- Megaliths are the earliest surviving man-made monuments
- Even today, a living megalithic culture endures among some tribes such as the Gonds of central India and the Khasis of Meghalaya
- The massive endeavour of constructing megaliths required the active involvement of the community
Megaliths, derived from Latin meaning large stones, are monuments that give archaeologists a picture of the megalithic culture which lasted from the Neolithic Stone Age to the early Historical Period (2500 BC to AD 200). Constructed either as burial sites or commemorative (non-sepulchral) memorials, these structures are the earliest surviving man-made monuments we know of.
The burial sites are of different types such as dolmenoid cists or box-shaped stone burial chambers, cairn circles which are stone circles with defined peripheries and capstones which are distinctive mushroom-shaped burial chambers found mainly in Kerala. The urn or the sarcophagus containing the mortal remains was usually made of terracotta. Non-sepulchral megaliths include memorial sites such as menhirs . In India, the majority of the megaliths belong to the Iron Age (1500 BC to 500 BC), though some sites precede the Iron Age, extending up to 2000 BC
At first, the scientific consensus was in favour of the theory that ideas emanated from one cultural centre and spread across the world by migrating populations. Some completely denied the possibility of parallel evolution. Now, modern researchers believe that inventions and ideas across the world have an independent origin.
“Constructing a menhir is one of the simplest things man could have done. However, the similarities are indeed startling in the case of more complex dolmens. The question of why they appear almost coincidentally has not yet been settled satisfactorily, though scientists now postulate that since our brains are constructed in the same way, different peoples came to construct the same monuments independently,” says Srikumar Menon, professor of architecture, Manipal University to Livemint.
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Around 2200 megalithic sites are found in the Indian peninsular, 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.
Korisettar, a retired professor of archaeology at Karnatak University says the megaliths were built for the elite or the ruling class and that the very idea of burying the dead along with burial goods indicates a strong belief in life after death and possibly rebirth among megalithic people. “In some instances, we have seen teeth being cut off from the body and buried with the remains for use in the next life,” he says to Livemint.com. Paddy husk found in burial sites shows the commitment of the people towards ensuring the dead a comfortable afterlife. They also believed in some idea of a soul.
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According to the livemint.com report, the Gond people used to connect the past and the present. Their beliefs and traditions help in creating a clear picture of the megalithic culture. “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 the stone memorial. Gond people believe that the first and foremost duty of the shadow spirit is to watch over the moral behaviour of the people and punish those who go against the tribal law,” notes a paper by S. Mendaly on the living megalithic culture of the Gonds of Nuaparha in Odisha.
The massive endeavour of constructing megaliths required the active involvement of the community, said the Livemint.com report. “Experiment on the reconstruction of a burial from Vidarbha suggests that 70 to 80 individuals were required to construct a burial having 13.5m diameter with a deposit of 80 to 85 cm in two and a half to three days without any leisure… Participation in construction by the community members could be social norm without labour charge. If not by any labour charge, a feast was probably prepared to honour the labour force provided by community members. Animals were probably sacrificed and a feast was prepared beside various other food items,” writes Chakrabarti, emeritus professor of South Asian archaeology at Cambridge University, in the third volume of his History of Ancient India.
There are no plans for preservation of this feat of monumental architecture. These historic and cultural monuments are found in various states of neglect. While some of them are still intact, many have been damaged by real estate development. The stone slabs are taken away for construction purposes and JCBs and mechanical earthmovers clear the way.
– prepared by Ajay Krishna, an intern at NewsGram.