Secreted in a forest of teak and sal in craggy cliffs 46km south of Bhopal are more than 700 rock shelters. Around 500 of them contain some of the world’s oldest prehistoric paintings.
Thanks to their natural red and white pigments, the colours are remarkably well preserved and, in certain caves, paintings of different eras adorn the same rock surface. A gamut of figures and scenes dance across the rocks: gaurs (Indian bison), rhinoceroses, bears and tigers share space with scenes of hunting, initiation ceremonies, childbirth, communal dancing, drinking, religious rites and burials.
The oldest paintings (Upper Palaeolithic) in red, often of huge animals, are thought to be 12,000 years old. Successive periods depict hunting tools, trade with the agricultural communities on the Malwa plains, and religious scenes involving tree gods. The latest are crude geometric figures probably dating from the medieval period, when much of the artistry was lost.
The rock shelters are easy to find. The 15 most accessible are numbered, signposted and linked by a concrete path. Zoo Rock Shelter (Shelter 4), famous for its variety of animal paintings, is one of the first you come to; Shelter 15 features a magnificent red bison attacking a helpless stick figure. There are no facilities here, so bring water.
Highway Treat Bhimbetka, with a pleasant restaurant-cafe (mains ₹60 to ₹170; open 8am to 10pm), a children’s playground and three comfortable AC rooms, is by the Bhimbetka turn-off, 3km from the rock shelters. The ticket office is halfway up the road to the rocks from here.
Ask your bus driver to drop you at the turn-off for Bhimbetka, about 6.5km beyond Obaidullaganj. It’s a 45-minute, 3km walk from here. Alternatively, take an autorickshaw from Obaidullaganj.
On the return journey, flag down anything that moves (buses often won’t stop for you) and go as far as Obaidullaganj (₹5), where you’ll find buses to Bhopal (₹34) via the Bhojpur turn-off (₹20).