Hirebenkal is thirty odd kilometers from Hospet, and is spectacular, since it suddenly springs into view almost unexpectedly: India’s Valley of the Dead, so called, because of the enormous quantities of megaliths that are spread through an entire stretch. At some point the dead were ritually buried under these huge capstones, dolmens, and hut like structures with portholes. No evidence now remains of any human bones—nothing except these large stones all over the place, washed clean by centuries of wind and rain. The entire hillside looks like an abandoned village.
The men and maybe women, who set up this burial site, possibly commemorative or ceremonial, lived on another stretch of the mountains, but even less trace remains of their daily lives. Rural and pastoral lives, framed by thatched roofs, cannot be expected to survive a period of over two thousand years. So these monuments to the dead are all we have, to understand these ancient people by, and we drink in the rich, green gorgeous landscape, plentiful with water, where they once lived. The ASI has identified the place and put up some signs and posts, but it is still rather difficult to access. Notices warn people not to disturb the stones because no treasure lies buried underneath. Not that anyone is reading these instructions or taking them to heart. The entire stretch is in need of urgent attention. It needs to be made visitor accessible and visitor friendly, and there is desperate need both for information from human sources as well as public conveniences. The ASI officials are probably busy doing good work elsewhere but surely they could consider recruiting young people living in the area to guide people around the megaliths. We were lucky to have people working with the ASI who could take us there, but this is not really the norm.
In the years of post-war withdrawal, the whole map of England had altered. No longer the hub of global dominions, Britain had became an archipelago unto itself. And when the social structures were shaken and stirred, the dregs of empire had settled to the bottom, all the way from Kent to Cornwall.
This picture is typical of the landscape we walked through to access this secluded and little mentioned area. What continues to puzzle me is that I grew up reading about Stonehenge in the English Countryside and the men and women who might have built it as a site of worship, and the barrows in the adjoining valleys where they were buried. How is it that years of history lessons never alerted me to the presence of such a marvelous site, in my own country? I received my schooling long years after the ASI had identified this as a protected monument!
What is it that stops our historians and our administrators from disseminating information about such astounding sites? Hirebenkal is definitely an important marker of an ancient civilizational cradle, but it exists outside the imagination of our countrymen and women. Anywhere else in the world, such a site would have been treated as a national treasure trove and local administration would have vied to increase the footfalls. Schools all over the country, incorporating educational trips, could definitely take their students to visit this megalithic site, thereby sensitizing them to our rich heritage.
The countryside around the megalithic site, well outside a hypothetical three kilometre radius has great potential as camping and trekking grounds. Greater visibility would add to the lives of the people who continue to live in the area. It would also substantiate our claims to cultural and geographical diversity as a nation and make history come alive instead of being neglected in terribly produced black and white textbooks? And perhaps young people would dream of trekking in Northern Karnataka and visiting Hirebenkal someday because it is a worthwhile thing to do?
In today’s newspaper (Dec 20, 2011), Justice Katju speaks of our poets, Ghalib, Sarat Chandra and Subramania Bharathi and the need to honour them with the Bharat Ratna, our highest civilian award, so that we create a long history of real heroes to look up to, albeit posthumously. He accurately pinpoints our national reading deficit and the abundant poetry and prose in our national languages which have generated very limited interest. What we as a nation also suffer from is a deficit of both real and imagined spaces. This is a huge pity because we have abundant sources in the vast peopled expanses of our country and in the landscape, both natural and manmade. We must make much more of our geography, as we attempt to do with our history and literature.