Hirebenakal in Karnataka is a large and diverse Megalithic site that can offer insights into our past. Although the ASI has sought World Heritage status for the site, it is not adequately protected from marauding treasure hunters. By Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

HIDDEN in the hills of central Karnataka, some 50 kilometres from the grand monuments of Hampi, is a large and diverse Megalithic site. Called Hirebenakal after a village at the foot of the hill on top of which it sits in splendid solitude, it is close to the left bank of the Tungabhadra river. The site is hardly known to the outside world apart from a handful of archaeologists. While Megalithic sites are scattered all over southern India, with many small clusters located close to the Tungabhadra itself, few are as vast as this Iron Age cemetery. This makes Hirebenakal an important site for archaeologists and anthropologists trying to uncover the mysteries of the lives of our ancestors as they made the transition from the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age) to the Iron Age.

Megaliths, structures built with large stones, are present all over the world. Perhaps the most famous Megalithic site is Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, whose strangely laid-out site has spawned numerous theories. Megaliths have existed from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period and through the Neolithic period. Indian megaliths, on the other hand, “...generally belong to the Iron Age and are largely sepulchral in nature”, according to a paper, “The Archaeology of the Megaliths in India: 1947-1997”, by R.K. Mohanty (of Deccan College, Pune) and V. Selvakumar (of Tamil University, Thanjavur).

Like other Megalithic sites in India, Hirebenakal is also a large burial site. Interest in megaliths in India started in the 19th century when many of them were discovered or excavated across the subcontinent. It was around this time that Philip Meadows Taylor, the early British expert on Indian megaliths, wrote about “Hire Benakal” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1835 when he was in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad State.

Further work on the megaliths of the site was done by Captain Leonard Munn, who published his findings in The Journal Hyderabad Geological Survey in 1934. But it was only in the post-Independence period that systematic work on megaliths in India was undertaken, after Sir Mortimer Wheeler, famously associated with the excavations at the Indus Valley site, gave a definite impetus to the work of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as its Director between 1944 and 1948.

Hirebenakal’s discovery

According to Mohanty and Selvakumar, there are 2,200 Megalithic sites in south India alone and none of them has been excavated extensively. In Karnataka, some of the important Megalithic sites that have been excavated are in T. Narasipur, Jadigenahalli, Hallur, Chandravalli, Brahmagiri and Maski. The site of Hirebenakal was excavated by A. Sundara, an archaeologist from Karnatak University, Dharwad, who discussed his findings in his 1975 work The Early Chamber Tombs of South India: A Study of the Iron Age Megalithic Monuments of North Karnataka.

Sundara recorded around 300 megaliths of a variety of shapes and sizes at Hirebenakal. Diversity seems to be a common feature of all Megalithic sites as attested by the work of Mohanty and Selvakumar, who write: “A bewildering variety of burial types, with distinctive features, are encountered among the megaliths of India. Several sites have more than one type of burial, with a lot of variation in their external and internal architecture and content. Even broadly classified types, for example, stone circles or cairn circles of a particular site, vary considerably in their shape, size, nature of deposit and are rarely similar in all aspects, suggesting an ever-changing process governing the erection of the burials.”

Part of the reason for Hirebenakal’s obscurity lies in its remote location and relative anonymity compared with the world-famous wonders of Hampi. A short drive from Gangavathi, a taluk headquarters in Koppal district, takes one to the village of Hirebenakal, which has a population of around 2,000.

The hill on which the archaeological site is located is part of a longer range and rises sharply a short distance from the village. Surrounded by long stretches of lush green paddy fields with smaller patches of mango and maize cultivations, the village is an essential transit point for visitors to the Megalithic site. Local people guide them through the mind-boggling array of goat-trails up the ‘Moryar Gudda’, as the hill is locally known. Ravaged anthills, the handiwork of sloth bears that relish ants, dot the trail and are a constant reminder of the reserve forest that surrounds the track.

While an ASI signboard greets visitors at the base of the hill, further markers on the steep two-kilometre track are missing. On a hot day, the hike might become arduous for many, but the dogged persistence of visitors is rewarded by a sensational sight, the likes of which few people would have seen before. As the hill plateaus, the legion of small dolmens (knee-high to waist-high) that litter the site can be seen. (Dolmens are burial chambers from the Megalithic era. A spectacular variety of dolmens are found all over the world, and all of them are essentially three- or four-sided stone structures with stone slabs called capstones on the top.)

