Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, Pre-Historic Cave Paintings


45 km south of Bhopal is the World Heritage site of Bhimbetka, on the Bhopal Hoshangabad road. As you travel towards Hoshangabad from Bhopal, on your right you would be able to see rock formations on small hills. Which at first sight would look intriguing? As you reach the road leading to the caves, you may have to wait at the railway crossing. It is mostly closed and is opened only when there are enough vehicles to cross and there are no trains in sight.

Prehistoric Rock Paintings at Bhimbetka caves
Prehistoric Rock Paintings

This is a point where you can refresh and recharge yourself at the MP tourism hotel, just before the railway crossing. You may not get anything including water after this point. For photographers, this is a good point for taking a long-distance shot of the rock shelters.

Man on horse pre-historic Rock Paintings at Bhimbetka caves
Man on Horse pre-historic Rock Paintings

Bhimbetka The Oldest Known Human Habitations

Bhimbetka caves are one of the oldest known human habitations in India, dating back to some 10,000 years ago. The rocks here are estimated from the time when the area was probably an ocean. The curved formation of rocks is said to be formed by the hitting of sea waves.

There are more than 750 rock shelters that have been found in the jungles here. There are more than 400 caves with paintings, in and around this place, but only about 20 caves are open to the public. These caves have paintings dating back from various periods during which they would have been inhabited.

Read More – Bagh Cave Paintings Near Indore

Paintings are primarily in red and white colors. There are a few in green and yellow. Red ones are the best preserved, probably because of the rich color. White ones seem faded and are probably the oldest ones.

Bhimbetka Cave Paintings – Prehistoric Rock Paintings

In a lot of places, paintings have been done one upon the other, indicating that the artists have used the same space to paint and re-paint. This also means that these could be ritual paintings that were repeated in a cyclic manner.

The style of paintings resembles the Worli paintings and at times the Madhubani. There is a predominance of geometrical drawings to depict figures. Only in one place could I find a non-geometrical human figure that looked like either Shiva or a meditating sage. Some of the paintings look so fresh that it is difficult to believe that they are older than a few days. You have the urge to touch them and see if they have been recently painted. Some of them even seem to defy the dust that is all around them.

Prehistoric rock paintings of animal figurines in White color at Bhimbetka caves
Prehistoric rock paintings of animal figurines in White color

Prehistoric Art Themes

Animals, Humans, Trees & Flowers

Animals form the primary subject of paintings, followed by humans and occasional trees and flowers. Zoo rock, one of the most famous rocks here, depicts all kinds of animals, primarily in white color and some in red. It can be a good exercise to stand below this rock and identify animals.

War Scenes

There are scenes depicting wars with the kings and the soldiers on horses. You can make out the king from his decorated horse and at times with an umbrella on top of his head. You can see the swords and other weapons used in warfare then. Are these paintings a kind of documentation of a war or a painting of the victory of the king?

Read More – Pre-Historic Cave Paintings of Chhhatisgarh

Community Living

There are scenes depicting community living like groups of people dancing, drinking, playing musical instruments, performing rituals, and enjoying life. There are couples depicted. Most of these paintings are on the ceilings of the cave.

The guide told us that this place was chosen by the painters as the water could not reach there and hence the paintings would survive. My gut feeling is that there must have been paintings all around. But, the only ones to survive are those whom the water could not reach. If you observe carefully, you would see that the paintings on the outer edges are lighter than the ones away from the edges.


Apart from rock shelters, there is an enclosure-like formation, which the guide would tell you, is a potential auditorium. This is the place where the community gatherings were probably held. The throne-like rock in the middle probably belonged to the headman or the king. I would say in the absence of any references, all this is subject to our interpretation.

The ancient auditorium at the Rock shelters
The ancient auditorium at the Rock shelters

Cave Temple

About 100 meters from the entrance of the caves, there is a cave temple, which is still a practicing temple. We were told that this temple was set by the Pandavas during their Agyaat Vaas or exile. In fact, the name Bhimbetka also refers to Bheem and literally means the place where Bheem used to sit.

Discovery of Bhimbetka Caves, Madhya Pradesh

For a change, these caves are a discovery that has been made by an Indian. Unlike most old structures that were discovered by the wandering British officers. Bhimbetka caves were discovered as recently as 1958 by V. S. Wakankar. He did a detailed survey of the region on behalf of Vikram University, Ujjain.

Read More – Barabar Caves near Gaya in Bihar

He classified the various types of rocks and rock shelters. Later the excavations were carried out by ASI and others. Before the discovery of these prehistoric caves, this area was thought of as Buddhist hills, sprinkled with various stupas. These caves indicate the continued existence of human life in this region over the ages, from prehistoric times to right up to the medieval period.

Board explaining types of Rock Paintings
Board explaining types of Rock Paintings

Visiting Bhimbetka Caves

The place left me wanting to see and explore more. All reviews of the place and all the previous visitors told us that you can not spend more than 2 hours. Most tourists just spend about 30 minutes in the place. I think I could have spent some more time and if I was allowed, I would have wanted to go and see more rock shelters. There is only one guide, who does a pretty shoddy job and wraps up the whole tour in 10-12 minutes. You can do much better by picking up the ASI guide and using it as your tour guide. With the guide in hand, you can find the paintings on the numbered rocks and read the complete description of the same.

Do Read – How to read Ajanta Paintings

The caves would leave you wondering if the painters would have ever thought that their pass time would become a peep into their lives and times for the generations to follow. You would also wonder do we really need anything beyond a roof over our heads and some food to eat, to lead a happy life.

A must-visit for anyone interested in the history of mankind.

You can also visit Bhojpur Shiva Temple – Bhojeshwar Temple which is close to this place and Bhopal. Sanchi Stupa or Great Stupa & Around is not too far from here.


  1. One of my favourite spots in MP, brings back fond memories. Yes, the only guide there does not do real justice to the place. Wish the place was more accessible with direct buses from Bhopal besides the ones which are operated on only Saturdays and Sundays as a part of a package tour to three different places including Sanchi and Bhojpur. Good to see your write up here.

  2. hey anuradha

    what a splendid account of the mesmerizing Bhimbetka cave paintings.
    which i was also blessed to see but no thanks to the state or central govts.
    i was on a tour of MP and was scheduled to go frm Bhopal to Panchmarhi by MP tourism bus but can u believe it that Bhimbetka was no where on the route map though it was driving right past it.
    since we were determined ( me being a student n prof. of history ) not to give the paintings a miss we hired a cab…went around the caves and then caught up with the bus but matters didnt end there. there was no guide to show us around the sadhu at the temple in the vicinity so very kindly and with suprising knowledge stepped me to guide us around………
    wake govt agencies n attract n invite students n lovers of history to witness these amazing dipictions of the early Man.

  3. Thank you Anuradha – you helped me relive the wonderful experience of visiting the Bhimbetka caves the year before last. I think it is wiser to keep the caves less frequented. Otherwise in all probability eager ‘India’n tourists will start inscribing their own names by the side of the paintings and spoil everything. Thanks again for your wonderful account of the caves.


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