1975…a small village of Lanjia Saoras in highlands of South Odisha! Ononti, a young woman Shaman starts to sing in parallel couplet in archaic Saora language, repeating each line but changing one word at a time to enrich the meaning!!
Argalgalsi yuyunji bolongsi goden
Argalgalsi yuyunji banardub goden….
She is calling the female shamans who had lived before her for help as her soul starts to chamber ‘like a monkey’ down the principle that lead to the underworld. Her husky voice is momentarily overwhelmed by dancers as they surge past, raising a brief cloud of grit. Drums pounding, oboes blasting and women flexing alternate knees while hardly lifting their feet off the ground. A sudden change of direction makes the densely packed body of dancers seem like one creature as they spill over a dike, fanning out, stamping and spinning into a dry out of-season paddy field.
The drums never stop, but now are drifting far away. Nearby with soft thumps, a dozen buffalo are being bashed on the skull to send their souls down to the dead man in the underworld. After a long invocation, Onanti’s voice peters out and her head flops down onto her breast. Her soul had reached there, leaving her body available to convey the voices of the dead as they came up one by one. In this deep trance her limb has gone rigid, and bystanders rush forward to unclench them. It takes several people to flex her knees with a jolt and lay her legs straight again along the ground, and to unclench the fingers and bend her elbows before returning her hands to rest, along her outstretched thighs.
Onanti sits motionless, with a sharp intake of breath her body twitches, and the first in a long line of sonums announces its name. The first is a special helper, her sonum husband from the underworld, others are her shaman predecessors and teachers, but most are the dead relatives of the man for whom they are planting a stone today, adding to the patrilineage’s cluster of memorial standing stones. Sometimes the women weep, sometime they engage him in heated arguments that draw in other men too, and occasionally there is whoop laughter.
Extract: Living without the Dead – Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos by Piers Vitebsky, HarperCollins Publishers India, 2018
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October 2017…on the auspicious day of Deepawali…I was at Hire Benekal in Karnataka, some 1000 km away from Saora Highlands, amidst prehistoric mortuary ruins across a large span of a granite hilltop.
There was neither Onanti nor any medium for a dialogue between the living and the dead here. Instead, here are some 400 odd dolmens, rock art depicting mortuary related activities, an artificial pond, perennial streams against the majestic backdrop of granite hills in the Tungabhadra Valley of Koppal District in North-Central Karnataka. In an hour-long trail, crisscrossing the granite boulders and the forest path, I and my two archaeologist companions hardly came across any other human. Not very surprising as the hills abound in bears and after sunset, you are out at your own risk as the nearest human settlement is nearly 4 km away.
Hire Benekal is located in Kopal District near the town of Gangavathi, which is well connected by buses of Karnataka State Transport Service. The nearest railway station is, however, Hospet, 33 km away. The World Heritage Site of Hampi is only 26 km. Travellers lodging at Hampi can reserve a day for Hire Benekal. But don’t forget to take a guide or knowledgeable local persons. Once you are at Hire Benekal you are at your solitary space with no souls around for miles. Be prepared for one and half hour trek (one way) and carry plenty of water and food. The hills are infested with sloth bears. So don’t dare to be there after sunset.
Gangavathi has limited options for stay and food, however, in both Hospet and Hampi there are more options. While at Hampi, you can also explore Anegundi along with Hire Benekal.
The archaeological ruins dated somewhere around 500 BCE were the epicentre of intense mortuary activities before South India’s earliest recorded history, with shamanic practices, something one can experience and draw an analogy from by studying modern tribal practices in Eastern India, such as the Lanjia Saoras.
Hire Benekal is a large megalithic site. Local villagers call it Moriyara Mane, which translates to ‘the houses of dwarfs’ built long ago by the Moriyars, a dwarfish race endowed with superhuman strength allowing them to heft the heavy slabs with ease.
When we approached the hill, an ASI board and information panels welcomed us describing what is megalithic in the context of South India in general and Hire Benekal in particular.
The information panel says: ‘The dolmens here were built along the contour of a hill. Locals believe they were dwellings of strong dwarf-like people, who lived here thousands of years ago. Although these rows of port-holed dolmens do resemble houses with windows, they were actually constructed as burials and memorials for dead people…Archaeologists conducting trial excavations here in 2001 found charred animal bones and various types of pottery’.
From here the trail starts ascending and descending through small and large boulders in zigzag tracks. After 500 m of walking, we came across a painted rock shelter with hunting scenes as a recurring theme. Many paintings show people carrying spears, axes, bows or lances while hunting deer, tiger and antelope. Dancing is yet another important theme, which probably had some relationship with elaborate mortuary practices and shamanism as we see in Saora paintings. Archaeologists believe that the ones showing horses are from the Megalithic Period and those showing only cattle may belong to the Neolithic Period.
A few hundred meters further up the hill we encountered a large semi-spherical boulder, resembling a half cut orange or lemon. Called Nagara Gund, the locals still beat this stone kettledrum during one of their annual festivals. Archaeologists believe that in the past, its function was similar, a rock gong that was a part of Hire Benekal’s megalithic ritual paraphernalia. When beaten, the sound could allegedly be heard for many kilometres.
Further uphill, maybe another 500 m, we encountered stone houses of small size, packed all along with stone blocks leaving only a small opening. Their small size and isolated distribution may indicate the social hierarchy at the site and perhaps they belong to the people of lower strata. As we moved further east, the landscape unfolded with a spectacular sight of scattered large dolmens erected in a wide clearing. From the distance what looked like card houses were actually granite slabs, within which a grown up man could stand erect.
Hire Benekal was largely unknown after the Megalithic Culture declined from the region. Despite its close proximity to Hampi, Vijayanagara’s sprawling capital, there was no sign of human activity here. A renewed interest in megalithic culture in the early part of the 19th century led to many excavations across South India. It was around this time that Philip Meadow Taylor, an early expert on Indian heritage, discovered and wrote about megalithic culture in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1835.
Hire Benekal was however excavated for the first time in 1975 by archaeologist A Sundara. He recorded around 300 megaliths of great variety such as dolmens, stone circles, menhirs, cist burials and boulder enclosures.
Another interesting feature of Hire Benekal is that most of the large monuments are near a central water reservoir at the top of the hill. Though this is a quarrying site, the reservoir looked like it was hewned specifically as a tank rather than for mining. According to Andrew Bauer, an archaeologist from the University of Illinois, in the semi-arid landscape water harvesting was essential to survival for both people and their animal herds during the Iron Age. Building commemorative monuments near the water source was probably a way of establishing a connection with these important places. Another likely reason could be the requirement of water for performing burial rituals.
The megalithic dolmens at Hire Benekal are spectacular and mysterious being the oldest known funerary monuments of South India. However, these are exposed to vandalism. Locals believe that most of the relics contain considerable treasure and therefore are being dug illegally on a regular basis. Hire Benekal along with giving us insights into a society of long ago also in its present state gives us a glimpse of the society that there is. How long will the monuments be able to withstand the greed of man or will this incredible heritage be preserved are some of the questions that plague my mind as I leave Hire Benekal.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org