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Early History of South India – Megalithic Culture and the Pre-Sangam Era

Megalithic Culture and the Pre-Sangam Era

In the present state of research, megalithic monuments, whatever their external shape and contents be, seem to herald the Iron Age in South India.

The megalithic culture in South India was a full fledged Iron Age culture when the great benefits of the use of this metal were fully realised by the people. Hence, normally the stone dropped out of use as a material for the weapons and tools to a large extent. The megalithic people of South India, or, for that matter, the Iron Age people of the subcontinent in general, found out new uses of stones in their daily life.

Most of the information about this period in South India comes from the excavations of megalithic burials. Iron objects have been found universally in all the megalithic sites right from Junapani near Nagpur in Vidharba region (Central India) down to Adichanallur in Tamilnadu in the far south.

With the introduction of iron there was a gradual change in almost everything except perhaps the house plans. But, of all these changes the most remarkable was the elaborate method of disposing the dead. This became a characteristic feature of the South Indian regions. Instead of laying the dead accompanied by four or five pots in a pit in the house, now the dead were buried in a separate place – a cemetery or a graveyard away from the house. The remains of the dead were collected perhaps after exposing the body for sometime and then the bones were placed underground in specially prepared stone box called a cist. The cists were elaborate structures and must have necessitated an amount of planning and cooperation among the community and the existence of masons and other craftsmen capable of manufacturing the required size of stones, large and small. It is probable that like Egyptian cellars, these megaliths must have been planned and kept ready before the death of an individual.

The basis of their economy was agriculture. In fact, the megalith builders were responsible for the introduction of the advance methods of agriculture on a large scale, based on irrigation. The megalithic builders introduced the ‘tank-irrigation’ in South India and thus brought a revolutionary change in the agricultural system. This is based on the circumstantial evidence that the megaliths are concentrated invariably on the slopes of the hills or on elevated ground, which are not suitable for irrigation as they do not encroach upon arable lands.

Some of the megaliths which seem to be on the edge of the tanks in the summer season are virtually submerged in water during the rainy season. Some of the sites are on the river banks. Does this mean that megalithic people were harnessing the river water for cultivation? Further, some of the sites are in thick forest.  Neither is there any land for irrigation nor any tanks in these regions. There are many sites where there are no tanks.

On the basis of the above evidence scholars opine that the megalithic builders were not the people who introduced ‘tank-irrigation’ in South India. Of course, it is a well-known fact that even from the prehistoric times man settled where there was perennial water source for his sustenance. The tanks therefore might have been natural ponds, which supplied water for their daily needs, but not for irrigation. However, most of the scholars believe that these tanks supplied water for their household life and to their crops. The tank-irrigation system, according to them, was definitely introduced into South India by the megalithic builders and it has lasted for more than 2500 years, till the present day.

These highly intelligent and pragmatic communities were to see that the fertile arable lands were not wasted from encroachments by their graves. Unproductive foot-hills, rocky and gravelly lands were used for the location of their graves, while lower, the plains were reserved for agricultural purposes. But they seem to have considered that the spirit of their dead ancestors would not only guard but also bestow prosperity on their fields and hence, located massive though empty dolmens in the midst of their fields at Uttaramerur in Chingleput district of Tamilnadu.

Rice, an essentially irrigational crop, served no doubt as their staple food. Paddy husks and rarely paddy grains are reported from a number of excavated graves from all over the region. Rice as attested by the Sangam literature, is the staple food of the people of South India since very early times and remains till today. The archaeobotanical evidence indicates the cultivation of other crops too such as Ragi, Navane, Wheat, Kodo millet, Barley, Hyacinth bean, Horse gram, Black gram, Green gram, Common pea, Pigcon pea, Grass pea, Lentil, Cotton, etc. in the megalithic period of South India.

For the fulfilment of other societal needs in domestic, technical and cultural fronts an efficient infrastructure of subsidiary economic activities is essential. The industrial activities such as smithery, carpentry, pottery making, lapidary, basketry and stone cutting which formed other economic activities of megalithic society, are dealt here mainly because of the interdependent link between these and the primary methods of production.



There are many megalithic sites which in all probability were the production sites of metals like iron, copper, gold, silver etc.  The available archaeological evidence in the form of crucibles, smelting-furnaces, clay tuyers and presence of material like iron ore pieces, iron slag, copper slag and traces of ancient copper, gold mines or the mineral resources at or near to these sites is suggestive of smithery.

