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Megalithic Cultures of India

Megalithic was the name given to cultures that mainly proliferated in the time period from 1000 B.C. to
300 B.C. in the region South India and Deccan. The name megalithic is derived from the Greek words Mega
and Lithos which translate to big and stone respectively. The Megalithic Culture is named so due to the
presence of large stone structures that are undressed or roughly dressed on various burial sites present
away from habitation.
The main significance of the Megalithic culture comes from the fact that they provide a crucial link
between the Neolithic Cultures of the South and the Early Historical Period. This is due to the fact that
South India is lacking in terms of substantial evidence regarding copper-bronze age cultures. After the
Neolithic, the next big culture that seems to have emerged in the South is the Megalithic. Another aspect
of the Megalithic Culture of the South is that it provides that first evidence of iron using communities of
Deccan and South India.
There still has not been a definite time period that has been attributed to Megalithic Cultures. Based on
the C14 dating of the evidences they can be roughly set between 1100 B.C. to 100 B.C. Historian U.S.
Moorti is of the view that the cultures should be divided in to 2 phases; the lower phase till 500 B.C. and
the Upper phase after 500 B.C. This is due to the fact that the use of Iron in the South is mainly popularized
after the 6th century. The Megalithic Cultures of India are dominated by 2 key aspects; the extensive use of
Iron and the familiarity with Black and Red Ware pottery.
The main purpose of the Megalithic structures is to act as structures over burial sites. Such structures are
classified under different categories depending on their features. The 3 basic types of categories are the
chamber tombs, unchambered tombs and structures that are not connected to burials. Furthermore, if the
chamber is found to be underground, it is known as a cist. The camber can also be divided into various
sections by vertical slabs known as transepts. A pit burial that is marked by a singular standing structure is
called a menhir.
The funerary goods that are systematically placed along with the dead bodies are indicative of people’s
faith in burial rituals and their belief in life after death. Ancestor worship is an important medium through
which people would claim and sustain power such as the case in Egypt. Thus, it is possible that the
Megalithic graves prove to be evidence of ancestor worship in India.
The material culture of the Megalithic is reflected in the pottery, metallic objects and the food grains that
have been obtained through various sites.
The chief type of pottery that is present during the Megalithic is the Black and Red Ware. It is wheel tuned
in nature and well-polished. It shows quite an advancement in ceramic technology. The tools and weapons
that are found are primarily made of iron which was used extensively in this time period. Tools that were
made of iron included agriculture tools, dished, weapons such as daggers, swords, etc.
Iron smelting was dome on a large scale based on the evidences of furnaces built with curved bricks and
large amounts of iron slag that was found. A total of 68 sites have been found in India till date. Iron
smelting was a local activity in the regions of South India. Moreover the purity of the iron present in the
iron tools that were found suggest that the local iron masters were highly skilled.
Besides iron, objects of gold, silver, copper and bronze have also been found which suggests that the
Megalithic artisans were also proficient artisans. Jewelry such as bangles, earrings and beads have been
recovered from various sites.
Analysis of their settlement patters shows that the Megalithic people preferred to choose areas that were
able to offer them necessary resources that they required. Thus their settlements have been found either
around a hilly area which would offer them stone for their burial sites or they have been found around
mining arears which would help in acquiring metals such as iron, gold, etc.
The people lived in modest houses made from timbre as seen from the structural remain of Brahmagiri,
Paiyampalli, Hallu, etc. The settlements have been found in various sizes ranging from one hectare to eight
hectares. V.S. Moorti has identified 26 such sites that he believes may have served as regional capital
meaning that a sort of hierarchical settlement system may have existed. A strange aspect of the settlement
system of the Megalithic is that the habitational sites that have been found are much less in number than
the burial sites that have been found.
The economy of the Megalithic people was based on a mix of agro-pastoral activities and their diet may
have included both agriculture and pastoral products. People in Central India would have produced wheat,
barley and lentils while the people further south would have made rice, millet and gram. As U.S. Moorti
points out, the Megalithic society may have preferred a pastoral way of life initially. But with the use of
iron on a large scale after 500 B.C. there was a gradual progress in the field of production, artisan activities
and etc. This would have shifted the economy onto an agrarian track leading to a surplus production of
grains. This surplus further supplemented the various other sectors of the community that emerged such
as the artisans, craftsmen, potters, ironmasters, etc.
Apart from the large stone structures over burials, extensive use of iron and the familiarity with Red and
Black polished ware pottery, the main significance of the Megalithic culture lies in the fact that it acted as a
prelude to the later establishments that followed in the region of the Deccan and South India in the
centuries to follow.