The Archaeoastronomy of a Few Megalithic Sites of Jharkhand review: Fragments of memory

An interesting exploration of ancient stones and rocks, relics of India’s rich protohistory, and what they tell us

March 03, 2018 07:39 pm | Updated 07:39 pm IST

The Archaeoastronomy of a Few Megalithic Sites of Jharkhand
Subhashis Das
Niyogi Books

The Archaeoastronomy of a Few Megalithic Sites of Jharkhand Subhashis Das Niyogi Books ₹695

Disciplinary and methodological differences apart, knowledge is in many ways integrative, inclusive, composite and non-differentiating. The Archaeoastronomy of a Few Megalithic Sites of Jharkhand does this well in it astronomy, archaeology, culture-studies and geometry integrate with history and tribal studies to bring forth a fresh perspective on certain dark areas of our past.

The author begins his interpretation with an insightful observation of Carl Gustav Jung: “Everyman carries with him unconsciously the memory of ancient civilizations. Similarly, the rock is a fragment of the world’s memory.” That considerable field work has gone into the making of this exploratory book is amply borne out by the explicit drawings, sketches, maps, and excellent photographs, which illustrate the soul history of stone structures and megaliths in the state of Jharkhand — and the result is indeed an interesting documentary of tales embedded in stones and rocks. Throughout the text we can feel the author’s complete involvement and genuine concern for the unspoken wisdom contained within what is normally held as non-living things — rocks and stones — and he sensitises the reader to the vibrations and pulsations of those tribal monuments. There is this deep sorrow that resonates throughout the pages; as an archaeo-astronomer, the author feels that historians and scientists have hitherto neglected to pay heed to the tales told by relics of our protohistory. And India is a treasure trove of ancient megaliths — Jharkhand more so.

Horizon astronomy

Quite distinct from the astronomy developed by the Sanskrit scholars, founded on precise calculations of the position and movements of the sun and stellar bodies, these early tribal megalith-astronomers created a whole system of signs based on their own limited observations — and this approach is better known as “observational or horizon astronomy.” Nevertheless, in no way are their orientations less scientific or mathematically less precise. The early struggle of the scientific mind connected to the planets, the sky and the earth are revealed in the megaliths that mark specific sites.

Now what is Megalith Astronomy? Mainstream Indian archaeology does not associate megaliths with astronomy, because for them these stones were nothing but markings on burial grounds and memorials that the tribal people have left behind. However, the sepulchral monuments and stone erections hold considerable interest for the researcher who is willing to look and learn from geography and geometry.

Signs in burial stones

The area that Subhashis Das studies is Jharkhand, and we read in his book that the standard ‘dolmen’ or the single-slab-type individualistic burials, referred to as ‘sasandiris’ in Austric speech, can be found in all burial grounds of the State’s tribal villages. These burial grounds known alternatively as ‘hargarhi’, ‘harsali’, ‘jangarha’ in tribal vernacular in turn exist in each tribal village. Menhirs are individual vertical or inclined stones planted in the grounds, and they are referred to as ‘birdiris’ or ‘burudiris’ in the Austric speech. What is of significance is the choice of the burial grounds and the positioning of the memorial stones. Several burial grounds are located adjacent to rivers flowing in north-south directions and on the banks of which the dead were cremated. Each tribe practised these megalithic constructions in their own specific ways, however, what is common among these is the underlying belief in the sacredness of the land and landscape. The megaliths implanted in specific locales bespeak the language of tribal belief and are “archaeoastronomical” sites. Archaeoastronomy is the study of the positioning of stone structures in alignment with planetary and stellar positions.

Even as the Rig Veda speaks of the sun as the great inseminator, the tribal belief upheld the earth as the mother goddess and marked off ritually sensitive areas as sanctified by the touch of the sun. Observing the sun from specific points — usually from atop a hill or rise in the land — aided the tribal priest in precisely calculating the fertility of the land, the livestock and the enhancement of the earth etc.

The alignments of the ‘menhirs’ also signalled ancestor worship and regeneration of the earth. In brief, these megaliths signalled the sacred sites to the ancient tribal pilgrims as temples dedicated to the mother goddess where they moved to perform their fertility and funeral rites and rituals.

This study of the positioning of the megaliths also revealed that apart from astronomy, directions of sunrise and sunset on equinoxes and solstices, the arrangements of stones within these astronomical temples also specially adhere to geometrical calculations. That these tribals were aware of such intricate sciences is evidence that mathematics, geometry and astronomy existed even prior to Vārāhamihira and Aryabhata.

The ancient megaliths stand as testimony to a lost sacred link speaking a language of a bygone era. All we can now gather is that a megalith marks a sacred site, where the landscape too forms an integral part of the process of worship and celebration. Das has produced an interesting document that is bound to trigger the scholar and student alike to re-examine the land around them and search for such unique traces of a past linking land and landscape.

The Archaeoastronomy of a Few Megalithic Sites of Jharkhand ; Subhashis Das, Niyogi Books, ₹695.

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