The available archaeological evidence indicates the utilisation of metal implements such as axes, phoughshares, hoes, sickles, spades, etc.

The use of axe was either for cutting logs or for clearing forests.  The use of hoe (or bladed harrow) for cultivation has been recorded at many sites.  This particular implement resembles the modern bladed harrow, known as “kunte” in Kannada and “gunlaka” in Telugu. The use of ploughshare from many sites amply attest to the technological base of megalithic people for carrying out the agricultural operations. A recent study (1986) also highlights a wider knowledge of agricultural technology attained during the protohistoric and early historical India.

Iron was the metal used predominantly to produce weapons of different shapes and for different purposes, tools and implements for agricultural purposes and everyday household needs.

The rich variety of iron objects enables us in understanding the aspects of their economy and their way of life to a large extent. These objects reflect that agriculture was their primary occupation as a large number of iron tools necessary for agricultural activities are found at different sites.

Copper was used for the production of vessels and ornaments. The ornaments were also made of gold. The use of silver was rather scarce. Though Adichannallur burials and Nilgiris yielded bronze objects the use of bronze at these two sites are exceptions and it is rather doubtful if these were locally manufactured.

An efficient utilisation of metallic resources is dependent upon another crucial factors and they are the availability of fuel and type of fuel capable of producing the required degree of temperature. Perhaps the most common type of fuel used by these pre-industrial smelters were charcoal, wood dung and paddy husk.


Woodcraft / Carpentry 

A wide variety of technomic items viz., those related to woodcraft indicates another skilled profession practised by megalithic people.

The evidence shows that the axes, chisels, wedges, adzes, anvil, borers, hammer stones, etc., formed the main tool-kit for working on the wood. The archaeobotanical evidence from megalithic sites show that the information regarding some of the plant species like Acacia, Pinus, Brassica, Stellaria, Teak, Satinwood etc. were already known to these communities.

The use of wooden plough for cultivation cannot be set aside. Even now, the tillage implement common in black cotton soil tracts, is the country wooden plough, which is large and very heavy.

The woods were also used for posts in the construction of huts with thatched or reed roofs supported on wooden posts. Postholes are observed at Bramagiri and Maski indicating the presence of timber constructions for domestic buildings. Some scholars suggest an advance stage of wooden architecture involving dressing of wood and creating different types of mortice holes either for interlocking or for tenons. The common occurrence of these technomic items suggests ample use of wood for construction and many other purposes.

Ceramics (Pottery)

The ceramic fabrics associated with the megalithic culture are black-and-red ware (BRW), burnished black ware, red ware, micaccous red ware, grey ware, russet coated painted ware (RCPW), etc.

Of all the types, the most attractive are the RCPW with wavy lines and other decorations. They are occasionally bearing post-firing graffiti. Russet-coated jars are recovered from several sites.

The micaccous red ware exhibits typical shapes like pots with globular body and funnel-shaped mouth, dough plates and basins. Decoration in the form of cording, applique and painted designs have also been noticed.

All these varieties of pottery are characterised by a fine fabric and are produced from well levigated clay rarely with sand or such gritty material. They were generally well fired in open kilns at low temperature. R.E.M. Wheeler opines that possibly the pottery were turned on a slow wheel.


Miscellaneous (Bead making, Mat weaving, Stone cutting, Terracotta making, Rock art, etc.)

A number of objects ranging from single terracotta beads to very finely manufactured gold ornaments were used by the megalithic folk for their personal decoration.

The locational occurrence of some of the megalithic sites in resources zones, and the evidence of bead making industry attested at two megalithic sites –Mahurjhari and Kodumanal, are suggestive of the practice of this craft.

The availability of a large variety of beads show that agate, carnelian, chalcedony, feldspar, coral, crystal, garnet, jasper, tremolite, magnesite, faience, paste martz, serpentine, shell, steatite, amethyst and terracotta were utilised in the preparation of beads of different exquisite shapes. Apart from the use of semi-precious stones, some of the shapes have also been worked on precious metals like gold, shell, horn, bone and glass.

The mat impressions left on the base of jars at sites like Managondanahalli and Nagarjunakonda indicate that the art of mat-weaving was known and practised.

The activity of stone-cutting is attested by the chisel impressions noticed at Borgaon Khurd (Maharashtra) on a stone trough, excellent laterite cutting evidenced in rock-cut chamber tombs of Kerala region, and also the occurrence of domestic stone artefacts such as pestles, mortars, saddle querns, etc., at many megalithic sites.

