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Dolmens & Hero Stones
Dolmens, Hero Stones and the Dravidian People - Dr. R.Nagaswamy
South India is rich in megalithic burials, which are generally dated to 7th and 8th centuries BC, if not earlier.
These monuments are in the form of dolmens, cist burials, cairn circles, menhirs etc. Connected with these are the Urn burials with sarcophagus in some instances. They are found in such large numbers, particularly in Tamilnadu that they are associated with the Dravidian people, though some scholars question this theory. Inside these burials an impressive number of funerary deposits like pots, iron implements, beads, metal wares and charred grains are found. Some such burials also yield bones of the dead to whom these were erected. The pottery found inside is a special variety, named "Black and red ware" 1. The interior and the rim or mouth portions are black in color while the body outside is red and hence the name Black and red ware. They are always associated with iron and hence are also called Iron Age pottery. The dolmens of Tamilnad are found mostly in northern districts though stray occurrence of them is found in other parts.
The dolmens consist mainly of three
upright slabs covering three sides with a capstone and an
opening oriented towards the south. The flooring is also
made of stone in many instances. There are several
varieties of these structures. They are found mostly
grouped together or in isolation outside the habitation
sites suggesting that they are located in the cemetery
area. Excavations have revealed that not all of them
contain bones and clearly some were memorials to the
dead. These dolmens go by different names in different
localities... A burial urn in one instance contained a
Roman coin attesting to the fact that it belonged to 2nd
c. CE or later. Though the dating of these Dolmens are
mainly based on typology and pottery, it is now
increasingly clear quite a number of them might belong to
post 4th or 5th c. CE.
The first stage in the erection of a
memorial is the selection of a suitable stone for the
memorial by the village community, which goes by the name
Katci i.e to select. (kaºutal). The villagers go to
a nearby site to obtain a stone and after selection
usually from a rock, sprinkle water over the stone with a
prayer that all the spirits that have been inhabiting the
place all long may depart so that the stone may be
acquired for the memorial. The second stage (Kal
kl) is offering flowers and incense and praising
the stone, for it is "the stone" that is going to carry
the name and fame of this great hero. Then the stone is
quarried and placed on a cart and is brought to the
village to the accompaniment of music and dance.
Constructions of temples are dealt with in a body of literature called agamas and almost all temples in Tamilnad follow the procedures laid out in these of texts. The Agamas deal with the carving of images, construction of temples for them, consecration, daily and periodical rites, festivals, repairs etc. A careful study of the text reveals that the process of selection of a stone for carving the image of a god, the process of carving the image, the consecration and other rites are the same as found for the memorial stones.
The quarrying of stone, keeping it
immersed in waters, planting the carved image,
invocation, offering of great food - maha naivedya - and
prayers in the end, correspond absolutely with the
process mentioned in Tolkappiyam for the erection
memorials to the dead. Viewed from the angle of the
builders of the memorials, the dead is a God.
The tradition is seen continued in Chola times in the 10th -11th c. CE. Two such Hero stones are illustrated here.
One is a 10th c. hero stone found in Palamankalam near Erode in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, while the other is from Kodumudi, also near Erode in the same district
The former preserves the portrait of the hero and his exploits inscribed in beautiful poetry in Tamil characters of 10th c. The other is dated in the reign of Rajendra Chola the conqueror of Ganges and Kadaram region. The figure of the hero is carved on the stone facing the entrance. In both the instances the inscriptions say that the heroes fought against their enemies, won victories and gave up their lives in the process. To give up ones own life was the supreme sacrifice the heroic-death. What is of importance for the present study is the dolmen form of the hero stone resembling a small village shrine. These are even now adored and worshipped periodically by the remote descendants of the heroes. Such dolmen like hero stones of later period have also been found.
