Unlocking ancient portals

Unlocking ancient portals

Situated 50 km away from the world-famous monuments of Hampi, the megalithic monuments and cave paintings atop the Hirebenkal Hills in Gangavati taluk of Koppal District enthrall one and all.

Many scholars are now heading to these little portals that hold the key to secrets of the life of our ancestors.

Hirebenkal is located 40 km from Koppal. The site is on the left bank of the Tungabhadra River. A 5-km walk on a steep path from the village leads to the site of the megalithic monuments.

The collection comprises of hundreds of large stone monuments that were built about 3000 years ago. Scholars believe these granite structures are burial monuments that may also have served many ritual purposes.

The site is strewn with small-sized rock shelters built during the Iron Age. Such sepulchral monuments built in stone are called megalithic monuments. According to the information given by Archaeological survey of India, these structures had been constructed as memorials for the departed souls. This site is also called as morera houses in the local language.

South India, particularly Karnataka, has several such megalithic sites. Excavations at some of them have helped archaeologists understand the functional aspects of megalithic burials, trade and economy, and regional variations among sites.

In Hirebenkal, the 400-odd funerary monuments are located on a rocky range of seven hillocks. Therefore, these hills are locally known as elu guddagalu (seven hills). They belong to the transition period between Neolithic and the Iron Age. The megaliths, oriented east-west, cover an area of nearly 3 km. They are clustered into three groups, each separated by about 200 m. Together, they cover a distance of nearly a kilometre.

Chambers of interest

There are different types of megalithic monuments at Hirebenkal. Several are dolmens – 3-sided chambers, with or without port-holes, and with large stone slabs called capstones forming their roofs. Buried and semi-buried dolmens called cists and dolmenoid cists are sometimes found arranged in circles.

Other structures are irregular polygonal chambers and rock shelter chambers. Based on the typologies and technologies used, researchers date these megaliths to between 800-200 BC.

Hirebenkal also has rock art and cave paintings that date back to Neolithic times. Some of the rock shelters have lively paintings in red ochre that depict people dancing, hunting, holding weapons, taking part in processions and so on. The paintings also have geometric and mystic designs and depict animals like deer, peacocks, humped bulls, cows and horses.

Near the megalithic site, there is a unique stone kettledrum that rests on a 10-metre high boulder. This roughly hemispherical stone has a diameter of over 2 metres and is 1.5 metres tall. When beaten with a stone or wooden hammer, its sound can be distinctly heard a kilometre away. Archaeologists think this stone drum might have been used to warn the settlement’s inhabitants against invaders and to announce religious or social congregations.

What do the records say?

The first published reports on Hirebenkal were those in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1835, by Philip Meadows Taylor, who was under the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad. For over a century thereafter, no further systematic study of the site was conducted.

Between 1944-48, Sir Mortimer Wheeler undertook archaeological excavations. These were supplemented by Adiga Sundara and were published in 1975. In his publication, The Early Chamber Tombs of South India: A Study of the Iron Age Megalithic Monuments of North Karnataka, Sundara’s cataloguing describes details of 300 megalithic burial chambers at a site which was surrounded in thick forest.

Andrew Bauer of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois has carried out investigations in recent years and has identified about 1000 different types of antiquaries from an area of about 49 acres. His finds describe anthropomorphic funerary structures, menhirs (long stones), and circular stone fences. Bauer has further stated that the dolmens supported by stone slabs have been erected perfectly without any mortar.

Since 1955, Hirebenkal has been under the management of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Dharwad circle. Due to its extremely valuable collection of Neolithic monuments, Hirebenkal has been proposed for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, more action needs to be taken by the ASI for its preservation.

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