India is supposed to have the third largest concentration of rock art, after Australia and Africa! And yet how many of us have actually heard of these rock art sites, let alone visit one? It does go to show the need to educate people about India’s pre-historic heritage as well as popularize these sites.
While researching about the pre-historic rock art in India, I realized that they are spread across most parts of India: Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, North East, Kashmir etc and yet it was difficult to find information about these sites on State tourism sites. The only information we found were research journals or papers published by Indian historians or researchers. For a traveler, the reports are pretty technical. Also the actual sites are not easily accessible and sometimes hard to find even.
What is Pre-Historic?
We do not want this to be a history lesson but just want to give readers an idea of what we want to convey here. So trying to explain relevance of some technical terms in easily understandable language.
Pre-historic literally means something so old that it precedes recorded history. It would denote an era when there would most probably be no written language, and hence we can learn about these time periods only by other forms like sculptures, carvings, pottery, weapons or art/paintings.
Pre-historic era is divided between different time periods:
•Palaeolithic Age: Early Stone Age; Before 10,000 BC, marked by introduction of basic stone tools
• Mesolithic Age: Middle Stone Age; 10,000 to 5000 BC
• Neolithic Age : New Stone Age; Beginnings of farming
What is a Rock Art?
Rock art is a form of painting or carving that is done on massive rocks or caves as a canvas. Since in ancient times, people lived inside caves and had huge rock formations around them, it can be assumed that they took up painting or carving (using natural colors from leaves and flowers) as something to pass their time.
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Rock art from the pre-historic times are extremely useful in understanding an era of which there is no written record. We can learn a lot about the beliefs of the people, any kind of rituals that they followed, the type of animals found in the area, etc. The most popular Indian rock art is from Ajanta and Ellora, which although ancient are not from pre-historic times.
Bhimbhetka : UNESCO World Heritage Site
The most well-preserved and probably most popular amongst the India pre-historic rock art are those in Bhimbhetka near Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). The rock shelters and cave paintings have been accorded a World Heritage Site status, and have been quite well-maintained by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI).
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There are official guides available who can give you a tour of the site. There are elaborate paintings like the “Zoo Rock” which shows paintings from various eras layered over one another. The paintings evolve from being mere stick figures to elaborate depictions of rituals and war scenes.
Other Madhya Pradesh Rock Art Sites
Madhya Pradesh has a large number of recorded rock painting sites including Shamala hills, Pachmarhi, Panna and Rewa. Dr Meenakshi Dubey Pathak is recognized to have done a lot of research and fieldwork around these sites.
Anegundi, near Hampi (Karnataka)
Before our trip to Hampi we had read about the cave paintings in Anegundi and made it a point to visit them. It was a real task to find the location as the guides weren’t fully aware of them. There are no signs that guide you to the cave paintings site and you are left to the complete mercy of the guide. The approach to the caves is through paddy fields and then trekking up some barren boulder-laden areas. Right up until you reach the caves, you can never tell there are these paintings hidden in these fields.
There are two sets of cave paintings located opposite to each other. The caretaker does not speak English, so understanding the paintings is difficult. We wrote about the cave paintings in a separate post on Hampi.
Recently there have been reports of some unusual cave paintings found in Kanker district of Chhattisgarh. These paintings have been dated to at least 10000 years back. Archaeologist Bhagat involved in researching this site has hypothesised that people from these regions might have been in contact with alien civilizations! Taking a look at the cave paintings sure will make you believe so!
It is believed that there are many such rocks hidden in the forests all over the state. The Chhattisgarh State Department of Archaeology and Culture is supposedly planning to get in touch with NASA and Indian space agency to explore further, if reports are to be believed.
The theory about Ancient Aliens is not new. We have been really fascinated by these theories where certain section of researchers and historians believe that certain structures like the Pyramids or Stonehenge were built with the help of aliens, and pre-historic man was in close contact with aliens. Whether you believe in this theory or not, it does make for some interesting stories! It is the first time that we have heard about Ancient Aliens theory in India, and its fascinating!
Another archaeologist Hari Singh Chhatri has reportedly found unique rock art from dense forests of Korba, which he believes to be from the period of the Ramayana.
