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Megalithic Religion: An Ethnoarchaeological Overview

K T. Reddy and 5.K. Rao

rchaeological research in India has undergone radical changes from its traditional way of descriptive and independent style to that of an integrated approach. No doubt discoveries by Meadows Taylor, Cunningham, Bruce Foote, Carllyle, Burkitt, De Terra and Paterson, Todd, Wheeler, Sankalia, Subbarao, Dharani Sen, Krishnaswami and others have made tremendous contributions to the growth of Indian archaeology. Yet they have added to the numerical collections; theoretical perspective could not take a clear shape. This can be termed as 'pre-paradigm stage'. Subbarao's ' The personality of India, The Asian archaeology Conference of 1961, Kosambi's/ The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historic Outline, Sankalia's ' New Archaeology, etc., though to some extent adopted socio-cultural approaches, could not make much head way in theory building due to pre-occupation with the descriptive cataloguing of artifacts of megaliths on the one hand and terraces, layers and phases on the other. In the seventies, environmental studies took a lead in archaeological research. It has been further evolved in recent years into different facets of research like 'cultural ecology', 'settlement archaeology', 'New archaeology', 'Ethnoarchaeology', 'post-processual archaeology', etc. All these show the necessity for the appraisal of cultural wholes or the reflections of man and his interaction with the society. Such studies require an integrated approach. The methodologies of this kind would be helpful in reconstructing socio-economic and religious aspects of our ancestors. With better and varied data base of Indian Neolithic and Megalithic periods as of now, such an exercise could lead to a better perception of evolution of 'Indian Culture'. Ethnographic enquiry is one such in understanding the past societies since many of the problems pertaining to habitation, homogeneity, heterogeneity, ethnicity, socio-religious perceptions, origin and chronology, etc., remain Unexplained in Indian megalithic archaeology. It is an immediate necessity to discuss by adopting qualified methodology taking up the religion, first for discussion, the roots of which appear during the palaeolithic period. But the maximum attention is found only during the megalithic period. However, aspects like origin, chronology, economy, sociology, polity, etc., will not. be touched/though they stili remain unsolved problems. However, megalithic religion will be dealt as it indirectly throws light on social structure of megalithic-people. Megalithic culture stands more-as a concept of religion than other traits of culture such as

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settlement pattern, economy, sociology, polity, etc. From anthropological point of view, mega\iths are.'1\e.we.dasre.tle.c.ting more. of mortuary practices of the past communities as they have survived into the present, since they are found widespread across the length and brea th oi tht country in general and peninsular India in particular. True to the nature of their widespread occurrence, they also present a varied picture in the sense that they project more heterogeneity than homogeneity. This situation for several reasons appears to be prevalent among the presentday mortuary practices of the inhabitants of hill tracts also. 'Religion' in Anthropology is defined as belief system. If one desires to trace the origin and the causes for the emergence of religion, it is pertinent to quote Frazer.4 He thinks that, 'to live and to cause to live, to eat food and beget children were the primary wants of man in future, so long as the world lasts'. Early man had to struggle for survival. The mysterious forces of propagation and nutrition acquired, therefore, 'a sacred significance towards which a cautious and numinous attitude was adopted and a ritual technique developed in order to bring them under some measure of rnagico-religious control' .5 Discussing the effects of death on Greek and Roman life, Fuste de Coulanges stated that 'this religion of the dead appears to be the oldest that existed among the raeeof man. Before men had any notion of Indra or of Zeus, they adored the dead; they feared them and addressed them prayers. It seems that the religious sentiment commenced in this way. It was perhaps while looking upon the dead that man first conceived the idea of the supernatural. Death was the first mystery, and it placed man on the tract of other mysteries'. In the context of considerations of primitive religion, Taylor'' argued rationally, that I animism, or the belief in spiritual beings arose in the context of dream and death experience. , A body-soul dichotomy was perceived in dreams and projected into the death situation in which the survival of the ghost-soul after destruction of the body was postulated. Elaborating the above mortuary ideas Frazer/ attributed an ideal argument that the ritual was motivated by fear of the deceased's ghost-soul and was an attempt on the part of the living to control the actions of the ghosts of the dead. The concept of spirit after the death of a person is as much old as that of Neanderthal man who was known to have displayed signs of spirituality in his treatment of the dead." Garget" tried to explain the concept of spirituality by Neanderthalers through palaeoanthropological study of the burials. While emphasising the concept of spirit, Clark'" felt that ritual burial presupposes some recognition of the spiritual nature of man of the existence of a soul capable of living even after death. likewise one can go on describing the idea of origin and development of religion. But the focal point behind all these is to project how religion of the dead developed and established in the form of mortuary practices and symbolic behaviour. However, this was manifested more prominently, after the introduction of iron which enabled the people to chisel out huge blocks of stone. In India, there are plenty of evidence of megalithic graves and monuments and are associated with grave goods. These are represented by huge stone structures in memory of their dead as a mark of respect for the departed souls. But the variations of the forms appear as a result of the influence of different local en~ironments. Further the variation in the same ecological zone reflects the micro-ecological adaptations to facilitate co-existence of different groups of people. A glance at the distribution of megaliths in India reveals different forms in different eco-systems and different forms in single eco-system. While these two systems of ecologically derived subsistence strategies cause two different symbolic mortuary eco-forrns which may be termed as subordinate anologies.l! the variation in the later seems restricted to the typological arrangement of mortuary symbols than to the mode of conducting funeral ceremony as evident from


