தமிழ்த் தேசியம்

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 


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Home  > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > Dolmens, Hero Stones and the Dravidian People

Dolmens, Hero Stones and the Dravidian People

Dr. R.Nagaswamy

[see also Tamil Arts Academy  - R.Nagaswamy;
 Self-Sacrifice or NavaKantam - Dr.S.Jayabharathi and
 Dolmens by Byon Kwang-Hyon ]

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.

They are found mostly grouped together or in isolation outside the habitation sites

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 Tamil Nadu department of Archaeology under the direction of this writer undertook an intensive survey and brought to light several hundred hero stones2, both inscribed and uninscribed in the North Arcot and South Arcot Districts of Tamilnad. This survey opened up a new vista for the study of Ancient Tamil culture. The hero stones found were erected in memory of heroes who laid their life, defending their territory or making some form of supreme sacrifice for the sake of the community or the region. Usually these stones, now called by scholars as “Virakkal” or Hero stones, show the figure of the hero carved with inscriptions, giving details of the hero, the battle, the king in whose time the battle took place and the person who erected the stone. Either they stand alone or in groups and are usually found outside the village limits, nearby a tank or lake.

Some of the hero stones with inscriptions were exactly in the form of Dolmens with three upright slabs and capping stone. The figure of the hero is generally carved on the back slab facing the entrance as if it is a temple shrine and the figure of the hero, an image of a god. Plain dolmens were also found without any figures or writings by the side of such hero stones, indicating that they were contemporary with the nearby hero stone. Such inscribed hero stones have been found from almost 3rd c. CE to the 16th c. CE attested by inscriptions. Obviously the tradition continued till very late. (A separate article is required to go into various types of such hero-stones, their contents etc, which can not be attempted here.)

The ancient Sangam literature refers to a large number of hero stones and the circumstances under which those were erected. The Sangam works, mainly the Purananuru 3 anthology, refer to the memorial stones as “na·ukal” or simply “kal” in the context.

The erection of memorial stones are mentioned in many poems of this work. We might examine only one in this article. The celebrated chieftain, Atiyaman Netuman Añci who is extolled by all the great poets of the Sangam age died in a battle ....was besieged in his own fort at ... the modern Dharmapuri, and killed by Malaiyaman Tirumutikkari. The Great Poetess of the Sangam age Avvaiyar, was an eyewitness to this battle. She praises the valour of Atiyaman and his liberality in a song.

Avvaiyar has a song on his death. She says that “when ever Atiyaman got small quantity of liquor he gave it to the bards, but when it was in sufficient quantity he used to partake the same, happily in the company of bards. He always used to take food after distributing it to the poor and the poets. There is no comparison to his liberality. Such a great man is now dead, pierced by the spear of his enemy. The spear that pierced him did in fact not only pierce his body but the poor minstrels who sought presents from him, and the tongues of the poets who sang beautiful Tamil Poems. Where is that great patron gone now! There remains no poet to sing Tamil poems any more and there is no more a patron to make liberal gifts to the singers”.

Avvaiyar records in another poem that his body was consigned to the flames. She has a moving poem on the flames consuming his body in the cremation Ground. She moreover also says that a memorial stone in the form of a Dolmen “itam pirar ko¥¥a ciru vari” was erected and that food offering was made to him. She says that he was offered liquor from a small pot and that too it was filtered by the fibres of the palm tree and sprinkled in small quantity. She pities this great man now accepting even the small quantity of sprinkled liquid in front of the dolmen.

The Poetess Avvaiyar makes three important points. The Chieftain died in a battle. His body was cremated in fire and finally a dolmen erected to him, in front of which offerings were made. It is a clear pointer to the fact that dolmens were erected not only on the remains of the dead but also those who were cremated. The Sangam classics also refer to the offering of pitas (cooked rice made into a ball) placed on darbha grass to the dead.

Tolkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar describes the complete stages of erecting memorial stones to the dead heroes in the PuÉattiºai section. The PuÉapporul Veºpamalai 4, another early work, also gives the rules for erecting such memorials to the hero. The stages mentioned are generally, “Katci, Kal k­l, Nirppatai, Natutal, Perumpatai, Varttal”.

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.

The third stage is keeping the stone soaked in clean water for a number of days or specified time. It is held that since the stone remained all along exposed to vagaries of weather, like hot sun and rain, the stone is kept immersed in water, called Nirppatai.

The hero’s figure is carved and his exploits inscribed on the stone, after which it is ceremoniously planted (Natutal) in an appropriate place. This is also called Il-koºtu-pukutal. A careful study of the texts shows that it is virtually equated to a temple consecration. “Il” is “k­-il” in this context. A great food offering is made to the hero, which is a rite called Perumpa·ai. Finally the hero is praised and prayers are offered for the bestowal of prosperity on the village community.

