In the heart of Incredible India: Time travel to cave art, and a haunting fort in a green valley

In the concluding part of a two-part series featuring a three-day exploration in Madhya Pradesh, the US-based travel writer finds paintings that go back to pre-history, and a fort that brings memories of the Game of Thrones.

It is not for nothing that they call Madhya Pradesh the Heart of India. The allusion may be more than geographical because the state contains passages not just in space but also in time.  If the stupas of Sanchi took me back a couple of thousand years and Ujjain to unspecified times that inhabit mythology, different slices of time awaited me at Bhimbetka and Mandu.


This was hands down my favourite part of the entire trip. Imagine stumbling across the earliest traces of human life in the middle of a dense forest untouched by modern humans, barely a few kilometres from civilisation!


The sprawling rock shelters of Bhimbetka date back to the Palaeolithic era and are perhaps best described as a natural art gallery created by the ancient man.

This is the Stone Age and can be measured at least 10,000 years back from now, and then a couple of million years!

The caves of Bhimbetka lie hidden behind lush vegetation, and display paintings in vivid detail created by prehistoric humans that have survived time and nature. Walking through the rock shelters that are spread over 15 square km of forest, is the closest we can come to retracing the footsteps of our ancestors in their natural habitat, unchanged and untouched by time.  

Painted mainly in red and white, with the occasional use of green and yellow, the illustrations depict everyday events of the stone-age man — hunting, dancing, horse and elephant riders, animal fights, a different type of animals etc. These paintings provide a glimpse into the social life of the Stone Age man who probably lived in these caves. 


Animals such as bison, tiger, wild boar, elephants, monkeys, antelopes, and peacocks frequently make an appearance in these paintings, perhaps reflecting the importance of these animals in the lives of these humans. Our guide explained that the colours used by the cave dwellers were prepared by combining manganese, hematite, soft red stone and wooden charcoal. Perhaps animal fat and extracts of leaves were also used in the mixture. Whatever the ingredients, these paintings have survived a long, long time. The guide jokingly pointed out that archaeologists used regular chalk to mark/number these paintings on the rock face and those have washed or faded away within months, while these ancient paintings have survived thousands of years!

Why is it called Bhimbetka? Legend has it that Pandava Prince Bhim from the epic Mahabharata used these caves as his resting place while in exile. The original name is supposed to be Bhim Baithika – the resting place of Bhim. 

Interestingly, Bhimbetka was only discovered in 1956, and quite by accident. Archaeologist Dr V. S. Wakankar was travelling by train from Bhopal to Itarasi and through the window spotted a range of mountains. He was so intrigued by them that he got off at the next station and walked back to the place. The first cave he walked into had paintings on them! 


Another interesting trivia from the guide is about the tribals who live in the forests around Bhimbetka. These tribes have known about the caves and the paintings for many generations. However, they have always considered these to be supernatural and were terrified to go anywhere near it! 

You can spend hours walking through the jungle exploring artefacts that go back 500,000 years (or more). It is truly astonishing that an archaeological and anthropological treasure such as this has survived so long!

Cave painting.
Cave painting


I had never heard of Mandu before this trip and my only knowledge came from a quick Google search the night before we were to visit this fort town. It was the last stop on our short weekend trip.  We were spending the night in Indore, the nearest big city and planned to spend a few hours the next morning in Mandu before I would head to the airport in Indore and my parents would return to Bhopal. I was prepared to look at some ruins, get some lunch and be on my way. I was not prepared to be mesmerised by the haunting ruins of a once glorious fort city perched high on the Vindhya ranges. 

Glimpses of rural MP on the way to Mandu.
Glimpses of rural MP on the way to Mandu.

There are literally no signs to Mandu, or Mandavgadh as it’s otherwise known, on the highway from Indore. Luckily, Google maps came to the rescue. Our driver Jitu was convinced that Google was leading us astray, as the fastest route was taking us through tiny villages and narrow roads often blocked by herds of goats. But eventually the walls of the fort high up on the hills came into view, and the surprisingly good roads winding its way up the top provided stunning panoramic views of the surrounding lush green Narmada valley.

As we entered the town of Mandu through the various gates of the fortress that once protected the kingdom from invaders, the time came to a standstill. As we arrived at the heart of Mandu, we realised that the three paltry hours we had allocated to the visit was simply not going to be enough. Mandu has littered with World Heritage listed palaces, tombs, monuments and mosques. It has some serious Game of Thrones level of intrigue and history attached to it.

Mandu was first founded as a fortress retreat in the 10th century by Raja Bhoj and conquered by the Muslim rulers of Delhi in 1304. When the Mughals captured Delhi in 1401, the Afghan governor of Malwa Kingdom, Dilawar Khan, set up his own little kingdom here and that was the beginning of Mandu’s golden age. His son Hoshang Shah shifted the capital of the Malwa kingdom from Dhar to Mandu and further raised its prominence.  Hoshang Shah’s son Mohammad ruled for just about a year before he was poisoned by his General, Mohammed Khilji, who went on to rule for 33 years. It is the story of Mohammad Khilji’s son Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji that I found most interesting. Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji earned the title of being a ‘pleasure seeking sultan’ over the next 31 years, thanks in no small part to his devotion to women and music, though not wine! 

Jahaz Mahal
Jahaz Mahal

He built a "pleasure palace" (harem, actually) on a narrow strip of land between two water tanks, with an upper terrace that’s supposed to resemble a ship’s bridge, giving it the name Jahaz Mahal. Since we had such limited time, we decided to visit only Jahaz Mahal, since it’s supposed to be one of the finest examples of Afghan architecture in India. And it is indeed breathtaking. Our man Ghiyas-ud-Din housed around 15,000 women in this palace. How he got through them in his lifetime I have no idea! Though, the other interesting piece of trivia I learnt is that he lived to the ripe old age of 80 and even then the only reason he finally met his maker is because his son poisoned him! (See what I mean by the Game of Thrones reference!)

Jahaz Mahal with its high lookouts, scalloped arches, airy rooms and beautiful pleasure pools is truly fascinating. You can actually visualise the women of the zenana frolicking about the hallways and the bathing areas, as you walk through the buildings. 

There is much more to see in Mandu. It is also the site of a poignant historical romance. About 100 years after Ghiyas-ud-Din Khilji and many different rulers in between, Baz Bahadur emerged as the ruler of Mandu, and ultimately the last Sultan of the Malwa dynasty. He is known less for his abilities as a ruler and more for his love affair with Roopmati, a beautiful singer he fell in love with and made his Queen. He was apparently so devoted to Roopmati and lost in his love for her that he neglected his kingdom and eventually weakened his army, providing the Mughal Emperor Akbar with the opportunity to invade Mandu. Baz Bahadur fled Mandu once he realised he could not take on Akbar’s massive army and abandoned his beloved Roopmati, who then committed suicide, preferring death, over capture.  

One of the Pleasure pools of the Sultan and his ladies
One of the Pleasure pools of the Sultan and his ladies.

Baz Bahadur's palace, Rani Roopmati’s pavilion overlooking the Narmada river, and many other historical monuments dot the ruins of Mandu. I spotted tourists cycling around leisurely taking in the beauty of this quiet little town. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to go back and walk through the pages of history that have many untold stories preserved high up in these mountains. 

In the heart of India, time stands still — and yet you need more of it to enjoy its inner golds.