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On Iron Age South Indian megaliths and present-day tribal megaliths

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  • Francesco Brighenti
    ... with that found in East India and Assam. In the latter two places, ... peoples. The megalithic culture of the south may be related to the Gangetic
    Message 1 of 2 , May 21, 2005
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      --- In IndiaArchaeology@yahoogroups.com, p.manansala@s... wrote:

      > The megalithic culture of South India shared many similarities
      with > that found in East India and Assam. In the latter two places,
      > megaliths are or until recently were still erected by tribal
      peoples. > The megalithic culture of the south may be related to the
      Gangetic > iron age.

      Dear Paul,

      Since sir Mortimer Wheeler's times, archaeologists working in S.
      Asia have been very wary about connecting the megalithic cultures of
      protohistoric South India with those of present-day tribal peoples
      of eastern and northeastern India.

      The following is an extract, relevant to this issue, from M.
      Wheeler, _Early India and Pakistan: To Ashoka_, London, Thames and
      Hudson, 1959, pp. 150-53 and 168:

      << The megaliths of India are extensive and peculiar. They are in
      fact the jungle of a problem, and a little preliminary clearing may
      be helpful, though the procedure is not without risk. In the present
      context it would appear to be justifiable to set aside at once the
      megaliths of that region of north-eastern India, extending from
      Assam to Bastar on the northern flank of the lower Godavari, where
      megalithic 'cultures' (if so they may be called) are a more or less
      living tradition of the aborigines. To exclude these living or
      moribund cultures, which have been extensively studied, may seem a
      wilful rejection of potentially useful comparative evidence; but
      they do in fact differ in general type and concept from most of the
      South Indian material, and Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf's
      observation that they belong essentially to south-eastern Asia --
      Indonesia, Oceania, the Philippines, Formosa -- matches the
      evidence, whatever be the truth of his plausible guess that they
      were introduced into north-eastern India by Austroasiatic
      immigrants. The Bastar Gonds and the Khasis and Nagas of Assam alike
      erect single standing stones (menhirs) or alignments of stones in
      honour of the dead, who are thereby encouraged to help their living
      kinsmen. In Assam, as well as in Indonesia and Oceania, a forked
      wooden post of Y-shape is an alternative to the menhir, and both
      posts and menhirs are associated with ox-sacrifice. An identical
      custom occurs in Bastar; and the Koyas and Raj Gonds of Hyderabad
      erect small forked posts carrying the tails of sacrificial cows on
      graves or the site of memorial feasts. In all these regions it is
      the widespread belief that the soul or 'virtue' of the dead man is
      attached to the stone or post and benefits his survivors and the
      village-crops. Alternatively, the Bondos and Gadabas of Orissa erect
      a dolmen (table-like cist above ground), often of small size, as the
      seat of the dead; and this seat may be associated with a stone
      circle. Generally, the setting-up of menhirs, dolmens and stone-
      circles links the Orissa tribes both with the Khasis and Nagas of
      Assam and with the Gonds of Bastar. The Khasis indeed (though not
      the Nagas) approach more nearly to the dominant megalithic custom of
      peninsular India in that they collect periodically the bones of clan-
      members and deposit them in a free-standing cist, as big as a small
      house, built of enormous single slabs. So too do the Mundas of Chota
      Nagpur who, in addition to setting up memorial stones of north-
      eastern type, bury excarnated bones of members of a family in dolmen-
      like graves consisting of a cover-slab supported by smaller stones.
      Here it may not be irrelevant that the Munda languages have been
      regarded as a mixture of elements from continental India on the one
      hand and further India on the other. Chota Nagpur is geographically
      well situated far such an interchange: it remains to discover any
      equivalent cultural overlap which might explain the Khasi cists.

      The problem, then, of interrelationship (or its absence) between
      megalithic areas and customs is not an easy one. On the whole,
      however, in spite of occasional and partial analogies, the
      differences between the megaliths of the tribal areas and the
      ancient tombs of the Deccan and peninsular India are far more
      impressive than their resemblances. As von Fürer-Haimendorf
      observes, "I have seen the monuments of the Nagas and Khasis, of
      Gadabas, Bondos and Gonds, and I have seen many of the prehistoric
      dolmens and cromlechs of Hyderabad, but was never struck by any
      close resemblance. This alone would, of course, not prove the
      absence of a genetic connection. More important are the differences
      in function and meaning of the monuments. The megaliths of the
      tribal folks of today are, with comparatively few exceptions,
      memorials unconnected with graves or burning-grounds. Those of
      prehistoric times are in the majority graves or closely associated
      with graves" (C. von Fürer-Haimendorf, "The Problem of Megalithic
      Cultures in Middle India", _Man in India_ 25 [1945], pp. 73-86). He
      adds that the distinctive 'port-hole' opening which will be found to
      characterize many of the megalithic cists of southern India "does
      not occur among any of the tribes of Middle India who bury their
      dead in megalithic graves, such as the Mundas and Hos." The time-
      factor is another consideration to which much further attention is
      needed. The South Indian megaliths seem to have come to an end in
      the 1st century A.D.; those of Middle India and the north-east
      represent a living tradition of entirely unknown antiquity. If we
      add to these various diversities and difficulties the almost
      complete geographical exclusiveness of the two great groups, their
      essential separateness is at present a fair premise.


      It would, of course, produce a tidy geographical solution of the
      problem if we could with any confidence derive the southern
      megaliths, or at any rate the idea embodied in them, from the
      megaliths of Orissa, Chota Nagpur and north-eastern India. With C.
      von Fürer-Haimendor, however, I see no ready help in that direction.
      In spite of rare and incomplete resemblances, I prefer […] to accept
      the differences manifest in the north-eastern series as too numerous
      and extensive to justify affiliation. The structural problem -- and
      that alone -- of the South Indian megalith culture seems to me at
      the present time insoluble save by extravagant guesswork. >>

      In an important re-assessment of the dating of South Indian
      megaliths, written under the supervision of F.R. Allchin,
      archaeologist J.R. McIntosh does not even mention the problem of the
      possible connections of the Iron Age megalithic cultures of the
      Deccan with the present-day megalithic complexes of Bastar-Orissa
      and northeastern India (J.R. McIntosh, "Dating the South Indian
      Megaliths", in _South Asian Archaeology 1985_, Vol. II, pp. 467-93).

      Kindest regards,
      Francesco Brighenti
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