Stone wonders of Nilaskal

Stone wonders of Nilaskal
On the evening of the shortest day of the year, the setting sun hangs low in the western sky, a bright orange orb clearly outlined against a cloudless vault stained with sunset colours.

The land gently slopes up to the west, creating a raised horizon line, punctuated here and there by upright slabs of stone. As the disk of the setting sun slowly sinks to this elevated horizon, it is dramatically framed for a few moments between two of the upright stones before gradually disappearing from view, leaving behind just the stark outlines of the stones silhouetted against the twilight sky. As we breathe a collective sigh of relief that clouds hadn’t spoilt our party, a wave of euphoria washes over us — for after all, the dramatic sight we had just witnessed might have been a spectacle that was planned by our unknown ancestors of over 3,000 years ago!

We are at Nilaskal, a little village near Nagara in Shivamogga district. The village derives its name from a group of upright slabs of stone scattered about in a clearing to the south of the local primary school. The locals explain the presence of these stones as the tethering posts for the elephants and horses of the armies of the Keladi Nayaka dynasty, which ruled this region from 1499 to 1763.

However, archaeology tells us a different story. These upright stones, known as menhirs, belong to a much earlier class of monuments called megaliths, which were erected in the Iron Age (approximately 1200 BC — 500BC), mostly to commemorate dead persons.

Enigmatic stone alignments

Megaliths may assume many forms, and menhir is one of the simplest — just an upright stone slab, like at Nilaskal, or even just an elongated boulder propped up erect. Sometimes, several menhirs are arranged in orderly patterns called “stone alignments”. Such alignments are common in northern Karnataka with the stone alignment at Hanamsagar being the largest known such monument, boasting of more than 2,500 stones arranged in a grid aligned to the cardinal directions.

Nilaskal was first reported by archaeologist Narasimhaiah in 1959 and was subsequently studied by A Sundara — the doyen of megalith studies in India. My study of this site, as part of a research initiative, from 2008 onwards has shown that the site is much more extensive than previously known; surveys having thrown up remnants of more than a hundred menhirs, many of them mere stumps broken off near ground level. The largest menhir at the site, however, is a whopping 6m high and 3m wide at the base, though only 25-35 cm thick. Considering the slab must extend at least a couple of metres below the ground, the quarrying of such a large thin slab of granite is a challenging task, even with today’s technology!

During the investigation, we have noticed that many pairs of menhirs at Nilaskal frame the rising and setting sun on the longest and shortest days of the year — called summer solstice and winter solstice respectively. The stones that constitute such pairings are separated by large distances, hence they form a well-defined sightline to the sunrise/sunset point on the horizon. No menhirs are found beyond the highest part of the slope, suggesting that the builders of the monument intended the stones to be seen against the sky.

These observations and the occurrence of notches on many of the slabs, which permit sighting of the horizon as well as other menhirs, strongly favour the view that the observed alignments towards sunrise/sunset on the solstices were created deliberately. Why did the builders of Nilaskal incorporate these celestial alignments in the layout of these menhirs? Were the stones a part of an elaborate timekeeping device to keep track of the seasons? Or was it merely some kind of symbolic alignment, something to do with the cult of the dead? Archaeological studies could provide some clues.

Whatever the purpose for which this monument was erected, it was certainly important enough for our ancestors from the Iron Age to expend enormous amounts of time and labour in extracting and roughly shaping the stone slabs, transporting them to the chosen site and erecting them with remarkable precision. Nilaskal is not the only such site in the region. There are at least four other sites in nearby villages — Byse, Hergal and Mumbaru, all discovered by Sundara and one site at Aaraga Gate, discovered during our investigations. The site at Byse is more compact, with less than 30 menhirs distributed in a smaller area.

Byse too, shows the solstice alignment patterns seen at Nilaskal, though many of the menhirs here seem to be a mix of natural boulders as well as quarried slabs erected in formation. Byse also has other types of megaliths — cairns, which are basically circular mounds of rubble marking a burial interspersed among the menhirs.

Memorial monuments

Interestingly, two of the menhirs at Byse are worshipped by the local population – as Bhootaraya and Rana, under the system of ancestor worship, popular in this region. At the southern extreme of the clearing containing the megaliths are two hero stones near low mounds shaded by trees, which resemble the samadhis of Nayaka rulers located at Nagara. This reuse of a megalithic graveyard in more recent times is an interesting observation. Did the persons erecting the memorial monuments of the medieval period know the sepulchral nature of the megaliths, unlike the present occupants of the village?

These megalithic sites hold clues that, if deciphered properly, will answer many questions about our megalith-building  ancestors. Were the cultures that built the cairns the same as those that erected the menhirs? Of what significance were the solstices to the megalith builders? The answers to these, and other, questions sleep under the ground at Nilaskal and Byse, awaiting the trowels and picks of a carefully planned excavation. Until then, all we can say is that Nilaskal seems to be the  showpiece monument of this category of megaliths, with a carefully chosen site, an extensive spread, magnificently fashioned menhirs and painstakingly executed construction.
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