Rest of India
There are several other pre-historic rock painting sites showcasing art from tens of thousands of years back. Some other sites that find mention but have not been on the tourist map:
Note: The most consolidated information that I could find on the rock paintings of India was with the Bradshaw Foundation.
We definitely will be planning to visit many of these sites in the future, and hope the ASI and state tourism boards try to assimilate these sites in the Tourism maps and websites, giving history-lovers like us a new aim to explore this different side of India.
Disclaimer: We are not experts in the field of archaeology or history. We are just making an effort to make the masses aware of India’s unique pre-historic locations.
Ravana Phadi cave temple at Aihole is a great example of Chalukyan temple architecture. During the 6th century, the early Chalukyans experimented with cave temples. The Ravana Phadi cave temple is primarily is a Shiva temple.
Every Shiva temple has a Nandi positioned right opposite the Shiva linga.
There are brilliant carvings of various gods and goddesses on the interior walls of the cave temple. There is one of the Nataraja (Dancing Shiva) with Gauri and Ganesha by his side.
There is one of a rather scary meditating sage. At first it looks like a skeleton, but when you look closely you see that the representation seems of a sage who has been doing Tapasya (meditation) since ages, going by the lean skeletal figure and the strange pose he is standing in.
There is a figure of a Goddess, who looks like one of the forms of Durga.
Although the Ravana Phadi is a Shiva temple, there is a figure of the Varaha avatar of Vishnu. Chalukyas encouraged worship of both Shiva and Vishnu. Varaha appears on their royal seal as well.
There are other celestial figures as well sculpted on the walls in intricate detail.
I have been a history aficionado since I was young. My mom being a history teacher, we have grown up loving our history books, discussing the Harappan civilization at home and discovering places of historical importance during our travels. Yet, before visiting Bhimbhetka, I never knew that we actually had rock paintings from the Stone Age, right here in the center of India!
The Bhimbhetka caves are located 45 km from Bhopal. They have been declared a World Heritage Site and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have done a really good job maintaining the caves in a good condition. There are guides available at the entrance and there are details of the site available near the main entrance.
Although there are around 700 rock shelters in this area, not all are open to the tourists. They are spread across a forest area. As you enter, you can see various interesting rock formations, that illustrate the magic of erosion over several thousand centuries.
The Auditorium rock shelter is one unique formation that the guides generally point out. This shelter was probably used in ancient times as a gathering area or auditorium, and hence the name.
At the end of the Auditorium shelters, there are unique cup marks. These marks are supposed to be dated nearly 10,000 years back!!
As you move through the path with your guide, you will come across several caves. These were used as shelters by the ancient man.
The paintings are seen in different colors: white and red being the most popular, followed by some yellow and green. The guide explained that they depict different periods in time. The white ones seem to be the oldest. On observing carefully, you can make out that the white ones look more primitive in their designs. The drawing patterns improve with the reds.
This particular pattern is pretty elaborate, showing the men carrying weapons and riding horses. There is one man (probably the chief) riding an ornately decorated horse. There seems to be some celebration with people playing drums around.
There are places where you can see a mix of paintings in various colors, done on top of each other. One of the most popular must-visit spot is the Zoo rock shelter.
The Zoo Rock Shelter supposedly contain the most number of animal paintings on one rock. The paintings here date back from the Mesolithic to the Medieval ages. You can see spotter deer, antelopes, elephant and other cattle in white.
The red paintings of the Zoo shelter show human forms with bows and arrows, and some other forms of weaponry probably.
There is an interesting patch of paintings which, very distinctly, show a stationary and a flying peacock, as well as a snake.
Another point of interest is the Mythical Boar. You will understand why it is termed as “mythical”, when you see its size in comparison with the humans drawn beside it. Since no remains of an animal of such proportions have ever been found, this painting is believed to be a work of fiction. Probably the first creative fiction story ever!
But the one painting that really left a mark on me, was of a human palm. Someone, who existed some thousands of years ago, left an imprint of his hand (left hand to be precise) behind, giving us a story to think of. For that person, it was probably a pastime, just scribbling away with paint. But in that ONE painting (I believe) ‘She’ literally left her mark behind.
