The first hurdle we had to cross to get to Hirebenkal was a tiny rivulet where the stepping stone I put my trust in proved untrustworthy and I ended up with wet feet. But that was the least of our hurdles. The bigger problem was figuring out how exactly to get to the site for there were no clear paths. Accompanying us were three gregarious local youths, all of whom insisted they knew the way. But it was left to a wizened goatherd named Kanakadasappa to eventually take us to one of Karnataka’s best kept prehistoric secrets.
A surefooted Kanakadasappa led us unerringly up the hills, past craggy boulders that towered above us, past bushes that thrust thorns in our way, past pleasant patches of green that tempted our tired feet. Gradually, the path we were on broadened out into a sort of rocky road. Small structures that looked like tables began appearing on either side - thick slabs of stone about 2.5m long and a metre wide, held up by small stones.
And then, all of a sudden, a whole village lay in front of us, with streets and rows lined by neat but curiously blank stone houses…Except that it wasn’t really a village and those were not really houses. Instead, we had come finally upon a cluster of megalithic monuments that were built here more than 2000 years ago.
Situated about 35 km from Hospet, Hirebenkal is one of Karnataka’s largest megalithic sites.
This site, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India and in the middle of Forest Department lands, has approximately 400 megalithic structures spread out over an area of nearly three kms. Hirebenkal is famous for its dolmens - three-sided chambers that are 8-10 feet tall, with even larger stone slabs called capstones forming their roofs.
Some of the dolmens have round port-holes, giving them the appearance of houses with windows. As we walked through the quiet ‘street’ flanked with scores of such empty ‘houses’, I felt like I was walking through a ghost town.
And while no one ever lived in those particular ‘streets’, the term ghost town may not be entirely inappropriate, for dolmens are essentially memorials for the dead. Though they do not usually contain burials or cremated remains, historians believe they were commemorative structures that may also have served a ritual purpose. Dolmens are usually part of a burial complex and are most often associated with other structures like buried or partially buried chambers (called dolmenoid cists and cists) that contain remains of the dead.
Unique variety of dolmens
Hirebenkal’s dolmens, particularly the port-holed variety, are unique enough that some archaeologists have named a class of structures after them, classifying them as the Hirebenkal type of dolmen. Apart from these, and in addition to the rather crude table-like monuments lining the entry to the site, Hirebenkal also has irregularly shaped chambers, rock shelters as well as cists and dolmenoid cists, some of them arranged in circles. Some of these latter are gradually dwindling in number though: one cist we saw had been recently dug up by people who mistakenly believed the chamber contained buried treasure.
Although they usually contain no gold, megalithic funerary monuments can indeed be treasure troves for archaeologists. Excavations at other such sites in Karnataka and elsewhere have helped piece together some details of life in megalithic times.
We know for example that the people practised some forms of agriculture since, apart from remains of rice and ragi, archaeologists have also found ploughshares and other iron tools in many sites.
Excavations that have unearthed non-local materials in some monuments, including lapis-lazuli traced to far-away Afghanistan, suggest that our megalithic ancestors were traders and perhaps also travellers. Use of iron
Another item that is commonly found in almost all megalithic sites in south India is iron. At Hirebenkal, too, apart from cultural material such as neolithic period (i.e., pre-megalithic) implements and neolithic and megalithic period pottery, archaeologists also found iron slag.
The megalithic period saw a dramatic increase in the use of iron for weapons and agricultural tools. In fact, in south India, the megalithic period coincides with the Iron Age, and spanned a little over a thousand years from about the twelfth century BC to the second century AD. Based on the typologies and technologies used here, researchers date the Hirebenkal megaliths to between 800 - 200 BC.
At the upper end of the site is a small excavated perennial water body. Near this little lake is the quarry from where the megalith builders obtained the stone for their monuments. Standing next to a dolmen that towered about three feet above me, I marvelled at the high level of skill and organisation that megalithic society must have had.
Clearly, it was no mean matter to cut, transport and erect such large slabs of granite and create such uniform structures. How was such labour organised? Did only important people get commemorative dolmens? Why are there different types of burials and memorials?
Researchers don’t yet have the answers to such questions but relatively undisturbed prehistoric sites like Hirebenkal can help them get more information about the ideologies and social systems of megalithic peoples.
Interestingly, the site itself seems to have retained its sanctity among people. We learned from out goatherd guide, Kanakadasappa, of a festival that takes place every year when people believe the Lord walks from one nearby hill to another, during which time it is forbidden to see Him. Kanakadasappa also told us that neither he nor anyone else from Hirebenkal village ever came to the site to graze their goats or cattle.
Was it because it was a burial complex, we enquired, but he would only shake his head and state with finality, “We don’t come here.”
But the same taboo apparently does not hold for residents of neighbouring villages, some of whom had brought their cattle to the site for grazing. They relaxed on the banks of the picturesque lake while their cows grazed among Hirebenkal’s megaliths, some fallen, broken, others still standing enigmatically, mutely.