The Rock Shelters and Paintings of Bhimbetka are in the foothills of the Vindhyan Mountains on the southern edge of the central Indian plateau. Within massive sandstone outcrops, above comparatively dense forest, are five clusters of natural rock shelters, displaying paintings that appear to date from the Mesolithic Period right through to the historical period. The cultural traditions of the inhabitants of the twenty-one villages adjacent to the site bear a strong resemblance to those represented in the rock paintings.
Bhimbetka Buddhist siteBhimbetka reflects a long interaction between people and the landscape. It is closely associated with a hunting and gathering economy, as demonstrated in the rock art and in the relicts of this tradition in the local adivasi villages on the periphery of the site. The site complex was discovered by V. S. Wakankar in 1957. Almost 100 years earlier, in 1867, rock paintings had been discovered in Uttar Pradesh and the first scientific article on Indian rock paintings was published by J. Cockburn in 1883. Bhimbetka was first mentioned in 1888 as a Buddhist site, from information obtained from local adivasis. Two shelters were excavated in 1971 by Bajpai, Pandey and Gour.
The following year a systematic survey of the wider area from Kari Talai to Jaora was undertaken by Wakankar. His classification into seven topographical areas (I-VII), within which clusters of shelters were numbered alphabetically, and individual shelters given Arabic numeral, is still followed. This survey identified 700 shelters of which 243 are in the Bhimbetka group. It also showed the Lakha Juar Group to be is as rich as Bhimbetka in rock paintings, with 178 shelters spread over two hills.
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So far excavations have been limited to Bhimbetka. Between 1972 and 1977 excavation undertaken by Wakanakar, Misra and Hass revealed a continuous sequence of Stone Age cultures from the late Acheulian to the late Mesolithic and also some of the world's oldest stone walls and floors. Wakanakar revealed stratified deposits including Chalcolithic pottery, which indicated contact with Chalcolithic man on the neighbouring plains. The excavated material has been examined to establish sequence and typology for stone tools.
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So far there is no conclusive corroboration between the excavated material and the wall paintings - for which absolute dates have not been established. Nevertheless circumstantial evidence from pigments in deposits and images that indicate pre-agricultural societies, together with similarities with pottery patterns of the Chalcolithic Malwa ware, indicates that the earliest paintings are from the Mesolithic period.
A broad chronology has been established but more work is needed to establish a detailed chronology. Similarly the nature of the societies associated with the paintings is as yet little known. And as has been mentioned earlier, no ethnographic work has been carried out on the surrounding villages to research links with the culture of the rock shelter sites.
The nominated Bhimbetka rock shelters site lies within the Vindhyan Hills, an area of massively sculpted sandstone rock formations clustered around Bhimbetka Hill. The area has abundant natural resources - perennial water supplies, natural shelter, rich forest flora and fauna, and these conditions of plenty seem to have been conducive to the development of sustainable and persistent societies and the creation of notable rock art.
The site includes five clusters of rock shelters, with one large complex in the buffer zone. The rock shelters display persistent traditions of rock painting, spanning periods from the Mesolithic to the Historic. They also display a profusion, richness and variety of mural subjects and, as a collection, form one of the densest known concentrations of rock art.
Many of the rock shelters within the area are set within fairly dense forest, which displays a high diversity of flora and fauna, still harvested by the local people. Overall the landscape has a strong appealing aesthetic quality, derived from the beauty of the naturally sculpted rock formations and the contrasting lush, densely wooded vegetation, which together give the place a 'timeless' quality.