“Bhimbhetka” or “Bhimbethika” : The Mahabharatha connection
The locals talk of the original name of this place being Bhim-Bethika, meaning the seat of Bhima (One of the Pandavas). There are forest areas, not very far away from Bhimbhetka, that are named “Lakhajur”. Locals tell stories that this was the place where the Lakshagrah was built for the Pandavas.
In the Mahabharatha, the Kauravas try to kill the Pandavas by building a palace for them made entirely of Lac (which is highly flammable) in the woods. When Kauravas think that the Pandavas are deeply in sleep inside the palace, they set it on fire. But the Pandavas are already aware of the Kauravas’ plan and escape.
The forest trail that takes you around the caves is narrow, pebbly and rugged. So be sure to wear good walking shoes.
The trail might not be comfortable for people with knee or leg pains.
Entry to the rock shelters is closed a little before sundown as there is no artificial lighting available. Plan your travel properly.
It is best to hire a car, if you are traveling from Bhopal.
If you can make a one-day trip from Bhopal, you can cover Bhimbhetka and Bhojpur. Bhojpur is famous for its Shiva temple and connection to the Pandavas.
Hampi is surely not just another tourist destination! It is a unique experience you will remember and cherish all your life. The simplicity of the locals, the vastness of the region, the luscious paddy fields, the beauty of the mandapa-lines boulder hills, it all enthralls a traveler. Hampi provides something for any and every kind of traveler.
1) Ancient Cave Paintings from the Iron Age: Not many people know about this place. Finding the place is equally difficult if you do not know what to explain to the local guides or autowallahs. The surprising fact is that there is no ASI board guiding you to this place or even an ASI board at the entrance of the caves. You can never ever find this place on your own. People just know of this place from word of mouth. The caves are literally right in the middle of nowhere. The auto driver led us through some village, stopped somewhere with no signs of any human.. just lush paddy fields on both sides bordered with the boulder terrain. He led us through the paddy fields, into the boulders and then after some 10 mins of zigzagging through shrubs and thorns, we reached the caves.
The cave paintings supposedly belong to the Iron Age, approx 1500 BC.
Tip: From Hampi, catch a ferry near Virupaksha Temple to reach Anegundi. Cross the Tungabhadra on the ferry, get down and walk to the auto-stand (around 1 km from the ferry stop), negotiate the places you would like to see in Anegundi and the rate for the auto. The auto driver also doubles up as a local guide. If driver is not willing to guide, please do not go with him. There is no other way to get insights of the local places but from the auto driver. So make sure he is a good guide.
If you plan to travel using your own car, it might take approx an hour just to cross the Tungabhadra as the new bridge is located pretty far away. It is best to park your car in the Hampi main parking lot and then take the ferry to Anegundi.
2) Megalithic Tombs (Dolmen): There are a large number of burial mounds from the Neolithic period on the Anegundi side. The mounds can be found on a hill called Mourya Mane (Sounds really Lord of Rings-ish!), which is around 10 kms from Anegundi. We did not have much time on hand to visit this place but were luck to spot a stand-alone burial site on our drive from Hampi to Badami, at a place near Pattadakkal. It was such an exciting find for us! There was an ASI board but it did not describe the site. A local villager was a care-taker for the mound but she did not understand English.
Tip: Although 10 kms distance from Anegundi might not seem too much, but there is a 2-3 km stretch which you need to traverse on foot. That’s why the locals recommend to spare a full day to see the mounds of Mourya Mane.
3)Unique terrain: The first thing you spot when you enter Hampi is the boulder terrain. It seemed to me as if it was a giant’s playing area, where he had just stacked rocks on top of one another to create these hills! And even though the terrain seems so harsh, with just shrubs and thorn growing on the rocks, you fined the roads lined with banana plantations and paddy fields.
4) Coracle boat ride on the Tungabhadra: This was one of the most amazing parts of my Hampi travel. It’s a must-do, if you are not scared of water. It is one of very few places you can actually take a coracle ride today, though it was the most popular ways of travel in earlier days.
