On the menhir trail

Print edition : September 06, 2013

Menhirs in Vembur, a village near Andipatti in Theni district. Photo: V. Vedachalam

The menhir at Kumarikalpalayam near Kunnathur in Erode district, which is nine metres in height. It is the tallest in Tamil Nadu. Photo: K.Ananthan

Two menhirs near a cist burial at Kodumanal village, about 40km from Erode town. Kodumanal was an ancient industrial and trade centre. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A cairn circle in the burial complex at Kodumanal. A cist burial is seen in the middle. Photo: K.Ananthan

The destruction of menhirs in Vembur in the Varusha Nadu region is typical of the fate of megalithic burial sites in other parts of Tamil Nadu.

THERE were fewer than 10 menhirs jutting out of a scrub jungle on the knoll. Most of the scrub jungles, and with them the menhirs, had been cleared to make way for cultivation. All we—a group of archaeology buffs on a tour of archaeological sites in the Cumbum valley in Tamil Nadu, arranged by the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)—could see were tell-tale tyre marks left by earthmovers.

In the hilly terrain of Vembur village, about 60 kilometres from Andipatti in Theni district, knolls and scrub jungles had once been part of the landscape. But no more. “I first came here about 25 years ago to do a survey of menhirs. There were scores of menhirs here at that time. They are getting destroyed fast. At this pace of destruction, in another 10 years everything will be gone,” rued V. Vedachalam, retired senior epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology. Vedachalam then pointed to Kallathupatti village, nestled among hills a few kilometres away, and said hopefully: “Perhaps, the menhirs there have survived.” It was getting dark, so we could not go there to verify.

“There were many menhirs and ‘goodarams’, made of stone slabs, here during my childhood. But they have all disappeared,” reminisced 70-year-old Seeni Ammal of Vembur. “Goodarams” are underground cists used for burial and lay adjacent to the menhirs.

The destruction witnessed in Vembur, situated in the Varusha Nadu region, is typical of the destruction of megalithic burial sites in many other parts of Tamil Nadu. Under the increasing assault of urbanisation, megalithic burial sites, be they menhirs, cairn circles with cist burials, stone circles, dolmens or dolmenoid cists, have vanished rapidly.

Menhirs are tall, majestic, monolithic stone slabs planted in memory of the dead—that is, memorial stones that mark graves. In Tamil, menhirs are called “nedunkal”, meaning tall stone slabs. The Tamil Sangam literature refers to them as “natta polum nada nedunkal”.

Menhirs are datable from 1000 BCE to 300 BCE. The tallest menhir in Tamil Nadu is more than nine metres in height and is situated at Kumarikalpalayam, near Perunthurai in Erode district. The shortest are about one metre tall and are found in several places.

There are menhirs that stand singly, those erected adjacent to cairn circles entombing cist burials, and those planted close to dolmenoid cists. The “goodarams” in Vembur indicate that the place probably had menhirs in association with cairn circles and cist burials. They must have been destroyed by cultivation.

The Megalithic Age, or Iron Age, is datable to circa 1000 BCE. Mega means big and lith stone. Megalithic burials involved the use of big granite slabs for erecting menhirs and building cists and boulders for laying cairn circles. Menhirs were generally erected for chiefs of clans, the elite in society or those who died in cattle-lifting raids. They denoted the economic power or social status of the dead person.

K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, in his book South Indian Memorial Stones (published in 2000 by Manoo Pathippakam, Thanjavur) says: “The sepulchral monuments raised in memory of the dead comprise different types in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Some of the monuments were exclusively raised for the heroes who died for noble causes. The basic theme connected with memorial stones in Tamil Nadu is cattle-lifting or cattle-retrieving.” These memorial stones showed the “veneration and devotion” that the makers of these monuments had for the dead and their “belief in post-mortem existence besides the benefits of their periodical propitiation by ritual and worship”.

V.P. Yathees Kumar, Assistant Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), said menhirs were found in the Coimbatore-Tiruppur-Erode-Karur region, and in Vellore, Tiruvannamalai, Dharmapuri, Theni and Sivaganga districts of Tamil Nadu. The villages where they are located in the Coimbatore-Tiruppur-Erode-Karur region include Kodumanal, Mukkudi Velampalayam, Pattalingam Palayam, Ammapatti, Prabhu Nagar, Kothampalayam, Jagadadhi (also known as Bommadhi Kinathupatti), Nattukkalpalayam, Michampalayam, Sundampatti and Kodidasanur. In Sivaganga district, they are found at Natham Porukki village. Menhirs are not found in the southern districts of Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari.

