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Meet the keepers of India's oldest art gallery

The prehistoric rock-painting sites across Madhya Pradesh and beyond form India’s oldest art gallery. Meet their keepers – ordinary folk going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the works are recognised, celebrated and kept safe for tomorrow.

brunch Updated: May 29, 2015 13:47 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Daraki Chattan

Cloth bag in hand, 62-year-old Pradyumn Bhatt is leading us up Indergarh hill. The afternoon temperature is 40 degrees. The path is more loose rock than actual trail. And every two steps, another brambly bush is in the way.

Bhatt, however, is cool and surefooted. He’s followed this trail for 30 years – he pretty much built it himself. As for those brambles – he’s responsible for putting them there too, to deter other climbers.

Pradyumn Bhatt, 62
* A Chemistry teacher, a few months away from retiring as a school principal in Bhanpura
* Helped discover some of the prehistoric cupules (featured here) at Daraki Chattan; is a local expert on the rock art site Chaturbhuj Nala
* Got students and forest rangers to reforest a hill to protect rock art from vandals and weathering
* Holds Stone-Age camps so kids can learn how man created fire, foraged and survived in the wild.
* Ever the teacher, he pointed to ancient rock art and asked us, “Inko kitney marks dene chahiye?

As Bhatt guides us up, what he’s really doing is taking us back. Way back. For at the top of this out-of-the-way cliff in out-of-the-way Bhanpura in the out-of-the-way north-west corner of Madhya Pradesh, is the world’s oldest known message from man.

Covering the walls of a narrow grotto are 28 circular depressions, each no bigger than a cricket ball, arranged in rows. Archaeologists call them cupules – they’re more than two lakh years old, putting them in a time before metal tools, before civilisation, and much before the idea of India.

The cliff, Daraki Chattan, is home to 530 cupules like these; they fascinate researchers across the world. And Bhatt, a local school principal with no formal training in archaeology, has helped discover many of them.

Think of Bhatt as the informal (and irrepressible) guardian of Bhanpura’s prehistoric treasures. He has guided hundreds of academics to the cupule sites since the ’90s, nearly getting attacked by a cobra on one excursion.

Worried that the hill’s vanishing tree cover was exposing the cupules to rain, UV damage and vandals, he roped in forest rangers, bureaucrats and schoolkids to reforest the hill a few years ago.

He’s also the resident expert on the prehistoric rock paintings of Chaturbhuj Nala, 20 kms away. And he’s among a handful of ordinary people in central India who’ve dedicated their lives to India’s little-known but staggering wealth of primitive rock art. Nala, deep inside Gandhi Sagar Wildlife Sanctuary near Bhanpura, is considered the world’s longest rock-art gallery. Over 16 km, along both sides of a river, are an almost-continuous chain of hundreds of figures and scenes. “It’s like a film script,” Pradyumn Bhatt says. “You can chart the progress of man, from Mesolithic to medieval to Mauryan times just by following the art.” The abundance of paintings, but no human or animal remains, leads researchers to imagine that these were special-occasion zones – places to visit for a purpose, not to live in.

Geography, history, identity

Madhya Pradesh is richly rewarding for anyone interested in history. The state is home to Sanchi’s stupas, Khajuraho’s erotic temple statues, cenotaphs in Orchha, monuments in Mandu and ancient dynasties. But for prehistory, a time before written records, MP is literally the mother lode.

Archaeologists see the region as India’s oldest art gallery. Its dense, dry forests (many now part of nature reserves and sanctuaries), have preserved environments for centuries. Ancient rivers like the Chamba, Rewa and Betwa have supported primitive societies, fossilising their remains along their banks. The Aravalli and Vindhya ranges kept intruders away even as they hosted early settlements.

“But what really makes MP special is that there is great interest in prehistory there,” says Giriraj Kumar founder-president of the Agra-based Rock Art Society Of India (RASI). “Most rock art enthusiasts in the region are just passionate locals making the effort to discover sites.”

It’s as much luck as effort. Even India’s best-known prehistoric site was discovered only by accident. Legend has it that in 1957, on a train to Bhopal, archaeologist VS Wakankar passed Bhimbetka and noticed that its mountaintops looked suspiciously like Stone Age rock art sites he’d seen in Spain and France. So he took a team to investigate.