Terracotta discs, figurines, gamesman, miniature pottery vessels found from graves attest their use as toys for entertainment of children. The most remarkable is the terracotta disc resembling spindle-whorls, which was probably used in hop-scotch game. This is suggested by the discovery of a disc in the grave of a child.

Scholars argue that these megalith builders were the authors of these paintings. There is evidence in Sangam literature also of the erection of burial stones with paintings as well as writings. But, unless direct dating of the pigments from the painting is done, the antiquity and authorship of these paintings cannot be ascertained.

Thus, we can say that the megalithic people practised a highly specialised agro-pastoral economy. The divergent economic patterns, which seem to have prevailed then, as is the case even now, were not isolated but had a symbiotic relationship with each other.

Trade and Exchange Network

Excavations have yielded various non-local items among the grave goods which reflect that there were exchange activities during the megalithic period.

Coastal sites, which were points of exchange in ancient times, direct us to the presence of trade activities.

Similarly, the availability of bronze suggests the arrivals of copper and an alloy, either tin or arsenic, from somewhere. From the Graeco-Roman writings and the Tamil texts it is clear that at a little later period maritime exchange was the major source for procuring them. The archaeological remains like the rouletted ware, amphora and other ceramic materials found at many sites like those at Arikamedu are evidence for this. Scholars have already shown that inter-regional and intra-regional exchange of goods was fairly well established in South India by the 3rd c. B.C.

Regional variation in the production of commodities and the non-availability of local raw materials/finished goods had set in long-distance transactions under the initiative of the long-distance traders from the Gangetic region as well as the overseas world.

The exchange network which was in an incipient state during the early Iron Age expanded over the centuries as a result of internal dynamics and external impetus involving the demand for goods in other parts of the subcontinent as well as the Mediterranean region. Many opine that it was a network across land and seas with long-distance traders in the middle and unevenly developed people at either side. Thus, the megalithic people as the hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators of Iron Age also had active participation in the exchange network.

Social Organisation and Settlement Pattern


Though there was commonality in the idea of megalithism and the associated assemblages, the variations observed in the external and internal features of the burials reflect that the iron age society of the megalithic people was not a homogenous entity.

Some of the relatively huge burial types are suggestive of status differentiation and ranking of the buried individuals as discussed earlier. Differences in the types and contents of the burials suggest that there was some sort of disparity in the attributes of the buried individuals. The number of more elaborate burials like the multi-chambered rock-cut tombs at many sites, are limited. Moreover, these have yielded rare artefacts made of bronze or gold.

On the other hand, many of the burials are simple urn burials with a very few artefacts. The variety, high quality and fineness of ceramic goods in huge burials including the elaborate urn burials, are also suggestive of the difference in social status. The studies on the megalithic society of South India by scholars assume that “an individual treatment at death bears some predictable relationship to the individual’s state in life and to the organisation of the society to which the individual belonged”.

The megalithic people lived in villages consisting of a sizeable population. Though they had a bias for the urban life, they were slow in building huge cities like their contemporaries in the Gangetic Valley.

The size of the population is indicated by the organised mass of manual labour that was available for transporting and housing massive blocks of stone in the construction of cists, dolmens and other types of megaliths, or in erecting large rubble and earthen mounds across the water courses for storing up rain waters for irrigational purposes. The large size of population is further attested by the fact that extensive burial grounds with numerous graves, many of them containing the remains of more than one individual, and occasionally of as many as 20 or more individuals, have been found.

The houses in which the megalithic people lived probably consisted of huts with thatched or reed roofs, supported on wooden posts as indicated by the presence of postholes in the excavated sites. At Brahmagiri and Maski were found postholes indicating the presence of timber construction for ordinary buildings.

An increase in the size and number of settlements during the megalithic period from the preceding neolithic/chalcolithic phase and growing use of different metallic resources was certainly not an independent development. Although it is difficult to substantiate this point further in the absence of studies concerning land-use patterns during the megalithic period. Village transhumance on the basis of the location of most of the settlement sites was either on the banks of major rivers or on their major tributaries and that of most of the burial sites within a distance of 10-20 km from major water resources.

The maximum concentration of sites in river valleys and basins and preference shown towards occupying black soil, red sandy-loamy soil zones also supports this contention. The distribution pattern of these sites in rainfall zones where the average annual precipitation is 600-1500 mm, also hints to the same conclusion.

