The huge, heaped, boulders of Hampi transform the rocky hills of northern Karnataka into a stark, mythical landscape. The sun beats down relentlessly as we climb a trail snaking uphill. A flock of goats overtakes us, bleating and swarming towards green patches, the goatherd leisurely bringing up the rear. Further ahead, I spot sloth bear scat. “There are plenty of bears,” Jambanna, my guide from Hire Benakal village, says with a grin. “It’s dangerous to loiter here after sundown.”
Given that we seem to have been transported to the rocky landscapes of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth, it is appropriate that we are bound for a cluster of small stone houses that the villagers call “Moriyara Mane”, the houses of the dwarves. Back in Hire Benakal, the locals had told me how the stone “huts”—the simplest of which are slabs of granite raised on a few small rocks—were built long ago by the Moriyas, a dwarfish race endowed with superhuman strength that allowed them to heft the heavy slabs with ease. Uncannily, as any Lord Of The Rings fan knows, Middle-earth’s underground complex built by dwarves is called the Mines Of Moria.
The first sign of human intervention we encounter is the naagara gund, a hemispherical boulder about two metres in diameter, neatly halved like a grapefruit. Jambanna tells me that the villagers beat this stone kettledrum during one of their annual festivals. Archaeologists believe that the naagara gund’s ancient function was similar—a rock gong that was part of the site’s ritualistic paraphernalia about three millennia ago. When beaten, the sound can allegedly be heard a kilometre away.
Then I see the clusters of stone “houses”. The small ones are packed all around with stone blocks, leaving only a small opening. As we move beyond a low rise to the east, we come upon the spectacular sight of much larger Moriya houses, scattered in a wide clearing. From a distance, they look like flimsy card houses, but up close, reveal themselves to be granite slabs, within which a grown man could stand erect, if he could crouch through the small openings. Moving among these stone cubes is an eerie experience, like entering an abandoned town. As I wander among the silent structures, I almost expect one of the Moriyas, hobbit-like in my imagination, to pop out at any moment.
However, archaeologists have dispelled such romantic visions of mighty dwarves. According to them, these structures are not homes, but funerary monuments from the Iron Age, built roughly 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. The stone boxes are called dolmens, and belong to a class of prehistoric monuments called megaliths. There are also prehistoric rock art panels, also possibly ritualistic, in rock shelters on the hill. A large rock pool to the east was deliberately enlarged by the megalith builders, perhaps to provide water for rituals.
Three millennia ago, this remote windswept mountaintop must have been an important ritual centre for the locals, going by the amount of labour necessary for extracting stone, shaping slabs, and erecting monuments that have endured for millennia. What spectacles of ritual pageantry might have played out against the booming of the naagara gund, in this silent amphitheatre of rock, where today only the wind sighs and bears prowl? What gods did our Iron Age ancestors worship? What concepts of death and afterlife did they harbour? We can only guess. The silent stones of Moryar Gudda only hint at the answers.
Hire Benakal, near the megalithic site, is located in Gangawati Taluk, in Koppala district in northern Karnataka. It is roughly 360km/6hr from Bengaluru and 430km/9hr from Mangalore. The nearest large town is Hospet.
The megalithic site of Moryar Gudda can be accessed from Hire Benakal. The nearest big town is Hospet, which has decent hotels and is a base for the better-known destination of Hampi. Hire a vehicle to take you on one of two routes from Hospet. The first, via Kampili and Gangawati and on to the Gangawati-Koppala highway, is around 55km/1.5hr. The second, via Boothugumpe Cross and onto the Koppala-Gangawati highway, is slightly shorter. From the highway, there is a road to the south to Hire Benakal village. The turning is not signposted, and it is best to ask someone so that you don’t miss it.
Alternately, one can stay at Gangawati. The drive is much shorter from here, but the amenities are better at Hospet.
At the village, ask for a guide to take you to Moryar Gudda. The moderate-intensity trek takes about two hours from the village to the megaliths. On the way to the site, check out the rock art at a shelter called Chitra Gund. Be sure to carry a hat, plenty of water, and eatables. Hire Benakal has no amenities at the village. Avoid trekking after dusk, as there may be encounters with bears. The best time to visit is after the monsoons and before the summer sets in (September to February).
With Hospet as a base, one can easily visit Hire Benakal, Hampi, Anegundi, and Onake Kindi. The twin historic cities of Hampi and Anegundi that are associated with the Vijayanagara Empire, are on either side of the Tungabhadra River near Hospet. History buffs will find Kampili, once a kingdom, also worth a visit. Onake Kindi is a rock art site near Anegundi village. From Anegundi, take the road to Chikka Rampura village. A small road leads to the site. Take a local guide, as the entry to the site is camouflaged between two boulders, and easy to miss.
Srikumar M Menon is an architect based in Manipal, with a keen interest in the architecture of the past. His research interests centre on prehistoric monuments of southern India. He is the author of two books, "Ancient Stone Riddles: Megaliths of the Indian Subcontinent" and "Comets: Nomads of the Solar System".