Tip: To get the best views on your coracle ride, take it from near the Monolith Bull. There is a path near the Monolith Bull that leads to a picturesque path through the boulders and to the banks of the Tungabhadra. For a 45 min ride, they charge Rs 300. The rides stop at 6 pm. Be sure to mention that you want to see the Kotilinga Shiva. (Koti means Crore and Linga means the form symbolizing Shiva) For this, you have to get down on the rocks during the ride. It is pretty safe and the rower will guide you on how to balance on the coracle while climbing out. The only thing is, you need to traverse quite a few big boulders to get to the Kotilinga Shiva.
5) Sunsets: Hampi gives you an opportunity to witness the sunset with so many different backdrops, that you would want to stay back just to enjoy the sunsets!
Tip: Although most popular place amongst foreign tourists is Matanga hill, but it takes around 30 mins to climb up. While descending from the hill there are no lights on the path. So you should carry a torch with you. Also try to begin your descent as soon as the sun sets. I found Hemakuta hill sunsets very beautiful, as the sun sets on the backdrop of a hill full of architectural beauty.
Another place I liked was the Malyavanta hill. It gave a beautiful backdrop of the green paddy fields and banana plantations laced along the unusual terrain of boulder hills.
6) Explore India’s rich history: Hampi was flourishing during Krishnadevaraya’s empire. The several excavated bazaars that have been excavated by the ASI, stand testimony to the fact that there was a lot of trade happening right here. There were markets where people used buy and sell precious items like spices, gold, gemstones etc. There were separate bazaars, some even 1 km in length, for trade of each type of item. There was even a horse bazaar!
The mandapas were used as resting places by the traders travelling to these bazaars, and also by pilgrims who traveled to the Virupaksha or Vitthala temples. Some of the temples were even built by the traders who profited due to trade from Hampi.
Tip: The main bazaar of Hampi lies in front of Virupaksha Temple. Till a few years earlier locals were using these as their homes or shops. ASI recently cleared them to maintain the original integrity if the bazaar structure. You can see another huge elaborate market in front of the Krishna Temple. There is another 1-km long market in front of the Vitthala temple as well.
7) Architectural splendor: There is so much to admire that you need at least 3 days to a week to appreciate the architecture and study each structure in detail.
Lotus Mahal: It was built as a summer palace for the queens. The palace has hollow walls, into which the maids used to pour water to keep the palace interiors cool. There were 4 watch-towers surrounding the palace to keep the queens safe, when the king was out hunting or on wars. The palace is unique in another way as it shows three different styles of architecture in layers: Jain, Hindu and Muslim.
Stepwell (Pushkarani): The huge stepwell is exquisite with its geometric pattern structure.
Aqueducts: The stepwell used to receive water through a channel of aqueducts built by the co-founder of Hampi, Bukka. The series of structures, albeit smaller, resemble the Roman aqueducts.
Pinhole camera: Krishnadevaraya was supposed to be a man religion and science alike. You can find evidence in the construction of the Virupaksha temple gate. The temple gate has been built at a such a distance, that inside the temple there is a point where you can see the inverted shadow of the gate! We basically have a pin-hole camera here.
Secret chamber: There is an underground section in the Royal Enclosure, where the walls are made of black stone. This is where the king is supposed to have had secret meetings with his spies. No one could see each others’s face and there is no place to hang lanterns or lights as well. Even today (although the ceiling has given way), if you want to traverse out of the chamber, you have to use your left hand to guide you out. You can easily get lost and end up where you started.
Musical pillars of the Vitthala temple: The Vitthala temple was built for Krishnadevaraya’s younger queen who loved to dance. The pillars were built in such a way that when they were struck, they produced various musical notes. The musicians used to sit and play on the pillars and the queen used to dance. Tourists and not allowed to enter the temple any more, nor touch the pillars, to prevent further damage.
Where has the King’s palace gone? When you reach the Royal Enclosure, you will find the base of the palace carved in stone but no walls. The reason you can’t see any palaces is because they were made of sandalwood (to make living in such harsh temperatures bearable). Sandalwood provided cool interiors even during sweltering afternoon heat. But during Muslim invasions, the palace was burnt down, leaving only the stone base we see today.