Religious Beliefs and Practices

The elaborate architecture of the graves, the grave goods and other metal and stone objects throw light on the religious beliefs of megalithic people.

The megalithic people had great veneration for the dead as they constructed these monuments with great effort and devotion. They believed that the dead had a life after death and the living had to provide them with their necessities. The grave goods indicate that they belonged to the dead man in life and since they were required for his/her use in the other world, they were buried along with the mortal remains. All these certainly reflect that the ‘cult of the dead’ had a strong hold on the people. The grave goods represented the affection and respect of the living for their dead.

Their belief in animism is reflected in animistic cults. This is evident by the occurrence of animal bones of domestic animals like cattle, sheep/goats and the wild animals like wolf in the megaliths. It seems that these animals were killed for the funeral-feast and the skeletal remains were buried in the graves, or they were sacrificed and buried in the graves to supply food for the dead. Animism is also reflected by terracotta figurines of animals decorated with garlands and ornaments.

Sangam literature, which is contemporaneous with the end phase of the megalithic culture in South India, also throws light on the different methods of disposal of the dead. Many of the earlier beliefs continued during the Sangam age. So, we may assume that the religious practices referred to in the Sangam literature reflect, to an extent, those that prevailed among the megalithic people. The tradition of associating stone with the dead has survived in South India till late times and the herostones or the Virakal or the Mastikal are examples of this.


The differences in the size of the monuments and the nature of the grave valuables reflecting differentiation in status and ranking, also suggest the nature of contemporary political power. The construction of a huge monument involving the mobilisation of substantial collective labour implies the power of buried individual to command it.

In the light of the fact that the contemporary people were tribal descent groups, anthropologically we may assume the prevalence of chiefly power, i.e. chiefdoms. The chief was the great son of the descent group. The chief of the tribal group is referred to as perumakan in the literary texts. He commanded the entire personal, material and culture resources of his clan. This attests that these elaborate burials probably were of the chiefs or descent heads. The tribal pattern of the distribution of power was simple and involved no hierarchy, though the chiefs, their heirs and warriors had a privileged status. However, this differentiation in status was too flexible to be made out as stratification.

There is no theoretically plausible evidence showing the existence of a class-structured society anywhere in South India even by the mid-first millennium A.D, which is the upper date now ascribed to the megaliths. Therefore, the remarks of some scholars about the existence of tribal descent groups as a stratified society with aristocrats seem inconceivable.

The period of these huge monuments hardly crosses the last two or three centuries before Christ. This period witnessed numerous small chiefdoms co-existing and contesting against one another and anticipating the emergence of big chiefdoms by the turn of the Christian era. The people under big chiefdoms also were in a social organisation based on clan kinship ties and a complex system of redistribution.

From the references in Tamil heroic texts like Purananuru, it is evident that even the big chieftains, who had enjoyed prestigious status among many other chieftains, were also given urn burials. So, in a way all burials including the most commonly seen urn burials represent individuals or groups with some status and ranking as headmen or kinsfolk. Thus, it can be assumed that even urn burials were of chiefly type. Sometimes memorial stones (natukal) were erected over the urn burials of great chiefains and warriors. However, the huge multi-chambered rock-cut tombs are not mentioned anywhere in the literary texts, probably because the practice of erecting such elaborate burials must have become uncommon by that time.

Some of the chiefdoms must have been bigger depending upon their human strength, resource control and exchange relations. This is testified by the prestige goods and varieties of ceramics and other artefacts found in the graves.

The megalithic people had been interacting and exchanging material and cultural goods with one another. There was need-oriented and use-value based interaction at the level of clans. But at the level of chiefs it was competitive and hence combative process of plundering raids, both inter-clan and intra-clan, led by chiefs for predatory control. This led to subjugation of one chief by the other which in turn helped the emergence of bigger chiefs and the formations of bigger chiefdoms. These armed fights among the clans must have resulted in the death of many chiefs and warriors.

Probably, this was the reason for erecting numerous sepulchral monuments during the megalithic period. Through armed confrontation and predatory subjugation the cultural and political power of a few chiefdoms became more evolved over the years and they emerged as bigger chiefdoms. From this we can infer that the last phase of the megalithic period which is contemporaneous to the Sangam period, marked the march towards bigger chiefdoms.

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