These smaller dolmens are only a preface to the grander and taller ones which lie ahead in a dense clump, some of them almost three metres tall. From a higher vantage point, the slab-supported granite dolmens look like a field of giant mushrooms with their tops lopped off. A pool of stagnant water with scores of delicate lotus buds lies a hundred metres away next to what appears to be a large cache of scattered cut stones.

Continuous inhabitation

Andrew Bauer, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, recently conducted an intensive study on Hirebenakal. Part of his research was published as a paper titled “Producing the Political Landscape: Monuments, Labour, Water, and Place in Iron Age Central Karnataka”.

He writes: “The Hirebenakal megalithic complex contains more than 1,000 distinctive commemorative features in an expansive area nearly 20 hectares in size. Monuments are primarily block-supported and slab-supported dolmen forms, but other megaliths present at the site include stone circles, menhirs, simple rectilinear cists, cairns and boulder enclosures.” (This paper is available in an edited volume published in 2011 titled The Archaeology of Politics: The Materiality of Political Practice and Action in the Past.)

Of the various commemorative features that Bauer writes about, it is the slab-supported dolmens that will stand out to a lay person. With some of them having perfectly circular port holes cut out of them and the thin stone slabs set perfectly so that they interlock without any cement or mortar, the skills of our Iron Age ancestors become amply evident. Shards of russet and black-coloured pottery are scattered across the site.

Sharanabasappa Kolkar, an archaeologist who is the Principal of K. S. C. Women’s College in Gangavathi, told Frontline that there were many urns buried in the megalithic chambers which have been plundered by treasure hunters.

Bauer writes that this particular site was inhabited continuously during the first millennium BCE and adds that there is “considerable evidence for Iron Age occupation and land use at and in the immediate vicinity of the megalithic complex”.

Although Hirebenakal is distinct because of the great number of monuments and their sizes, it is similar in many ways in its layout and configuration to other sites in the region. Bauer told Frontline that “most of the large monuments are near a central water reservoir/tank at the top of the hill. At other dolmen sites I documented, the most formal monuments are also central at the sites, and most proximate to small water retention features. In the semi-arid environment of this region, these hilltop cisterns were probably important sources of water for people and the animals they herded in these hills during the Iron Age (1200-300 BCE). Building commemorative monuments near the water [source] was probably a way of establishing connections to these important places. Not all of the megalithic sites in south India have water retention features, but it certainly seems to be a pattern in the hills near the Tungabhadra river north of Hampi.”

Bauer’s study also shows that the rock shelters in and around the site were also occupied. Some of these have remnants of rock art in them (see box), which supports his contention of continuous inhabitation at this site. This, perhaps, also indicates that the site of habitation and the site of ritual activity signified by the dolmens and cists were not very different for the inhabitants of this site. The presence of anthropomorphically cut burial chambers was pointed out by Kolkar, who claimed that this was a distinctive feature of Hirebenakal.

Threat from treasure hunters

One of the major problems that the site faces is the marauding threat of treasure hunters. This is not a new problem, as Sundara had observed during his excavations in 1965 that almost all the megalithic chambers had been robbed of their contents by people looking for hidden wealth. Kolkar, who has been visiting the site regularly since the late 1990s, told Frontline that the site was still threatened by treasure hunters and pointed out telltale signs of recent plunder in the megalithic tombs.

Cowherds and shepherds can be seen grazing their animals between the stone chambers. The site that extends over some three square kilometres is not adequately protected, which is ironic considering that the Regional Division of the ASI has requested the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to grant it “World Heritage” status. Considering the spectacular nature of this prehistoric site, greater efforts need to be taken to preserve its sanctity while also making it better known.

Veeresh Angadi, a villager, said that around 50 tourists visited the site in a month. On the day of Frontline’s visit, there were only two other visitors—a Russian mother-daughter duo who had heard of the site from someone in Hampi but were clueless as to what it really was. Efforts need to be made to make the site more popular as this ancient graveyard has a certain maudlin charm which might be liked by many tourists.