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What are the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are a collection of shelters adorned with historical art located in India. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 2003. The paintings in the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters range in age from 9,000 years old into the Medieval era, although it is possible some are as much as 12,000 years old.

The name of Bhimbetka comes from a character in the Mahabharata, one of the Pandava brothers, Bhima. At one point Bhima was exiled, and is said to have spent his exile in the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, sitting on the stones and surviving off of the bounty of the forest.

There are hundreds of rock shelters in the area, used by early people as dwellings to protect them from the elements. Within the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters grouping are more than two-hundred distinct shelters, and nearby there are hundreds more. The area where the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are found is quite lush, with easily-accessible water, and plenty of animals and plants for early humans to eat. For this reason many groups seem to have settled the area from as early as 12,000 years ago.

The shelters themselves are among the oldest man-made dwellings on Earth, and contain what are thought to be the oldest constructed stone floors in the world. The paintings themselves stretch back to the Mesolithic era, putting them on a par with other famous petroglyphs sites such as the Lascaux caves in France and the paintings in the Kakadu National Park in Australia.

The paintings themselves cover an enormous amount of subject matter and cross a broad swath of time, offering a fascinating insight into life in the region over thousands of years. Many of the paintings deal with hunting scenes, showing animals such as tigers, rhinoceros, deer, crocodiles, boar, lions, dogs, elephants, and bears. Other scenes show what childbirth was like in various pre-historic and historic ages, various religious and burial rituals, and party scenes. Still others depict body decoration, battle scenes, dances and music, and the gathering of plants and honey.

The paintings found at the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are usually broken up into five distinct periods of time. The earliest, from the Upper Paleolithic like the Lascaux paintings, are very simple line paintings showing animals. The first true paintings are from the Mesolithic, and although these are smaller paintings they nonetheless show a fair amount of detail, mostly focusing on hunting and everyday activities. The next paintings are from the later Chalcolithic age, and show a more advanced trading culture. Still later come pictures from an early historic era, where more bright red and yellow are introduced, and more complex scenes incorporating heavy religious imagery make an appearance. Lastly are scenes from the Medieval era, which are less complex and detailed than those from the early historic age.

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