Incredible Megaliths of India: Menhirs, Temples and Sky Religion – Part II
Indian menhirs occur in large alignments, orientated North-South or East West, and spaced at regular intervals, probably following a schema not yet fully understood. Some major sites such as Mudumal, still garner respect from the local villagers, who otherwise have no obvious religious affinity with the long disappeared builders.
Menhir at Nagbhid in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Folk myths have accumulated around the stones, similar to those attached to European megaliths, which have anachronistic names such as the “Merry Maidens”, or “Weyland’s Smith”. Locals at Mudamal say the stones are the petrified remains of villages after an inappropriate offering to the local goddess Ellamma. She is represented in the site by a black stone. The large stones represent the villagers, the smaller their sheep.
Menhir at Dannanapeta Megalithic site, Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Professor Rao has recently published the discovery at Mudumal of the earliest star-map found in India. One roughly square monolith bears what are known as cup marks, and these accurately reflect the position of the Northern constellations, principally Ursa major, which is a constellation that continues to play a significant role in Hindu mythology as Saptarshi Mandala, (the Seven Sages).
The fish Matsya rescues the Saptarishi (Seven Sages) and Manu from the great Deluge ( Public Domain )
Depiction of Ursa Major. Circa 1825. The seven stars of the constellations were the Saptarshi Mandal in Hindu astronomy. ( Public Domain )
This is yet another semiotic link across various branches of “ the Sky Religion ”. All of the above indicates to me that there a more permeable line should be drawn between the tribal folk cultures and those of the great traditions, such as Hinduism.
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Another possible line of descent might exist via temple images themselves. I’ve already talked about Buddhist holy buildings, but what about Hinduism? In “Isis, Goddess of Egypt & India” I drew attention to a possible underground, megalithic chamber beneath the Karumbha Devi Temple near Cochin, which also conforms to several of aspect of megalithism and the Sky Religion, its Egypt branch.
Nut, goddess of sky and heavenly bodies in Ancient Egypt. ( Public Domain )
There is also an important ideology in Hinduism connected to Jyoti-rupams, self-arising or what we might call “found” images of the divine, in essence natural formations and stones. For example, at the Amber Fort in Jaipur there is an important Durga shrine where the goddess is called Silpa-devi – “Slab-goddess”.
A view of the fort at Amber in Rajasthan; a watercolor by William Simpson, c.1860 ( Public Domain )
Amber Fort: Embossed double leaf silver door entry in to the Sila Devi temple. ( CC BY 2.0 )
She is so named because she is made of a single slab of black stone, recovered from the sea bed in the Bay of Bengal. Jaipur is in Rajastan where otherwise no megaliths have thus far been discovered. In 1602 the Maharaja Mansingh recovered the statue from the seas near Jessore now in Bangladesh. It was “cleaned” and the famous temple was built to house it., taking ten years. Instructions on how to recover the stone are said to have come to the Maharaja in a dream!
Headless Goddesses and Tombs
This leads neatly into anthropoid stones, another variety of megaliths common in south India. They also occur in association with tombs.
Stone megaliths, India (Image courtesy Chris Morgan)
Stone megaliths, India (Image courtesy Chris Morgan)
Those stones in the picture above remind me very much of the fecund, but headless figure of the goddess from Malta. The Maltese figures are several thousand years earlier, dated after the Neolithic and before the Iron Age.
Neolithic statue, Malta. Many historians believe that this type of statue, dubbed "fat ladies", represented an ancient fertility goddess.
Some of the above Indian stones appear to be headless. Those on Malta are also headless although there is an indication that a “reserve head” (or heads) may have been attached. So we should also consider a similar possibility for the Indian headless images. There seems to be a perennial motif in the megalithic religion, this play on the theme of headlessness, and its corollary in the cult of the disembodied head.
Headlessness occurs in an embarrassingly large number of religious contexts, each one presenting yet another nuance of possible meanings. So for example in Egyptian astronomical texts, headlessness, had, amongst other things, a technical meaning, of having no beginning or birth. When applied to a star it might connote its continuous presence in the night sky, unlike many other stars nearer to celestial horizon that rise, culminate, and set on a distinct cycle. This metaphor works because the head is the first thing to emerge from the mother.
