As I walk towards the caves in Bhimbetka, I realise that I have no network on my phone. Fitting, I think, considering I’m going to see some of the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings. Remarkably well preserved because of their natural pigments, the art in Bhimbetka’s rock shelters dates back to the Lower Paleolithic period (about 2,00,000 years ago), but was discovered only in 1957 by Dr Vishnu Wakankar, an archaeologist. The site also provides insights into the early evolution of humans, as a number of rudimentary tools and blades that point to a hunter-gatherer community were unearthed here.
The shelters are easy to navigate – 15 are well-preserved and numbered, linked by a concrete path with arrows. The caves vary in size, from narrow and low to double-storeyed, with views of the valley. Walking around. I feel a certain oneness with the environment and respect for the place it holds in history. That, combined with the knowledge that humans took shelter here for thousands of years, makes exploring the caves a deeply humbling experience.
As gaurs, bears, elephants and scenes of community life waltz across the rocks before me, I try to imagine the people behind these works of art. Were they celebrated and respected in the community, or just unknown members of the clan? Where did they come from? What was their daily routine like? What happened to their families?
What would they think if they saw us today?
Questions swim around my head as I run my hand along the tiny alcoves and rock beds inside the ancient caves. I want to capture this scene, so I construct a frame (to later filter and post on Instagram), but feel silly taking pictures of a picture from so long ago. To reduce all of this to a single image on social media would be to trivialise the entire experience, I think. Conflicted, I take one photograph anyway, and save it. postponing my internal argument. Standing at the spot that marked the evolution of man, there are bigger mysteries of life to ponder.