It is this worship of the hero-stone that
led to some of the cults of village gods When the heroic
death was famous, the hero came to be celebrated in
ballads and his fame spread to nearby regions. Also
wherever the people of that region migrated they took the
worship of that hero with them. From a small village to a
wider region, his cult spread and now he becomes the
saviour of that region or even the country. It is how the
cult of some celebrated heroes in the Tamil country
spread as for example the cult of Maturaiviran,
Matacami and Nallata³kal etc., around whom there are
At the entrance to the house stones are planted, either in a pit or a newly thatched temporary pandal that looks like a dolmen (Foto). After the offering is made at the river bank, the sons and relatives return to the entrance of the house. The sons repeat the offering (Foto) to the stones. In addition cooked rice rolled into two balls, one large and the other small (called piº¹as) are offered to the stones invoking the dead. The daughters prepare this cooked rice and piº¹as in front of the stones (Foto). Milk, honey, ghee, tender coconut are other offerings (Foto). Of the two balls of rice one is big and the other is small, the big one is meant for the dead to eat as day time meals and the small for the night. A pot full of drinking water is placed over the stones. A small hole in the pot allows the water to drip throughout the day (Foto). A lamp is kept burning throughout. This may be compared with what Avvaiy¤r sings of chieftain Atiyam¤Ê getting sprinkles on his dolmen.
On the tenth day a great food offering is made to the dead. Huge quantity of cooked rice, sweet meats, cooked vegetables etc. and other things that were liked by the dead while alive, are offered. This is called prabhuta-bali This is an exact equivalent of perumpadai of the Sangam classics. On the eleventh day, the dead who was called for the first ten days "preta" ("mane") is united with his/her ancestor and is no more called preta but hence forth "pitA" ("the ancestor"). A great offering is also made in a pit to the god Yama and also the dead on that day. Finally on the 13th day an auspicious rite is held which purifies the sons and relatives and a prayer is addressed to the dead to bestow blessings on the family (There are other rites which need not detain us here.).
The dead in this case was a woman
belonging to a Brahmin family. Erection of a dolmen like
structure, planting stones and offering food and water
more or less in the same manner as mentioned in the
Sangam literature, would show that this custom was not
confined to only heroes or warrior class but to all
classes of people, including women. A very large number
of dolmens and cairn circles in ancient megalithic sites
show that almost all the people received such honours in
the beginning but later the custom was confined to men of
great valour and fame. The custom continued in a symbolic
manner for other people. The planting of stone continued
but in a small scale without the figure or writing, and
was removed after the 10th day and the stones were thrown
in deep waters..
The above is picture of a Virakkal dedicated to a warrior who performed self-sacrifice. He is wearing a scabbard in his waist. He is also wearing the "Vattudai" a garment worn by warriors. He grabs his hair with his left-hand and smites his neck with a sword which is held with his right hand.
This statue is found in the Puumaayi Amman Temple of Tiruppathur, Sivagangai District, TamilNadu, South India. The temple is situated at the south-western part of the town. As such it was at the outskirt of the giant fortress that was there. It is actually a temple dedicated to Sapta Matrikas -the Seven Mothers. Puumaayi Amman is Vaishnavi or Vishnu Sakthi. She is in the centre of the row of the seven Matrikas.
Such statues are also found in Mamallapuram(MahaBali Puram), Thiruvaanaikkaa, and some other places. I found one such broken statue in a temple of Vadakku Vaasal Chelvi Amman in Kalappur, near Singampunari-same region as Tiruppathur. It is in the northern boundary of the "Lost City of Aruviyur".
Self-sacrifice or Navakantam was an ancient practice among the Tamils in which a person sacrifices his own self with his own hands. It is a form of ritualistic suicide. Though outwardly resembling the Japanese Hara-Kiri, it differs in several ways from it. In Hara-Kiri, sometimes, the best friend cuts the head off, while the Samurai warrior slices his abdomen with his dagger. But the Tamils did it absolutely unassisted.
This custom was prevalent among the ancient Tamil warriors.
It was usually carried out as a fulfilment of a vow. There were various reasons for this.
When a person wishes to perform this ritualistic suicide, he calls all his friends and relatives for a very grand celebration. A festival is held in honour of the occassion. He is attired befittingly. There were certain rites which were performed at his house. It was funerary in nature. He takes leave of every-one. Then everybody goes in procession to the temple of the deity for whom the ritual is to be performed.
In the temple of the deity, the necessary rites are performed.
The self-sacrificer attains the proper posture on the ground.
A rhythmic beating of drums are accompanied by other musical instruments. While the priest is chanting the appropriate Mantras, the self-sacrificer grabs his hair and holds up his head with his left hand and holds a sword with his right hand.
Then, with a swift stroke, he smites his head off.
There was another variety called Nava Kantam. In this the sacrificer cuts off eight parts from his body. The ninth and last part to be cut off, is the head. Hence, the name, "NavaKantam". In this ritual, the sacrificer has to do it unassisted. Since it is an elaborate rirual, it is time-consuming. So the whole process takes place slowly. The Zamorins-Saamudhiri Kings- of Calicut used to perform this.