The dramatic rockscape of Bhimbetka, an hour from Bhopal, is full of natural niches where prehistoric paintings have been protected from direct sunlight or rain. Fifteen shelters are open to the public. They feature images of elephants, sambar, bison and deer. Stylised peacocks dance alongside the rhino, now extinct in this region. On one rock are two elephants with tusks; on another, two humans cross swords. There are hunting, battle and pastoral scenes and depictions of community life.

What they found were rock shelters (shallow alcoves, not quite caves) bearing a profusion of paintings – simple Mesolithic stick figures of humans, wild animals and hunting scenes; more skilful Chalcolithic renderings of cattle, dancers and fighters with bows, spears and shields; and stylised Medieval battle scenes, complete with horses, chariots, elephants and swordsmen poised to attack.

Wakankar’s jackpot gave Indian archaeology a shot in the arm – since then, 750 shelters have been discovered at Bhimbetka (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and nearby Lakha Juar.

Hundreds of rock art shelters and a few cupule sites have been discovered across MP and India, some as far away as Kerala, Manipur and Karnataka.

The art works – solo figures never bigger than your palm; groupings covering walls, ceilings and even undersides of the shelters; many scenes painted over older ones as if to overwrite the past – are as much to be proud of as to be humbled by. They look like they could have been done by your kids; but they may well have been painted by your great-grandmother or grandfather a thousand times removed!

Behind the stones, the stories

Most people in our story don’t fit the ‘history buff’ stereotype. Omprakash Shamra (see box: Meanwhile In Rajasthan) only studied till Class 8; Bhatt taught Chemistry.

Vinod Tiwari, a farmer and former policeman, developed an interest in ancient objects from accompanying his friend Rajeev Chaubey on explorations of the Raisen district. Chaubey himself, a pharmacist by training, only saw prehistoric art when he moved there after his father retired from the Railways.

Rajeev Chaubey, 55

* Chemist, with an interest in Raisen’s rich history

* Helped the state archaeological department build a small museum to house Raisen’s ancient statues

* Works to get locals to be as interested in their history as the researchers and visitors are

* Is an expert on the prehistoric rock sites in nearby Pengavan

* Often walks 25km a day when on exploratory tours of the forests. Has worn out several pairs of shoes in the process!

And Pooja Saxena, captivated by archaeology at age eight after watching a TV show about the Harappa in the ’80s, didn’t know how to pursue the subject until after graduation.

For Narayan Vyas, though, history was always fascinating. Now 66, he spent close to 40 years with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), assisting in excavations in several regions (including Gujarat, where he recalls working on Patan’s magnificent Rani Ki Vav step-well while dangling from a rope).

Vyas retired as superintending archaeologist six years ago, but never really quit. He merely moved home to a suburb outside Bhopal so as to better study a prehistoric shelter in Kathotia close by. He now guides researchers through Bhimbetka and Hathitola and other ancient sites, returning with a medieval brick here, a preserved footprint there. Earlier this year, he’d gone to inspect some pipe-laying work in his neighbourhood – and found Stone Age spearheads.

Vyas likens a new discovery to "winning a lottery". Not all days are joyous. He recalls the afternoon, barely a few months into retirement, when leading a study tour to Chaturbhuj Nala, he was violently attacked by bees. One sting hurts. Two hurt even more.

But being stung by 70, in the blazing heat, miles from civilisation is absolute hell: "Your body feels like it’s on fire, you can’t even think. After that comes acute thirst." And after that come months in the ICU. The attack hasn’t made him fearful, but better prepared. "I do carry more water," he says smiling.

Narayan Vyas, 66

* Retired from the ASI but is still stuck on prehistory

* Moved homes to Nayapura, just outside Bhopal, to study a rock-art site in Kathotia better

* Was attacked by bees at one site, spent time in the ICU, and was back on site after recovery

* Sold a home to buy a plot on which he plans to build an interpretation centre for rock art

* While posing for this picture, he asked, politely, "Yeh ‘Brunch’ shabd ka arth kya hai?"

Of rocks and hard places

Danger seems part of the job, even if it’s a job no one is paying you for. When accompanying an Austrian researcher to sites in the Pahadgarh ravines in the early ’80s, Giriraj Kumar ran into an unexpected roadblock: a gang of dacoits.

“The only reason they didn’t shoot at us is because we were unarmed,” he recalls. “Once we explained what we were doing, they invited us to tea.” While Kumar knows of rock scholars who’ve been attacked by bears, Chaubey has spotted leopards and snakes as he’s made his way through the jungles.

Those aren’t even the biggest challenges for the protectors of prehistory. Tiwari, who helped discover a rock painting from 500 BC at Chakra village last year, says the tough part is not finding new sites.

