Megaliths of India – A Promising History

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Megaliths are important evidences of the practices performed in prehistoric times. They held greater importance for the people of the past. Not simply that, megaliths continues to be significant in modern times as well. They are a rich source for important discoveries and findings that helps us get a glimpse of the past. This article presents the definition, types of megaliths in India and elaborates about relevant topics. These topics are chunked out in bullet points to help you gain clarity and memorize faster. 

If you are an UPSC aspirant, discussion on megaliths in India is a mandatory subject. Therefore, this article will be consequential to you as well. Without further ado, let’s get started. 

What Are Megaliths? 

Megaliths are larger stones that were arranged in prehistoric times to a set pattern to be used as burial sites or commemorative memorials. These megaliths were the earliest extant monuments built by humans. It also serves as evidence of the cultures of the past. The word megalith is composed of two Greek words, “megas” and “lithos” where means great and stone respectively. Thus, megalith means a great stone. 

The British historian Algernon Herbert referred to the Stonehenge as a megalith for the first time in 1849. Megaliths are of different types like dolmen, capstone, cist etc. and can consist of a single stone or many. They can be broadly divided into sepulchral and non-sepulchral ones. Sepulchral refers to the memorial stones devoid of human remains whereas non-sepulchral refers to large stones spread over a wide area. 

How Ancient is a Megalith? 

The Megaliths can be traced back to the Neolithic period internationally but in India they can be dated as back as the Iron Age (1500 BC-200 AD). They were erected in the Chalcolithic and the Bronze Ages as well. As per a general consensus, it is believed that because of trans cultural diffusion, the megalith culture scattered across different regions. However, modern scientists tend to vary taking these megaliths to be independent and coincidental inventions. 

Discovery of Megaliths in India 

The earliest megaliths in ancient India were discovered in the westernmost part of ancient India that presently belongs to Afghanistan. These megaliths comprised of stone circles. They can be dated before 3000 BC. According to recent findings in Southern India, they were constructed before 5000 BC. The first discovery of megaliths in India were carried out by Babington in 1823. 

Types of Megaliths 

These are some of the different megaliths that are found all over the world: 

Menhir 

  • Menhir refers to the upright large stone erected in prehistoric times. Megaliths in western Europe are referred to as menhirs. Individual menhirs are often referred to as monoliths. They are usually characterized by tapering tops. Some examples of menhir are South Zeal menhir in Devon, Arlobi menhir in Spain etc. Menhirs are present all across India like parts of Telangana. 

Monolith 

  • A monolith is a single large stone which is often synonymous with megalith and menhir. Since mono means one in Greek, it is likely that monolith particularly refers to a single piece of large stone. In recent times, a monolith is thought to be a straight steel block that keeps appearing and disappearing in a place. The word “monolithic” has several other connotations as well (Dictionary.com). 

Stone circles 

  • Stone circles are stones wedged onto the ground in a circular pattern. They are also referred to as cromlechs in different languages. These megaliths date from the late Neolithic Age to early Bronze Age. The best stone circles can be found at Avebury, Long Crompton and Wiltshire, England. There are nearly 300 stone circles found in Nagpur, Maharashtra. There are different categories of stone circles depending on their positions or arrangement like the recumbent, axial and concentric. 

Capstone style 

  • Capstones are megaliths that are placed horizontally over the burial chambers. No support stones are used here. The features consist of a burial shaft of considerable depth which is surrounded with large cobbles. One can find capstone style megaliths in the Korean peninsula. They date back to 700-550 BC, also known as the Mumun period in Korean. A 40-ton capstone was discovered at a megalithic site in the village of Neremetta (Hyderabad). It is reported to be the largest capstone found in South India ( Deccan Chronicle). These structures were usually constructed to protect burials from predators. 

Cists 

  • Cists are stones arranged in the form of small coffin-like boxes (or ossuary) meant to hold the bodies of the dead. They are quite similar to dolmen and were completely underground. In India, double-chambered cists have been located in Poothangara in Pathanamthitta (Northern Kerela). Several burial goods have been unearthed from the burial sites. 