8)Plethora of temples: Shiva was worshiped in Hampi before Hakka and Bukka setup their empire. Since they were sergeants of the Hoysala empire, they brought with them the practice of worshiping Vishnu as well. Virupaksha temple is a Shiva temple, whereas Vitthala is a Vishnu temple. You will also find Jain temples. These existed since long back before Hakka and Bukka arrived.
Interesting Fact: Out of the total 80+ temples in Hampi, only 3 temples are used for worship today. The other temples were either partially destroyed or the idols were broken by the Muslim invaders. As per Hinduism, a broken idol cannot be worshiped.
9) Embrace Indian Mythology: Hampi and Anegundi are supposed to fall in the Kishkindha region of Ramayana, the place where Hanumana was born. In Anegundi you will find mountains named after Hanuman (Anjaneya Hill – where he was born), Sugreeva Hill and Vali Hill.
A temple near Pampa Sarovar is supposed to be the place where Shabari lived. Shabari was an old lady who prayed to meet with Lord Rama in her lifetime. Rama, during his quest to find Sita, met her some 60 kms from this place. Shabari fed him wild berries, but to make sure that she only gave him the sweet one, she first took a bite from each berry and the offered to Rama.
Chintamani temple: As per locals, the famous duel between Vali and Sugreeva took place here.
Tip: From Sugreeva hill you can see the old bridge that was supposedly used centuries ago for crossing the Tungabhadra. The bridge is not functional now and lies on the river floor as a pile of boulders.
10) Long-stay destination for foreign tourists: It is the only place in India where I have not seen Indian tourists. Most Indians I saw were locals from around Hampi who were visiting the Vitthala or Virupaksha temple to offer prayers. There were hardly any Indian tourists apart from the two of us.
Tip: For long-stay, Anegundi side of Tungabhadra provides more options.
11) Stay in an Indian village, very comfortably and with more than basic amenities.
Tip: Stay on the other side of Tungabhadra, in the village of Anegundi. Every evening each local village guest house screens a different popular Hollywood movie, using a VCR and a projector.
12) Amazing locals: Most people here know Hindi and are fully conversant in English, owing to the large number of foreign tourists who come and stay for weeks here. The kids too are comfortable speaking in English. The locals the value of tourists for their village and treat them with a lot of love.
13) Mix of International and Local cuisine: I was a bit disappointed as I did not get to try many local food options in the village restaurants. This was obviously because of the dearth of Indian tourists. In Anegundi, I got to try some good local cuisine, and a special local paratha. When I heard paratha, I felt it would be a Malabar Paratha or Lachcha Paratha, which is found in Southern India. But this was something similar to what North Indians call a Kachori (Similar to Stuffed Pooris but crispier)!
For international tourists, there is no issue of food. You find the restaurants stocked up with Nutella, Baked Bean cans.. and the menu features pancakes, English egg dishes and even desserts like Banofee Pie! In Anegundi you can actually find separate Israeli restaurants, because of the huge number of Israeli tourists!
14) Rock Climbing: For the adventure-seekers, Anegundi provides rock-climbing options. Well the area is full of boulders, go figure!
Stay: You can choose to stay at one of the village guest houses, either in Hampi or Anegundi. If you have your own vehicle and want to stay in a hotel, then the nearest hotels are in Hospet city (12 kms from Hampi). Hotel Hampi International is a good hotel.
Sight-seeing: If you have your own vehicle, just hire a guide in Hampi. Else you can hire an auto rickshaw on a full or half-day basis. There are cycle tours conducted every day from the Virupaksha temple entrance. For Anegundi, it is best to cross the Tungabhadra on a ferry and then hire a full-day auto-rickshaw. The rickshaw driver doubles up as a guide. Coracle tour is a must.
Food: Mango Tree restaurant is the most popular restaurant in Hampi. Most restaurants here have lower seating option only, but Mango Tree also has a few tables and chairs. The cold coffee and the Banofee Pie at Mango Tree were amazing.
Others: Carry a scarf or hat, as it can get really hot and sunny during the day. Try to start early in the day and take a break between 1 and 4 pm. That is when the sun is the harshest. Stay hydrated at all times.