is among a handful of ordinary people in central India who have dedicated their lives to India’s little known, but staggering wealth of primitive rock art.

Geography, History and Identity

Madhya Pradesh is richly rewarding for anyone interested in history. The Indian state is home to Sanchi’s stupas, Khajuraho’s erotic temple statues, cenotaphs in Orchha and monuments in Mandu. It was also where once certain ancient dynasties ruled.  In fact, Madhya Pradesh can be considered as one of the reservoirs of prehistoric records. Archaeologists perceive the region as India’s oldest art gallery. Its dense, dry forests (many are, now, part of nature reserves and sanctuaries) have been preserving the regional environment for centuries. Next, ancient rivers like the Chambal, the Rewa and the Betwa have helped conserve certain primitive societies by means of fossilising their remains along the banks. Then, the Aravalli and the Vindhya mountain ranges assist in keeping intruders away.

Nonetheless, a great interest in prehistory among the citizens of the state is what makes the territory really special.  Along with genuine efforts, the accomplishment of the task requires luck. As a matter of fact, India’s best known prehistoric site was discovered only by accident.  Next, since the late 1950s, 750 shelters have been discovered at Bhimbetka (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and at the nearby located site of Lakha Juar. Hundreds of such rock shelters depicting paintings and a few sites bearing the rock art of cupules have been discovered across Madhya Pradesh and India, some as far as in the Indian states of Kerala, Manipur and Karnataka. The art work comprises of solo figures, each of the size which is never bigger than your palm; groupings covering walls, ceilings and even undersides of the shelters; and many scenes painted over older ones as if to overwrite the past. They are as much to be proud of as to be humbled by. Then, their views resemble drawings   done by one’s kids, but they, probably, had well been painted by one’s great-grandmother or grandfather a considerable number of years ago.

Behind the Stones

Many, in some way, associated with the findings don’t fit the ‘history buff’ stereotype, for example, Omprakash Sharma had only received formal education till grade 8; Bhatt used to teach Chemistry in a school; Vinod Tiwari, a farmer and former policeman, developed an interest in ancient objects  by accompanying his friend Rajeev Chaubey on explorations of the Raisen district; Chaubey himself, a pharmacist by training, only saw prehistoric art when he moved somewhere near to the sites after his father’s retirement from Indian Railways; and Pooja Saxena was captivated by archaeology at the age of eight after watching a TV show on Harappa in the ’80s, but didn’t know anything about pursuing relevant studies until after graduation.

Next, history continues to fascinate Narayan Vyas. Now 66, he spent close to 40 years with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) assisting in excavations in several regions including Gujarat, where he recalls dangling from a rope while working on Patan’s magnificent Rani Ki Vav, a stepwell, i.e., a well in which by descending a set of steps one can reach water. Vyas retired as a superintending archaeologist six years ago, but he is still active in archaeology. He merely moved to a suburb outside Bhopal in order to study better the, nearby located, prehistoric shelters in Kathotiya. He also helps researchers approaching him with, say, a medieval brick or a preserved footprint from Bhimbetka, Hathi Tola and other ancient sites. Then, once, when he went to inspect some pipe laying work in his neighbourhood, he found certain Stone Age spearheads.

In fact, a discovery related to prehistory can be considered equivalent to winning a lottery. Nonetheless, not all days spent in uncovering are joyous.  Vyas, one afternoon, barely a few months into retirement, while leading a study tour to Chaturbhuj Nala was violently attacked by bees. He was stung by 70 bees in the blazing heat, miles away from civilisation. This incident was equivalent to experiencing hell. Nevertheless, today, upon meeting him, one can notice that the attack has really not frightened him. Instead, the experience, actually, did propel him to move ahead and handle similar circumstances in a better way.

 Difficult Terrain

Danger seems to be a part of the job.  In the early ‘80s, when accompanying an Austrian researcher to sites in the Pahadgarh ravines, Giriraj Kumar ran, unexpectedly, into a gang of dacoits. However, upon learning that they were unarmed, the dacoits did not shoot them. Next, certain rock scholars had been attacked by bears. Then, an enthusiast encountered, on his way through the jungles, leopards and snakes.

