Approximately 46 kilometres south of Bhopal is to be found the World Heritage prehistoric cave site of Bhimbetka. The name is associated with Bhima, a hero-deity from the Mahabharata epic, and translates as ‘the sitting place of Bhima’. To get there I, meaning we, must navigate a highway designed by the same creative hands responsible for the highway that had earlier given me access into north-eastern Orissa. Mind you, the potholes here weren’t so many, and in fairness they weren’t as deep, but their crafting was just as ingenious. And there were on-coming miss-driven vehicles by the truckload. It was going to be a long 46 kilometres. “Half a league, half a league, all on the highway of Death drove the six companions….”, my obvious steal from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and my pathetic expression of literary licence, drawing no accompaniment from my co-travellers. They were beginning to look like a dull lot, and in my growing apprehension I could have done with a bit of poetic support. Maybe they were put off by the obvious fact that there were only five occupants in the car, not six as my verse had claimed, and one of these was the driver, an honorary companion by default.
To the left and down we ventured, to the right and up we surfaced, me standing on the vehicle’s roof top so as to see what lay over and beyond the lip of each ditch. “Tata trucks to the left of me, Tata trucks to the right, onward we blundered”. A slight exaggeration of the road’s condition and our uncertain voyaging upon it I admit, but for every metre we moved forward, it seemed as if we had spent two or three in crab-like choreographed twists sidewards followed by brave downward thrusts. In these forays I was never quite sure whether we would bottom out, this resulting in damage to the engine sump or the differential housing. It’s not as if I could ever recall seeing a towing service anywhere during the preceding 25 days of this adventure. The closest I had ever seen to anything resembling roadside assistance were occasional stalls with air compressors that offered opportunity to pump up deflated tyres. Not a tow truck anywhere. If a mortal wound should strike the car, then it was our problem. I couldn’t see the tour company getting a replacement to us in under a couple of days, that’s assuming they had a replacement to offer. On this section of road I would have felt safer in a four-wheel drive, a good old rusting Toyota troop carrier or even an old battered Mark I Land Rover. And preferably with me behind the steering wheel. I’d driven in some rugged and perilous terrain before but always with the foreknowledge that I was on a track meant for goats or on no track at all, never something pretending at first to be a road then exposing itself as a shape-shifting bomb-cratered war zone when it was too late to turn about. In fairness I have seen worse roads and bigger potholes near Hometown; one being so large that it has claimed school buses, milk trucks, and several miscellaneous farm vehicles, not to mention innumerable cattle and sheep. The pothole penetrating so deep that a stone dropped within elicits nothing more than the barely audible cries of those trapped at its Hadean depths. Tales of their rescue are of epic proportion. I kid you not.
But here I am on a main road, south bound from Bhopal, and it’s just not a lot of fun. My lower spine is hating it. It’s not the pelvic grind of my choice. Worse, for I’m expecting I’ll have to travel back to Bhopal from Bhimbetka the same way, and the holes and broken bitumen surface on the opposite, north bound lane, do not look any the more friendly. There is nothing humorous about it, and to re-enforce my concern we pass two more accidents, the first involving two overturned trucks, and the second a light car. The first suggested no injury at all. The trucks were so over-laden and top heavy the accident looked like it had occurred for no better reason than the vehicles just gave up in their efforts to traverse the road, and taking matters into their own hands, simply decided to lay on their sides for a bit of a breather. Their fallen forms looked more like sleeping behemoths than things mechanical meant to labour thanklessly for man to the end of their days. You could almost hear them snoring. As for the light vehicle, well that didn’t look good at all, and some images are best not to think about longer than is necessary. Such stark episodes etch their memories for a lifetime. They expose your own mortality and you carry their graphic details to the very last of your appointed hours.
