Missives from the silent period in history

Missives from the silent period in history

Complex Pasts, Diverse Futures

Two menhirs at Nilaskal framing the setting sun on winter solstice

Every year, ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) comes up with a theme for the International Day for Monuments and Sites, which is celebrated on April 18. The theme for 2021 is ‘Complex Pasts, Diverse Futures’, with a view to “reflect on, reinterpret, and re-examine existing narratives” about our built heritage.

It is a particularly relevant theme in these days of contested histories of both ownership and authorship of historical monuments and sites. ICOMOS has thought of this theme to encourage a critical examination of the pasts of various components of our cultural heritage, and to ensure an inclusive approach with unbiased and nuanced understanding.

Mulling over this year’s theme, what immediately struck me was how prehistoric origins of monuments or the sites they stand on are often overlooked in popular narratives of cultural heritage, usually due to lack of awareness, or deterioration of traces from the ancient past due to the action of the elements and humans over time.

Virtually all monuments and sites have complex pasts. A quote from the British prehistorian Colin Renfrew seems relevant: “The landscape in which we live is a constructed environment, rich with the memories of earlier people and events.” While at first glance this seems to merely state the obvious, one would be amazed at how deep the history of many monuments and sites runs.

For instance, it has been observed by archaeologists that many relatively recent monuments like stupas and temples stand on earlier megalithic sites. Megaliths are funerary and commemorative monuments, often built of stone, and erected in the Iron Age, or even earlier; and occur in large numbers especially in southern India.

Hundreds of boulder circles — a type of megalith wherein a ring of boulders marks a burial, were observed near the great stupa at Amaravati in
Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, numerous megalithic monuments were observed near Buddhist stupa sites at Goli, Chandavaram (Andhra Pradesh) and Kushinagara (Uttar Pradesh), which were unfortunately not studied even cursorily by the early excavators of the stupas.

Memorial sites

At Aihole in Karnataka, within a fortified compound atop Meguti Hill, is a Jain temple erected during the rule of the Early Chalukyan King Pulakeshi II, in 634 CE. However, the entire hillside behind the temple is strewn with numerous megalithic monuments. The megaliths are believed to pre-date the temple, since there was a rich tradition of megalith-building in the Malaprabha Valley long before the period of Early Chalukyan rule. The very fact that the temple-builders did not disturb the megalithic monuments, or use them as a convenient source of quarried stone, shows the regard they had for those whose memories the megaliths represent.

To the west of Meguti Hill, on the northern part of another low hill are two clusters of Hindu temples — the Ramalingeshwara group and the Galaganatha group. Strewn behind and between the clusters, and even amidst the temples, are a scattering of megaliths. One of these is a heap of rubble which is a megalithic cairn, within which are embedded three hero stones from the medieval period. Hero stones commemorate valorous death, so this is a clear case of medieval builders re-using prehistoric sites for similar purposes.

Why did the temple-builders choose to locate their monuments in megalithic memorial sites? Recent research has suggested that many of the temples in the Malaprabha Valley were built to commemorate the dead. Thus, the temples are merely carrying on the commemorative tradition represented by the megaliths. The nature of the stupa as a commemorative monument or reliquary is well-known, so the presence of stupas in megalithic graveyards should come as no surprise.

It is also quite common to find panels of prehistoric rock art near early temples. Near the Mahakuta group of temples at Badami is a structure known as the Hire Makuteshwara Temple. The temple itself is a clever piece of architecture – the artisans who built it have ingeniously placed the flat-roofed structure beneath the overhang of a cliff, which literally becomes the shikhara of the temple. But even more interesting is that the side of the cliff is plastered with prehistoric rock art – paintings in red ochre.

Preferred locations?

The examples are too numerous to be mere coincidences. So why did our forebears choose to locate their creations near those of their distant ancestors? There are no clear answers, but it is possible that later occupants of a landscape might have found the sacred sites of earlier ones to be of sufficient importance to put up their own structures, even if the two were culturally discontinuous.

Our heritage is a weave of many cultural strands, some prominent, others subtle but equally important to the construction of the fabric. Not only were megalithic sites the context for later structures, but the monuments themselves were precursors which evolved to give us the rich repository of later monumental architecture.

Megaliths being prehistoric monuments, their builders have not left behind textual records of their beliefs and intentions. However, the monuments themselves hold important clues about the knowledge-systems their builders possessed. For instance, the menhirs of Nilaskal, in southern Karnataka, frame the setting sun on both solstices of the year, an intentional alignment probably of symbolic importance to an ancient cult of the dead.

It is important that our narratives of the pasts of our monuments and sites are complex enough to incorporate accounts of these crude, but important structures, too, so that the diverse futures of these do not exclude this ‘silent’ phase of our history.

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

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