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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Archaeology: Karnataka’s Best Kept Secret

Archaeology: Karnataka’s Best Kept Secret

Now out in the open!

We know about Halebid, Badami and Pattadakal and of course the famous ruins of Hampi, part of what we call the World Heritage. 

Now, the Archaeological Survey of India springs a surprise. 

They want Hirebenekal to be included in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, deservedly!
 360 degrees view of Hirebenekal Site

Ever heard of it? 

I’m sure you haven’t … unless you are a part of the closely knit group of archaeologists.

Let me tell you. It has been a couple of years since I had visited this site, prodded by a few archaeologist friends. Even though I have this habit of writing about the sites I visit almost immediately, I had refrained from doing it … with very good reason. 

“Why?” You may ask.

Probably it is some kind of instinctive reaction, to guard a treasure that you have found. 

Hill of Hirebenekal
Nature had kept it away from the human eyes and their desecrating hands for millennia, a fact that allowed its preservation in its virginal state. 

You may be getting a bit restless and want to shout,
“Where the hell is this?”

Now that the news is out in the open, let me tell you where it is.

The easier route to reach the place requires eight kilometers of trek through the hills and bush, with every chance of getting lost in the zigzagging goat paths. The tougher, more scenic route is a day’s trek through the leopard and sloth-bear infested hills from Hampi. Few people, not even the local shepherds, will be able to guide you. Your compass or GPS is of no use. Some field archaeologists of ASI had made some markings on rocks to guide us from the nearest village. It is easier to decipher Harappan script than these enigmatic signs. 

Rangappa, the Guide
Then, how do you go there?

Firstly, don’t even look at the Google Maps. You won’t find it. Hirebenekal is a nonexistent village. Hire means ‘old’ in the local lingo. There is a Benekal village a kilometer off the Gangavati - Koppal Road … if you drive 14 km from Gangavati – it is a mile after the bridge across Tungabhadra High Level Canal.

 An easy walk through the paddies

If you are lucky, you may find this very helpful farmer who lives there called Rangappa. He knows his way through the jungle like the back of his hand. He speaks Kannada and Telugu, spoken locally. It is essential that you find him before venturing across the rice paddies and the few orchards at the edge of human habitation. Once you start climbing the hills with its characteristic granite outcrops, you just follow him. 

Carry lots of water, you’ll need it, not only to quench your thirst but to sprinkle generously on the rocky walls of the shelters used by our Neolithic ancestors, to share the rock-art that they had left behind. The rock-art depicts some hunters on horseback and has a few similarities with the Mesolithic art of Bhimbetka and the Neolithic sites of Kurnool region. This alone is worth the trek.  
But, once you reach the top, it’s a wide undulating plain surrounding a small lake fed by a natural spring ... 

There are no words to describe the spectacular man-made landscape. 
Hundreds of huge ‘Dolmens’ …

It looks like some kind of uninhabited town with stone houses. These houses certainly are bigger than the Dharavi shanties. But, they were not meant to house the living. They are tombs. Their sizes are more or less uniform – Eight to Twelve feet square – built of stone slabs, more than half a foot thick. 

What are these Dolmens? 

They are burial chambers – above the ground. A base slab for floor, four vertical square slabs making it into a box and a cap stone – a slab usually circular – covering the chamber. The smallest of the chambers is about 8X8 feet square and a capstone of 10 feet diameter. The slabs are anywhere between 8 to 10 inches thick made of granite. 

Let us calculate the weight of 175 cubic feet of granite. Average weight of one cubic foot of granite is 168 pounds = 76 kilos. So a capstone weighed nothing less than 13 metric tons. Even the walls weighed ten tons a piece. How did they carry them – leave aside lifting them to ten foot height. 

Easy, isn’t it? 

You just need a crane, call Caterpillar. 

But the guys who did this belonged to a period which we call – Stone Age. 

They used tools knapped out of natural rock. Probably, they smelted iron from the Hematite that abounds in the neighbourhood … but that doesn’t explain their ability to cart and lift those weights.  

The area 500 Mts. above MSL, with a small spring-fed lake wouldn’t have supported a large labour force permanently. If you see the terrain, the possibility of their using any wheeled transport is out of the question. Assuming that one individual can lift and carry forty kilos, they would have needed 400 people to lift a single capstone.

Yet, they had built these dolmens – hundreds of them.

Sometimes I wonder if their intention in leaving them for us to discover was not to shock us and spoil our feeling of superiority. 

Shocked … Certainly, I was. 

I began exploring the valley with a small camera in hand. With a sharp eye, one may find a few unfinished hand axes and scrapers that lay on the surface and a few potsherds too. The area was certainly inhabited by people, two thousand years ago, probably a small unit of workmen, who mined the stone. 

 Stone working area next to the lake

They must have used a simple technique of heating the surface stone – layer over layer, formed eons ago due to some sequential volcanic activity – and suddenly cooled them by pouring water from the lake to induce fractures. The area surrounding the lake clearly shows the evidence of such activity.

But the actual carting and building of dolmens was done by larger groups of men, probably by those who gathered at the funeral and lent a hand. Even then, whoever afforded such burial and a funeral so grand must have been a very rich person. 

The number of dolmens raises a couple of question … for how long and how prosperous the country surrounding this place had been. 

Archaeologists estimate that these dolmens belong to a period of five centuries immediately before Christ that coincides with the Iron Age in India.


The potsherds found certainly are similar to those found in other Iron Age (Mauryan / Asokan) sites like Brahmagiri etc. But the stone tools used are of an earlier milieu. More research may throw up facts that may shock us even more. 

Finally, you may now ask, why I had refrained from mentioning this site in my earlier posts. 

Protective Boundary Wall
Because, this greatest archaeological treasure is unprotected, except for a short wall of stones marking the boundary, away from the greatest depredator of artifacts and monuments, who is commonly called ‘tourist’

Until, ASI installs a proper protection and conservation mechanism, it is better the site stays away from the human eye and the tourist map, as it is. 
and its conservation regimen 
are essential now to protect this heritage

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