Bravely, stupidly, we inched onwards, in search of the Bhimbetka Caves, these being in a core area of five hills; namely Bineka, Bhorwali, Bhimbetka, Lakha Juar east, and Lakha Juar west. All up, in the region there are about 700 rock caves, about 243 in the Bhimbetka group. They include the oldest petroglyphs in the world. The site was nominated for World Heritage listing owing to it representing a long interaction between people and the landscape, as demonstrated in the quantity and quality of its art. It also reflected a close association with a hunting and gathering economy, as reflected in the rock art and in the relics of this tradition in the tribal villages on the site’s periphery. Some analyses suggest the caves were occupied by early hominids more than 150,000 years ago, the rock paintings being dated to the Palaeolithic Age some 30,000 years ago. However, the caves were not discovered and made known to science and the wider world until 1957, the discovery being made by the Indian archaeologist V. S. Wakankar. Unlike other so-called caves I have visited on this journey these are natural, no hand of man had carved them. They are really rock overhangs, and shelters made by monolithic pieces of rock being under-worn and hollowed right through so that there was always full light at each end.
The site is surrounded by the northern fringe of the Vindhya Ranges, a range of mountains and hills stretching across western-central India, and that separates the subcontinent into the northern Indo-Gangetic Plain and Southern India. The northern and western sections of the range are arid and inhospitable. There is a nice legend that tells how the mountains of the Vindhya once grew so high as to obstruct the trajectory of the sun, Surya. In this the mountains became vain and demanded that Surya should diverge in his transit and circle round the Vindhyas in the same way he did that of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmology and centre of the physical and spiritual universe. The sage Agastya was chosen to subdue the Vindhyas for their arrogance. Agastya asked the mountain range to allow him passage to the south, and out of reverence to Agastya the mountains bent low enough so as to facilitate his passing over, and entry into southern India. The Vindhyas promised not to rise up again until his return but Agastya settled permanently in the south, never returning, and the mountains, faithful to their promise, have not grown since.
To get to Bhimbetka, the pocked state of the highway aside, one passes through beautifully tended fields of cereals set on lower ground between arid hills. Groups of young men on pilgrimage, holding aloft pennants and flags whose slogans I did not understand, march along the roadside in chorused and happy chant. They, and I, are heading in the same direction, their exhibition of devotional joy competing with my experience of novelty. I crave their pedestrian freedom, the freedom to walk at will and leisure. At times it is as if I am bound by a cage, one fashioned with wheels as it is, and so it is with great anticipation that I look forward to my destination.
This day, and this road, is also my first experience with an Indian railway crossing; from the outside of a train! Shortly, along the turnoff from the highway to Bimbetka, I find myself waiting for a train to pass. The railway gates are down and the red warning lights are flashing. And they keep flashing, for well over five minutes or more; possibly as long as 10. This is taking rail safety seriously, no doubt about it. Eventually the train passes, for the record a goods train, and we are allowed to proceed. Just our car, no others waiting in line. That prolonged warning was just for us, for me. Thank you. I am used to railway level crossings. Between my little village, and my nearest large town, a road distance of perhaps 15 kilometres, there are three of them. If you time your road transit well, a slow moving goods train will catch you at each crossing, holding you up at all three for no small amount of time. It tests one’s patience. I’ve grown used to it.
But this level crossing offered one additional experience new to me. By the crossing gates was a little stall of the most humble kind. This place of business consisted of nothing more than several planks of wood held up by two sets of rickety timber supports. There was no table cloth and no overarching roof to give protection from the sun. Behind the stall was a man cutting pawpaw fruit into narrow slices. These he placed on a plate in a neatly balanced pile. On either side of him were two little girls, one younger than 10, and the other younger than her. Each wore nothing more than dirt covered rag skirts and blouses, their hair grimy and tightly matted. As we stopped, the older of the two ran to the car and motioned inside. She held a coin of small denomination to the window, and tugged open the top of her blouse, then tapped the coin gently against the glass. Her intent was obvious. She was not begging. It was a transaction. Unperturbed, the man behind the stall continued at the slicing of fruit, the girl’s glassed eyes keen to hold my attention, the coin constantly tapped at the window. The gates opened, and we drove on, the girl passing back to the company of the man as if we had never existed. I could have purchased Despair here, and I could have purchased it very cheaply.