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the ethnographic observation of the mortuary practices of tribal India. Since the megalithic evidence is predominant in south India, it implies that an ecological niche during that period must have provided enough supply of subsistence and energy. On the other hand variations in the construction of some memorials could be the result of the mortuary work of different ethnic groups. Again the occurrence of small and huge monuments in a specific geographical boundary in which a particular ethnic group could have operated can be differentiated as that of poor and rich or important people of that group. Elsewhere, it is appropriately stated that the size of the stone depends on the status of the deceased in the society.V Except the size, the concept of holding a funeral and the practice of megalithism could have been an essential common feature specially in south India. A keen visualisation of south Indian megalithic graves facilitates a broad typological classification into menhirs, dolmens, dolmenoid-cists, stone-circles, cairns, etc., except a few peripheral differences at the regional context and 'speaks not only the emergence of a religious concept and commitment, but also the involvement of social, economic and political factors among the societies. As far as the salient .features ofthe graves of south India 13 are concerned, Yeleswaram in Nalgonda, Pochampad in Adilabad, Nagarjunakonda in Guntur, Raigir in Hyderabad districts and other explored sites in the Krishna and Nellore districts-all have a good number of characteristic features. They include post-excarnation, complete inhumation and - extended inhumation types' with north-south orientation in dolmenoid-cists, urn-burials, cists with port-holes, pit-burials and circles; cairns and cairn-circles and sarcophagus types. The funerary offerings include pottery which is of Black-and-Red Ware, iron objects and personal ornaments like, copper 'amulet, beads of gold and silver, earrings of gold wire, bones of horse (in the case of double burial at Yeleswaram), terracotta figurines, bones of humped cattle, goat, fowl, etc. In Tamilnadu dolmens, sarcophagus, cairn-circles and urn-burials are common. Most interesting evidence comes from Adichchanallur in Tirunelveli district, where 1129 pottery vessels, 394 iron objects, armlets of gold, rings, bangles and bracelets of bronze, were collected. Pallavaram graves have yielded complete burials from which an interesting evidence of the placement of the males in a crouching position and the females in extended position was noticed. In Karnataka cist and pit-circles, pit-burials and cairns and cairn-circles are the megalithic types. Post-excarnation is the mode of burial practice as seen at Vasudevanallur, Brahmagiri in Chitradurga, Maski in Raichur, ]adigenahalli near Bangalore, Halingali and Terdal in Bijapur districts. Among the evidence of double burials at ]iwarji, one of them was found placed in north-east-south-west orientation with a skeleton of male below that of female. In Kerala, post-excamation appears to be the practice- associated with urn-burial from Porkalam, Trichur district. Carnelian beads were also collected. Apart from these, a number of sites have been explored in this region. The megalithic types can be precisely mentioned as follows. Sundara'sl4 exploration in Karnataka have yielded passage and circular chambers, long and round barrows, dolmens, dolmenoid cists, stone and cairncircles, stone anthropomorphic figure, menhirs and pit-burials. Exploranons'? have also added cists and dolmenoid-cists, cairn and stone-circles, dolmens, and menhirs from Palghat, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Quilon districts ofKerala. In Tamilnadu 16 around 250 urn-burials from Amrithamangalam and more than 300 megaliths from Sanur17 of Chingleput district, cairn-circles from Paiyampalli'" in North Arcot district, urn-burials from.Sengamedu'" in South Arcot district and several stone-circles, cairn-circles, dolmens ana chromlechs from Nilgiri hills, Kodaikanal and

