Massive stone structures dotted across the subcontinent provide a fascinating glimpse into India’s prehistoric past

Exploring India’s megalithic culture, a riddle set in stone

What is the most strikingly common feature of prehistoric cultures, from the icy fjords of Norway to the tropical plains of Tamil Nadu?
All of them, seemingly independently, struck upon the idea of erecting massive stone structures during the same era in history. These monuments—yes, these are the earliest surviving man-made monuments we know of—are called megaliths, derived from the Latin mega (large) and lith (stone).
Megaliths were constructed either as burial sites or commemorative (non-sepulchral) memorials. The former are sites with actual burial remains, such as dolmenoid cists (box-shaped stone burial chambers), cairn circles (stone circles with defined peripheries) and capstones (distinctive mushroom-shaped burial chambers found mainly in Kerala). The urn or the sarcophagus containing the mortal remains was usually made of terracotta. Non-sepulchral megaliths include memorial sites such as menhirs . (The line separating the two is a bit blurry, since remains have been discovered underneath otherwise non-sepulchral sites, and vice versa.)
Taken together, these monuments lend these disparate peoples the common traits of what we know as megalithic culture, one which lasted from the Neolithic Stone Age to the early Historical Period (2500 BC to AD 200) across the world. In India, archaeologists trace the majority of the megaliths to the Iron Age (1500 BC to 500 BC), though some sites precede the Iron Age, extending up to 2000 BC.
For a while, scientific consensus was in favour of the theory that ideas emanated from a single cultural centre and were transported across the world by migrating populations—trans-cultural diffusion. Radical diffusionists went a step further, denying the possibility of parallel evolution of ideas completely, and asserting that all cultures and inventions can be tracked down to a single culture.
Modern research, however, increasingly disputes this view, with a tilt in favour of independent origin of ideas and inventions. “Constructing a menhir is one of the simplest things man could have done. However, the similarities are indeed startling in the case of the more complex dolmens. The question of why they appear almost coincidentally has not yet been settled satisfactorily, though scientists now postulate that since our brains are constructed in the same way, different peoples came to construct the same monuments independently,” says Srikumar Menon, professor of architecture, Manipal University.
Southern man
Megaliths are spread across the Indian subcontinent, though the bulk of them are found in peninsular India, concentrated in the states of Maharashtra (mainly in Vidarbha), Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
According to archaeologists R.K. Mohanty and V. Selvakumar, around 2,200 megalithic sites can be found in peninsular India itself, most of them unexcavated. Even today, a living megalithic culture endures among some tribes such as the Gonds of central India and the Khasis of Meghalaya.
But who were the megalithic people really? What were their religious beliefs? How was their society organized? And where do they fit into the historical narrative of the Indian subcontinent?
The history of prehistoric India is one of epic migrations. From genome data, we know there were waves of migration from 70000 BC to 40000 BC. Consequently, there are four linguistic groups in India: Austro-Asiatic (the oldest), Tibeto-Burman, Dravidian and Indo-Aryan (the most recent).
According to Mayank Vahia, a scientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who has studied the genetic history of the subcontinent, there was no significant migration into India between 40000 BC and 2000 BC, when Sanskrit-speaking Indo-Europeans first made their presence felt. As megalithic societies were preliterate, the racial or ethnic origins of the megalithic people are thus difficult to pin down.
The discovery of a stone axe with what seemed to be inscriptions in the Harappan script from a burial chamber in Tamil Nadu did bring up the tantalizing possibility of cultural contact between Harappans and the megalithic people.
Iravatham Mahadevan, renowned epigraphist and vocal proponent of the Dravidian origins of Harappan civilization, had declared, “This confirms that the Neolithic people of Tamil Nadu shared the same language family as the Harappan group, which can only be Dravidian. The discovery provides the first evidence that the Neolithic people of the Tamil country spoke a Dravidian language.”
However, Ravi Korisettar, retired professor of archaeology at Karnatak University, says these claims have been summarily dismissed by a committee of archaeologists. “These were accidental scratch marks which resembled the Indus script,” he says.
Korisettar has conducted extensive research on the mortuary practices, belief systems and political economy of megalithic peoples. He says megalithism can be given credit for the rise of the political economy typical to settled communities. “Megaliths were not built for commoners. They signify the emergence of a ruling class or elite who presided over a surplus economy,” he says.