“Menhirs are associated with megalithic graves. In general, these burials are associated with two menhirs, one east-facing and the other west-facing. They were planted just outside the cairn circle, one facing the east and the other the west. In between them lay the cairn circle. But in most graves, only one menhir survives now,” said Yathees Kumar, who has studied and documented several menhir sites in Tamil Nadu. When the circle was packed with cairns, the menhirs stood firmly, he explained. No menhirs were found adjacent to stone circles, nor were they found adjacent to urn-burial sites, Yathees Kumar said.

K.T. Gandhirajan, explorer and art historian, calls menhirs “universal monuments” because they are found all over the world. Their shape—they are tall, rectangular unpolished stone slabs—was the same wherever they were found, be it in France, Sweden, Ireland, Armenia, Iran, Serbia, South America or India, he said. He estimated that many hundred menhirs were found in France alone. They were an “early form of memorial stones” belonging to the Megalithic Age, Gandhirajan said.

Erecting tall, monolithic menhirs entailed a lot of manpower because it involved slicing out slabs from granite rocks and transporting them to the places where they had to be erected, Vedachalam said. “The megalithic monuments by their very nature of construction would have involved the efforts of the entire community, since the construction of each one of them involved the transport and erection of huge slabs and boulders of stones,” says Rajan in his book. Gandhirajan called the erection of menhirs “a joint venture” as they involved “team-work”. It showed that people had started living and functioning in groups by then.

In Tamil Nadu, the earliest evidence of memorial stones is found in Tamil Sangam literature, and they are described by more than 25 poets. (The Sangam literature is datable to the early part of the Common Era). The Sangam works such as Tolkappiyam, Akananuru, Purananuru, Malaipadukadam, Ainkurunuru, and Pattinapalai deal with memorial stones in a detailed manner.

Yathees Kumar’s latest discovery of a menhir was in a village called Nattukkalpalayam, 13 km west of Dharapuram in Tamil Nadu, in June 2013. The menhir is three metres tall and about 1.20 m broad. A big amount of cairn packing is found around it.

A menhir has been found in another village by the same name near Pollachi. “Nattukkal” in Tamil means a planted stone, an obvious reference to the menhir.

Yathees Kumar said that when he mapped the locations of the menhirs found in western Tamil Nadu, he found that they were situated on the trade route from Karur in the State via the Palghat Gap to Muziris, the ancient, celebrated port in Kerala. On this trade route, menhirs were found at Kottampalayam, Pallipatti, Nattukkalpalayam (near Dharapuram), Somavarapatti, Aravakurichi, and Nattukkalpalayam (near Pollachi), all of which are located in Tamil Nadu. One had to cross the Amaravathy river on this route. On the Kerala side, menhirs are found at Perattukkavu, Kavasseri, Pulimannam, Kodannur and Kottanallur near Muziris. Tamil inscriptions also spoke about “peru vazhi” (the highway).

These menhirs are found near manufacturing hubs or trade centres where trade guilds thrived. The menhirs must have been erected for wealthy merchants or chiefs of clans who lived in these places, Yathees Kumar said. There was also trade from Karur to Muziris via the Noyyal river. Four menhirs have been found on this trade route at Kodumanal, which was a great manufacturing centre of beads.

Five stages

There were five stages in the evolution of the megalithic burials, said Rajan. They were (1) megalithic cairn circles, (2) cairn circles with tall menhirs, (3) tall menhirs with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on them, (4) short menhirs, about one or two metres tall, with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, and (5) the culmination of shortened menhirs into hero-stones with Tamil Vattelluttu inscriptions of the fifth and sixth century ACE.

In the first stage, megalithic burials (datable to circa 1000 BCE) involved building an underground cist (box-like structure) made of granite slabs. A capstone formed the cist’s roof. The cist generally faced east. Stone slabs again divided the cist into chambers. The chamber walls had portholes in the form of a circle or a trapezoid. The dead body was lowered into the chamber. If the body had been exposed to the elements, its remains were collected and placed inside the chamber. Inside the chamber were kept ritual pottery that contained paddy and beads made of semi-precious stones such as carnelian, agate and quartz. Swords, knives, daggers, stirrups (of horses) and favourite items used by the dead person were arranged around these ritual pots.