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Coimbatore areas20 were identified. In Andhra Pradesh also menhirs, cairns and dolmens from Kalyandurg of Anantapur district,21 cairns and chromlechs from Mau1aAll in Hyderabad and Raigir in Nalgonda district,22 several monuments from Kurnool.P Chittor.f" Krishna districts25 dolmenoid-cists and stone-circles from Mallavaram26in Guntur district, chromlechs on either banks of the river Godavari, West Godavari district,27 a cist-burial at Madhurawada/" in Visakhapatnam district, menhir and dolmens in Srikakulam district29 were discovered. These evidences reveal the mortuary practices and beliefs of the people. For instance, the mode of burial, whether it is post-excamation, complete inhumation or extended inhumation or whatever it is, the orientation and the grave goods which include all the belongings of an individual such as implements, ornaments, household objects like pottery, all indicate their belief system towards spirits of dead. The association of animal remains like a bovine animal at Nagarjunakonda showing cut marks in the neck suggests its sacrifice. The evidence of horse remains at Yeleswaram elevates the importance of the individual, Further the quantity and the validity of the associated grave goods attribute the status of the people. Such observations can be drawn from gold and silver ornaments as found at Nagarjunakonda, Adichchhanallur, Brahmagiri, etc. The evidence of foodgrains, meat indicated by high percentage of calcium as at Madhurawada, the cup marks on the capstone of a dolmen at Pandavulametta indicate food offering to the deceased. Alook at the present-day mortuary practices of.the Indian tribal communities who are believed to be the descendants of those of the past, substantiate the basic ideology and belief behind these megalithic memorials. Megalithism is still being practised among several tribes like the Khasi, Naga, Aber, Leptcha of Assam, NEFA, Nagaland and Manipur in north-east India. They erect menhirs, dolmens, chromlechs, stone-circles and other sepu1chral monuments. Similarly,Munda, Kol, Baitool, Maria and Muria Gonds of central India erect menhirs and dolmens like Kandha or Kois of Orissa. In south India, a large number of tribes are reported to be practicing megalithism. They include Chenchu.l'' lru1a, Kadar, Kota, Kurumba, Piniyan, Pallan, Urali,31 Toda,32 Malayaraiyan, Muduvan,33Saora or Savaia,34Gadaba ? and Valmiki.36There are others who practice megalithism such as Kurumbas of Nilgiris, Kurumbhar of Kaladgi district, Kamataka, Malayaraiyan of Travancore and Vannan, Malayan, Tiyyan, Cheruman and Nayar of Kerala. Several of the tribes inhabiting the Sahyadri ranges practice a burial custom which is very similar to the megalithic pracuces.V A detailed examination of mortuary rituals of a few tribal communities may be relevant in understanding the. religious nature of megalithic monuments. The funerary customs of the Nagas38 of north-eastern India are interesting. Nagas bury their dead close to their villages, on either side of the road as well as within, sometimes not a couple of metres from their settlements. They raise over their burial large mounds, square, round and oblong in shape, the sides being built up with large stones. Sometimes an upright stone or effigy carved in wood is added. In one instance, a grave purposely placed by the road-side 'several kilometres away from the village is found. It revealed that the grave is exactly half-way between the village in which the deceased had been born and that in which he had died and taken part of his life indicating the belief of enabling his spirit to revisit each. Children are usually buried inside the house. The bodies of women dying at the time of delivery are taken out through the back of the house, and buried without any ceremony. The funeral feast always takes place in the evening. It is proportionate to the wealth of the deceased. Cows are sacrificed in the early morning by an old kinsman of the deceased and except livers, heads and certain portions of the body, the rest is distributed among the family members and relatives. After the ceremony, the funeral obsequies are placed