I'd almost say the following is one of the strangest images of all those documented by Professor Rao who allowed many of his pictures to be used in this article. One could almost mistake it for a Christian cross. But look closer and you can see the breasts! These megaliths are dated to approximately 1000 BCE. It was originally in a standing position and with its outstretched arms and all too human features it is a fantastic example of an anthropoid image. Megalithic iconography is probably an overlooked element in the development of India art and must be reinstated as an important influence and hitherto unexplored source.
Unique stone megalith, India. (Photo courtesy of Professor KPRao, University of Hyderabad)
I find myself particularly interested in the numerous sarcophagi in stone and sometimes terracotta, anthropoid, or theriopoid containers for the dead.
Image of sarcophagi and anthropoid figures (K.P. Rao Deccan megaliths, Delhi, 1988)
Group of stone sarcophagi, some appear internally anthropoid, i.e. shaped to form around the corpse, from Kistapuram. (Photo courtesy Professor Rao)
Some of these sarcophagi show probable Mesopotamian influence. Professor Rao doubts that the design of these terracotta coffins reached peninsular India via any land route. If anything they seem to be associated with what must have been an ancient deep-sea route of the kind described in my book.
Could they be associated with Mediterranean travelers who sailed to India from the Red sea via the Hippalos trade winds ? This maritime trade was very well organized, from second century BCE onwards, as the remains at Arikamedu testify. But as the Roman historian Pliny says, at least 120 ships had made the journey before this time. Could the sarcophagi be part of a trans-oceanic maritime trade from much earlier times? The burials are not on the coast but cluster on the foothills of the ghats, the mountain range that runs parallel to the western peninsular. Mortimer Wheeler, an archaeologist of an earlier generation, opined that there was an association between these megalithic burials and powerful rivers that may have benefited from management systems of a kind familiar from Mesopotamia and Egypt.
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Of course what springs to mind would be the celebrated journey of Queen Hatshepsut to Punt, a destination whose precise destination is the subject of several theories but which mostly assumed to be somewhere on the African subcontinent. One of the many possibilities revealed by these finds in India, is that her or at least one of her emissaries, could have met agents from India?
Research into this hitherto neglected area of India monuments remains still at an early stage. There are a number of complex overlapping relationships to map, those between East and West; between Tribal and Mainstream; between ancient and later religious ideologies, between literary and non-literary remains; to the Indus Valley civilization, who are conjectured to have spoken a proto-Dravidian language, perhaps an ancestor to those currently spoken by the inhabitants of ancient South India, including Tamil but also the Gondi tribal language spoken by two million locals. It should be said that tombs and megaliths have been largely conspicuous by their absence at Indus Valley locations.
The megaliths hold the distinct possibility that India’s many tribal groups posess important keys to the ancient Sky religion, elements of which they transfer to the religionists of medieval India, as evidenced in the rise of what we call for convenience’s sake, Tantrism. There are sure to be many revelations ahead.
Chris Morgan is a respected independent scholar, former Wellcome student, and holder of an advanced degree in Oriental Studies from University of Oxford. He is the author of several books on Egypt, specializing in folk religion, ritual calendars and the “archaeological memory” encoded in the religions of post pharaonic Egypt. He is also an Indologist, interested in the philosophy and technology of India, especially Ayurvedic medicine, and folk magic traditions. His latest book is “Isis: Goddess of Egypt & India.”
Top Image: Deriv; Ursa Major ( Public Domain ), stone megalith, India.
By Chris Morgan
KP Rao. Astrological relationship in South India Megaliths, Academia Edu
Prof Cyril A Hromnik. Indo-Africa: Toward a New Understanding of the history of Sub Saharan Africa
“The Megalithic Burials and Urn-Field of South India in the Light of Tamil Literature and Tradition” K R Shinivasan , Ancient India No 2 1945