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Hire Benkal, Megalithic Site

Date of Submission: 13/04/2021
Criteria: (iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: Lat. 150 26’ 27”; Long. 760 27’ 28”
Ref.: 6529

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The word ‘Megalith’ has been derived from two Greek words ‘megas’ meaning big/large and ‘lithos’ means stone. The megalith is a nomenclature used for certain burial style which involves stone erect structures for dead. The megaliths have been reported from various parts of world such as Europe, Asia, Africa, Central and South America. The spatial horizon of distribution of megalithic sites is extensive as well as its architectural typology. In India, megaliths are reported from Peninsular South, Deccan plateau, Vindhyas and North West region of Indian subcontinent.  However, the heavy concentrations of megaliths have been reported from Central and Peninsular South India.

The origin of megaliths in India can be traced back to Neolithic-Chalcolithic period (such as urn burial reported from Chalcolithic site of Inamgaon, Maharashtra) however most of south Indian megalithic sites shows general association with iron. Hence in India literature the period of megaliths is also refereed as Iron Age – Megalithic period to specify its Iron context. However, some sites are reported from Early Historic and a few from Medieval context. 

The megalithic tradition is an excellent example of how past humans perceived as well as conceived the end of life, enact death rituals and perform burials. Compared to the Neolithic period, the burials of the Iron Age period reveal a higher degree of complexity. This can be attributed to conceptual development with regard to the belief system. The typological  variety in megalithic structure is astounding, few to name, Menhir, Dolmen, Dolmenoid cist, Sarcophagus, Sarcophagus in Dolmenoid Cist, Cairn circle, Stone alignment, Urn burial, Topikal, Kodaikal, and multiple stone hoods. The certain burial types are associated with specific regions- for example, Kodaikal and Topikals with Kerala, and menhirs with Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.  The diversity within the mortuary architectural forms reveals the diversity of people and cultural beliefs and traditions across South India. However, the underlined belief or ideology regarding ‘Death and Afterlife’ (perceived through grave goods and pottery and other offerings) was unifying factor manifested through the very concept of building megaliths.

The site under consideration is megalithic burial complex at Hire Benkal in Gangavati Taluka, Koppal District, state of Karnataka, INDIA, a Centrally Protected Site under Archaeological Survey of India, Hampi Circle. The site is located on top of castellated granite hillock within the zone of peninsular gneissic complex of the Dharwad series of rocks. The site is approachable from 3kms southeast of Hire Benkal village.

The megaliths on the hill, encompassing an area of nearly 20 ha. are situated at three different localities, spread in an east - west orientation, together to a distance of about 1 km. The three clusters could be classified as the western group, central group and the eastern group. The distance between each cluster is roughly 200m. The western group lies close to a granite quarry of the Megalithic period, which also served as a perennial waterhole. Several subtypes that have been identified at Hire Benkal are as follows: Port-holed Dolmenoid Cist – Circles, Oblong Dolmenoid Cists or Cists with or without port-holes, Irregular polygonal chambers, Rock Shelter Chambers, Anthropomorphic, etc.

Leonard Munn, in 1934-35, first published the report about 3 rock paintings near the well-known groups of megalithic dolmens reported earlier by Keis, the Scottish Missionary, in Hire Benkal bouldery hill ranges of granite-gneiss. Munn also noted as ash mound near the village. Dharwad Circle, Archaeological Survey of India, undertook excavations at two habitation sites, i.e. Durgadi Dadi and Talavarmule, in the vicinity of Hire Benkal. 

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Site of Hire Benkal is a part of Reserve Forest comprising about 6748.54 ha of which Hire Benkal megalithic complex comprises approx. about 20 ha.  The site situated on high peak (605m) in a granite residual hill tract. The site is world renowned for the existence of hundreds of megaliths (dolmens in majority) which are standing on mound for more than 2500 yrs. The recent studies have shown existence of almost 1000 megalithic structures comprising various architectural varieties such as dolmens, cairns, passage chambers, stone circle, menhirs, and sole example of anthropomorphic figure carved from granite, etc. spread over 20 ha area. Gigantic port-holed dolmens dominate over all other types of burial monuments and such monuments occurring elsewhere in the region are known as Hire Benkal type.

Another unique feature of Hire Benkal is prehistoric rock paintings. In Hire Benkal so far 11 rock shelters have been discovered. However a few painting from Mesolithic period have also been reported in the form of intricate labyrinthine designs composed of rhombic meanders or honeycomb patters in human depiction, which is exclusive in Mesolithic Art. Also a few depictions of large figures of deified zoomorph beings, closely resembling to Boar are reported from the site. Also some animal depictions are big; some are more than life size. In some pictures from surrounding area of Hire Benkal drawing of square or rectangular ‘enclosures’ are found; in side several of human figures are placed. Scholars believe these squares are actually show sacred enclosures or more probably graves. In one particular painting a circular space which is parted into two halves and in one of these, a person is placed between various unidentified artifacts. This may be a depiction of stone circle type megalith which is a very common type in South India. The paintings in these rock shelters comprises of motifs such as : long row of human figures, horse rider holding battle-axe, row of deers, bull with long horns, peacock, etc.  Majority of the paintings especially belong to overlapping period of Late Neolithic and Early Iron Age-Megalithic, i.e. c. 700-500 BCE. The depictions in rock art from Hire Benkal provides clue about subsistence strategies (hunting), weapons used (spears, Axes comparable to the one reported from megalithic excavated sites), fauna etc. of the Iron Age - megalithic period.

