31 January 2012
India’s neglected megaliths reveal a fascinating history.
From Kashmir to Kerala, from Itanagar to Gandhinagar, India’s countryside is strewn with the remains of enigmatic stone structures known to archaeologists as megaliths. Scores of these were constructed by prehistoric tribes prior to the Aryanisation of India, and they are still being raised today by some Adivasis – possible descendents of those tribes – who continue the tradition. These primitive monuments are an essential part of India’s prehistory and archaeological heritage, and yet they have been denied appropriate recognition.
Although the term megalith stems from the Greek words mega and lithos, meaning ‘large’ and ‘stones’ respectively, the assortment of structures classified under the term today is fascinatingly wide-ranging. The terminology for megaliths is extensive and varies from region to region, and an entire archaeological vocabulary now exists to describe megalithic structures and features: dolmens, cairns, menhirs, tumuli, barrows, cromlechs, etc.
Especially in Jharkhand and the states of the Northeast, many Adivasis continue to build megaliths as part of complex and varied rituals to commemorate their dead. Once the predominant inhabitants of India, the Mundas, Santhals, Hos, Oraons, Asurs and other proto-Australoid groups are now subjugated and impoverished peoples, and over the years many such groups have gone extinct. However, their historic reign and range is substantiated by the megaliths, many dating back to the late Stone Age which they built across the entire expanse of India.
Excavations at many megalithic sites have revealed graves, often containing a wide array of iron and copper implements – from daggers, arrowheads, and tridents to household items such as lamps, sickles, nails and cooking utensils – and a variety of ceramics and potsherds. In some tombs archaeologists have found ceremonial sepulchral pottery decorated with designs drawn on or etched into the ceramic surface. These designs feature animal motifs and the extensive use of basic geometric shapes such as triangles, zigzags, spirals, semi-circles and loops. Conspicuous thread marks suggest that some of the pottery was wheel-made, and the range of ceramic techniques and decorative styles suggest that this assemblage of relics ranges in origin from before the Bronze Age (which began in India around 3300 BC), through the Iron Age and even, in areas where the custom of megalith construction survived, to the modern era.
Such burial sites also often reveal cremated remains inside urns that were buried on sacred land and had dolmens (structures with a large flat stone supported on upright rocks) raised above them. Several excavations have uncovered bodies in sarcophaguses, with circles or heaps of stone constructed above them. Sometimes a menhir (a large standing stone) was also raised in memory of the departed.
Megaliths first came to the attention of the British around 1823 when one J Babington found the Malabar megaliths in what is now northern Kerala. Though Britain is a treasure trove of megaliths, the British must have been very surprised to see similar shrines in India as well. Their curiosity sparked efforts to highlight, excavate and write about these structures. Perhaps the first excavation was conducted by Captain Meadows Taylor, who in 1853 excavated the Sorepur megaliths. Had it not been for the British, megaliths in India would have languished in the pre-historic dark for much longer.
Sadly, apart from sparse mention in the Buddhist Tripitaka, a few Dravidian texts of Sangam literature, and in the Upanishads, megaliths, perhaps owing to their non-Aryan origin, are not widely cited in India’s ancient texts and scriptures.
Modern day research has shown that megaliths were not, as was previously accepted, raised solely for funerary purposes. They also served as boundary markers, memorials marking noteworthy events, and even as observatories and calendars for the primitive populace. Many megaliths around the subcontinent, such as the ones at Burshaom in Kashmir and Asota in Pakistan, were not tombs as no burials have been found at those locations.
Quite a few of these primitive shrines show signs of profound scientific and technical development among the civilisations that built them, and the depth of the builders’ knowledge of the cardinal directions and astronomical phenomena has startled the modern world. Many of these ancient megaliths were positioned in precise alignment to the landscape and to astronomical coordinates. The megaliths at Hanamsagar and Vibhuthihalli in Karnataka and Rola and Punkree Burwadih in Jharkhand were positioned in accordance to the sunrises and sunsets of the summer and winter solstices, the vernal and the autumnal equinoxes, and to sunrises on other significant dates. The Rola and Punkree Burwadih megaliths are aligned to significant points of the lunar standstill, a period of two weeks every 18.6 years when the moon’s position in the sky changes drastically. Many menhirs in south India and north Jharkhand are oriented towards the mid-winter sunrise.
The location and orientation of these megalithic complexes attest to an awareness of mathematical and geometrical concepts, such as hexagonal sectioning, ratios and the golden mean, millennia prior to the emergence of Brahmin astronomers and mathematicians. On this evidence, these astronomical megaliths must have been created by ancient astronomer-priests to study the transits of the sun and the moon, and as such they add a vital chapter to the history and evolution of observational/horizon astronomy in India.
Almost all present day Adivasis have forgotten the archaic astronomical celebrations surrounding megaliths, and today’s structures are devoid of astronomical significance. Fortunately, celebrations of the vernal equinoxes survive at the megaliths of Nilurallu in Andhra Pradesh. A regular crowd congregates at the Punkree Burwadih megaliths of Hazaribagh in Jharkhand to view the sunrise on equinox mornings. The event makes this the only megalith in the country with regular viewings of equinox sunrises since its initiation by this writer about 12 years ago, much along the lines of events at the famous Stonehenge and Avebury megaliths in the UK where thousands gather to view both equinox and solstice sunrises.
Megaliths are beautiful creations of humanity’s primitive history, and yet even today they are still confined to the perimeters of academic study. Scholars have failed to transmit an appreciation and understanding of megaliths to the common man. Neither have they held these structures up as essential sources of information on India’s prehistory. Much work remains to be done until the Indian public understands the significance of megaliths and gives them the deserved respect they have so far been deprived of.
India’s megaliths are products of a matriarchal, matrilineal world in which the ancients venerated the earth as the Mother Goddess. It is assumed that tribal groups revered megalithic burial sites as temples in honour of this goddess and the primitive fertility cult that thrived around her. Many stones in megalithic complexes are still believed to represent both a male and a female principle, continuing a custom of the primordial fertility cult whose practice still continues among many matrilineal Adivasis of the Northeast. The Khasis are known to lay menhirs in front of standing ones in honour of the Ka-Yobayi, the omnipresent Mother Goddess. The Angamis and the Kacha Nagas regard the recumbent megalith as the representation of the female principle. Pre-lingam phalluses have also been found to be associated with megaliths. Cupules or cupmarks – cup-shaped structures engraved profusely on megaliths – are believed by scholars to be symbols of female genitalia, and are also regarded to be symbolic of the ubiquitous Great Goddess of the now defunct fertility cult. Though we have no idea how primitive people lugged and raised these gargantuan stones, several scholars maintain that profound veneration for the Goddess motivated them to undertake such gruelling projects.
~ Subhashis Das is an independent researcher on megaliths, and author of the book Sacred Stones in Indian Civilisation. He runs a website dedicated to megaliths at www.megalithindia.in