Incredible Megaliths of India: Star Maps and Headless Goddesses – Part I
That India has many thousands of megaliths is something that deserves to be more widely known. These monuments include Menhirs (tall standing stones), alignments, avenues, stone circles, cysts, dolmens, barrows, rock cut chambers and more. Professor KP Rao, Professor of History at University of Hyderabad is the great authority on these monuments and he estimates there to be several thousand sites, each individual one of these containing 10 to 50 stones and some complexes have as many as 2000 to 3000 stones. All in all, India could well have more of these monuments than those of the whole of Europe.
The monuments range in date from 1400 BCE to 200 BCE, and thus belong to a more recent culture than that of the European Megalith builders, which range in date from 4500 to 1500 BCE.
Smaller alignment stones – Madumal. (Photo courtesy of Professor KPRao, University of Hyderabad)
The relationship between the megalith builders and religious practices of south India is complex and one that is ripe for further interpretation. It is usually assumed that the megaliths are the work of India’s many tribal groups, who have left few or no literary records. What we might call India’s “great” tradition in contrast has a very large body of written texts. Early Indian scriptures and mythological literature actually do occasionally refer to the megaliths. For example, there are several highly venerated epic poems of South India, products of the Tamil Sangam age, which takes its name from a gathering or assembly of three hundred Tamil poets and scholars, who were "taken by the sea". The late Kamil Zvelebil, esteemed scholar of Tamil culture, thought the gathering did actually happen on a regular basis. The time frame for the Sangam age is usually set circa 350 BCE to 300 CE and would overlap with the final phase of megalithic construction.
Sage Agastya,Chairman of first Tamil Sangam, Thenmadurai, Pandiya Kingdom. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
One of the most celebrated compositions of this Sangam age is the Manimekalai, an epic poem, in which several kinds of burial practices are enumerated. There are “Those who cremated, those who cast away or exposed the dead to the elements or animals. Those who laid the body in pits which they dig into the ground, those who interred the body in subterranean cellars or vaults and those who place the body in a burial-urn and inverted a lid over it.” (Ch 6.11, 66-67)
A palm leaf manuscript with ancient Tamil text (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Since this Sangam age, Hindu India has become better known for its cremations rather than tombs, although some contemporary Hindus, desirous of breaking the widespread taboo against inhumation, have cited these ancient practices as a precedent.
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The Manimekalai is tells the story of a beautiful courtesan, the eponymous heroine of the poem. It is the sequel to the Tale of the Anklet (The Silappatikaram) which I discuss in some detail in my book “Isis, Goddess of Egypt & India”. Manimekala is the “illegitimate” daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi; the femme fatale with whom he makes a disastrous and adulterous liaison. After an eventful life, including an encounter with the Sea-Goddess, whose name she also bears, she converts to Buddhism.
Burials for Tribal Chieftains and Heroes
The Buddhist context is significant because there is an interesting connection between Buddhism and the megalithic builders of India. Consider the cist burials, which are extremely numerous in the Indian peninsular. The following pictures from British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler’s study shows the construction of the squared chamber by the positioning of four orthostats, one of which has a porthole. If you consider the overall shape seen from above, you might recognize the swastika. The swastika is a Sanskrit word of power with no obvious meaning other than as an entirely benign and auspicious image.
Cist burial – from Brahmagiri where that are many thousands of similar monuments the porthole, diameter 1.5-2ft in diameter, orientated east to rising sun – it is too small to be the entrance but is approached by a downward ramp and is likely a soul-door to allow communication between the worlds of the living and the dead. (Source Mortimer Wheeler, My Archaeological Mission to India and Pakistan, London 1976 p 61)
Drawing of same cist-grave – from Andreas Volwahsen, Living Architecture Indian London 1969 p. 90
It is entirely likely that this swastika symbol, which is equally revered by Hindus, Buddhist and Jains, had an older provenance derived from the megalith builders, one that might have transferred itself to these religion’s founders, all of whom spent time in remote retreats, in forests, often in the company of the kind of tribal people who may well have built megaliths.
According to Andreas Vohwahsen, the cist graves were reserved mainly for tribal chieftains and heroes. It is significant that the Buddha instructed his disciples to commemorate great kings and sages by erecting, at crossroads, so called stupas, mounds of earth enclosing a relic. Early Buddhist texts say that after the death of the Buddha, eight princes fought among themselves for his ashes and bones. Each erected a huge, egg-shaped stupa, or mound in which to house them.
The ground plan of these stupas mirrors that of the megalithic cists. In addition to the swastika ground plan and egg shaped dome, there is the square ritual inner chamber that contains the human remains. As a macrocosm of the human body, the outer path (medhi) is the abdomen, the egg shaped dome (anda) is upper body and the umbrella cover over the urn represents the head. Mushroom or umbrella shaped capstones also feature in the older megalith burials. The entire influence of megalithic cist-burials as can be seen in the following plan of a stupa.
The Great Stupa at Sanchi (CC BY-S 2.0)
Section of Stupa at Sanchi, India. (Public Domain)
There are other semiotic links between the megalithic culture and what one might call more heterodox religious tendencies in India – Buddhism, but also what we call Tantra. The genesis of Tantra may also overlap with that of India's megalith builders. Some of the more “extreme” tantric practices involve meditation in the smashana or cremation ground; the place where corpses were stored overnight and then cremated. K R Shinivasan reminds us that the original meaning of smashana was a stone-bench, i.e. a tomb. So perhaps the original Tantric impulse is another of a long list of ancient practitioners whose core practices involved communion with the dead.
Astronomical Significance: Sun, Moon, Stars
Although the megalithic builders left no literary remains, numerous signs have been found both on the stones and the pottery in the tombs. Many seem to have astronomical significance, depicting the sun, moon stars and directions. The megalithic tombs all have a high degree of cardinality, being orientated to the compass points. The porthole, an example of which is shown in the cist photograph, is too small to allow for deposition of the body, and must be equivalent of a soul door by which the living can continue communication with their ancestors. These portholes also allow for the rising sun and perhaps other asterisms to illuminate the tomb at dawn on important “twilight” points of the year, notably the winter and summer solstices.
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The Sky Religion, what Professor Rao called “megalithism”, is still a living tradition amongst India’s many tribal groups. There are 645 tribes scheduled by the Indian constitution. For example, the Gonds, who worship the sun, moon and stars and offer a symbolic human sacrifice (see Bahadur 1978: 89 “castes, tribes and cultures of India”, quoted in KP Rao.)
Many tribal groups still erect menhirs in honor of the dead, usually as a response to the manifestation of a departed ancestor who has been a troublesome ghost. A religious specialist, a “shaman”, asks them what they want, which invariably turns out to be a feast and the erection of a menhir to give them respect amongst the other ghosts. To anyone who has studied the folk magic of for example Egypt, or Sudan, this is very familiar territory. This seems entirely parallel to funeral practices of many other cultures, including in our own, when funeral stele are still erected to commemorate the name of the departed soul. We are dealing with a universal of human nature.
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
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“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