Stones Slanted Towards Science

A seemingly ordinary cluster of stones in Byse, a village near Shivamogga, twines solstitial and ritualistic strands of history

The menhirs at Byse aligned towards sunset on winter solstice. Photos by author

The village of Nagara in Shivamogga district is a delight for anyone who takes an interest in historical monuments.

Nagara, then called Bidanur, served as the capital city of the Keladi Nayaka dynasty during the 17th century. The Nagara Fort, situated on a hillock beside a waterbody, is one of the picturesque monuments in Nagara. Situated a short distance out of Nagara are the Devagange pools — an interlinked series of nine tanks beside a small temple, also built during Nayaka rule.

Close by are the samadhis of some of the Nayaka rulers, in a densely wooded grove, mounds of masonry shaded by trees and embellished with hero stones commemorating deceased kings and queens. But centuries before the Nayakas, there were monuments being erected near Nagara.

At a village called Byse, roughly 2.5 km west of Nagara, off the road leading to Kollur, is a clearing called Nilaskal Byana (‘The field with the standing stones’). There is a cluster of megaliths called menhirs, which are stones erected upright.

One of the menhirs of Byse, which is a natural boulder erected in place.
One of the menhirs of Byse

Megaliths are monuments of the Iron Age, believed to be erected roughly 3500-2000 years ago. Megaliths come in many forms, the menhir being the simplest one. At first glance, there seems to be nothing remarkable about the cluster of stones in the clearing at Byse. There are 28 stones, mostly elongated boulders or quarried slabs, standing, leaning or fallen to the ground. Some of them are not more than stumps, with their upper portions broken off. It is clear that many more could be missing.

Upon studying them carefully, it turns out that the menhirs have been arranged in such a manner that pairs of them are aligned to the rising and setting points of the sun on the solstices — the shortest and longest days of the year. These sightlines appear to be deliberately planned. Most megaliths have a connotation with death — they either mark burials or commemorate dead persons.

At Byse, too, can be seen remnants of megalithic cairns, which are heaps of rubble and earth, usually erected over burials.

Reinforcing the association with death and commemoration, two mounds with hero stones are situated to the south of the clearing, bearing an uncanny semblance to the Nayaka tombs just a couple of kilometres away.

The origins of megalith-building practice being in prehistoric periods, the intent of their builders are obscured by the mists of time. The builders of the megalithic menhirs at Byse had taken pains to ensure their precise alignment — their obsession with orientation is evident in the fact that every menhir is precisely aligned, with its long axis north-south.

But what did the intentional alignment towards the solstices mean to its builders? Though initially it was speculated that the menhirs might have constituted a calendar device intended to keep time, it is now believed that the alignment to the solstices might have been a symbolic one, associated with the cult of the dead.

Despite nearly two centuries of scholarly attention, there are several aspects of megaliths that continue to elude us. In this light, it is interesting to see the reuse of the megalithic site as late as the Nayaka period, as the evidence from the hero stones suggests. Two of three menhirs at Byse are currently worshipped under the ancestor worship system of Bhootaradhane, as Bhootaraya and Rana.

Byse is not the only such site in the vicinity, there are at least four other sites, including the much larger and extensive site at Nilaskal.

In a clearing in this tiny village in Malnad sleep secrets, under the soil, which a systematic excavation could reveal, and which could add greatly to our understanding of history in this part of the world.

(The author is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

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