Those are not the biggest challenges for the protectors of prehistory. Tiwari who helped discover a rock painting dating back to 500 BC, at Chakra village, some time ago found convincing the locals about preserving certain 40,000 years old shelters as quite challenging.  Although, people from all over the world visit the place with great interest to see the primitive rock art, yet certain locals do not care about the importance linked with this site. Next, on a certain occasion, people had been found washing their clothes by the river on an old rock that turned out to be a 12th century idol. About 250 rescued sculptures from the same period have found their way to a two room museum in Raisen that Chaubey helped the state archaeological department build. Till date, people from almost across the world have been to the museum. However, few locals have stepped inside the building. Then, some villagers of Pengavan have started living in certain acknowledged prehistoric rock shelters in their village. As a matter of fact, it only requires laying a 2 km access road to villages like Satkunda (home to the primitive rock art similar to the ones of Bhimbetka) for them to attract visitors and be considered as worthy of preservation. On the other hand, most prehistoric sites in the West are fenced in to protect the rocks from vandalism – even researchers have limited access to them. In fact, in France, the entrance to the famous Chauvel caves is fitted with a submarine door.

Conquering Every Mountain

In Bhopal, Pooja Saxena, one of the country’s few freelance archaeologists, has been on a mission to spread the message of conserving prehistoric sites through various media.    Next, at Rock Art Society of India (RASI) located in Agra, Indian and Australian scientists have been collaborating since 2001 on an ASI supported initiative known as the Early Indian Petroglyphs (EIP) project to scientifically date and study India’s primitive cupules. Then, Vyas has set up an interpretation centre for the public and cave style rooms for long staying scholars in his own house located near Kathotiya into which he has moved to. ,  Further, in Bhanpura, Bhatt has been holding rock art painting contests and camps for children to not only help them appreciate fine art, but also teach them how to make fire, forage and find shelter in the wild.

Our Rocks

No one knows for certain why early human species rendered such a maddening array of fine art   in central India. Kumar’s experiments at RASI show that it takes nearly 30,000 concentrated hits to create a single cupule.  Maybe they struck them to honour a birth or death, perhaps to celebrate a good hunt or harvest, or possibly just to call cattle home as the sharp hitting sound can be heard for miles.

Then, mysteries also surround primitive paintings scattered almost across the planet.  Bhimbetka’s rock art bear a striking resemblance to its counterpart in Kakadu in Australia, the work of the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa and paintings in deeper caves of France and Spain. Then, at Pengavan, a drawing of concentric circles alone kept one Japanese researcher engaged for two hours. He measured and shot it from every angle.  In the end, he related it to a similar sign found in the rock art in Japan. Most scholars link these artworks to early man’s desire of expressing his creativity but, of course, primarily to record something at the brink of extinction or likely to be forgotten. The reasoning explains why man painted animals, people, rituals, activities and battles, but almost no trees or mountains.

In the Indian context, the diversity of animals, the style, the scenes and the methods used by early humans to paint are very different than the better known ones in the continent of Europe. As a matter of fact, India’s rock art is considered as the world’s richest rock images after those of Australia and South Africa. Their very existence shatters the long held belief of the roots of art and culture being embedded in the West.

In a way, the primitive art serves as embodiments of patriotism and a larger philosophy. They, also, remind us that humanity is one, our story of survival is one and our emotions are one. The ideas of, in fact, religion and nation are secondary.  Then, there exists a spiritual side of these prehistoric paintings too.  One can better, also, understand oneself through studying rocks. It is almost like going on a pilgrimage. Next, these primitive paintings are, as a matter of fact, the legacy of our ancestors; yours and mine. History never remembers those who did things for money. It remembers those whose passion went much, much beyond.  Certain Indian nationals are, in fact, bringing the world’s governments to their aid solely with regards to the subject of prehistoric rock art.

Meanwhile in the Indian State of Rajasthan

A confectioner from Rajasthan has donated certain relics to Indian museums including primitive fish hooks, arrowheads, copper tools and around 1,500 ancient coins. Next, Sharma, better known as Kukki (the name is derived from the Chinese expressions ‘Ku’, meaning ‘Ancient’ and ‘Ki’ meaning ‘Wonder’), is believed to have discovered the maximum number of archaeological sites in the world. All these sites lie in and around the Aravalli village of Bundi in Rajasthan which also is, incidentally, his birthplace. Then, in a period spanning three decades (until 2015), Sharma’s continuous dedication has yielded precious finds such as 36 rock art shelters at Garada in Bundi; prehistoric paintings in Rameshwar of Bundi; and certain drawings in Bhilwara of Rajasthan which are as old as the prehistoric paintings of Bhimbetka. He, in addition, gave lectures, helped researchers, turned into an indispensable tour guide and even became, at times, the subject of research himself.