Hire Benakal: A gallery of megalithic forms

Hire Benakal: A gallery of megalithic forms

The greater landscape around Hampi has several important megalithic sites.

It would be no cliché to state that the region around Hampi is one where myth and history truly merge with the topography. Though popularly known for the remains of the fabled city of Vijayanagara, capital of the Karnataka Empire which flourished during the 14th–16th centuries CE, this landscape on the banks of the Tungabhadra, however, has other claims to fame, too.

Legend has it that across the Tungabhadra from Hampi is Kishkindha, the Vanara kingdom of Vali and Sugriva. Scattered among the ruins at Hampi and beyond are landmarks from the Ramayana – Sugriva’s cave, remains of the funeral pyre of Vali, the spot of Sugriva’s coronation, Matanga Parvata, where Sugriva sought refuge from the wrath of his brother, Prasravana, where Rama impatiently waited out the rainy season in his quest for Sita, and many more.

The more recent monuments of Vijayanagara populate this landscape of myth, cleverly and masterfully built into the dramatic landscape, with its low hills of tumbled boulders punctuating the plains watered by the Tungabhadra.

But what few visitors who throng to this UNESCO World Heritage Site would realise is that layers of history underlie this spectacular city and kingdom, stretching back to prehistoric times when early humans wandered this landscape.

There are several panels of prehistoric rock art scattered about within Hampi itself, rarely noticed by visitors. The greater landscape around Hampi also has several megalithic sites, megaliths being funerary and commemorative monuments erected in the Iron Age, roughly 1200-500 BCE.

The most spectacular among the megalithic sites around Hampi is Hire Benakal. Situated less than 10 km to the north of Hampi, just beyond a few rocky ridges, Hire Benakal can blow the minds of visitors away, much like Hampi does.

Scattered among the haphazard agglomerations of large and small boulders characteristic of the region, are numerous megalithic dolmens constructed with large slabs of stone, as well as several lesser monuments.

The dwarf legend

Walking among these structures, one gets the eerie feeling of being in a ghost town of abandoned houses. Moriyara Mane (houses of the dwarves) is what the local residents of Hire Benakal call these, and the hill with the megaliths is Moriyara Gudda (hill of the dwarves).

Legend has it that these structures were the houses of an extinct dwarf race called the Moriyas who were endowed with superhuman strength to split and heft heavy stone slabs to erect them. However, archaeology reveals a different picture. These structures were built to commemorate dead people of eminence during the Iron Age. There are over a thousand monuments of different sizes and forms at Hire Benakal making it one of India's most extensive megalithic sites.

It also contains a wide variety of megalith types, making it virtually a museum of megalith forms. The large dolmens discussed earlier are the most prominent. They are box-like structures made of four upright stone slabs, with a large capstone covering and weighing down the structure. One of the upright slabs often has a circular or semi-circular hole called a porthole. Though the dolmens are tall enough for a grown person to walk in erect, the portholes are small – 15-18cm in diameter. Maybe this is what gave rise to the dwarf legend!

Dolmenoid cists are smaller structures, about a metre tall, built in a similar manner as the dolmens, but half-buried in the ground. Cists are rectangular stone-lined graves fully sunk into the ground. Apart from these, there are crude dolmens made by raising a slab on smaller rocks and plugging the gaps with stone blocks and natural rock shelters plugged with stone blocks to create an enclosure.

The monuments are distributed in three clusters, strung out roughly west to east. The western cluster contains more of the smaller structures – cist burials, crude dolmens and dolmenoid cists, while the central and eastern clusters contain most of the large dolmens. One of the large dolmens has an anthropomorphic figure, a slab shaped to resemble a human figure, probably a part of the vocabulary of ancestor worship.

The intent of the Iron Age megalith builder seems to have been to create a chamber either above or below the ground, most probably to place human remains and burial goods. The porthole or similar opening probably served as a portal to insert votive offerings periodically.

Built over centuries

Given the sheer extent and number of monuments at Hire Benakal, it must have been a composite site built up over centuries. Whether the more refined monuments reflect an increasing familiarity and skill with stone-working, or exhibit the varying social class or affluence of the persons being commemorated is something we can only guess at.

Hire Benakal is a unique site — spectacular both for its monuments and landscape and a treasure house of information about the beliefs and rituals of our distant ancestors. A water reservoir made by the quarrying activity, also seen at several other megalithic sites, hints at the use of water in death rituals. A kettle drum made by neatly slicing a rock, locally known as the Nagaari Gund, also points to the involvement of drumbeats in whatever rituals were played out on this remote hilltop. Hire Benakal also contains several clues of their knowledge of stoneworking, such as a huge boulder split without any evidence for use of wedges.

Hire Benakal is an important site to understand our megalithic past. It is easy to see why it has recently made it to the shortlist for UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, the most striking thing which occurs to me is its sheer visual impact.

Just as Hampi is a rich repast of monuments, each of which would have arrested the eye in any given setting, Hire Benakal too, is a surfeit of monuments in a spectacular amphitheatre of rock and sky.

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

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