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with the body. Before the coffin is lowered into the grave, the male friends of the deceased, each with a shield and a couple of spears, dance crying and weeping. Grave goods are also placed with the body. Large flat stones are then used to form the lid for the coffin. Grains are thrown into the grave and over this the earth is filled in. Huge monoliths or large upright stones are erected either singly or in rows on the grave. On the day of the funeral, relatives gather in the deceased house and eat the meat of the heads of the cows and other reserved portions except the livers (livers are eaten when woman dies). The skulls are then taken to the grave. The account of funerary customs of Hill Maria (popularly the Maria Gonds) of Bastar regiorr'" in central India is illuminating. After a person's death, the senior near-kinsman present at the grave throws a clod of earth on the head of the corpse. Then the belongings of the dead man such as clothes, agricultural implements, cooking pots, etc., are-buried along with the corpse or hung upon the trees near the grave. The grave is filled up with the earth and the leaves are spread on the mound. As soon as the grave is ready, the elder brother of the dead man's wife arrange a small stone cromlech, known as 'Manatgarya' (throne of the departed and on it pours a little mahua spirit). Practice of megalithism among Savaras of Srikakulam region is also quite interesting. They cremate the dead along with the ornaments and implements. However, those who die in some epidemic are buried. A wooden figure is set at first to accommodate the soul of the deceased till the arrangement of a memorial stone is made. A ceremony called 'guar' is performed sometime after the death of a person. 'Guar' means erection of stone (G~a = to plant and ar = stone, i.e. planting or arranging a stone). An observation of this ceremony at Savarapeta, near Siddualkonda, which is abandoned now, is as follows. The wooden figure is brought ceremonially to their ancestral village, Savarapeta. The nearest kinsman of the deceased and the priest go to Siddulakonda and select an elongated stone slab, bring it to the burial ground belonging to their lineage. Different lineages erect stones separately in the same ground. Vermilion and turmeric are smeared on the stone and wooden figure. Then a buffalo is sacrificed and its blood is smeared on the stone and the wooden figure. Liquor is offered to the dead. Then they invoke the spirits of their ancestors and request them to admit the spirit of the newly deceased into their abode. AJew men assuming the role of the spirits of the ancestors declare that the newly deceased is free to join them as soon as 'guar' ceremony is over and the people return with the wooden figure to their settlement. A feast is arranged on the same day with the animal sacrificed. There is also a biennial great feast called 'Karja' celebrated for all these who had died. It is clear from the above description that the Savaras always remember their ancestral place, thus indicating their religious tenacity, even if they migrate to another village. The memorial stone can be categorised as 'menhir'. Besides the Savaras,Gadaba and Valmikitribes inhabiting the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh also practise megalithism. Gadabas erect dolmens locally called 'racbcbbabanda' and Valmikis arrange stone-circles in memory of their dead respectively. The funeral ceremonies 'Kudamela' among Gadaba and 'akkara' among Valmiki are respectively conducted after a good harvest when at least a fowl is offered to the spirit of the dead.' All the kith and kin participate in the feast after the construction of the stone memorials in the graveyard. In one instance, seeking judgement in disputes among 'Gadabas', the village Head or the Priest sits on the 'raccbabanda', a 'dolemn' and delivers the judgement. It is understood by both the parties that the proclamation of the judgement from the person who sits on the dolmen shall be genuine since he is known

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to have been influenced by the ancestral spirit. Such is the binding force behind their religious belief. From the above dcscripuon of cthnogr.iphic mortuary practices, it is clear that the monuments erected by the prU1IJtlH' COI1lIl1U111tlCS in memory of their dead are of religious naturebelief related to death, spirit ~U1d re-birth If memorial stones and. associated grave goods of megalithic-folk are examined from the mortuary practices of the present primitive communities, they are likely to assume more of a religions significance.

Notes and References

1. Subbarao, B., The Personality of India, Baroda, 1958. 2. Kosambi, D.D., The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical outline, London, 3. Sankalia, H.D., New Archaeology: Its Scope and Application to India, Lucknow, 1977.