Based on archaeobotanical research, Mukund Kajale of University College London posited that megalithic people carried out agricultural activity in both the rabi and kharif seasons. A large variety of grains such as rice, wheat, kodo millet, barley lentil, black gram, horse gram, common pea, pigeon pea and Indian jujube have been recovered from habitations, showing that the subcontinent has displayed remarkable gastronomic continuity over three millennia.
But what about continuity in belief systems?
Korisettar says that the very idea of burying the dead along with burial goods indicates strong belief in life after death and possibly rebirth among megalithic people. “In some instances, we have seen teeth being cut off from the body and buried with the remains for use in the next life,” he says.
The respect accorded to the buried individual ensured that the grave and the goods contained within were not subjected to vandalism and theft. Paddy husk has been found in burial sites, further proof of the megalithic peoples’ commitment towards ensuring their dead a comfortable afterlife. They also believed in some idea of a soul.
“Sangam literature has a few mentions of the soul reaching the upper world out of three worlds,” says Selvakumar, who has excavated several megalithic sites and studied references to megalithic culture in Tamil Sangam literature.
Their belief in the three worlds can be deduced from a peculiar object recovered from an excavation: a tripod made by three copper rods arranged conically on a circular base. On all three rods, the figures of deer, bird and fish were fixed on the base, middle and on the conical top, respectively, representing the deer on the ground, the bird in the air and the fish in water.
“This item must have had some religious and ideological connotation of life or death as accepted by the megalithic people. According to Mohanty, findings of such item from burial may have significance on their belief system of the dead travelling through three different worlds,” notes Dilip Chakrabarti, emeritus professor of South Asian archaeology at Cambridge University, in the third volume of his History of Ancient India.
The living megalithic culture in India provides strong hints regarding the belief systems of prehistoric megalithic people. “The Gond people believe in life after death, they believe that every human being has two souls: the life spirit and the shadow. The life spirit goes to bada devta but the shadow still stays in the village after the erection of stone memorial. Gond people believe that the first and foremost duty of the shadow spirit is to watch over the moral behavior of the people and punish those who go against the tribal law,” notes a paper by S. Mendaly on the living megalithic culture of the Gonds of Nuaparha in Odisha.
Interestingly, the popular Indian belief in the evil eye—buri nazar in Hindi—may be a legacy of the megalithic age. Banded agate beads with eye patterns have been recovered from megalithic sites. These were generally used by them as protection against evil spirits, a belief that survives to this day in India in the form of nazar battus such as amulets or strings of limes and chillies.
Building megaliths
Understandably, the construction of megaliths was a massive endeavour, requiring the active involvement of the community. “Experiment on reconstruction of a burial from Vidarbha suggests that 70 to 80 individuals were required to construct a burial having 13.5m diameter with a deposit of 80 to 85 cm in two and half to three days without any leisure… Participation in construction by the community members could be social norm without labour charge. If not by any labour charge, a feast was probably prepared to honour the labour force provided by community members. Animals were probably scarified and a feast was prepared beside various other food items,” writes Chakrabarti.
To back this theory, just the non-consumable parts of a horse—i.e., skull and hoof bones—have been recovered from excavated burials in Vidarbha, dating back to 700-800 BC, indicating the rest was consumed in a feast. “In ethnographic parallels, sacrificing buffalo among Hill Soras of Odisha and Mithun (bos frontalis) among tribes in Arunachal Pradesh for preparation of feast in death ritual is a still prevalent custom,” notes Chakrabarti.
The paper by Mendaly on the megalithic practices of Gonds says, “They invite their relatives and friends from other villages and other castes, and erect the memorial stone in a burial complex or matha. After that a sheep or goat is be slaughtered in honour of the deceased, and its meat eaten at the feast, but before that they offer this meat to their village deity and their ancestors. They believe that the animals killed in this occasion are supposed to become the property of the deceased in the spirit world and there is the belief that if this ceremony is not organized then they face serious problems throughout the year.”
The huge slabs required for constructing the dolmens were cut from the rock using the primitive mining technique of fire-setting, according to Korisettar. The rock is heated to the desired level and cooled rapidly by dousing it with water. The sudden change in temperature causes the rock to break off. This was a common method in prehistoric times and even in the recent past, before the advent of dynamite.
