For centuries, Stonehenge, a famous prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, evoked a sense of wonder among historians, archaeologists and travellers alike. Tens of thousands flock to the area to witness its colossal beauty, often not realising such structures exist in various other parts of the world. Noted historian MG Sasibhooshan drew the example of Stonehenge to explain the sad state of megalithic monuments in Kerala by comparing it with efforts taken by foreign governments to conserve monuments.
"History needs to be taught beyond the scope of textbooks. The students must have opportunities to visit historical monuments and sites in the state. Sometimes, we cannot conserve every monument. For instance, we may have to remove a Kudakallu (Umbrella stone) structure if it obstructs road development. When we do so, the concerned authorities should shift such historical monuments to a museum, research centre or school. Today, there are scientific and technological provisions to do so. Unfortunately, no such efforts are being taken to conserve such sites," he said.
Meanwhile, many historians cited the lack of coordination between the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Kerala State Archaeology Department for monuments lying neglected and unprotected in Kerala.
Dr Rajesh KP, Assistant Professor of NSS College Manjeri, who extensively studied Monolith structures in Malabar regions, cited the need for the state government to bring new policies to protect megalithic sites in the state.
"Apart from documenting, excavating, and gathering artefacts from megalithic sites, the ASI and State Archaeology Department do not have a policy or laws to preserve megalithic sites unless it receives the tag of a protected site. Most megalithic sites are accidentally discovered by locals or property owners. Once notified, the officials from the state archaeological department attend the site and will proceed with resurvey procedures, collect artefacts, and document their findings. Apart from it, state archaeology does not have provisions to protect the sites. The existing laws of ASI and the state archaeology department only provide conservation and legal validity to monuments termed as 'protected sites'," said Dr Rajesh KP, Assistant Professor of NSS College Manjeri, who extensively studied Monolithic structures in Malabar regions. He suggested that ASI and state archaeology departments should combine to launch a 'megalithic heritage mapping' project to identify and document sites of importance.
Currently, the preservation and environmental development of designated protected monuments are undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India as per archaeological norms. In Kerala, for instance, 'Kudakkallu Parambu', a burial site in Chermanangad of Thrissur District, and Ariyannur Umbrellas, located nearby in Ariyannur, are sites that fall under the protected monument category of ASI.
Noted Malayalam writer Kovilan, who lived in close proximity to Kudakallu sites in Ariyannur, once remarked that he received an injunction notice from ASI when he tried to renovate his house. However, such is not the case for other 'unprotected' megalithic sites in the state.
As per the "The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958", ancient and historical monuments, sculpture carvings and other objects, archaeological sites and remains are protected and preserved. However, the law clearly stipulates the conservation of sites designated as "protected and preserved." In fact, three fourth of sites in the country lie outside the purview of the 'protected' tag. As a result, neither the concerned law enforcement authorities nor archaeological departments can take action against people destroying or vandalising ancient monuments. Noted archaeologist and former Regional Director of ASI KK Muhammed remarked that the time has come for the government to adopt a policy to end the collapse of our ancient monuments.
The Muniyaras (dolmens) of Marayoor, in Idukki, is a notable example of how bureaucratic oversight and government red tape could effortlessly destroy ancient monuments. Marayoor, located 40 km from Munnar, is an alluring spot for anthropologists and archaeologists from all over the world due to the presence of the largest cluster of dolmenoid cists belonging to the Megalithic age. Muniyaras, estimated to be 5000 years old, are burial chambers made of four stones placed on the edges and covered by a fifth one on the top called the capstone.
"Post-independence, the maximum number of megalithic structures are discovered in Marayoor. I used to see many structures in Marayoor during my visits to the place while working in the archaeological department. Unfortunately, many are now lost owing to negligence and lack of conservation," MG Sasibhooshan said.
The name Muniyaras came from the idea that it was a place where sages used to meditate, stay or be buried.