The cist itself was packed with mud on the sides and top. The burial was marked on the surface above, with boulders arranged in the form of a single circle. Inside the circle, the earth was packed with a lot of small stones called cairns. Hence, it is called a cairn circle. Sometimes, there was a double circle. If no cairns are packed inside the circle(s), it is called a stone circle. Thus cairn circles entombed a cist burial below. Such cairn circles are datable to before the fifth century BCE. Sangam literature called such cairn circles “paral uyar padukkai”. If the chamber, made of stone slabs, was built above the ground, it is called a dolmen and if it was half-buried, it is called a dolmenoid cist.

“In the second stage [also before the fifth century BCE], the megalithic cists/dolmens [above the ground] were raised and menhirs were planted for people who died generally in cattle raids,” Rajan said.

The third stage, circa fifth/fourth century BCE, saw the erection of tall menhirs with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, mentioning the name of the person for whom they were erected. “In the whole of India, we have only one menhir with an inscription [that is, in Tamil-Brahmi] and it is found at Thathapatti near Andipatti,” Rajan said.

As the recent excavations at Porunthal and Kodumanal, both done by a Pondicherry University team headed by K. Rajan, have shown, the Thathapatti site is datable to the fourth century BCE ( Frontline, October 8, 2010, and August 10, 2012).

The height and size of the menhirs came down in the fourth stage (fourth century BCE) to the level of memorial stones. They have Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on them mentioning the name of the hero who died in cattle raids. However, these short menhirs do not have carvings of the heroes for whom they were erected. An example of this stage is the three memorial stones, with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, discovered in 2006 by Rajan, Yathees Kumar and S. Selvakumar at Pulimankombai village, 15 km from Andipatti. (Yathees Kumar and Selvakumar are students of Rajan. Both Thathapatti and Pulimankombai are on the banks of the upper Vaigai river.)

In the last and fifth stage, the menhirs were reduced to hero-stones, each with the engraving of the hero who was killed in a cattle raid. Such hero-stones, during the transformation period of Tamil-Brahmi into Tamil Vattelluttu script, belong to the fourth century ACE. They have Tamil Vattelluttu inscriptions, and are found in the Chengam area of present-day Tiruvannamalai district, and in Dharmapuri district.

Yathees Kumar, who discovered the one-metre-tall menhir with the Tamil-Brahmi script at Thathapatti, estimated that the script belonged to the fourth century BCE. The thick stone slab, in which the script was incised, was found broken. Hence the full inscription is not available. The incomplete inscription reads, “… n Adi On Bagal Paliy Kal…” It means the memorial stone was erected for the servant ( Adi On) of a chieftain (whose name is lost because the memorial stone was broken). “Paliy” means grave and “kal” stone. “It must have, therefore, been a memorial stone planted in Adi On’s grave. This is among the earliest memorial stones found in India,” Vedachalam said. In Gandhirajan’s assessment, “Thathapatti discovery is unusual in terms of palaeography and the context of burial culture.”

The script on the three hero-stones found at Pulimankombai can be dated to the fourth century BCE and the words are in pure Tamil, without an admixture of Prakrit words, said Rajan. One of the three scripts that reads “ Kal petu tiyan antavan kutal ur a kol” refers to a person named Antavan who lost his life in a cattle raid ( a kol) that took place in a village Kutalur (5 km away from Pulimankombai). This is perhaps the earliest inscription about a cattle raid. The other two inscriptions read “… an ur atan… n an kal” and “ vel ur avvan patavan.

As Rajan pointed out, these hero-stones at Pulimankombai, however, have only scripts and there is no image of the hero carved on them. Later on, the figure of the hero got engraved on these memorial stones, marking the fifth and final stage in the evolution of menhirs.

The last major discovery was the two hero-stones at Irulapatti village, near Harur, bearing images of the heroes and Tamil-Vattelluttu inscriptions of the fifth century ACE. This marked the beginning of another form of hero-stones in Tamil, which continued until the 16th century ACE (the Vijayanagara period).

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