It’s convincing locals that the shelters, which have lasted 40,000 years, are worth preserving. “People come from all over the world to see our rock art. But our own people burn cow dung for fuel and kill the paintings with the smoke. They don’t care. Unless it’s an official order, no one wants to change.”

Official orders don’t come particularly easy. Chaubey says that despite having an old friend in Surendra Patwa, MP’s minister for tourism and culture, the government seems not to care for Raisen’s history.

“We found an old rock by the river a while ago. People had been washing their clothes on it. It turned out to be a 12th century idol,” he says. About 250 rescued sculptures from the same period have found their way to a safer spot, a two-room museum in Raisen that Chaubey helped the state archaeological department build. “People from all over check it out. But few locals have stepped in.”

Tiwari believes it takes as little as laying a 2km access road to villages like Satkunda, which has Bhimbetka-era rock art, for it to attract visitors and be deemed worthy of preservation. Most prehistoric sites in the West are fenced in to protect the rocks from vandalism – even researchers have limited access.

In France, the entrance to the famous Chauvel caves is fitted with a submarine door. Meanwhile in Pengavan, a village of 300, some families have actually started living in the ancient rock shelters, furnishing their lodgings with brick walls and doors. “We may be the last generation of protectors,” Chaubey says. “My wife thinks I’m crazy. Even my son is not interested.”

An hour out of Bhopal and a dirt road out of Raisen, Pengavan is the tiniest of hamlets – population 300. But you’ll have trouble rounding up 100 residents. The landscape is straight out an alien film, the rocks are short, wide, flat and form natural steps.

The village is home to 35 shelters featuring Mesolithic art, including a drawing of seven concentric circles, believed to be a primitive chakravyuh and also found in prehistoric caves in Spain and France.

Climbing every mountain

Hope springs in other parts of the state even as Chaubey laments. In Bhopal, Pooja Saxena, one of the country’s few freelance archaeologists, is on a mission to take history out of academic journals and spread the conservation message through the non-profit Dharohar.

“Kids are the best medium,” Saxena says. “They’re sharp, they like stories but they want the science too. The problem is that we’ve closed up our heritage – we’ve told kids not to touch, discouraged them from hanging around, not let them engage with it. There are ways to ‘touch’ without using your hands, to absorb history with your senses. Once kids take pride in it, they’ll never deface anything.” Saxena, 40

* A freelance archaeologist, she takes academic findings out into the real world

* Got Madhya Pradesh locals to see rock paintings as the work of our ancestors, not local witches

* Produced a picture book so kids could learn that smoke from brick kilns was damaging rock art

* Gets embarrassed when local schools often stage the story as a play, inviting her as chief guest!

One of Saxena’s success stories is a pamphlet that uses simple Hindi and rock-art illustrations to narrate a story of how MP’s rock art is not the work of witches but our ancestors. “People believed they were drawn in blood, so when the smoke from their brick kilns was damaging the paintings, they didn’t care.”

When even the local sarpanch couldn’t help, Saxena turned to the kids. Field trips were organised, students were taught about the art and given the pamphlet. “Kids go home and chatter about what they’ve learnt to their parents, we were counting on that.” Parents eventually took notice – there was less and less opposition to the closure of kilns.

At RASI, Indian and Australian scientists have been collaborating since 2001 on the Early Indian Petroglyphs project, an ASI-supported initiative to scientifically date and study India’s cupules.

Vyas has sold a home to buy a plot of land near Kathotia, on which he’s planning to build an interpretation centre for the public and cave-style rooms for long-staying scholars.

In Bhanpura, Bhatt has been holding rock-art painting contests to help young children appreciate the works – he gives out pens as prizes. He also holds camps for older kids, teaching them how to make fire, forage, and find shelter in the wild.

Bhatt is the consummate headmaster – guiding us through Chaturbhuj Nala, he’d point to 35,000-year-old paintings and ask us, “Ab yeh drawings dekho. Inko hamey kitney marks dene chahiye?” Of course, everything deserves an A+.

Our rock of ages

No one knows for certain why our ancestors scattered such a maddening array of paintings across space and time in central India. Kumar’s experiments under RASI show that it takes nearly 30,000 concentrated stone-on-stone hits to create a single cupule. So why bother?

“Maybe they struck them to honour a birth or death,” Bhatt suggests. “Perhaps to celebrate a good hunt or harvest or perhaps just to call cattle home, since the sharp hitting sound carries for miles. But really, it’s a mystery.”

