The caves at Bhimbetka are set amongst dry low deciduous forest and craggy hillocks and rock outcrops; tors. The view from the top of Bhimbetka Hill looks out to the alluvial plain of the Betwa River, but here you cast your eyes back first to the Mesolithic Age of 10,000 to 2,500 years ago, then to the Upper Palaeolithic of 20,000 to 10,000 years ago, and finally to the Lower Palaeolithic that dates from about 40,000 to 20,000 years in its span. That’s the bridge of time that you cross when you confront the images executed, mainly in red and white, on the cave walls. The images are of everyday scenes of hunting, dancing, music playing, animal fighting, horse riding, and honey collection. One is of a man being chased by a monstrous wild boar, another is of a man atop what looks to be an elephant. There are lions, tigers, elephants, antelope, dogs, lizards, crocodiles, a crab, and an arthropod that is tantalisingly similar to a scorpion except that it is graced by one or two more pairs of legs than the normally ordained four; eight legs all up being the usual requisite total for scorpions. On the aptly named ‘zoo rock’, Shelter 4, are depicted 252 animals of 16 species. In the ‘Auditorium Cave’, a feature 39 metres long, 4 metres wide, and 17 metres high at its western end, are paintings of bulls, buffaloes, deer, antelope, peacocks, tigers, and the left handprint of a child; who said you can’t time travel?
The earliest images are simple linear representations, executed in green and dark red, of huge animals such as bison and rhinoceros. This early cave phase focuses on the life of hunters and gathers. The later images demonstrate that the practice of painting extended into historical times. These are assigned to a period termed the Chaleolithic, and reveal that the cave dwellers had come into contact with agricultural communities on the surrounding plain and that these two groups were actively exchanging goods. The superimposition of the paintings demonstrates the repeated use of the site over time by different peoples, and though the images are of different species and in a different styles, regardless the overall impression is one reminiscent of the cave paintings of Northern Australia, both cultures projecting via their paintings and rock etchings a shared interaction with, and understanding of, the natural world. They were not divorced from it, but rather were a fully integrated part; ecologically and spiritually.
I walk about the caves, enjoying the peace, and the sensual feeling of being back within my comfort zone. But I see little wildlife, excepting several species of small birds that flit by in such agitation that I have no idea what they might be, and a solitary mongoose that slinks past, the profile of its brown body so closely hugging the ground, that it almost goes unnoticed. It was like watching a rock move. In Australia there are such sentient beings of stone, they are called ‘Nargun’. They are not friendly. They hunt the unwary, and likely explain the disappearance of school children, as portrayed in the 1975 Australian feature film ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, the story of the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher at Hanging Rock, Victoria, on St. Valentine’s Day 1900.
I am transfixed by the great combs of wax, the hives of what I take to be the native bee Apis dorsata, that exposed overhead adhere to the highest parts of the rock overhangs. Most social bees, those that have communal hives such as the common honey bee Apis mellifera, nest in tree hollows, cavities in the ground, rock crevices, and sometimes even the broken mausolea of the human dead. Contrary to this general habit, Apis dorsata, builds giant exposed cell combs but these are protected by layers of bees, bees by the hundreds, by the thousands. To collect the honey from these elevated bee colonies takes ingenuity, a lack of fear of heights, or a well-aimed rock.
The grey-brown stone of Bhimbetka supports other life, of a more cryptic kind. Here and there across its weathered surfaces are encrusting growths of lichen, plant-like associations of microscopic algae and fungi. Both kinds of organisms benefit from the association. Algae can manufacture food from sunlight. Fungi cannot, instead they utilise a portion of the food that the algae produce. The algae benefit because they are sustained by a stable and suitable environment within the lichen. The main visual structure of the lichen is called a ‘thallus’ and it is this, or these, that give highlights of texture and diversity of form to the rock surface. Coloured mostly ochre-yellow and green-grey at Bhimbetka they extend at a pace known only to themselves, their occurrence here influenced by climate, shade, availability of moisture, and the acidity of the rock on which they seek foundation. Each offers subtle changes of pattern, just like the bark of different trees, and the feathered growth of rainforest moss. They too easily claim photograph after photograph.
So much so, that my peculiar and close-up attention to the rock surface, draws first the curiosity of a young guard with a long staff, and then that of a guide. The guard soon ascertains that I am not up to mischief and departs, informing me that the staff is to ward off threatening snakes and other wildlife. The guide turns out to be an education interpretation officer for the site, a man of some considerable knowledge of matters of biogeography and geology. I explain my interest in the ‘cryptoflora’ growing on the rock outcrops, and he makes the mistake of mentioning the word Gondwana. That was my moment, I didn’t need prodding or further urging. I gave him the whole spin: “projected chronology of the break up of West Gondwana and the northward rafting of the Indian subcontinent, estimated time of Great India’s dismemberment from north-western Australia, biogeographical associations of India’s plant and animal elements, absence of native felids and primates from the Austro-Oceanic region, incorrect and mistaken usage of the historically incorrect term ‘Gondwanaland’, unfortunate choice of this miss-formed word by the now defunct Australian music group ‘Gondwanaland’, a shame because I liked their innovative incorporation of the didgeridoo….”. Barely slowing to catch my breath I next threw in “the timing of the sundering of New Zealand from Australia and possible reasons for its impoverished mammal and reptile fauna, palaeoceanographic and biogeographic evolution of the Southern Ocean during the Cenozoic geologic era, the Wallace Line and the evolutionary theory of the origin and divergence of species through natural selection as formulated by the zoogeographer Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s appropriation of Wallace’s original idea, and the current relict distribution of the cool temperate rainforest tree taxon Nothofagus, this being an icon of the Gondwanan World Heritage Area near where I live.” He just disappeared. One moment there, the next gone. I searched everywhere for him.