Historical continuity
But where do these people fit into the historical narrative of India? According to Korisettar, the collapse of trade gave rise to a change in the urban character of the Harappan civilization. The Harappans then diffused eastwards and came into contact with the early agricultural settlements in the Gangetic plain and moved southwards, and gradually reverted to a more primitive way of life. This is indicated by the smaller, but greater number of settlements found after 1800 BC, compared to earlier sites.
“They again gradually developed themselves into prosperous agricultural communities and began to develop into complex societies. Megalithism indicates the developments of a second urbanization, a chieftain society or chiefdoms, as reflected in monumental architecture as well as other aspects: surplus being generated, multiple crops including cash crops and horticultural crops, mineral, stones. Essentially, the emergence of Megalithic period marks the beginning of second urbanization in various parts of India beyond what was covered by Indus Valley Civilization,” says Korisettar.
While their association with the Iron Age breaks down in the case of some older megaliths dating to 2000 BC, megaliths in peninsular India are more strongly associated with a characteristic wheel-made pottery type known as Black and Red Ware, which is found across sites.
BRW culture was contemporaneous with the Painted Grey Ware culture present in the Ganga valley (1300-600 BC), a proto-urban culture associated with Hastinapur of the Mahabharata by noted archaeologist B.B. Lal. Painted Grey Ware was contemporaneous with and succeeded by the Northern Black Polished Ware culture associated with the Mahajanapada period (600-300 BC), a more developed urban society stretching from Bengal to Peshawar. The Mahajanapadas consisted of the sixteen city republics of Magadha, Chedi, Gandhara and other familiar names from the Mahabharata.
Clearly, while the Kauravas and the Pandavas were battling it out in the plains of Kurukshetra, megalithic people in peninsular India were building monumental burial structures for prominent people in their community. But while no material remains of the fantastical palaces described in the Mahabharata are to be found, these unfussy megaliths have managed to weather 3,000 years of tumultuous history.
Material remains
In concordance with their belief in life after death, the megalithic people were in the habit of interring burial goods along with mortal remains. These can be broadly categorized as “ceramic, iron and copper artefacts, beads of various raw materials, gold & silver ornaments, terracotta objects, objects of art and miscellaneous objects”, according to Chakrabarti.
The range of iron artefacts recovered indicate that the megalithic people practised a wide range of occupations and included carpenters, cobblers, bamboo craftsmen, lapidaries engaged in gemstone work, blacksmiths, coppersmiths and goldsmiths, proof of complex social organization. Beads made of various semi-precious stones and steatite have also been found. Bronze figurines of animals like buffaloes, goats, tigers, elephants and antelopes have been recovered from inside urn burials at the site of Adichanallur in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu.
Significantly, Roman coins have been found in some megalithic burials in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. “Finding of coins from megalithic burial has chronological significance of their [megalithic people’s] continuation till the early historic period and interaction of trade,” notes Chakrabarti.
In fact, megalithic culture finds several references in ancient Tamil Sangam literature. For instance, menhirs are referred to as nadukal. Ancient Sangam texts lay out, in detail, a step-by-step procedure for laying a memorial stone or nadukal in honour of a fallen hero. According to an article by E. Iniyan, former guest lecturer at the University of Madras, in the International Journal of Social Science and Humanity, this procedure later evolved into the rituals for the consecration of idols in Hindu temples, as described in the Tamil Agamas, a collection of sect-specific scriptures.
Manimekalai (5th century AD), the famous Buddhist epic, refers to the various kinds of burials namely cremation (cuṭuvōr), post excarnation burial (iṭuvōr), burying the deceased in a pit (toṭukuḻip paṭuvōr), rock chamber or cist burial (tāḻvāyiṉ aṭaippōr), urn burial encapped with lid (tāḻiyiṟ kavippōr). Even in the Sangam age (when kingship and a well ordained society had emerged) the above modes of burials survived,” writes Iniyan.
Also, there are indirect references to dolmens as pantar kal, which has evolved into today’s pandal, a temporary tent-like structure, says Selvakumar.
“Raising a canopy is a simple method to create a shrine and it is used in contemporary South India. In rural Tamil Nadu, such small shrines (resembling dolmens) are created by using four bricks below the neem or any tree considered, so that the oil lamp does not go off due to rain and wind. Perhaps it is a symbolic way to protect the dead from rain and sun,” he writes in his paper on Cognitive Aspects of the Megalithic Cultures of South India.
Interestingly, social relations are also illuminated by some poems in Sangam literature. Selvakumar says, “One beautiful poem is about the lamentation of a lady.
