Prehistoric Rock Paintings of Bhimbetaka
by Dr. K. L. Kamat
First Online: August 15, 1997
Page Last Updated: January 29, 2014
Hunting a deer
Notice the grass in the deer's stomach.
When I reached Bhimabetaka (a.k.a. Bhimbetka and
Bhimabetaka) 40 kilometers south of Bhopal, I felt as if I discovered
treasure mine of prehistoric art. I admired the location our ancestors had chosen for the
art studio. Surrounded by evergreen forest and about 50 or 60 small hillocks, this place
has remained a landmark of generations of prehistoric art. It is believed that these
paintings are twenty thousand to fifty thousand years old. There are residues of
Brahmi scripts which are considered extremely ancient. In the later years, king
Bhojraj liked this location and started building a fitting temple
of Shiva and the lake. For some reason, the construction never finished. Today the lake
provides for excellent agriculture in the neighborhood and the Bhojpur temple attracts
devotees even from far distances.
These rock paintings mirror
the difficulties and triumphs of the native man.
The Bhimabetaka hillocks are made of sandstone. They
are elevated from the valley and are ideal for human habitat. There are some caves, but
most are natural havens. The natives must have used bamboo and mud for construction of
walls and steps and the constructions must have died along with them. It is easy to tell
that these habitats were part of community as in Ajanta and Ellora.
There are stages and animal sheds, small and big. Bhimabetaka remains a great witness to
the evolution of mankind's civilization, through its numerous rock weapons, tools,
ceramics, and bones. More than anything else, the rock paintings are the greatest wealth
the natives of Bhimabetaka left behind.
© K. L. Kamat
Pet or tool ? Man walks a dog
Rock Painting, Madhya Pradesh
The students of these rock paintings must take to some adventure. Due to the constant
battering of nature and mankind the foundations of art treasures has collapsed and it is
not easy to get to the top. It is common for peacocks and bats to dwell in these havens,
but sometimes one might run into porcupines, bear, or poisonous snakes, and one has to
very careful every step. The caves are typically pitch dark and takes time to locate any
paintings on their walls. Sometimes the paintings are located at the entrance, but those
interior are in much better shape because of protection from rain. Some native artists
were truly adventuresome and it takes a lot of effort even to get to some of the paintings
© K. L. Kamat
Encircling the prey
I do not believe these paintings were drawn either to decorate to caves or to find
entertainment. They were created as a means of escape from suffering and as devotion to
supernatural entity. Most of them are not planned or organized nicely. Some have not taken
the trouble to erase older paintings before drawing the new ones on them. In a few spots,
I found four or five layers of sketches on top of another. The colors and the styles of such
layers, however, are different and have enabled the experts to separate one from another.
There are red, green, and white colors in all hues and varieties. The same pigments were
used to decorate the dead and it is common to find these colors in funeral spots also. The
paintings were done primarily with a finger, but I believe that they must have used
feathers, wooden sticks, and needles of porcupines for different styles and textures.
Since the native man was not bound by any artistic constraints, the
pictures come to life in full freedom and expression. The native man was
an expert in simplifying life; he has drawn animals and birds with just
two or three strokes. He has also made a good use of symbols and
highlights, so a trunk denotes an elephant, a long feather represents
a peacock, and a decorative horn illustrates a female deer.
Some are single line sketches, and some are finished with a fair stroke.
Some are really attractive with colors and shades.
© K. L. Kamat
Welcome to a Hero
The background of the rock paintings is obscure and is hard to
photograph the paintings. Most of them have lost the sharpness and luster.
Some are extremely fuzzy and ruined. I had to use special contrast film
and filters to photograph them. I could have sprayed the water on them for
better contrast, but the water with its alkaline contents damage the
originals, and there was no way for me to carry chemicals and other gear
to that remote location. I have taken the easy route out and have drawn
the line drawings in this page based on my photographs. When compared to
originals these pictures may look artificial, yet I hope that they
resemble the originals as perceived by the original artists.
© K. L. Kamat
The animals and birds constitute the largest subject of these paintings.
Some animals are silhouettes, yet very attractive. He has used triangles,
rectangles, circles, and hexagons freely. Sometimes he has shown the
internals of animals as if they were transparent. Some experts have
criticized these paintings as proof of the artist's ignorance, but I feel
that this proof that the native men studied their surroundings and nature.
I also think embedding an elephant in a deer's stomach as imagination and
humor. You can see a deer running away from a lion, animals crying for
help to the hunters, men running away from wild boars etc.
Imagination or Ignorance?
The ancient artists cared little for the details. Like the modern
artists, it must have been the feeling to be conveyed was the most
important for him. I also feel that he has done great injustice to the
women of his time. Among the thousands of pictures, less than ten show
women. In this aspect, the rock paintings of Bhimabetaka differ from the
cave paintings of Spain which are about of the same period. Since the
Spanish painters were desiring renewal of life, the sexes and the organs
are given primary importance. Few Bhimabetaka paintings show sexual
organs. Sometimes to identify a woman they have drawn a small vagina, but
has left out the breasts. However, in some spots to glorify women they
have drawn large breasts with fountains of milk coming
out of them.
These rock paintings mirror the difficulties of the native man's
struggle with life as also his accomplishments. You can see rock weaponry,
bows, arrows, and then the knives. He wove baskets with bamboo and started
climbing the trees. He learned how to weave a rope from tree bark and
cloth from the fibers. He must have used fish bones as needle and trained
dogs for hunting. About this time he also learned raising of birds for
As the civilization progressed there were fights among tribes. There
are lots of pictures in Bhimabetaka which illustrates ferocious warfare
among humans. Since there are no signs of horses in the neighborhood of
Bhimabetaka, the ones in the picture were probably confiscated from
© K. L. Kamat
After the daily life became easier, the native man turned to dancing in
music. There are pictures of group dance, mask dance, and stick dance.
Although it's a common concept that the native man was naked, the artist
has drawn clothes on all the dancers. It's possible
that the clothing was unisex.
As a person who went to find the similarities between current day
tribals and native tribals, I was dumbfounded by the similarities in their
lifestyle. The tribals of Madhya Pradesh have lived monotonous lifestyles
for thousands of years. Even today the Adivasis
(aa-di-vaa-si, from Sanskrit, native) draw animals and
birds on their walls consisting of triangles and circles for success in
hunting. They also have unisex clothing, hunting with bows and arrows, and
group dances. If someone studies the similarities between the two
cultures, several generations of lost lifestyles may be uncovered.
Kamat K.L., The Timeless Theater CD-ROM, 1999
(Buy at Amazon)
- Brooks, R. and Wakankar V. S., Stone Age Painting in India, Yale,
Kamat K. L., KaalaRanga (in Kannada), Manohara Grintha Mala, 1982
Prehistoric Cave Paintings of Bhimabetaka
Introduction | Artistic Merits
Picture Galley | Other
Prehistoric Art from India