Megalithic Astronomy at Nilaskal and Baise, India

The megaliths of southern India form a class of enigmatic monuments, though nearly two hundred years of scholarly work has been devoted to them. The first report of a megalith in India was by Babington (1823), in Kerala in southern India. The spectacular appearance of some of the megaliths in India attracted the attention of antiquarians early on (see Sundara 1975), but the first systematic excavation of a megalith was only carried out by Wheeler (1947) in 1947 at Brahmagiri in present-day Karnataka State. The work of these and other workers has established the date of the south Indian megalithic complex as contiguous with the Iron Age, that is, around 1500BC–200AD (Moorti, 1994; 2008), though others have suggested the period 1200–500BC (Bauer et al., 2007). The origins of the megalithic culture in south India probably lie in the immediately preceding South Indian Neolithic (3000–1200 BC). Recent work by Morrison (2005) suggests that the construction of megaliths may have started as far back as the middle of the South Indian Neolithic.

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A large majority of the south Indian megaliths are funerary in nature. However, the funerary aspect of this tradition is not entirely a new feature of the Iron Age. The antiquity of burial practice in India dates back to the Mesolithic period and marked burials began in the Neolithic (Agrawal, n.d.). Though evidence for an antecedent stage of  ‘megalithism’ is found in the pre-Iron Age context, this tradition became very popular in the Iron Age and continued to survive into the Early Historic and even later periods. Though marked and unmarked burials were a feature of the Neolithic, the burials were mostly within the habitation areas and often within the living quarter itself; the Iron Age marks the emergence of a separate ‘area of the dead’.

Though a few megalithic sites have been reported from North India (e.g. Burzahom and Gurfkral in Kashmir, and Gagrigol in the Kumaon area), by far the great majority of megaliths are found in the southern part of the country. The various megalithic types encountered are stone circles; dolmens; dolmenoid cists and cist burials; pit burials etc., apart from menhirs; stone alignments and avenues; as well as rock-cut chambers; and the unique topikals and kudaikals of Kerala. In fact, in spite of this apparently bewildering variety of typologies one finds distributed all over the Subcontinent, they can be classified into a few broad categories.

For a detailed classification of Indian megaliths, the reader is referred to Moorti (1994; 2008). Basically, he classifies all megaliths into sepulchral—which contain the mortal remains of one or more human beings and non-sepulchral—which have no human remains associated with them. To the former category belong pit burials (unlined excavations where the remains are buried with a variety of surface markers like cairns or boulder circles etc.) and chamber burials (pits lined with stone slabs, often with a surmounting cap-stone, again with a variety of surface markers). In the non-sepulchral category fall megaliths like dolmens, menhirs, stone alignments and avenues. However, it may be pointed out that sometimes variations may be seen—such as menhirs being non-sepulchral in Karnataka, and markers for pit burials in Kerala (Sundara, 1975).

The state of technology possessed by the builders of the megaliths has been understood by conventional archaeology. Industries such as smithery, carpentry, bead-making, etc. are known to have been prevalent and metallurgical studies of the iron found in graves and production areas have attested to the excellent knowledge of metallurgy in the period (see Mudhol, 1997). The socio-economic systems extant in those times have been studied well too (Moorti, 1984; 2008). However, not much is known about the knowledge systems of these ancient engineers and builders. That they possessed refined engineering skills, and hence some knowledge of mechanics, visualization and, by implication of geometry and mathematics, there can be no doubt.

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The elegant design of dolmens such as the ones found at Hire Benkal made of very heavy and large blocks of stone (Figure above) or a laterite rock-cut chamber burial in Kerala, crafted to perfection (Figure below) bear testimony to this.

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In 2007 a project started with the objective of examining megalithic monuments in order to formally understand the knowledge systems their builders possessed, especially in astronomy.

The objective was to investigate if the sepulchral megaliths followed any preferred orientation patterns, and also whether indeed some of the non-sepulchral types were designed to keep track of celestial events on the local horizon. The plan of action was to study all classes of megalithic monuments and examine their orientations.

Sepulchral Megaliths

In general, the older typology (by stylistic dating) was found to be either without any preferred orientation pattern or mostly south-facing. The later typologies were mostly east- or west-facing. A large majority of the east- and west-facing monuments face points on the horizon that are well within the annual range of sunrise and sunset, leading to the conclusion that it was intended that they face sunrise or sunset on some days of the year.

Avenue Monuments

Among the non-sepulchral typologies, the avenue seems like a potential candidate for astronomical use. Two kinds of avenues were encountered during the survey. The first consisted of the established avenue sites of Northern Karnataka, such as Hanamsagar, Vibhuthihalli, etc.

Preliminary surveys at Vibhuthihalli conformed to the established view that the rows of stones were loosely aligned to the cardinal directions. That is to say, that the stones—which are believed to have been rolled down the slopes of the low, boulder-strewn outcrop to the west of the avenue and manoeuvered into position—are scattered closely along grid-lines that align to the cardinal directions.

At Hanamsagar, though we do not have survey data to substantiate the facts, we call into question the very shape of the monument. An aerial view taken from the hill on the west seems to suggest a curvature in the alignment of the rocks (Figure below).

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The Nilaskal Group of ‘Menhir Sites’

Near the town of Hosanagara in southern Karnataka is the Nilaskal group of ‘menhirs sites’ described by Sundara (1975; 2004). Sundara (2004) also reports three other sites, at Baise, Hergal and Mumbaru.

These sites consist of a large number of menhirs made of either quarried stone slabs (as at Nilaskal) or natural elongated stones of lenticular cross-section (Hergal and Mumbaru), or a combination of both. The menhirs at Nilaskal were recorded as menhirs, “… erected haphazardly, unlike those of Vibhutihalli or north Karnataka.” (Sundara, 2004; cf. Sundara 1975).

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They were also recorded as being about twenty in number, with the remnants of a few more. However, our studies have revealed the remains of more than one hundred stones at Nilaskal (see Figure above).

We have also noted that all these menhirs are erected with their long axis of cross-section oriented north-south. In addition, we have recorded evidence for many pairs of stones forming sight-lines to the sunrise and sunset points on the local horizon during both the solstices, at Nilaskal (Figure below) as well as Baise.

Winter-Solstice-sunset-framed-by-two-Menhirs-at-Nilaskal-in-Southern-India

In fact, at Baise, all the menhirs pair up with other menhirs to frame the rising and setting Sun at the solstices, effectively forming a ‘solstitial grid’. We can say for certain that these sight-lines appear to be intentional, although we do not have sufficient evidence yet to determine whether the menhirs were arranged to form a ‘calendar device’ to keep track of time by observing the solar cycle.

Recently, we have chanced upon a hitherto unreported site at Aaraga Gate of similar typology in the same region, bringing the now known sites of this particular type to five. This leads us to propose this typology of menhir monuments as a new sub-class of avenue monuments, consisting of either natural boulders of elongated cross-sectioned or thin quarried slabs, oriented with their long axes of cross section N-S and arranged so that pairs of them point to the sunrise/sunset points on the local horizon during solstices.

(Source: “Megalithic Astronomy in South India”, by Srikumar Menon and Mayank Vahia)

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