The warriors are usually honoured with a Hero-stone called "Viirak Kal".
This custom is mentioned in ancient Tamil literature like the Maduraik Kaanchi, Chilappadhikkaaram, alingaththup ParaNi, etc.
In the Chilappadhikkaaram, the warriors who won a victory for their king Karikaala Cholzhan are seen to scarifice themselves to the Chadhukka Bhutham of Kaviri Pumpattinam. The Bhutham was one of the guardians of the city. In another place, it perform for Durga.
In the Kalingaththup ParaNi, we it being performed for Kotrravai who is KaLi.
Marco Polo who visited the Pandya country in the 13the century A.D., was an eye-witness to such an event. Friar Jordanus , Nicolas de Conti, and others have mentioned about it in their travellogues.
Pallava period Hero stone unearthed in
Hindu 24 November 2001
VELLORE, NOV. 23. A 9th century `herostone' built during the region of the Pallava King, Dantivarman, has been unearthed recently at Balekuppam in Katpadi taluk.
History has it that Dantivarman ruled Thondaimandalam with Kancheepuram as the capital for about 50 years from 796 A.D. to 846 A.D.
The war of Thellar took place during the reign of Nandivarman III, son of Dantivarman. `Marpidugu Eri' (lake) and `Swastik' well at Thiruvellarai, both in Tiruchi district, were constructed during Dantivarman's regime.
According to Mr. M. Gandhi, Curator of the Government Museum, Vellore, a feudatory called Mavali Vanarayan, under Dantivarman, ruled the area around modern Thiruvalam.
Vanarayan's headquarters was Vanapuram. The `herostone' belongs to this vassal's period.
The `herostone', which was erected during the regnal year of Mavali Vanarayan in 816 A.D., has a height of six feet and is four feet wide.
The hero, shown in relief work, rides on a galloping horse. He has a beautiful turban on his head. He throws a spear with his right hand and a dagger dangles from his waist band.
A thick `hara' adorns his neck. There are 34 lines of inscription on three sides of the figure. The inscription has been chiselled in Grantha and Tamil.
The hero named Pennan, son of Arikanri, died heroically defeating his enemies while they raided Palai Udai Pymur. Therefore the `herostone' was installed with a donation of land to be utilised by his relatives. Mr. Rajendran of Balekuppam, an M.Phil student, informed Mr. Gandhi about the presence of the `herostone'. With the permission of Dr. R. Kannan, Commissioner of Museums, and the Department of Archaeology, Mr. Gandhi and Mr. P. Venkatesan, a PG assistant, Government Higher Secondary School, Kaveripakkam, studied the herostone.
The 'herostone' which has been unearthed recently at Balekuppam in Katpadi taluk.
V.P.Yatheeskumar and S.Selvakumar of the Department of Epigraphy and Archaeology of Tamil University, Thanjavur, found the stones on March 23 and 25 on the banks of the Vaigai, about 19 km south of Vattalakundu. They are functioning under the department head K.Rajan.
"These are the oldest among the hero stones in India so far," Vice-Chancellor C.Subramaniam told reporters here on Tuesday. "... They will pose new challenges to archaeologists of Tamil Nadu."
The three-foot high stones seem to be a part of urn burials found in large numbers in the area. In recent years, they were removed from their original position when the ground was levelled for cultivation. The area is known as Veppamarattukadu.
Dr.Rajan said the research was part of a project on the archaeology of the Vaigai valley, funded by the University Grants Commission and a project on the historical atlas of South India, funded by the Ford Foundation.
The first hero stone has three lines that read, "Kal pedu tiyan antavan kudal ur akol," which means it has been put up in memory of Tiyan Antavan of pedu village, who died in a cattle raid at Kudalur. The second stone is partly broken. The inscription says it is in memory of Atan. The full name of the village and the man could not be ascertained as the stone has been damaged. The inscription on the third stone reveals that it is in memory of Patavan Avvan of Velur.
The last two inscriptions can be dated to the third
century BC. The first inscription seems to be older than
the other two. According to Iravatham Mahadevan, an
expert in the Tamil Brahmi script, the writings and
orthography are similar to the cave inscriptions of
Mangulam. This is the earliest inscription found so far
in Tamil Nadu.