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Bhimbetka art

There is something feminine and tangible in the cupmarks and cupules, a touching of nature. As Paul Bahn reminds us Humans have dimensions beyond the Unitarian. In my own mind I was reminded of the act of giving birth, Christian substantiation and the ancestral spirits into features of the landscape.

Bhimbetka is the seat of Bhima and in prehistoric India it was believed the goddess appeared in the rock.  Later it was taught the gods descended to merge within temple images transforming them into a throne or seat.

The Neolithic spirals, zigzag, meanders and  symbols of  water, water birds, water snake, are engraved in sinuous curved lines at Bhimbetka remind me of the lunar symbols of Newgrange, Ireland and the Australian Aboriginal love of the land. Circles remind us of the cycles of life binds us, like the tight stiches of a woman’s basket and the ties of family of life transformed in death. Not the masculine linearity of birth to battlefield.

I was reminded of South Australia’s Nullabor plain where Pleides  seven sisters of the Pleides tell of the  seven hills,  feminine nets,  cords and knots, honey bees and honeycomb.

No wonder, Marija Gimbutas  could describe prehistoric female sculpture unified all ‘natural things, as a metaphor for earth’s power’ found in peaceful women centred society, not just fertility and motherhood.  Neolithic farming, grew sheep for wool with no evidence of violence.

However, the horse-riding Aryan invasions of Europe and Asia bought patriarchal hierarchy, with linear motifs  of masculine  dots, branches and dashes. They also brought violent pastoralist land control. Communal ownership was replaced by class society, women became the property of men and goddesses were relegated to being wives and concubines of male gods and warriors.

Discovered by VS Wakanker of Wikram University Ujjain in 1957,and  45 kilometres from my Bhopal home still abounding in life, Nestled in hinterlands of rock and forests of Teak and Tendu, Bhimbetka  edges the Vindhyan ranges. Here Tribals harvest from 30 varieties fruits, flower seeds, tubers along with deer, boar, sloth, antelope, leopard, jackal, scaly anteater and birds.

More recently, Foucault (1976: 165) describes a 17th century shift from “make live and let die” to “let live and make die.”  Baconian science sought to not just observe life, but redisign a race of supermen. Now increasingly aided by GM technology as modern Biopolitics exploits life  the distinction between nature and culture is increasingly blurred (Michael Hardt, labour of Dionysius).


As Fish shadows dart up stream as we hike a nearby creek, I remember Shiva Verdana suggest should relearn the lessons from these Invisible Women of Prehistory.

Shiva  suggests maternal peaceful creativity still inhabits the  Indian mind. Certainly, Dilip Chakrabarti, who  discovered  the  6000BP Mehrgarh site surpassed by the racially “superior” Aryan invaders focused on by Europeans,  concurred the “mother earth goddess” importance in the Indian psyche.

Called Mahadevi, Parvati, the mountaineer, Kali, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, the fierce goddess , she is still seen the female of the supreme lord – called Prakriti, she  balancies out the male aspect or Parusha. A feminine motivating force behind all existence.

For Vardana Shiva Terra Mater, the great protective earth mother,  is an ecological inspiration. The feminine principle of Indian Cosmology sustains all life and is inseparable from diversity and sharing.  male and female as “a duality in unity ” . The life negating masculinized production of consumer goods and capital accumulation has separated us from nature and marginalized women, as providers of natural sustenance.

So often depicted as feminine, sustenance is naturally built in our forests and fields and the rhythms of life  This transgender feminine principle is for Shiva a the key to liberation, and transformation.

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Reflecting on the a single line  meander and spirals found in these Indian caves painted long before commerce shuffled corporate responsibility onto others behind carbon credits and emission trading schemes, I wonder if the snake like energy found in ancient France, or the V- shape vulva cut in Carnarvon gorge, Queensland, remind us that ‘HIS’- story is as much ‘HER –story.

To assume this art reveals three million years of peace followed by six millennia of war (as suggested by Judy Foster[1]) may as much reveal that the art of history is as much a creative mediation  than a science.

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Perhaps we can ask to see redress the balance and if we are to retell the story lets chose one that helps us rather than destroys us.

It perhaps suits us to believe “that primitive man  “drew like that” because they “could not” represent natural effects as we represent them. Afterall, it took the the Florentines to workout the artisitic science of perspective.

This misses the point of symbols, myths and beauty.

“The myth is a whole, of which the wonders are as much an integral part as are the supposed facts; overlooking that all these marvels have a strict significance altogether independent of their possibility or impossibility as historical events” wrote Coomaraswamy.

Platonically, Beauty is what we have forgotten or as Coomaraswamy  (2004:104) summarizes “beauty is not merely to the senses, but through the senses to the intellect: here “Beauty has to do with cognition”; and what is to be known and understood is an “immaterial idea” (Hermes), a “picture that is not in the colours” (Lankavatara Sutra), “the doctrine that conceals itself behind the veil of the strange verses” (Dante), “the archetype of the image, and not the image itself “ (St. Basil). “It is by their ideas that we judge of what things ought to be like” (St. Augustine).”

I know I find Bhimbetka very beautiful. Perhaps, denatured by civilization, we over analyse beauty to its demise asleep to a world of universal archetypes. Especially since the axial shift in philosophic thought from around 600 BCE onward.

“The need of symbols, and of symbolic rites, arises only when man is expelled from the Garden of Eden; as means, by which a man can be reminded at later stages of his descent from the intellectual and contemplative to the physical and practical levels of reference. We assuredly have “forgotten” far more than those who first had need of symbols, and far more than they need to infer the immortal by its mortal analogies; and nothing could be greater proof of this than our own claims to be superior to all ritual operations, and to be able to approach the truth directly. It was as signposts of the Way, or as a trace of the Hidden Light, pursued by hunters of a supersensual quarry, that the motifs of traditional art, which have become our“ornaments”, were originally employed”.

Coomaraswamy (Interpretation of Symbols) point is that the artists of the past were not inferior craftsmen.

“The primitive “drew like that” because he imagined like that, and like all artists, wished to draw as he imagined; he did not in our sense “observe,” because he had not in view the statement of singular facts; he “imitated” nature, not in her effects, but in her manner of operation.”

Bhimbetka res (43)

To expect realism in a symbol is like expecting a mathematical equation to look like the object it represents.

 Whether this view is a “a poetical conceit, or a dream… this fancy of mine …. This chimera” (to misquote Galileo) for me at least, Bhimbetka suggests a holistic view of nature that transcends but includes nature inspired ecology Verdana Shiva proposes. Even if symbols are a product of electrochemical explosions in our brain, their infinite possibilities coalesce in many universal themes where macrocosm meets micro and where, to me at least, to enjoy a poetic and friendly universe. “The two worlds, of spirit and matter, Purusha and Prakriti, are one” proclaims Hinduism  (Coomarsamy, The Dance of Shiva) in a universe where Ayurveda and TCM are useful guideposts to direct more rigid logical analysis.

Bhimbetka asks of me who am I at my core, stripped of civilization, Western or Indian, what is left, what is the essential archetypal me left when the stories of culture, family and personal trauma are stripped, what is left of me?

It is a question that returns to me whenever I experience Madhya Pradesh Tribal peoples .

What is it that I have forgotten so that I need the symbols of religion, politics and prosperity in the first place?  What is the wonder in life?

[1] Judy Foster Invisible women of Pehistory – Three million years of peace, six thousand years of war