Beyond the cave car park, along a narrow bitumen road in good repair, and a little further towards the highest point of the hill, is a religious shrine. Towards this I walked. At the shrine I encountered a number of youthful pilgrims, all young men, apparently identical in purpose to those I had passed earlier this morning. It was a journey of faith that they walked, barefoot and in the hot sun, but I did not understand the depth of commitment that drew them to this shrine. Nor did I understand the significance of this ground on which it is built. Their pilgrimage had nothing at all to do with the cave paintings but as I did not understand their language attempts at explanation were wasted.
In the secluded forecourt that fronted the shrine’s entrance were many House crows. They squabble and feed upon morsels of food given by the resident priests. Cast all about on the ground are orphaned plastic wrappers, discarded by visitors. No one notices. Even my own recognition is becoming diluted.
I take lunch in the grounds of a restaurant at the base of the ascent road to Bhimbetka; sweet lassi, chickpea dhal, a little white rice, and paneer paratha, the last being a pan-fried bread made from flour, oil, salt, water, and a filling of shredded cheese, curd, cumin seeds, and red chilli. I found it useful to lap up the dhal and rice with. A silk cotton tree of the genus Ceiba, its trunk armed with cruel barbs, grows in the restaurant garden. Passenger and goods trains pass by on the adjacent rail line, however, I have left my note book in the car so cannot record their details. A mixed group of Indian and western tourists consume their midday meal inside the restaurant. They are friendly but display no obvious interest in railway infrastructure or botanical oddities.
Fortunately, for me, the return to Bhopal deviates from the horrors of the early route. Fearing that tempting Fate twice in one day was asking for trouble, and despairing of the availability of a tow truck should we need one, I had contemplated again engaging the spiritual intervention of Lord Ganesha, and possibly enlisting the aid of several foreign patrons of travellers. Shamash of Babylon, Saint Christopher of Rome, and Charon of Hades came immediately to mind. Charon was a ferryman who did a good trade shipping the souls of very bad people to Hell, Hades. And though I was firmly on solid ground, no water of any kind being in sight, the exploration of metaphysics is big in this land so you just never know. He might be able to row anywhere, and the absence of water might not be an issue. To be safe I made sure I had sufficient small change to pay him just in case I needed his services, and if I can start up a little friendly conversation, who knows, I might get a discount when I see him again, later on in death. I thought getting Anubis on side might be beneficial too, just in case worse came to worse, what with he being the Egyptian protector of the deceased and all. But none was needed, the alternative road route was in good condition, so I repocketed my ferry fee.
We detoured to the ruins of the Shiva temple at Bhojpur. If you are travelling north, which I was, these are located on the right bank of the river Betwa. If you are travelling south, they are on the other side. The building of Bhojpur is ascribed to Bhojadeva (1010-1055 CE) of the Paramara dynasty, who wrote a treatise on architecture, the ‘Samarangara Sutradhara’. Though the temple was never completed, and the reason for this is unknown, nonetheless what was built is an awe inspiring enterprise of legendary proportions. The temple faces west and its ground plan is that of a simple square. It is over 32 metres in length and more than 12 metres in height, and the huge earth rampart used to raise the huge blocks of stone to construct it is still in place. The temple sanctum houses a colossal polished Shiva-linga, at nearly 7 metres high, the tallest in the world. No doubt it took a lot of rubbing to get a smooth finish, …with it being so large and all. The door jambs of the temple are ornamented with figures of the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on either side, and on massive pillar capitals that support the dome are carvings of the divine consort pairs Uma – Shiva, Lakshmi – Vishnu, Savitri – Brahma, and Sita – Rama. Years ago part of the ceiling collapsed damaging the interior and exposing the sky above. A fibreglass replica of the original lotus-leaf ornamented ceiling has been put in place. If I had not been told, I would not have guessed.
West of the temple was once a large artificial lake but nothing now stands except the ruins of the skilfully positioned and constructed old dams that contained its waters. The lake was destroyed by Hoshang Shah of Malwa in the 15th Century. He cut through the lesser dam, a Gond legend stating that it took an army of men three months to cut through the dam and it took the lake three years to empty. Its bed was not habitable for thirty years and the climate of Malwa is said to have been considerably altered by the removal of this vast expanse of water.
But what conspires to avert my attention is the intricate set of floor plans for the temple cut into nearby rock surfaces. For their safekeeping protective iron railings have been positioned about the perimeter. These keep the careless from walking over these unique archaeological curiosities. Here I finally encounter snakes but they are of the captive kind. A villager approaches, he touting the ability of a placid python to sit happily upon one’s shoulders. The snake looks well-fed, its skin newly sloughed, the body mottled brown with a hint of pink about its face. I decline his offer as at home I have pythons enough, and I have had my share of experiences with a python’s ability to constrict about my arms and neck. Near the exit gate sits an elderly lady with a live cobra. Both woman and snake are silent. The cobra didn’t look at all happy, rather decrepit actually, the scales about it’s head somewhat bedraggled, its eyes downcast, the skin limp, the tail looking as if something had chewed on it; not a fair match for a fight with a mongoose by my reckoning. More like the poor beast was on its last legs.
The alternative route back to Bhopal takes me past massive industrial complexes on the city’s outskirts. I do not venture back to the restaurant by the lake, and foregoing a second cup of coffee and the comfort of the restaurant’s deckchairs, I find myself back at the hotel by 5 pm.