4. Frazer, J.D., 'On certain Burial customs as they illustrate the Primitive Theory of the Soul',]RAI, 15, 1886,
5. 6. 7. 8. pp. 64-104: E.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, London, 1957. Ibid., pp. 66 ff. Taylor, E.B., Primitive Culture, London, 1871. Frazer, 1886, op. cit., pp. 64 ff. Ucko, P.]., 'Ethnography and Archaeological Interpretation of Funerary Remains', World Archaeology, 1, 1969, pp. 262-80 .: Garget, R.H., 'Grave Short comings' The Evidence for Neanderthal Burial', Current Archaeology (CA), 30,1982. Clark, J.G.D., 'Excavation at the Neolithic site at Hurst Fen., Mildenhall, Suffolk', Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, XXVI, 1960, p. 232. Moorti, Udayaravi S., 'Evidence of Social differentiation and Soclo-Political organisation during the Megalithic period in South India', Puratattua, 20, 1991, pp. 1-9. Sachchidananda, Profiles of Tribal Culture in Bihar, Calcutta, 1965, pp. 13-15. Singh, Purushottam, Burial Practices in Ancient India, Varanasi, 1970. Sundara, A., Early Chamber Tombs of North Karnataka, Delhi, 1975.

10. 11. 12. 13. 14.

15. JAR 1960-68.

16. JAR 1954-55, p. 54.

17. Banerjee, N.R. and K.Y. Soundararajan, 'Sanur=-A megalithic site in district Chingleput', AI, 15, 1959,

pp.4-42. 18. JAR 1964-65.

19. Banerjee, N.R., 'The excavations at Sengamedu', TMI, VIII, pt. 8, 1956, pp. 43-6. 20. Congreve, H., 'Remarks on the Druidic antiquities of the South of India', Madrasjournal of Literature and Science (MjLS), XXII, 1861, pp. 205-12:]. Walhouse, 'On Some Formerly Existing Antiquities on the Nilgiris', Indian Antiquary, (lA), 2,1873, p. 275: 'A Set Toda Dry Funeral', 3,1874, p. 33: G.N. Saxton, 'A set of iron implements etc., found in a chromlech in the estate of Major Sweet in the south of Nilghery Plateau', Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, (PASB) , 1870, pp. 52-4. 2]. Longhurst, A.H., 'The Cinder Mound at Kuditani in the Ballary District, Annual Report of Archaeological Survey of India, (ARASI), 1912, p. 145. 22. Yazdani, G., 'Megalithic Remains of the Deccan: A New Feature',]ournal of the Hyderabad Arcbaeological Society, 1915, pp. 56-78. 23. Foote, R.B., Catalogue of Prehistoric Antiquities in Government Museum, Madras, 1901. 24. JAR 1963-64. 25. Vanstavern, T., 'Notes on the Antiquities found in Parts of the Upper Godavari and Krishna Districts', lA,


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IV, 1875, p. 305:]. Fergusson, Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries: Their Ages and Uses, London, 1872. IAR 1963-64. Mulhern,]., 'Chromlechs of Central India and Notes on the crosses and chromlechs of the Chindwara District', PASB, 1868, pp. 116-18 and 147-51. Reddy, K.T., 'Madhurawada-A Neolithic-Megalithic Complex', journal o] Andbra Historical Society, XXXVII, 1978. Rao, S.K., Prehistory of Srikakulam Region: An Ethno-archaeological study, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. Andhra University, Waltair, 1985: 'Use of Ethnography in South Indian Megalithic Studies', The Eastern Anthropologist (EA), 44, 2, 1991. Breeks, ].W., An Account of the Primitive Tribes and Monuments of the Nilgiris, 1873.

26. 27. 28. 29.


31. Thurston, E., Castes and Tribes of Southern India, vols 1-7, Madras, 1909. 32. Walhouse, lA, 2, 1873, pp. 275 ft. 33. PiIlai, N.K., 'The Tribes of Travancore', Census of India,

Travancore, 1931.

34. Elwin, V., 'Funerary customs in Bastar State', Man in India (MI), XXV, 1945, pp. 85-133: Bode Highlander, Madras,.1955: The Nagas in the Nineteenth Century, Bombay, 1969: Rao, 1985, op. cit. 35. Haimendorf, Von. F., The Cbencbu, London, 1943. 36. Rao, EA, 44, 2, 1991. 37. John, K.]., 'The Megalithic Culture of Kerala' in V.N. Misra and Peter Bellwood (eds), Recent Advances in Indo-Pacific Prehistory, New Delhi, 1978. 38. Elwin, Y, 1969, op .cit. 39. Elwin, MI, XXV, 1945, pp. 85 ft.