Water retaining modified rock pools (stone basins that capture and retain rainfall) appear to have taken on cultural significance as early as the Iron Age (1000– 500 BCE) in several regions of South India. During this period, mortuary and ritual sites were often marked by the construction of megalith monuments, and a clear cultural association between such ritual constructions and seasonal water basins can be established. Large concentrations of elaborately constructed megaliths appear to have been deliberately placed adjacent to water basins in hilltop locations. Perhaps the site of Hire Benkal, in northern Karnataka, is the most striking example of such an association, where hundreds of megaliths are found near a broad shallow water basin that likely began as a rock pool and probably subsequently was expanded by quarrying activities for the construction of megaliths.

Kettledrum, this roughly hemispherical stone, positioned in strategic location amidst hillock, has a diameter of 2.20m and a maximum radial height of 1.5m. It rests on a huge 10 m high monolithic boulder with the beating surface. The drum if beaten by stone or wooden hammer emanates musical sound, which could be distinctly heard beyond a radius of 1 km including the burial–complex and the habitation site located at diametrically opposite ends. According to researcher, the kettledrum might have served the purpose of cautioning the inhabitants of the site against invaders or for inviting them for congregation of socio-religious or ritualistic significance.

Hire Benkal do not just represent mortuary landscape but represents a masterpiece of human creative genius of the Iron Age- Megalithic period. It exhibits an important interchange of human values (sacred/ religious, social, economic), over a span of time within a cultural area, especially of, the South India. It bears a unique testimony to the Megalithic cultural tradition forming one of the largest clusters of Megalithic burial monuments in India. Rock paintings are variedly ascribed to Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic to Early Historic period is again a unique testimony to the site. Ringing Stone signifies socio-religious or ritualistic aspect of the Megalithic people. The large quantity of monuments at Hire Benkal and diversity in properties as well as sizes are unprecedented in the region and that make the site unique. The megaliths at Hire Benkal were not isolated cemeteries but the places where commemorative ritual activities occurred along with other forms of land use. The association between megaliths and temporarily occupied rock shelters and terraces, rock pool suggests that the area were probably regularly visited for short period of times by ancient inhabitants.

Criterion (iii): The site of Hire Benkal provides an exceptional insight into the funerary and ritual practices of the Iron Age – Megalithic Culture of Indian Protohistory. The megalithic structures materialize an extraordinary conception of the megalithic landscape, being exponents of an original relationship with the natural landscape to which they are intrinsically linked.  The site is not just among a few sites in India having largest number of megalithic structures but also has substantially increased the knowledge of Megalithic - Iron Age period through Rock art and the habitation site closed to the mortuary ground, which is a unique and rare combination. 

Criterion (iv): Illustrate a significant stage of human history when the first large ceremonial monuments were built in India. The variety of   types of megalithic architecture seen in this ensemble of dolmens, which are representative of the great megalithic tradition and the unique relationship between the dolmens and the surrounding landscape, reinforces the originality of this property.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The site of Hire Benkal is Centrally Protected Monument of National importance under Hampi Circle of Archaeological Survey of India under provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Sites and Remains Act, 1958. The burials forming one of the largest clusters of Megalithic monuments of at least five major types along with their sub types is located in Karnataka State Reserve Forest Zone. Since the location is slightly away from the present habitation zone, it is least disturbed and original site retaining the authenticity, integrity and original eco-environmental set up, which gives picturesque view. The importance of Hire Benkal group of monuments remains unaltered. Located in a well-defined and pristine, undisturbed eco- environmental set-up, the site provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the architectural ramifications of the ideology and belief systems of an ethnic group of bygone days to the posterity. The site also provides ample scope for development by way of resetting the disturbed structures, providing relevant signage at vantage points, pathways covering all important locations, etc. and an exclusive museum highlighting the multifarious cultural achievements of the Megalithic people.

Comparison with other similar properties

1. Antequera Dolmens Site, Spain

Located at the heart of Andalusia in southern Spain, the site comprises three megalithic monuments: the Menga and Viera dolmens and the Tholos of El Romeral, and two natural monuments: La Peña de los Enamorados and El Torcal mountainous formations, which are landmarks within the property. Built during the Neolithic and Bronze Age out of large stone blocks, these monuments form chambers with lintelled roofs or false cupolas. These three tombs, buried beneath their original earth tumuli, are one of the most remarkable architectural works of European prehistory and one of the most important examples of European Megalithism.

2. Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites, Republic of Korea

The prehistoric cemeteries at Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa contain many hundreds of examples of dolmens - tombs from the 1st millennium BC constructed of large stone slabs. The Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites preserve important evidence of how stones were quarried, transported and raised and of how dolmen types changed over time in northeast Asia.

3. Megalithic Jar Site Xiengkhuang – Plain of Jars – Lao People’s Democratic Republic

More than 2100 tubular-shaped megalithic stone jars used for funerary practices in the Iron Age give the Plain of Jars its name. This serial property of 15 components contains 1325 of these large carved stone jars, stone discs (possibly lids for the jars), secondary burials, grave markers, quarries, manufacturing sites, grave goods and other features. Located on hill slopes and spurs surrounding the central plateau, the jars are large, well-crafted, and required technological skill to produce and move from the quarry locations to the funerary sites. The jars and associated elements are the most prominent evidence of the Iron Age civilization that made and used them, about which little is known. The sites are dated from between 500 BCE and 500 CE (and possibly up to as late as 800 CE). The jars and associated archaeological features provide evidence of these ancient cultural practices, including associated social hierarchies. The Plain of Jars is located at an historical crossroads between two major cultural systems of Iron Age Southeast Asia – the Mun-Mekong system and the Red River/Gulf of Tonkin system.