With the paintings, it’s the same mystery the world over. Rock art has been discovered on every continent. Bhimbetka’s images bear a striking resemblance to rock art in Kakadu in Australia, the work of the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa and paintings in deeper caves in France and Spain.

“At Pengavan, a drawing of concentric circles alone kept one Japanese researcher engaged for two hours,” Chaubey says. “He measured and shot it from every angle; then he told me there’s a similar sign in the rock art in Japan.”

Most scholars have a simple theory for why man painted: to express his creativity, of course, but primarily to record what was in danger of vanishing or being forgotten. It explains why man painted animals, people, rituals, activities and battles, but almost no trees or mountains.

In India’s case, the diversity of animals, the styles, scenes and the ways our ancestors painted them are far more varied than better-known ones in Europe. India’s rock art is considered the world’s richest after Australia and South Africa. Their very existence shatters the long-held belief that art and culture was born in the West.

As for our resident heroes, the art spawns patriotism and a larger philosophy. “They show that our humanity is one, our story of survival is one, our emotion is one – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, nation, all come later,” says Bhatt. Kumar finds in them, a connection with the almighty:

“For me, studying rocks is a way to better understand myself. It’s like going on a pilgrimage”. Tiwari views them as a way to rally the world’s governments to their aid, because “this is not just Indian history, it’s global history.

But Chaubey puts it best when asked why he keeps at it, wearing out pair after pair of shoes, sometimes walking 25 km a day, to protect ancient graffiti for no money: “This is the legacy of our ancestors; yours and mine. History never remembers those who did things for money. They remember those whose passion went much, much beyond.”

Meanwhile in Rajasthan...

...mithaiwalla Omprakash Sharma, aka Kukki, is putting the state on the archaeology map by discovering close to 100 sites himself

The way he tells it, 59-year-old Omprakash Sharma was cosmically created to serve archaeology. The son of a chaiwalla who moved to India after Partition, he was born in India, raised poor and studied only until Class 8.

And yet, he’s probably the world’s luckiest amateur archaeologist. Sharma, better known as Kukki, claims to have discovered the most archaeological sites in the world, all in and around his Aravalli village of Bundi.

The mithai-store owner – he sells namkeen, sweets and kachoris – has made 18 donations to India’s museums, discovered primitive fish hooks, arrowheads and copper tools that have wowed historians, and picked up about 1,500 ancient coins on his many hill-explorations. As of April 2015 he says he’d made 98 finds. “I want to reach 101 to beat Sachin Tendulkar’s centuries,” he says.

As centuries go, Sharma has been able to go way back. He began trawling the Aravallis when a neighbour said he’d found semiprecious stones there and who, in retrospect, was likely lying.

Three decades of sojourning have yielded finds more precious: 36 rock-art shelters in Garada; prehistoric paintings in Rameshwar; and Bhimbhetka-age drawings in Bhilwara. Along the way, he’s given lectures, guided researchers, turned into a most unusual tour guide and even been the subject of research himself.

“My family thinks I’m mad,” Sharma says. “I’ve been stung by wasps, threatened by illegal miners and shunted away by local tribals. I’ve never received a rupee from the government.” So why does he do it?

“Because fate chose me. I ended up born in India, so close after Independence, in Bundi, where there was so much to find,” he says. “In China ‘Ku’ means ‘Ancient’, ‘Ki’ means ‘Wonder’. My pet name is Kukki – ‘Ancient Wonder’ hoon main. Maybe even Partition happened for me!”

Unlike many Indian prehistory enthusiasts, Sharma says he only has respect for the British. “We’ve had Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim rulers, but until them, no one conducted excavations, made records, built museums.” he points out. “But I was born into a free India to serve it, and I’ll do it till my knees give out.”

From the author's diary

Yes, I went to tawa-hot Madhya Pradesh in summer for a story that required a lot of field reporting.

Yes, I dragged HT photographer Kalpak Pathak too.

Yes, one of us may have been dizzy at the top of a cliff, but glugged down Electral and hiked on.

No, the heat didn’t really matter. The rocks told us stories from 40,000 years ago. The people told us their own tales of patience, courage and dedication. The land itself kept telling us we needed to return, stay for months and see it all.

And as you can see, HT photographer Kalpak Pathak went all out so you could feast on what he saw. Our assignments take us to the oddest places, and for Kalpak, literally so. Enjoy!

Photos by Kalpak Pathak

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First Published: May 22, 2015 14:22 IST