Dolmen 

  • A dolmen is a single-chambered megalithic structure formed by supporting a large roofing slab (capstone) with two or more stones to form a burial chamber or tomb. Usually, one or more sides of this enclosure is sealed. They date back to the early Neolithic period from 4000 to 3000 BC. Dolmens in India have been unearthed from sites like Thatikonda in Jangaon district, Tadvai in Bhupalpally district, Eturnagaram in Mulugu district etc (Wikipedia). 

Sites of Megaliths in India 

  • Megaliths are spread over the entire Indian subcontinent. They can be spotted mostly in the southern parts of the country. These states include Maharashtra, Kerela, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. Nearly 2,200 megalithic sites exist in the peninsular region of India, most of which still remain unexcavated (R.K. Mohanty, V. Selvakumar).  
  • Megaliths are also present in the Vindyas and North Western region of India. The megalithic culture is still extant among the Gonds of central India and the Khasis of Meghalaya. Brahmagiri which was excavated in 1975 by Wheeler propelled the establishment of the megalithic culture sequence in southern India. 
  • Dolmens and chamber tombs are found in Hire Benakal in Kopala district of Karnataka. Hire Benakal also contested with five other Indian sites for the UNESCO Heritage tag. Other megalith sites include Nilaskal in Hosanagar , Hanamsagar in Kopala districts of Karnataka. In Kerela and Maharashtra, megaliths were excavated from Kudakallu Parambu in Thrissur and Junapani in Nagpur respectively. The latter is the largest megalithic site in India (Archaeological Survey of India). 

What Does Megaliths Convey About the Prehistoric Times? 

  • An axe was found in the burial chamber of Tamil Nadu which bore inscriptions from the Harappan script. This helps historians’ postulate that there may be some interactions between the Harappan and the megalithic people. Iravatham Mahadevan, the notable epigraphist proposes that both the Neolithic people of Tamil Nadu and the Harrapans spoke the Dravidian language. 
  • The rise of political economy and settled communities can be attributed to megalithism. According to Korisettar, megaliths were not for the commoners. They point towards the rise of a superior class who looked after the surplus economy. 
  • According to an archaeobotanical research conducted by Mukund Kajale of University College London, the megalithic people in India planted crops both in the kharif and rabi seasons. Several types of grains were recovered from their habitations which include rice, wheat, millet, black gram, horse gram etc. 
  • The Megalithic people believed in the afterlife and buried goods with the corpses. They believed the dead would use those items like the teeth in their life after death. Paddy husk has also been discovered in burial grounds which confirms the theory. 
  • Protecting oneself using amulets or charms can probably be traced to the age of Megalithics. This helps us understand that people during those times may have believed in the “evil eye” or “buri nazar”. 
  • The Megaliths were constructed on a collective endeavor. Nearly 70-80 individuals were required to construct the burial according to a pre-set measurement. It was a part of their social norm which the labor performed free of charge. Feasts were also probably arranged for the labor force where animals were sacrificed and consumed apart from other food items.  
  • As per the Megalithic practices of the Gonds, animals were sacrificed to honor the dead. These animals would have served as their property to the deceased in their afterlife. 

Significance of Megaliths 

  • The menhirs found in Telangana suggest that the community was aware of the solar trajectories. Rao visited the site at a particular time of the year like the summer, winter solstice and equinox. On speculation, the rows of these stones were found to align with the rising and the setting sun (Wikipedia). Similarly, the two stone circles of Stenness and Callanish (Britain) were constructed to align to the positions of the sun and the moon. 
  • Sepulchral megaliths served as important markers for the dead back in time. It helped them in commemorating the dead by utilizing and dedicating space to them. For now, they are a rich source of information as they help us to predict their beliefs and practices. Moreover, they served as clocks that helped them in keeping track of time. Thus, they served as astronomical observatories (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research). 
  • The Megaliths served as burial chambers to keep the dead and also to commemorate them with the passage of time. Stone circles were meant for performing rituals and ceremonies. 
  • Today these megaliths of India attract a huge number of tourists from all over the world. Their significance is paramount not simply for historians or researchers but common people as well. 

Wrapping it!  

With the end of the topic of megaliths of India, we gathered some powerful information along the way that will aid our studies to a greater extent.  This rich history of the megaliths of India is a great topic for discussion as it has a lot to offer. Hopefully, this article has been able to justify its purpose of serving the inquisitive minds by relaying the exact information. For now, we can sit and anticipate the megaliths of India to snatch the headlines once again. 

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