What the Megaliths of Jharkhand Reveal About Tribal India

Mar 23, 2022 0 comments

In 2016, a cluster of over 300 megaliths were discovered under a maze of shrubs and garbage near Ranchi. The tombstones of Yamuna Nagar had existed there since the Neolithic Age around 1AD, but the modern-day colony that sat above it had remained oblivious to the ancient treasure for years. The stones became the second largest megalithic site of Jharkhand.

Amidst quarried lands and dusty air riddled with the smell of charcoal, lay thousands of prehistoric megalithic structures that spread across the jagged terrain of Jharkhand. Not many have noticed their presence, even fewer acknowledge their relevance, but these are stone structures that have marked the land with tribal traditions of birth and death, celebration and remorse since ages. Jharkhand is one of the few places in the world where tribes continue to build megaliths today, but are we learning what they’re trying to tell us?

Chokahatu, the largest megalith site in Jharkhand. Photo: Karan Kaushik/Outlook India

The extant megalithic structures of the state were built by tribes of various districts. Today, four out of the 32 megalithic tribes—Mundas, Asurs, Hos and Oraons—continue to build stone burials for the dead. Elaborate rituals are performed and varied architectural styles are involved by each tribe for different occasions, which is why each site in each village across each district boasts different structures from dolmens to menhirs.

The Punkri Burwadih megalithic complex. Photo: Prantik16!/Wikimedia

Different villages or tribes call these burial structures by different names like hargarhi, harsalli, hargarha, jangarha and more. Some like birdiri menhirs are erected to celebrate various occasions from the birth of a girl child to the activists of the state. While birdiris of the Mundas were placed in a row, the dolmens of the Oraons were made by placing a flat stone on four vertical ones. Each structure has a story to tell. Here are a few examples.

What Do They Tell Us?

If you visit the southern tip of Jharkhand, you’ll find the land of its Singhbhum district riddled with horizontal stone slabs and long standing vertical monuments. These are the dolmens of Ho, a Kolarian tribe that erects megaliths as a secondary funerary rite. Stone slabs called Saasandiri are placed in the courtyards of houses, while menhirs or commemorative megaliths populate the exteriors of houses and cremation grounds. But these structures are more than pieces of stone. Among the people of the Ho tribe, a cremation is not allowed to be completed; the burning of the departed is doused with water about halfway through, and bones are picked from the heap of ashes to be stored in an urn for a few days as per custom. On the third day, the Umbul Ader ritual is performed to call back the spirit of the dead by placing the ashes on the kitchen floor. The people believe that death of a mortal is always caused by the influence of a spirit, and to determine this causal spirit, a male member of the family looks into the spread of ashes to check for marks: A long line points to death by ancestral spirits; footprints of a lizard suggest that the mountain god killed the deceased; and crab feet say that they were killed by the spirit of the tiger. Upon determining this, the ashes are stored in an urn in a Saasandir in the courtyard and a menhir is built outside as a memorial of the death of the departed. These are some of the most unique dolmens among the tribes.

Bhumij, a Munda enthnic group. Photo: Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia

The undulating hills of the state reveal their own stories of megalithic traditions. The stone-spotted lands seem ordinary at first glance, their monotony broken only by the occasional contrast of a stunted green shrub. But a deeper study by archaeologists has suggested that these dolmens have had an order to their chaos. Not all sites were commemorative of death here: some were sepulchral stone structures erected in worship of the Mother Goddess. Numerous megalithic temples were built around these sites, with the dolmens being aligned with the hills, cardinal points of the earth or even the sky. Many sites were burial grounds as well, where the alignment of the tomb represented the desire of the deceased to return to the womb of the goddess for a better next life.

At the site of Chano, for instance, a cluster of five randomly placed stones remain almost missable to the unaware eye. But those who study it will learn that one of the more petite ones was designated as a female stone, while the highlight of the site is a 0.74m tall phallic shaped rock. Male and female stone traditions are not uncommon, and have been identified in various other locations from Meghalaya to Madagascar over the years. The Chano cluster reveals a stunning representation of horizon astronomy, in which tribals observe the path of the sun and moon instead of following calculations. Following it, the center of the shrine has been located exactly on the linear line that passes between the Bawanwey and Kesura Hills. Others are aligned perfectly with other important hills, or the rising sun or the North-South axis. The entire site is aligned towards the Summer Solstice sunrise.

The megaliths of Hazaribagh. Photo: Prantik16!/Wikimedia

While there are dolmens to be found every few metres in the state, a few clusters have garnered attention of historians over the years. Some such as Hazaribagh, with its heterogeneous designs and representations of animals; the Punkri Burwadih complex, which is an observatory for the path of the sun; and Honhey with its remnants of Red and appliqué pottery have revealed tremendous knowledge, culture and skill to be running through the veins of rural India. And those who search will find stunning beauty in these slab structures too, for when the moon shines bright over sites like Honhey, flecks of mica that go unnoticed in the day light up every night in a dance of incandescence to decorate its stone surfaces.

# The Hargarhis of Jharkhand: A Brief Study of the Megaliths of Jharkhand
# Telegraph India
# The Astronomy of the Megaliths of Chano
# Megalithic Monuments of Ho Tribe of West Singhbhum District


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