Tamil Nadu (Inde): On the menhir trail


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).