Monday, February 1, 2010

"But is it Architecture???"

View from one of the rock-cut chamber tombs at Eyyal near Thrissur

For the last 3 years that I have been investigating megalithic monuments for any clues to the possible astronomical knowledge of their builders, a lot of "learned architectural academicians" have been smirking and commenting - "But that is not architecture..."

In fact, one worthy who claims that he was the "only doctorate in architecture for several square kilometers around Manipal" even went so far as to state that megaliths do not constitute architecture - "they are only ugly stone remains..."

So, dear readers, what exactly is architecture..? Looking back at the hoary origins of this noble profession, when can one say that "Architecture starts NOW"? Most textbooks on the history of architecture cursorily deal with "prehistoric architecture" in a paragraph or two and then go on to early examples of more glamorous buildings like temples and palaces. By now, having tramped over many a hill and vale, and having seen examples of many structures that archaeologists tell us were erected in the Iron Age (but which I have reason to believe were erected much earlier - more on that later), I think I have earned the right to say a few things I believe about early architecture. And that shall be the content of this post...

A kudakkal at Kudakkal Parambu, Thrissur

A few dolmens of the Central Group at Hire Benkal, Karnataka

Look at the above pictures - the top one is a kudakkal (lit. umbrella stone) at Thrissur in Kerala, the lower picture shows some of the dolmens at Hire Benkal, north of Hampi in Karnataka. Both are associated with burials - the kudakkals are sepulchral, i.e., they are erected over the remains of deceased persons, while the dolmens are probably memorial in function. The kudakkals consist of 4 clinostats (inclined stones) forming the lower portion with an almost hemispherical capstone forming the top portion. Being made of a soft stone - laterite, that is predominant in the region, the builders could sculpt the stone finely into these curved shapes. The dolmens are made of the much harder granite and consist of 4 orthostats (vertical stones) arranged in a sort of swastika pattern to prevent inward collapse, surmounted by a capstone. There is also a circular or semicircular "port-hole" in many of the dolmens to make the chamber "face" any one direction.

Now, what is remarkable about such structures? Is it architecture???

The human race seems to be unique in the way it responds to death - how the mortal remains of the dead are disposed, how they are remembered and, sometimes, venerated. Burial of the dead arose probably early in the history of primates - marked burials are known even among the Neanderthals. In the prehistory of peninsular India, the dead were buried within the premises where they lived, often in the floor of their dwellings, in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. It is only in the Iron Age that we find a separate area for the dead - a separate "graveyard" emerging. And megaliths... The prominent surface markers of stone that caught the attention and imagination of the early workers in this field.

We do not know exactly what these monuments meant to the people who built them. And we probably never will... But notice the way the kudakkal and the dolmen have been conceived. How the laterite pieces were crafted into the curvilinear shapes of the clinostats, how the heavy capstone was fashioned and detailed (with a circular notch on the lower flat face for the top ends of the 4 clinostats to fit in). Or how well the thin stone slabs of the dolmen were made. And imagine how these were wrestled into place, especially the heavy capstone. Even if we cannot guess today what exactly did these structures mean to the people of the Iron Age, we can safely conclude that it must have been of sufficiently great importance for them to undertake such awesome engineering feats and invest so much time and labour in.

And isn't that what architecture is? Man, not just building for shelter, not just building for functional needs, but going far beyond that... Trying to find a form to express a belief system he has developed. And going to great lengths to do that...

Rock art at Onake Kindi near Chikka Rampur (I am thankful to Dr. U. S. Moorti of AIIS Gurgaon and Dr. Sundara, Shringeri, for calling my attention to this rock art site and painting and to the work of Erwin Neumayer on this)

Near Hire Benkal is a small village called Chikka Rampur close to which is a small amphitheater of rock shelters where one finds several rock art sites, presumably belonging to the same cultural phase as the megalith builders. Most of the rock art depict everyday scenes - cattle, dancing figures etc. But on a small overhang in one of the shelters is a symbolic painting showing what can only be a burial - showing a body, burial goods etc. But there are also other depictions of what may be Sun and Moon symbols (at the periphery), a river (?) and bridge (?) across it, stones of the boulder circle surrounding the burial etc. Since the only "texts" that we have for these prehistoric monuments are these rock art examples and the monuments themselves with all associated material goods, this is one of the media through which prehistoric man is "talking" to us.

Thus it is evident that the megalith builders had a philosophy that they were trying to express through the forms and orientation of their structures. Now isn't that architecture???

And all that this study attempts is to understand how/when different practices such as orienting structures to the direction of the rising (or setting) sun emerged, were any of the structures set up to function as a time-keeping device of any sort, what were the knowledge systems that existed during the period when the megaliths were built as evident from the structures themselves..?

Most of these megalithic sites are set in remote locations and trekking through the dramatic natural landscapes that they are embedded in and viewing the remarkable natural rock formations and the interplay of sunlight and shadow with these, it is not difficult to imagine how the architects of the megaliths could have drawn inspiration from them. I shall just stick to showing a few images of the natural landscapes and the structures built by prehistoric man for you to ruminate on.

A natural jumble of rocks that resembles a stacked pile near Hire Benkal

A natural "dolmen" on the way to Sidilephadi near Badami

Interplay of sunlight and rock forms near Sidilephadi

The environs of Sidilephadi - an ancient Stone Age rock shelter near Badami

Light filters in through the openings atop the rock shelter at Sidilephadi - believed to have been formed by lightning

A rock shelter chamber - one of the earliest megalithic typologies

A view from inside one of the dolmens at Hire Benkal

It is really strange to what lengths people would go to defend their hidebound outdated views, even in the face of obvious logic. Once, in a public discussion, the above-mentioned worthy was trying to prove that megaliths "are not architecture". Red in the face, he hissed that megaliths were mostly burials and burials could not be called architecture. When I gently reminded him that the Egyptian pyramids are burials too, he spat out, "So what? Pyramids are not architecture..." Someone in the audience found it prudent to add, "The Taj Mahal is also technically a burial." "So what???" thundered the worthy, "The Taj Mahal is also not architecture."

What do they know of architecture, who only architecture know??? (With apologies to Rudyard Kipling!)

Two menhirs framing the setting sun on winter solstice at the megalithic site at Nilaskal


Mohit said...

Very nicely written, as usual! I can see why you "could not able to" (lol) say these things to the people who really needed to know it! And the last line is just brilliant. All unresolved anger put into an article makes it a good one, evidently!

smm said...

Actually, I did tell the dragon several things, but can't write all that! ;-)

P.M. said...

Firstly, a very informative piece! :)
Secondly, I'd say for those who don't understand...its just a big mental block...and ego issues...they will never acknowledge at the face of it!
and lastly, I really miss those lovely chats we used to have! :)

smm said...

Thanks, Prachee! I miss our conversations too... :-(

Prachi said...

very well written !! felt like listening to you during one of those dragon days !! :)

loved the last line. it gave it the "touch" :)

Mohit said...

"The age of the Dragon", as we like to call it :P

smm said...

The dragon has gone; and rightly so - to the accompaniment of much humiliation, but has left behind a lot of scars...