Megaliths, as described in The Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology, comprise various sepulchral and commemorative monuments. These monuments are constructed using large stones, either rough or chiseled, and are often associated with a distinct group of black-and-red ware, as well as a uniform collection of iron tools and weapons. Primarily, they represent collective burials of remains (bones) that have been exposed to the elements initially.
It should be noted that not all of these funerary monuments exhibit all the characteristics mentioned above, such as large stones, black-and-red ware, iron implements, or human remains. Therefore, the presence of a single trait has led some scholars to label them as megalithic complexes.
Typically, these burials are found in forests or wastelands. They range from individual internments to small clusters and occasionally span large areas. For example, at Adichanallur, the complex extends over 46 hectares and contains several thousands of burials. Megaliths can be found in most parts of the subcontinent, excluding the Punjab plains, the Indo-Ganga divide, the Ganga Valley, Rajasthan desert, and the North Gujarat plain. However, they are primarily concentrated in peninsular India.
Megalith burials encompass a diverse range of types. Let us examine the major types of burials. These types, often referred to as cists, dolmenoid cists, and dolmens, consist essentially of a chamber created with upright stone slabs known as orthostats. The chamber encloses a space that can be square, rectangular, oblong, or trapezoidal in shape. A covering slab called a capstone rests horizontally on top of the upright slabs.
These structures, known as cists, dolmenoid cists, and dolmens, can have different configurations. They may be entirely underground, partially underground, or fully above ground. In the case of an above-ground structure, it is referred to as a dolmen, which resembles a stone table. Sometimes, these structures are accompanied by a surrounding circle of stones. In the case of cists, the surface evidence often consists solely of the stone circle. These three types of structures, also known as chambered tombs, are typically reinforced on the outer side with rubble packing. These megalithic types are frequently found in North Karnataka, where there is an abundant supply of building materials.
In some instances (found in all four southern Indian states), one of the stone uprights or orthostats, usually the eastern one, contains a hole known as a port-hole. The port-hole’s diameter ranges from 10 to 50 cm and may have served as an access point to the inner part of the tomb. Port-holed cists are sometimes approached through a slabbed antechamber, resulting in transepted cists, which are quite common in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu.
Pit burials involve ovaloid, oblong, or cylindrical pits dug into the ground that contain typical elements such as skeletons, pottery, and iron objects. Pit burials associated with stone circles but lacking rubble packing can also be found. In certain areas, pit burials may feature a single upright stone. These standing upright stones are known as menhirs, meaning “long/tall stone.” Another type of megalithic monument, known as um burials, is often not accompanied by large stones. They consist of burials placed in pyriform jars and buried underground. This type of burial is commonly found in the Madurai-Tirunelveli area of Tamil Nadu, and sometimes the urn is covered with a stone slab.
In Kerala, several unique megalithic burial types have been discovered. One of these is known as the topical or umbrella/hat stone. These stones, made of local laterite, feature a low cone shape with a wide circular flat base. The cone is balanced on four slabs that form a square below it. Hoodstones, similar to topical stones, do not have support and rest directly on the ground. They resemble handleless umbrellas commonly found in Kerala and may conceal an urn burial.
In Kerala, as well as parts of South Kanara, rock-cut caves are also found as a type of megalithic monument that suits the local rock conditions. The soft laterite rock can be easily carved into stepped rectangular pits, which open towards the eastern side and have an entrance from the ground surface. The shape of the floor can be roughly circular, semicircular, or oblong.
Terracotta sarcophagi are another type of megalithic burial found in peninsular India. These boat-shaped terracotta troughs, sometimes with legs numbering from 4 to 12, have a separate covering lid made of pottery.
Additionally, alignments of stones or menhirs can be found in various regions. These alignments usually consist of huge boulders, occasionally slabs, arranged in parallel lines following a specific pattern. The upright stones typically range from 1 to 3 meters in height. These stone alignments may enclose stone circles or contain funerary pots with bones. The megalithic burial types display a wide diversity, with certain types being specific to particular regions, while in other areas, multiple types can be found.
For example, the Vidarbha region, which has the majority of megalithic sites in Maharashtra, predominantly features the stone circle with a cairn filling, and no cists are found. This could be due to the unavailability of slabs from the local Deccan Trap rock formation. It is worth noting that some megalithic types may be localized due to specific ecological factors. For instance, chamber tombs and cists are common in Andhra and Karnataka, where an abundance of quartzitic sandstone is available, while rock-cut caves tend to be found in Kerala, where the soft laterite allows for easier excavation.
Based on the description of the different types of megaliths, it becomes evident that there is both regional diversity and variation in burial practices within the same cemetery. Not all burials are accompanied by large stones, so the term “megalith” may not be entirely appropriate. L..S. Leshnik proposed the term “Pandukal complex” (Pandu meaning “old man” in Tamil and kal meaning “stones,” referring to the traditional name given to these burials) as an alternative. The wide geographical distribution of these burials raises questions about whether they belong to a single cultural complex or multiple ones. Further research is needed to better understand these megalithic structures.
Pottery plays a significant role as grave goods in these burials. Black-and-red ware with a crackled appearance, possibly due to salt-glazing, is commonly found in the megaliths of peninsular India. Other regional pottery types include red ware, black ware, russet-coated painted ware, and other region-specific styles. Iron objects found in these burials include celts or axes with crossed iron bands, flanged spades, arrowheads, tridents, swords, lances, spearheads, spikes, wedges, billhooks, sickles, hoes, chisels, horse-bits, knives/daggers, blades, lamps, and more.
Copper/bronze was also used for creating vessels, elaborate lids adorned with sculpted figures of birds and animals, bells, horse furniture, and other items. Occasionally, whole shells or shell objects decorated with patterns are discovered. Gold objects have been found in South Indian megaliths, including beads, bangles, leaf-shaped ornaments, and diadems. Semi-precious stone beads, including etched carnelian beads, are also present. Terracotta objects such as cones, figurines, spindle-whorls, as well as stone querns and pestles, are among the other artifacts recovered.
Plant remains found at habitation sites include common pea, black gram, wheat, lentil, jujube, barley, kulthi (a type of gram), green gram, ragi, and rice. Wheat is primarily found in the Vidarbha region of northern peninsular India, while ragi and rice are more common in southern sites. Animal remains at habitation sites in the Vidarbha region indicate a prevalence of cattle bones, followed by goat, sheep, buffalo, and pig. Horse bones are relatively rare but hold significance that requires further research. Bones of wild species such as fowl, sambar, and pig suggest hunting and fishing practices, as indicated by the discovery of fish hooks.
Based on the plant and animal remains, as well as the types of agricultural tools (particularly the absence of ploughshares), and the scarcity of habitation sites, it is suggested that a combination of herding and hoe cultivation, known as agro-pastoralism, may have been the primary subsistence strategy. Hunting and fishing likely supplemented this practice. Such a subsistence strategy may have involved mobility, which could explain the limited number of identified habitation sites. If sites were short-lived, they would have accumulated minimal cultural material, making their identification challenging. The role of horses remains enigmatic and requires further research and investigation.