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Megalithic Culture of India: The forgotten Link of Indian History

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

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Image Source: ancient-origins.net
  • 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.

Tripura India megaliths Image Source :pinterest.com
Tripura India megaliths Image Source :pinterest.com

“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.

A megalith in Karnataka Image Source:megalithic.co.uk
A megalith in Karnataka. Image Source:megalithic.co.uk

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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.

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  • Aparna Gupta

    Megalith monuments are the historical structures with archeological interest. These monuments are need to be preserved, they are our heritage.

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The Errant Son: Mir Murtaza And Al-Zulfiqar

Would the Bhutto charm, have worked on India? And had it been so, would the map of the Indian sub-continent today, have resembled the idea of a free market zone in South Asia, with porous borders?

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Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Tania Bhattacharya
Tania Bhattacharya

By: Tania Bhattacharya

India-Pakistan relations have hit a record low following the dastardly Pulwama Attack on a CRPF convoy in Indian administered Kashmir, on the 14th of February this year. Curiously, the Pakistan PM Imran Khan, made a statement a few days ago, endorsing the Indian PM Modi, and suggesting, that in case there was a re-election of the latter, the Kashmir issue may be finally resolved. This scenario is significant, given that both Imran and Modi, are perceived hardliners in their respective nations. As some South Asian policy watchers have noted, it is hawks like the two aforementioned heads of state, and not peaceniks, who are more likely to take large risks over bilateral issues involving the two neighbours, since if any of them is required to acquiesce, they cannot be labelled as anti-nationals. Peaceniks, their good intentions aside, are looked upon with suspicion in their countries, which accuse them of selling out.

 

These are the heady days of jingoist patriotism in South Asia, where Right Wing organizations seem to be faring much better than the other political alternatives; but there was a time not very long ago, when Southern Asia was in a sweet spot between Dictatorship and Democracy, where conducive factors facilitated the spectre of Left-Wing radicalism, in both India and Pakistan. Between the imprisonment of Pakistan’s democratically elected PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the mysterious plane crash that killed President Zia ul Haq in 1988, a shadowy entity by the name of Al-Zulfiqar had emerged out of the pale, and rocked the Zia dictatorship, with its nuisance value. What were the origins of Al Zulfiqar, and who, was its chief executive officer?

The PIA Hijack drama
The PIA Hijack drama

We must retrace our steps to the early 1970s, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the Pakistan president. His eldest son, and second-born, Mir Murtaza, would build a lavish tent on the sprawling lawns of 70 Clifton, the Bhutto residence at Karachi. Inside the private sanctuary he had made for himself, the young lad would read the influential works of prominent Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara. The walls of his tent would be adorned with posters of world-famous figures, who had adopted Marxist techniques and applied them to their personal agendas. Murtaza had become deeply involved with the guerrilla warfare ethos of Socialist insurgents and quickly became a role model for his younger male sibling, Shahnawaz, junior to him by four years.

 

Sensing that the wayward, and obstinate nature of the older Bhutto was getting him into trouble with his high school officials and law enforcement, Zulfiqar had insisted, that Murtaza abandon his tent, and his Leftist reactionary literature, to concentrate on his school syllabus, so that the straight and the narrow could produce results for the latter. As soon as it became possible, and after consulting his wife Nusrat Bhutto, the President had packed off his enfant terrible to study in the United States, and then to England, where he hoped, that a new environment would change him. It was here, that Murtaza shone. A thorough academic, he researched upon and produced a dissertation, concerning the consequences of India’s nuclear program, on Pakistan. He developed the reputation of being a cad, and somewhat of a lady’s man as well, during his student years in London, where he was a regular sighting at nightclubs, with one or the other pretty girl, on his arm.

 

His father, had made the issue of the ‘Muslim Bomb’ an international one, arguing, that since the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Marxist political spheres had their own, ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it was only fair that the Islamic world follow suit. Israel though not openly belligerent with the bomb, was suspected of being in possession of the technology to construct one, in 1966 itself. Moreover, it had refused to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). Pakistan, under his leadership, he had sworn, would ‘gift’ the Muslim world with its first nuclear weapon. The president’s (and later, Prime Minister’s) son, would broach the topic on an academic level, and make its knowledge, widespread.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh.

Murtaza was yet abroad, when his father, by the time, the democratically elected Prime Minister of his country, was toppled in mid-1977, in a military coup, headed by General Zia ul Haq, who until the event, had been Zulfiqar’s handpicked Chief of the Pakistan Armed Forces; and a man, that the confident, and arrogant premier, termed his ‘monkey general’. In a letter, handwritten to her brother, Benazir had advised him to travel to the United States, to meet with American leadership, that were friendly with the Pakistan Peoples Party, to plead for assistance in toppling the dictatorship of Zia. Interestingly, she had told him to steer clear of a top Bhutto aide, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. This is testified by Lt. General Khalid Mahmud Arif in his book Working With Zia. Khar, an uncle of PPP ex-Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2008 – 2013), had been a confidante of Prime Minister Bhutto, who he faithfully plied to the home of Bhutto’s first, secret mistress, and then, legally married third wife, Husna Sheikh, on a daily basis.

