Hirebenkal is one of largest megalithic site in Karnataka, India. This site, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, has approximately 400 megalithic structures that were built about 3000 years ago. Walking through the quiet ‘street’ dotted with scores of empty houses is like walking through a ghost town.
The site consists of several buried and semi-buried dolmens called cists and dolmenoid cists arranged in circles and cairns. The dolmens are huge with three-sided chambers with or without portholes and are crowned with large flat capstones. Many dolmens here have remained intact and many have been destroyed.
The dolmenoid cists are in several shapes and sizes. The small dolmens are 50–100 centimetres (20–39 in), while the larger ones measure up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) height. The dolmens with round portholes give the appearance of dwellings with windows but they are funerary structures. Those in an oblong shape are discerned to have been built with packing of rubble stones at the ground level.
Hirebenkal is one of the very few Indian megalithic sites found with associated habitations. Archaeologists have unearthed rich cultural material at the site, including pre-megalithic implements, iron slag, pottery of Neolithic, megalithic and early historic period.
There were other structures such as irregular polygonal chambers and rock shelter chambers. Hirebenkal has also revealed Neolithic rock art. Atleast 10 rock art shelters containing paintings in red and ochre depicting people dancing, hunting people with weapons and people in processions have also been discovered. Paintings also reveal deer, peacocks, humped bulls, cows and even enigmatic geometrical designs.
The site is located on a rocky hilltop, known as elu guddagalu which mean Seven Hills. It is covered with thorny bushes and slippery scattered boulders. The climb to reach the site is difficult as there are no regular paths or roads, except for a goat track. It is located about 50 KM from the ruins of Hampi. This site is also called as morera houses in the local language.
Near the megalithic site, there is a unique stone kettledrum that rests on a 10-metre high boulder. This roughly hemispherical stone has a diameter of over 2 metres and is 1.5 metres tall. When beaten with a stone or wooden hammer, its sound can be distinctly heard a kilometre away. Archaeologists think this stone drum might have been used to warn the settlement’s inhabitants against invaders and to announce religious or social congregations.
Historians and researchers date these megaliths to between 800 B.C. and 200 BC.
Scholars believe these granite structures are burial monuments that may also have served many ritual purposes. However, no burial remains now have been found as they may have been washed away in the rain. Dolmens are usually part of a burial complex and are most often associated with other structures like buried or partially buried chambers (called dolmenoid cists and cists) that contain remains of the dead.
Although this important site near Hirebenkal village was declared a protected monument in 1955, the ASI has done little to conserve it and make the site accessible to people. Very few people visit this site in the whole year. Due to its extremely valuable collection of Neolithic monuments, Hirebenkal has been proposed for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Clearly, it was no mean matter to cut, transport and erect such large slabs of granite and create such uniform structures. How was such labour organised? Did only important people get commemorative dolmens? Why are there different types of burials and memorials?
Researchers don’t yet have the answers to such questions but relatively undisturbed prehistoric sites like Hirebenkal can help them get more information about the ideologies and social systems of megalithic peoples.