Megaliths

Megaliths are very interesting to learn about. They are very intriguing and for the past many decades, historians have been trying to study them in greater detail to unravel the mysteries of the prehistoric times.

Imagine seeing huge blocks of stone in a particular pattern? Won’t you be excited to know who built them? What if I tell you that these structures were built by men and women who lived thousands and thousands of years before us?

If I ask you touch a stone, do you realise that that very block of stone was once touched, picked up and placed in that particular place by the prehistoric man! Isn’t that exciting! Come, let’s delve deeper into these structures.

Let’s deconstruct the term to understand what it means. ‘Mega’ is a Latin term meaning large and ‘lith’ means stone. So from the name itself you can guess that the term ‘Megalith has something to do with huge blocks of stone. Let us understand this further.

Why were Megaliths constructed?

These were primarily burial sites or were constructed to commemorate something- for memories. There are various types of Megaliths found at such burial sites or commemorative sites. By erecting a huge piece of stone at the particular site it was easier to spot it. Just the way you see a gravestone with epitaphs on it in graveyards, similarly, a megalith acted a marker for the site.

Types of Megaliths

The burial sites contain 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 which contained the burial remains was made of terracotta. The commemorative or the memorial sites include Menhirs which are tall erect stones. Thus, these stone structures are the ones which tell us about the Megalithic culture which lasted from the Neolithic Age upto the early historical period which is 2500 BC to 200 AD. 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.

Where can we find these?

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.

Even today, a living megalithic culture endures among some tribes such as the Gonds of central India and the Khasis of Meghalaya.

There were several 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). As megalithic societies were preliterate that means their linguistic origins are difficult to trace, the racial or ethnic origins of the megalithic people are difficult to understand.

Extensive research has been conducted on the mortuary practices, belief systems and political economy of megalithic people which has revealed that they can be given credit for the rise of the ‘political economy’ which means a proper structured political system and an economy was put in place by the megalithic people for the very first time. This of course is just an assumption made by historians since we do not have any written evidence to support this.

Megalithic people carried out agricultural activity in both the Rabi and Kharif seasons. A large variety of grains such as rice, wheat, millet, barley lentil, black gram, horse gram, common pea, pigeon pea and Indian jujube have been recovered from habitations.

The very idea of burying the dead along with burial goods indicates strong belief in life after death and possibly rebirth among megalithic people. The respect accorded to the buried individual ensured that the grave and the goods contained within were not harmed or 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.

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,” says 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.

Understanding the structure of Megaliths

Building of the Megaliths, its shape, the placement of stone and the process of construction also says a lot about the society. The construction of megaliths was a massive endeavour, requiring the active involvement of the community. A very noted historian called Mendaly has made very important observations about the Megalithic society of the Gonds and I’ll be quoting him- “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 to 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 range of iron artefacts recovered from the burials 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( If you have studied about the Indus Valley Civilisation, you must have come across this stone. Do check out its pictures on the internet. It’s a beautiful stone) 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.

To understand where exactly does the Megalithic society stand in terms of India’s historical narrative let us look at what Korisettar has to say- ‘’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.” 

The Sangam literature also has something to say about the Megaliths. The poems included in the literature describe the way burials were made thus giving historians some literary clue about the Megalithic society.