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Architecture in the Iron Age

Srikumar M. Menon
Faculty of Architecture, Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal 576104, India
I was completely stretched out between two large boulders in a nearly horizontal position,
moving sideways while contemplating the rocky ground a good 10 metres below, trying
not to panic. My companion a sturdy lad called Jambanna Anchinagudi, was
performing the same action, albeit much more acrobatically and gracefully. After what
seemed like ages, I completed the tricky manoeuvre and came out on the far side of the
rock. A short scramble from there led us out on to the top of the boulder-strewn hill that
we were climbing. Stretched out in front of us was a most curious sight a series of more
than a hundred stone huts arranged in clusters on the hillside (see Fig. 1). We had
climbed a low rocky outcrop to the west of one of the clusters so that I could photograph
the whole cluster from the vantage point.
Most of the larger structures were made of stone slabs stood on end to form a sort of a
cube with a large rounded slab forming the roof of the structure. It looked like somebody
had been at work with a pack of playing cards, making a series of card-houses amongst
the rocks. Except that that somebody must have been a playful giant, for each of those
playing cards weighed several tonnes!
So what were these strange structures and what was I an architect by calling, doing in
this wild and wonderful place called Hire Benkal just a couple of hills north of the
famed World Heritage Site of Hampi? Jambanna insists that these stone huts were built
by a race of short people called moris, who were endowed with phenomenal strength,
who used to inhabit these hills. He even claims that his grandfather has seen a mori! The
locals call these structures moriyara mane (lit. houses of the dwarves) and the hill is
called Moriyara Gudde (lit. the Hill of the Dwarves).
However, archaeologists prefer to call these structures megaliths (literally built of large
stones) and they are believed to have been erected during the Iron Age in the Indian
subcontinent (roughly 1500BC to the first few centuries of the Christian Era). One finds
megaliths all over the world, though in certain parts of the world, they occurred in other
phases of prehistory. For instance, in Europe, megalithism, or the practice of erecting
these large stone structures, occurred during the Neolithic or Late Stone Age. There are
some communities that still practice a kind of living megalithism such as some tribal
communities in north-eastern India.
I have been studying these fascinating but lesser-known monuments that our distant
ancestors left behind for more than five years now. What started as a curiosity had soon
become an obsession and whenever I could find time off from my teaching job at
Manipal, I would head off to one or other of the megalithic sites nearby. Of which there
was no short supply a large majority of the megaliths in India are found in south India
and the Vidarbha region, though a few sites have also been reported from northern Indian
sites like the Kumaon, Jharkand, Rajasthan etc.

Hire Benkal was the largest site I had seen then. In the 1970s the renowned archaeologist
Dr. A. Sundara, had published his study of megaliths of Karnataka and in his description
of the site at Hire Benkal, there were more than 400 structures on the hill. Today, sadly, a
count would reveal slightly more than half the number Dr. Sundara recorded, the rest
having fallen victim to vandals and treasure-hunters who loot and pillage the structures.
The most spectacular of structures are the large, port-holed dolmens (see Fig. 2). These
consist of four upright stone slabs (called orthostats) each slightly more than 2m square,
but just over 25cm thick, arranged to form the sides of a cube. These are arranged in an
interlocking manner so that the stones do not collapse inwards (see Fig. 3) and then
surmounted by a large capstone. One of the orthostats (usually the east or west-facing
ones) has a circular port-hole in the middle. Sometimes the port-hole is semi-circular and
located at the edge of the orthostat (see the dolmen in the background in Fig. 2). The
ground around the dolmens are strewn with a large number of stone masonry blocks,
which were most probably packed around the orthostats to prevent outward collapse.
There are also other smaller structures at Hire Benkal. One of them is the dolmenoid cist
built along the same lines as a dolmen except that it is smaller and partially sunk into
the ground (see Fig. 4). One also finds structures called cists, which again echo the same
construction, but are fully buried in the ground (see Fig. 5). Also seen are structures that
seem rather primitive which are basically irregular chambers made by raising a flat
stone slab on three or four small boulders and packing all sides with rubble, leaving just a
small opening on one side (see Fig. 6, 7). There are natural overhangs of rock too, that
have been packed with rubble to make small chambers (see Fig. 8). It is tempting to
speculate whether the more primitive looking megaliths are older.
Some of these were burials containing human bones and ash in pots within; however
archaeologists have failed to find any human remains in structures like the dolmen,
leading them to theorize that these might have been memorial in function. A stone shaped
roughly like a human figure (called anthropomorphic stone by archaeologists), found in
conjunction with a dolmen at Hire Benkal, lends credence to this view that dolmens
might have been shrines to some form of ancestor worship (see Fig. 9).
Hire Benkal is a rich and important site from the point of view of understanding these
monuments because there are so many of them of the various types at the same site.
Presumably, the site was in use for several generations and one can see the refinement in
technology in shaping and handling large pieces of stone evolving at the same site as one
studies the various monuments there. However, these are not the only megalithic
typologies that one encounters over the peninsula. In fact there is such a large variety of
monuments that archaeologists have had trouble in classifying and naming them. Terms
like cromlechs, kistvaens, barrows, dolmens etc., many of them imported from the names
of similar structures in Europe and elsewhere have added to the confusion.
The classification system developed by Dr. U. S. Moorti of the American Institute of
Indian Studies, Gurgaon brought some unification in the ways of looking at them. He

