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It’s strange how two people can walk side by side while occupying vastly different periods in the history of a place. This has never been more evident to me than on a hike in the hills near Hirebenakal village in Karnataka. My companion was the anthropologist Andrew Bauer, and while I scrunched merrily through what to me appeared to be pebbles and scree, Bauer would crouch down and come up with fragments of ancient red-and-black pottery. A dark, particularly heavy stone turned out to be slag from the smelting of iron. In the Iron Age, some 2,000-3,000 years ago, Bauer explained, people lived on these hill terraces. Here, and at other sites nearby, their settlements, made of wood and thatch, vanished long ago, but the monuments to their dead were built from stone and still stood on a nearby hill. We were on our way there.

These structures—megaliths—aren’t unique to Hirebenakal, in Karnataka's Koppal district. They’re found across the country, and in many parts of the world, these dolmens and menhirs and cairns and cists. They have arisen at different times in different cultures and seem to suggest some common human impulse triggered by having to deal with the dead. There’s plenty of room for speculation about why exactly these things were built the way they were. Researchers have their theories. So do amateurs, often with a high kook quotient. An Internet search will show there’s nothing like really old, funnily arranged stone to evoke magic and mysticism. So, you will find plenty of solemn, arbitrarily capitalized online talk of the Ancients and their Portals, though it’s impossible not to admire the person who came up with the idea that menhirs were meant as acupuncture for Earth. In the time-honoured tradition of serious journalism, I had made sure to ask the driver of our car what the people around Hirebenakal thought was up there. Ruined palaces of ancient dwarves, apparently.

It was a grey day. We had got out of the car and set off into the hills at the edge of a field of unreasonably cheerful sunflowers to make our way to the terrace. The wider landscape was bright green from the rains, studded with cream-and-brown hillocks and precarious boulders. If not the rest, at least the boulders would have been much the same a couple of millennia ago, when the area was inhabited by—who exactly?

They didn’t leave behind any records or writing, but researchers are a tenacious lot. Over a century of work by archaeologists and anthropologists tells us a few things about the people who lived here. In the south Indian Neolithic period, the area was occupied by cultures that left behind traces of large cattle pens and ash mounds where prodigious quantities of cow dung were burnt. The megaliths appear to have been built by those who came after them. These Iron Age people also herded cattle, raised other animals and cultivated land, on which they had recently begun to grow paddy. There was a lot of pottery of the red-and-black sort, and they had started making tools and weapons using iron. They were probably organized as small chiefdoms and since material from distant places turns up at these sites, they must have been part of trade networks.

From the terrace, Bauer and I walked on, descending a little before we got to a rock shelter. Faded red ochre paintings found on the inside tell us more about who lived here. They show hunting scenes and what might be a cattle raid on horseback. Stick figures carrying bows, spears, axes. A distinctly stylized curve where the hands of a row of dancers meet or where a rider’s hand holds the reins. Whoever painted it must have had a definite sensibility, but there’s so little to go by. 

Walking on, it looked like there were paintings on every rock. What I was seeing was traces of red in the granite—oxidation marks—and these looked not too different from the indistinct figures in the shelters. Maybe many more of these rocks had been painted, but had been wiped clean by time and the elements. Or perhaps the paintings themselves were in a sense suggested by the markings on the rocks—seen first and then painted.

Past the left shoulder of the shelter is what Bauer likens to a highway. It’s a rock surface, perhaps quarried, that slopes gently upwards. It is strangely compelling, leaving no doubt that it’s leading to someplace significant. That feeling is helped along by the rocks lying around purposefully, yet not too obviously, on either side. There was no one else around, but at one time there must have been ceremonial processions ascending this stretch.

It’s tempting to see intention and a wild orderliness in the landscape. The boulders form a dramatic setting—some lie about casually, almost spherical; some are cuboidal; there are uncanny feats of erosional balance that push one to look for purpose and meaning where none exist. Turning back, near the terrace, we see a rock face that has splintered to look like a modernist building beginning to melt. Elsewhere, three blocks piled one on top of the other just cannot be natural, but for the sheer implausibility of anyone hefting them. A perfectly kettledrum-shaped boulder is set in position to be played. Apparently, it is sounded on occasion by people from the village nearby, and with granite being a particularly resonant rock, they say it can be heard a long way off.

As if all this weren’t disorienting enough, granite sloughs off naturally into slabs, and since we’re used to seeing granite slabs used for construction, it seemed as if the human hand was present everywhere on this hill. Just as I had learnt to unsee this illusion and move on, that human hand started making interventions in earnest. Tentatively at first—rocks piled around the base of a large boulder to gently help it form an enclosure. Or, one edge of a slab elevated by flat stones to introduce a triangular element into the works. Parallel strips in the mud representing cists. And eventually, distinct low chambers, and three-sided dolmens that leave no doubt that someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to position three upright slabs of stone and cap them with another. There are nearly 700 dolmen across the 20-hectare site. Some have portholes that make them look—I must admit—like cottages for dwarves. The largest of them are room-sized, which is a good thing because they comfortably sheltered us when it began to drizzle.

It is doubtful if anyone knows the site better than Bauer. Over years of painstaking work, he has mapped every feature in the area—settlements, water bodies and over a thousand megalithic structures. The more elaborate, labour-intensive megaliths happen to be located in the site’s central portion, which suggests that not everyone in this society had uniform access to resources. Bauer’s work also reveals a good deal of overlap between the daily lives and ritual spaces of those who built these megaliths. Two boys herding goats appear near a rock pool at the centre of the site, and this is probably how it was back then too. Life went on amid the dead.

Maybe it served them well to have their ancestors keep an eye on them. Or the other way round. Or maybe those two are the same thing—since everyone is an ancestor-in-waiting, to memorialize the past is also to memorialize the future.

Someone living in this Iron Age society—at least someone important enough to get a megalith—would have a more solidly constructed home in death than in life. Does this say anything about their belief in an afterlife? In any case, my favourite megalith from Hirebenakal was not much of a construction at all, merely a gesture that made me laugh. Some clever iron-ager had wedged two lagori-style piles of stones into a horizontal gap in a large boulder. Minimum effort, maximum dolmen. Was this meant to be cheeky? Can we even attempt to think like someone who lived a couple of thousand years ago? Will we ever learn how they saw their place in the universe, and where exactly these structures fit in? Never entirely, perhaps.

But to go by the fact that they were built by humans, these megaliths must at least partly be in service of that elemental longing—to persist in time, to rearrange the earth in some enduring sense, to know something remains of us after we are gone. Every menhir and dolmen found here, every hero stone that followed later, every contemporary tombstone and memorial park bench, every name carved on a monument by a feckless tourist, is a Taj Mahal of sorts. Time will have the last laugh; it is set in stone. But no one’s giving up without a fight.

Srinath Perur is the author of  If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai—A Conducted Tour Of India, a book about travelling with groups.

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