O potter who makes pots!
O potter who makes pots!
I’ve come with him past many
wastelands like a small white
lizard stuck on the spoke of
a cart wheel. Potter who makes
pots in this vast ancient town,
please show pity on me and
create a great big burial urn
larger than the widespread land!
The metaphor of a “lizard stuck on the spoke of a cart wheel” indicates that the megalithic age was highly patriarchal and women didn’t have an independent existence outside of their husband. Also, the fact that the lady wishes to be buried along with her husband may be indicative of a form of sati. “The double burials with male and female skeletal remains in some cases might point towards the practice of sati or the deaths that occurred within a short span of time,” writes Selvakumar.
Though the individual poems are dated to around 300 BC, some poems may reflect the circumstances many centuries before, even a millennium earlier, writes Iniyan.
Intriguingly, Sangam literature also has an instance of a woman cleaning up a dolmen with cow dung, hinting at ‘cult of the dead’ whereby these burials were worshipped and regularly maintained. It also raises the question of parallels between temples and dolmens. And there might just be a connection.
“It is no doubt that the construction and worship of stupas have evolved from the cult of the dead,” writes Selvakumar. Some researchers, like Menon of Manipal University, point to continuity between the architectural aspects of protohistorical megalithic dolmens and early temple architecture. Menon has conducted extensive research on the 6th century AD Badami Chalukyan temple architecture of Aihole, a “crucible of early temple architecture” where temples belonging to the northern Nagara architectural style and the southern Dravida style stand side by side.
More intriguingly, Menon says that the 25km stretch of the Malaprabha river housing the temple laboratories of Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal, seems to be a “memorial landscape, with monuments of varied scale and for commemorating departed souls”.
The landscape is littered with Iron Age megalithic dolmens, some right next to the temples under construction.
“Since it is inconceivable that the builders of the temple would not have noticed the megaliths, which are both numerous and prominent, the fact that they left them undisturbed despite so much construction activity in the neighbourhood suggests that the megaliths held cultural significance for them,” writes Menon. “One look at the form of some of the small shrines scattered among the larger temples of the Pattadakal Group shows that they are only the next step from dolmens to structural temples. The Malaprabha Valley offers a very good case illustrating the continuity between monument building traditions in prehistory and later times.”
Need for preservation
Belying their historical significance, megalithic burial sites today are found in various states of neglect. While some are still intact, many have been damaged by entrepreneurial folks carrying away the stone slabs for construction purposes. “Unfortunately, megaliths have borne the brunt of development since the 1980s when JCBs and mechanical earthmovers were employed to clear the way for real estate development. Even within the Chennai region many of these have been destroyed as urban boundaries have expanded,” says Selvakumar.
A visit to Marayoor, a small town located around 40km downhill from Munnar, famed for its cave paintings and picturesque dolmens, shows the abysmal state of megalithic monuments in India.
The dolmens have been disfigured by modern decadence—which pays scant respect to antiquity—a repository of no burial goods, but only broken beer bottles, Lays chips packets, cigarette butts and bits of plastic bags.
There are no instructive signboards, no celebration of this feat of monumental architecture. It is as if this intriguing period in Indian history has been glossed over by our Delhi-centric historiography and was thus never able to make an impression on public memory. Compare this with the Stonehenge, a world-famous megalithic monument which draws millions of visitors from all over the world. Selvakumar thinks governments should build megalithic parks to help preserve these fast-disappearing monuments.
Dolmens were usually built on barren land, so they couldn’t be damaged by agricultural activity, often at an elevation overlooking their habitation settlement, and Marayoor provides ample evidence for this. Dolmens there—called muniyaras by locals, who probably thought it was a meditation chamber for munis (ascetics)—are located behind the village high school on a rocky hillock overlooking a fertile valley, with a gorgeous view of surrounding hills and of the Pampa river serenely flowing down to the Bay of Bengal.
Regimes have changed hundreds of times since they were built, but the dolmens have stood their ground on this terrain unceasingly for more than 3,000 years. As the term Muthukaadu in Sangam literature signifies, our burial-worshipping ancestors were quite aware that though people die and society is destroyed, only their burials will endure as stony sentinels, observers to the ravages of time and the vagaries of history.
Rajat Ubhaykar is a Mumbai-based journalist and an ardent history buff.
He can be found on Twitter @rajatub
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