classified them fundamentally into sepulchral and non-sepulchral, i.e. those that contain
the mortal remains of deceased persons and those that did not. Among the burials
(sepulchral megaliths) there might be cist burials (stone-lined graves), pit burials (unlined
graves), urn-burials (human remains enclosed in an urn) or sarcophagus burials (human
remains enclosed in an elongated terracotta receptacle), which may sport different types
of stone markers above the ground, such as boulder-circles or cairns or even single
standing stones called menhirs. Some geographical regions have forms that are endemic
to them, such as the beautifully sculpted laterite kudakkals or umbrella stones of Kerala
(see Fig. 10).
In the lateritic regions of south Karnataka and Kerala, one even finds chambers that are
scooped out of the soft lateritic rock that hold urns containing human remains. These
structures called rock-cut burials are not megaliths in the sense that they are not built of
large blocks of stones, but are still called megaliths because they belong to the same
cultural phase. We can only marvel at the ingenuity and skills of megalithic man to adapt
the form of the chamber formed by the orthostats and capstone to the vastly different
material available to scoop the chamber out of the softer rock. Some of the rock-cut caves
(see Fig. 11) are masterpieces of such exquisite workmanship that they could pose a
serious challenge to the modern-day mason or stone-worker!
The second category the non-sepulchral megaliths, consist of a motley crew of
typologies that could have had widely different functions. For instance, the dolmen is
most certainly memorial in function and is usually found in close proximity to sepulchral
megaliths. The menhir, or single standing stone, is seen in sepulchral function at some
sites i.e. it marks the site of a burial, but is non-sepulchral in other sites. Most intriguing
are the stone alignments and avenues, that consist of a large number of menhirs arranged
in some kind of pattern usually a grid aligned to the cardinal directions. One of the
largest alignments known in India, at Hanamsagar in Karnataka, consists of more than
2500 stones arranged in a diagonal grid (see Fig. 12). What earthly (or heavenly!)
purpose could these have served? Over the years, people have made inspired (and
inspiring!) guesses These range from shelter for roving armies to markings for future
graveyards to healing-stones around which cattle are driven during times of epidemics!
Recently, there have been hypotheses that these could also have been observatories that
tracked the rising and setting points of the Sun, Moon and other heavenly objects to keep
track of time and seasons, which are important to an agricultural society.
Who are these ancestors of ours from the Iron Age who built these structures? What was
life like in those times? What were their beliefs and what kind of knowledge did they
have about the world around them? Did they have art and music and other hallmarks of
culture or were they fully occupied by the grim business of eking out a hard living?
Archaeologists have been working for decades to answer some of these questions. Due to
their efforts, we today know that the megalith-builders were agro-pastoralists, the main
occupations being agriculture and rearing cattle, sheep and goats. They also reared
horses; some of these routine activities are depicted in their rock art (see Fig. 13).
Carpentry, smithery and bead-making were some of the other occupations of the times, as