 

From the United States, Mir Murtaza had decided that it was not judicious to return to a strife-ridden homeland, which was experiencing its umpteenth military rule. Instead, he had flown to Syria and then Libya, to garner support from Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi respectively. The Assads and Gaddafi were supportive of the Bhuttos. Zia to them, was an American puppet that had been installed as a means to an end, that too, through an undemocratic and unpopular regime change. It was in Syria occupied Lebanon, that Murtaza had begun building up a guerrilla outfit, which he named, the PLA (Pakistan Liberation Army). Members from the PPP back in Pakistan, were herded off to the Middle East, for rigorous guerrilla training, that was imparted by the Leftist PFLP (Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine). When Mir Murtaza deemed that the time was ripe for ambushing Zia’s men in positions of power; the trained militia of PLA flew to Afghanistan, where they continued further arms training, awaiting an opportune moment, to cross into their homeland, using the mountainous, and lawless tribal routes of northern Pakistan, which flanked the Durand Line.

 

While in Kabul, Murtaza Bhutto decided to rename his outfit Al-Zulfiqar Organization, or AZO. Shahnawaz, the younger son of the jailed premier, joined his older brother and was imparted training in guerrilla warfare, and violent Marxist insurrection. When not wielding guns in army fatigues, the young volunteers and the Bhutto brothers, would watch Bollywood flicks to kill time.

 

Initially, all Shahnawaz wished to do, was to open a tourist agency in Pakistan, and live quietly with the Afghan object of his affections. But the restless circumstances that engulfed the young man, forced him to join Al-Zulfiqar, all the more so, as it had his older brother at its helm; a man he had much admired from the days of his youth.

 

One of the first acts of the AZO, was to try to blow up Zia-ul-Haq’s plane with a missile, from an Islamabad rooftop. It did not produce the desired result. Next, was the hijack of a PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) flight. It was flown to Kabul, where the hijackers stated that the plane and its passengers would only be released if ninety-one political prisoners from the PPP, were set free from incarceration in Pakistan. Zia’s response initially, was a “No”. But once it became eminent, that there were no international mediators to take on the case on behalf of Pakistan; especially once Assad and Gaddafi explained the dilemma to General Zia, the latter was forced to rethink his stand. By then, AZO had reduced the demand from ninety-one prisoners, to some fifty-four of them. The Pakistan general was forced to comply with Murtaza’s bargain, as it released the PPP detainees from various gaols in the country, who were then swapped for the PIA plane and its passengers.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir.

The mastermind of the hijack, was a seamlessly trained Salamullah Tipu, who was seen waving his gun in the air triumphantly from the door of the airplane, after throwing down the bloodied and dead corpse, of one Major Tariq Rahim on the tarmac. Rahim was a close aide of the Zia administration. While Tipu took the blame upon himself, and the PPP back in Karachi, led by Benazir and her mother Nusrat, denied any knowledge or existence of the AZO, Mir Murtaza Bhutto continued to avoid Pakistani authorities, was never caught on camera during the hijack episode, and was declared a wanted criminal by the Pak judiciary, in absentia.

 

In his biography of the older Bhutto scion, The Terrorist Prince: Life And Death Of Murtaza Bhutto, author, student activist, and political henchman Raja Anwar, notes, that a paranoid Murtaza had ordered for the assassination of anyone who he feared would challenge his methods as head of AZO. A sizeable number of its members were apprehended from their homes, murdered, and dumped in shallow ditches. The same author states, how he himself, Shahnawaz, Mir Murtaza, and some other workers of Al-Zulfiqar, had received lodging, food, money, and military training, in New Delhi. The government of Indira Gandhi, a Centre-Left political organization in India that is recognized as the Indian National Congress, had housed and funded the Bhutto revolutionaries and their fighters, with an eye on ending the rule of the hated Zia. In the late 1980s, when Murtaza had made a stopover at Delhi, during one of his journeys abroad, he had personally met Rajiv, son of Indira, and her successor as the next premier of India, with a large, and impressive bouquet of flowers.

The AZO leaders and members resided in the outskirts of India’s capital, and led well-oiled, luxurious lives, while simultaneously receiving training to destabilize the regime of Zia ul Haq. In this duration, the Bhutto brothers had come close to the Nehru-Gandhi clan of India, and according to a number of verified reports, may have worked as R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing, India’s topmost espionage and intelligence agency) informants for a period of time. A common agenda; that of toppling the American-installed, Islamist, and regressive regime of Zia, being the binding force.

Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi
Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi

Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988. The ensuing elections found the PPP, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s political outfit, sweep the polls in Pakistan. Benazir went on to become the Islamic world’s very first woman head of state. Eventually she and Murtaza would have a falling out, with the latter going on to form his own faction of the PPP; the PPP(SB), where SB stood for ‘Shaheed Bhutto’. Unlike his sister’s rule, which can be described as opportunistic and inept, Mir Murtaza Bhutto remained a ‘Peoples Man’. He shunned unnecessary displays of wealth, and was always accessible to the blue-collar cadre base of the PPP(SB). The tussle between him and his sister may have continued on its logical course with a positive outcome for whoever was Destiny’s Chosen One; but for the tragedy that shook the Bhutto dynasty on the evening of the 20th of September 1996. The founder of Al-Zulfiqar was returning home from a p