Meanwhile, many conservators argue that rampant tourist activities in the area have drastically affected the Muniyaras. Despite measures taken by the state archaeological department and local self-government administrations, many of these structures remain in wretched conditions. A few years back, two watchers were assigned to protect dolmens by the archaeology department in Murugan Hill, a prominent site in Marayoor. Today the guards have long gone, and the monuments here await slow and painful death due to complete ignorance.
In 2010, Marayoor Grama Panchayat launched an effort to protect 75 per cent of the Muniyaras in Murugan Hill by constructing fences. However, these fences had been long gone, and it has become a regular sight of tourists trespassing and climbing on top of these structures. Although there have been announcements of a megalithic park by the panchayat and a tribal museum by Idukki MP, nothing has come up yet.
Meanwhile, the Muniyaras remain in awful condition, with the soil beneath these structures fastly eroding.
"It is an unusual site that needs to be protected. However, the archaeological department hasn't taken any measures to conserve them. To an extent, the government has not taken any action to protect the site. Today, tourists flock to the area in large numbers, often in jeeps that transport them to the top of Murugan hill. These adventure tourism activities pose a danger to dolmens here," said Benny Kurian, who studied extensively about Megalithic monuments in the Idukki district and conducted a GPS mapping survey of dolmens for Marayoor panchayat in 2010.
Earlier, experts had suggested bringing in public participation to conserve Muniyaras in the line of projects in Chinnar to save Red ochre paintings and Edakkal caves in Wayanad. However, the idea was dropped after the Archaeology department opposed the move.
Meanwhile, historians and archaeologists have raised concerns over the impact of rapid urbanisation in Kerala, leading to the destruction of these structures.
Due to rapid urbanisation, people tend to remove historic structures unearthed in these properties during construction works. The lack of awareness among the public and limited information available regarding the importance of these sites have placed historians and archaeologists in a race against the clock to save them.
Northern Kerala: Rich haven of megalithic burial sites
The northern districts of Kerala remain rich haven of megalithic burial sites. Megaliths found in northern parts of Kerala include rock-cut tombs, umbrella stones, cist burial, dolmens, stone circles, urns, menhir, etc. Despite a number of recent discoveries, no efforts were taken by authorities to record the exact geo coordinates and other necessary details of the nature of discovered sites.
Nandakumar Koroth, a history teacher at Nehru Arts and Science College, who had taken part in the conservation of several megalithic structures in the Kasaragod district, cited the example of a neolithic granite axe --more than 3000 years old-- which was left unattended at a village office in Kasaragod for two years before archaeology department shifted it to the Pazhassi Raja Archaeological Museum in Kozhikode. It was supposedly the largest axe from the time period to be discovered in Kerala.
"Until 2014, we were able to identify only around 30 megalithic burial sites in Kasaragod. However, this has now crossed 100. The antiquarian sensibility and increased awareness among the public have proven to be an effective way to conserve Kudakallu and other megalithic structures here," he said.
However, people tend to destroy such structures due to the popular misconception that government will seize their property. Lack of proper awareness to educate the public often hinders archaeologists and historians from saving such structures in Kerala.
Interestingly, ceremonial light is lit daily inside a burial site in Bengalam, Kasaragod, based on a local belief that a sage once lived there. In another location, a rock-cut chamber is called 'Pandava Guha' due to local belief that the Pandava brothers, the central characters of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, once lived there.
Conservations at Panchayat level
Due to a lacklustre approach from the concerned authorities, many of these landmark structures are quickly disappearing, with exposure to weather and other natural phenomena. However, the more worrying aspect is the destruction of these monuments owing to human activities.
Noted archaeologist and Padmashree awardee KK Muhammed had voiced similar concerns over how megalithic sites were handled by the state and central governments. He remarked that Kudakallu and Thoppikallu sites in Kerala are unique burial structures not found anywhere else.
"The government and panchayats in the state should come forward for its conservation. The state archaeology departments should issue circulars to acquire such megalithic sites from respective panchayats and launch projects to conserve them. It is up to panchayats to declare such areas as protected sites. With this, we could protect such megalithic structures from human encroachment," he said.