well as pottery-making. The iron implements recovered from several graves show that
their knowledge of metallurgy was excellent.
That they also had their belief systems is almost certain, though we may never fully
comprehend these. The prehistoric times they lived in were before the advent of a written
language so no scripts exist to guide us on their thoughts and beliefs. However, some
rock art panels show us that they were capable of symbolic thought and strive to convey
what megalithic man sought to express through the form of his monuments. In this
example of rock art from Onake Kindi hill near Hire Benkal (see Fig. 14), we see what is
most certainly a burial surrounded by a megalith (a boulder circle). The Iron Age artist
has depicted the body of the deceased surrounded by grave goods in one half of the
circle, a ladder like structure divides this half from the other, which seems to be a
depiction of water. The whole composition is surrounded by a series of petals and rays
that have been interpreted as Sun and Moon symbolism by rock art experts. Though we
can never tell for sure what this painting means, we can be sure that there was some
underlying philosophy or belief-system that gave rise to the form of the megaliths.
When man starts building not just for functional needs alone, but derives the form of his
creations to express his belief-systems and philosophies isnt that the origin of
architecture in the truest sense?
In fact, many archaeologists believe that megaliths were the precursors from which many
of the later architectural forms both religious and secular, evolved from. The rubble
packing found around and over the capstones of dolmens and dolmenoid cists have
suggested that their original form resembled a large barrow or mound and that they were
the precursors of the Buddhist stupa which is also essential a sepulchral monument
housing relics of the Buddha within. No less an authority than Stella Kramrisch has
surmised that one of the inspirations for the flat-roofed structural temple was the dolmen.
As my study of these enigmatic structures progressed, I have gone on to survey more than
25 megalithic sites and even stumbled upon two hitherto unreported sites. At one of the
sites at a place called Nilaskal (lit. Standing Stones in Kannada), there are several
menhirs erected seemingly in a haphazard manner, the largest among them a whopping
slab that is 6m high, 3m at the base but only 25cm thick (see Fig. 15). This massive slab
is aligned exactly north-south. Scouting around in the area, we have observed the remains
of more than 100 slabs of various sizes. Later, we discovered that several pairs of stones
in this alignment framed the rising and setting Sun on solstice days (see Fig. 16). We
have found so many pairs of alignments that the possibility of this occurring by random
chance can be ruled out, meaning that the alignments can only be intentional. In the
surrounding region, we have seen 4 other sites that, though not as extensive as Nilaskal,
exhibit the same characteristics. At least one of the sites also contains sepulchral
megaliths, too.
As the Sun went down, marking the end of one more day at Nilaskal, I lingered at the
site, leaning against one of the menhirs. As twilight faded into night, and the first stars
came out in all their splendour, ushering in the cold, the smooth surface of the menhir

still felt warm to the touch. I could only wonder at the purpose of the astronomical
alignment we had found here. Was the structure a giant calendar device, the various
upright stones marking the progress of the year as the Sun successively set behind each of
them? Or was it just a magical or spiritual symbolism in some way related to the cult
of the dead? What drama of ritual pomp and pageantry must have been played out here,
where the stones alone stand mute witnesses today..? We probably will never know
Acknowledgements: This work is part of a study funded by a joint grant from the Prof.
D. S. Achyutha Rao Memorial History Research Fellowship and Manipal University. Part
of my travels was also funded by the Sir Jamsetji Tata Trust. I wish to thank Prof.
Mayank N. Vahia, Prof. A. Sundara, Dr. U. S. Moorti, Dr. Rabi Mohanty and Dr. Ravi
Korisettar for guidance and advice. I also wish to thank my colleague Kailash Rao for his
company and valuable assistance in the surveys. I am eternally grateful to the residents of
the villages near many of the megalithic sites for their enthusiastic support and

Captions for figures:

Fig1 A view of one of the clusters of dolmens at Hire Benkal from a hill to the west
Fig2 Two west-facing dolmens at Hire Benkal
Fig3 A schematic representation of the construction of a dolmen
Fig4 One of the dolmenoid cists at Hire Benkal
Fig5 A badly disturbed cist burial at Hire Benkal
Fig6 An irregular polygonal chamber (IPC) at Hire Benkal
Fig 7 An IPC with its rubble packing missing
Fig8 A rock-shelter chamber at Hire Benkal
Fig9 The anthropomorphic figure, now collapsed, at Hire Benkal
Fig10 A kudakkal (umbrella stone) near Thrissur
Fig11 A view of the interior of a rock-cut burial near Thrissur
Fig12 A portion of the stone alignment at Hanamsagar viewed from a hill on the west
Fig13 A portion of a rock-art panel at Onake Kindi hill near Hire Benkal
Fig14 A rock-art depiction of a megalithic burial at Onake Kindi hill
Fig15 The big menhir at Nilaskal
Fig16 The setting Sun on winter solstice framed between two menhirs at Nilaskal