The PuranʶÉu (Purananuru)and PuÉapporu¥ veºp¤ m¤lai have ancient poems illustrating each of these stages. The erection of memorial is a strong cultural trait of the Tamils.

The great Tamil epic Cilappatikaram 5 gives in several chapters the erection of a temple to the heroine, Kannaki, mentioned as Vira-ma-Pattini. Incidentally all these chapters are titled as “katci katai”, “kalk­¥ katai”, “nirppataik katai”, “natukaÉ katai”, “vaÈttuk katai”, the titles given in Tolkappiyam, to various stages in erecting memorials to the heroic. The fame of Kannaki according to Cilappatikaram was so great that the stone brought from any place other than the great famous Himalayas was considered not quite appropriate for carving the image of Kannaki. Similarly that it was kept immersed in the waters of the Ganges river than in any other waters for the nirppatai rite, is the poetic suggestion of the greatness of Kannaki. At the end, the image carved on the stone was enshrined in a temple, that would show that the Dolmens or the hero stones erected as memorials to the dead were considered as temples in ancient Tamilnad .

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.

A Hero stone of the Pallava age, 605 CE, Chengam Taluk. with  paper rubbing on it

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.

Mention has been made of a number of hero stones with inscriptions found in Tamilnad. The hero stones of the 5-6th centuries erected under the Pallava rulers of Kanchipuram still survive, some in the form of dolmens.

The tradition is seen continued in Chola times in the 10th –11th c. CE. Two such Hero stones are illustrated here.

10th c. hero stone found in Palamankalam near Erode in Coimbatore district

11th c. Hero stone from Kodumudi, near Erode in Coimbatore district

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.

Hero stones give rise to stucco images of the heroes who are later identified with popular Gods

A stucco image of a Village God, near Viluppuram

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, Karuppaººacami, AººaÊmar, Matacami and Nallata³kal etc., around whom there are fine ballads.

In this connection a contemporary practice may also be studied. In this case the dead was a woman whose funerary rites will come as revelation. After the cremation of the body of the dead, stones are planted at two places, one at the banks of a river or lake, and the second at the entrance to the house of the deceased. The former is called nadi-tira-kuº¹a and the latter the gÁha-dvara-kuº¹a. In both the instances three small pebbles are tied by darbha grass and planted. For ten days the sons, descendants and relatives offer water and sesame seeds to the stones planted at the river bank. Water is also sprinkled from a wet towel over the stones accompanied by a chant. The chant says that, “I so and so, offer to so and so who is dead, this Towel-water (vasa-udaka) and sesame-water (tila-udaka) to cool down the heat of the body consumed by fire during cremation.” Each day the number of this offering increases till the tenth day of death.

Dolmen like pandal at the entrance of the house of the dead; the three stones are planted beneath

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.

The great offering consisting of Rice, iddly, appam, vadai,  and other food is called pra-bhuta-bali . the Tamil term Perum-padai mentioned in Tolkappiyam is exactly the same in the case of heroes. In temple parlance it is called  the maha-naivedya

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..

It may be mentioned that the cult of planting stones found in Tamilnad is not exclusive to this region. The cult was found to be pan Indian in character, which was demonstrated in a seminar organized by Dr. Sontheimer and Dr. Settar at Dharvar6. I have shown that this custom in a symbolic way continues among the Brahmins of South India for women as well.

The disposal of the dead is dealt with in the Dharma Sastras which are legal treatises. There are elaborate rules prescribed, including the selection of stone, the person authorized to do the death rites to the deceased etc. These are dealt with in the Dharma sastras for the reason that they deal with inheritance rights. The person who performs the rites has claim over the property of the dead. (These and other points are dealt with in detail in my forthcoming article on the disposal of the dead). The question that comes up now is whether erection of dolmens could be associated exclusively with the Dravidian people? This needs to be examined separately7


(1) Nagaswamy, R., Ce³kam natukaÉkal, Tamilnadu State Dept. of Archaeology, Madras, 1972

(2) Nagaswamy, R., Seminar on Hero stones, Tamilnadu State Dept. of Archaeology, Madras.

(3) Purananuru, ed. U. V.  Caminatha Aiyar, UVS Iyer Library, Thiruvanmiyur, Madras.

(4) Purapporul Veºpamalai, ed. U. V. Caminatha Aiyar, UVS Iyer Library, Thiruvanmiyur, Madras

(5) Cilappatikaram of  Ilanko Atikal, ed. U. V. Caminatha Aiyar, UVS Library, Thiruvanmiyur .

(6) Settar, Memorial Stones, Dharvar University.

(7) The photographs published in this article are by the author. Researchers are permitted to use them with due acknowledgements.

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