Many of us make it a point to visit Stonehenge when visiting the United Kingdom. But not many know that hiding in plain sight is one of the oldest megalithic sites in the world, right here in India. It was only when it recently made it to UNESCO’s ‘tentative’ list of heritage sites (a prerequisite for nomination as a World Heritage Site) that people came to know of the secret of Hire Benakal, a village in Koppal district in Karnataka.
What is even more surprising is that this village, with its wealth of megaliths, has remained under the radar for ages. Known to a clutch of historians and archaeologists, Hire Benakal is less than 50km away from the architectural extravaganza of Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular Indian destination.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines megaliths as ‘huge, often undressed stone used in various types of Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Early Bronze Age monuments’. Found in many places around the globe, these stone structures with their unique architectural pattern, have been challenging historians to determine the reason behind their construction. Most believe these are associated with rituals surrounding the dead, indications of burial sites, or are memorials to the departed. One of the most famous megalithic monuments in the world is Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. The Megalithic temples of Malta, likely dated between 3000 BC and 700 BC, are said to be the oldest free standing structures in the world.
Strewn over a large area among the hills of Hire Benakal are these peculiar granite structures, which local people believed were handiworks of dwarf communities who lived here several thousand years ago. According to historians, these are megalithic monuments dating back to the Neolithic period.
The spectacular structures, ranging from granite slabs balancing on rocks to small huts packed with stones on all sides with a small opening in between, are not homes but associated with funerary rituals. A large section of the structures are said to be examples of ‘dolmen’ (two or more upright stones with a single stone lying across them). It is said that of the 12 styles of Neolithic burial structures found in India, eight are seen in Hire Benakal.
Apart from being found in European countries such as Britain, France, Switzerland, Italy, etc., dolmens are also found in Africa and Asia. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, more than 30,000 such monuments, making up some two-fifths of the world’s total, are in Korea alone, of which three Koch’ang (Gochang), Hwasun, and Kanghwa (Ganghwa) in South Korea—are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
In Hire Benakal, archaeologists have also found what they believe to be a quarry which probably supplied the stones and the remains of a lake which likely provided the water required for the rituals. Prehistoric rock art has also been found in a few structures.
India is home to several megalithic sites with the bulk spread across the southern peninsula. Hire Benakal is said to be the largest such site in India. Hire Benakal is about 35km by road from Hospet. It is being maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The megalithic site is located in Hire Benakal village. The most convenient transport hub for Hire Benakal is Hospet, which is about 35km away by road, and the nearest railway station. You may also drive down from Gangavathi and Koppal towns. The nearest airport is Bengaluru (about 370km away).
As Hire Benakal is about 50km from Hampi, you may add an extra day to your visit to the world heritage site and see the megalithic site.
As of now, there is no clearly marked path to the site and you need to trek through undulating rough terrain. It is advisable to take a local person as a guide because the area is likely to be home to wild animals, including bears. The best time to visit is in winter. Do remember to carry sun protective gear and drinking water. Proper walking shoes must.