Hire Benakal: Prehistoric Megalithic Site of India

Hire Benakal is one of the most offbeat ancient sites of India. The nearby city of Hampi in northern Karnataka is a popular tourist destination, but very few people know about this hidden gem. This prehistoric megalithic site of India is proposed for being enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Sites, going to be declared in July, 2021.

What is so special about Hire Benakal?

One of the Largest Megalithic Sites of India

A short walk up the hill of Hire Benakal had taken us to a place that looked like a deserted town with hundreds of stone-huts. Actually this is a pre-historic graveyard with almost 400 megalithic tombs, spread over an area of about three square kilometres. Many megalithic sites are scattered in Karnataka and other south-Indian states, but so many megaliths in one place makes Hire Benakal unique. According to historians, the megaliths of Hire Benakal were built in iron age between 2200 and 2800 years ago.

The burial-chambers, usually consisting of two or more vertical megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone are called dolmens. While heading towards the site, at first small dolmens came in our way. Later we found larger ones; inside which we could stand erect. There are many port-holed dolmens resembling to the houses with windows. We have no idea why dead ones needed windows! Before historians identified this place as ancient burial site, locals believed that dwarf-like people used to dwell here in past and that is why the another name of Hire Benakal is Moryar Gudda (hill of dwarfs); while the megaliths are called Moryar Mane (houses of dwarfs).

Photograph of the dolmens smaller than us with port-holes
Small Dolmens with Port-Hole
Photograph of the dolmens bigger than us
Big Dolmen

Standing on a huge rock we noticed that the dolmens are mostly arranged in circular layout; 8-10 dolmens in one circle. Open cysts, cairns, menhirs, small stone-circles also came in our sight, though few in numbers. Historians found that multiple persons used to be buried in one dolmen, but some dolmens with only few bones of a single body were also there. Often dead-bodies were cremated and ashes were kept inside. Most burials found are of adult males. Anyhow, no remain of ancient dead ones are left now. According to scholars, the varied funerary structures and rituals reflect the social hierarchies of the ancient people.

Dolmens of Hire Benakal
Hire Benakal looks like an abandoned town of stone-huts
Broken Megaliths
Broken Tomb of Hire Benakal

Who were those people? Why did they put such effort to cut huge stone slabs in particular shapes and sizes? How did they carry those slabs weighing tons to the burial site and erect them with such perfection? Even after so many years, most of them are not demolished! There we saw a pond beside the megalithic site. Was it the quarry?  Hire Benakal is still full of unsolved mysteries!

The pond of Hire Benakal
The pond beside the megaliths
Prehistoric Painting of Child Delivery & Other Rock-Arts

In the hilly areas of Hire Benakal pre-historic people of different era used to live. The megalith-builders are relatively modern compare to others. There are more than ten rock-shelters in Hire Benakal which have painting made by these megalithic and pre-megalithic people. The most remarkable one is a painting of a woman giving child birth.

Rock Painting of Child Delivery
Lady giving child birth; Huge Prehistoric rock-painting of Hire Benakal

We found this painting on the ceiling of a cave along with another male figure. It was dark inside. We did not use flashlight for the protection of its color. Therefore, the photograph is not clear. Here is a pen-sketch for your better understanding.

A Pen-sketch of the Pregnant Lady
A Pen-Sketch of the Woman Giving Child-Birth

This painting is unique for many reasons:

  1. There is a baby in mother’s womb. Its position looks a bit like making a C-shape, with a curved spine, head down, and arms and legs pulled in close to the body. Is not it the exact posture of a baby that we can find today in the USG picture of a pregnant woman? How did the ancient cave-dwellers come to know about fetal position?
  2. In mother’s womb, the baby floats in all direction, but just before the birth, its head automatically comes upright down. Same here! Isn’t it?
  3. Another baby is there outside mother’s body. It may be a painting of a twin-delivery, where one baby has already come out and another one is still inside mother’s womb. Or it may be two steps of child birth – before and after are displayed in one single picture.
  4. Never seen such a huge rock-painting! See the original picture. Our auto-driver Uday is standing beneath it. Take him as a reference and try to get an idea about how massive it is! Probably this is the largest single image among the rock paintings of India.
Rock Shelter with the Painting of Pregnant Lady
Entrance of the cave where the painting of child delivery has been found
A huge male figure painted on the ceiling of a cave
The male figure painted beside the pregnant lady

We visited 6 rock-shelters in Hire Benakal which have ancient rock paintings. These paintings depict scenes from their daily life. Apart from the child birth, the other recurring scenes are:

  1. Hunters – People with spares, axes, bows, lances chasing games.
  2. Cattles, deer, tigers, antelope, peacock, python, lizard, insects etc.
  3. Dancing Figures – People holding each other’s hand, dancing in line.
  4. Horse-riders – Horses were brought to India around 3500 years ago. Therefore the horse-riding pictures are relatively newer addition.
Rock Painting of Hunters
Hunters
Rock Painting of Dancers
Dancers
Rock Painting of Antelopes
Antelopes
Rock Painting of Cattle
Cattle
Rock Painting of Insects and Lizard
Insects and Lizard
Rock Painting of Horse-Riders
Horse-Riders

Why did they paint rocks? Just for time pass?  There might be religious interest or anything else.  We saw a huge vertical rock, almost like a signboard with a peculiar composition – a small man standing on a pattern with some details, another larger figure and a cattle standing beside and lines like rivers. This composition might have some meaning that we could not figure out. Is it a prehistoric map?

Photograph of a huge vertical rock, almost like a signboard with a peculiar composition – a small man standing on a pattern with some details, another larger figure and a cattle standing beside and lines like rivers.
A peculiar rock painting

These painting were made using red ochre (a pigment still used for dying cloths and coloring pottery). It is prepared by mixing powdered hematite with water along with herbal binders.

Rock art of Hire Benakal
Engraving

In one cave we found these hole-like engravings. It may have been used for games or may have some ritualistic purpose.

Layers of Civilization and Their Remnants

Pieces of pots, tools used for hunting and agriculture, grinding stones, different beads, and traces of food grains from old era have been excavated from Hire Benakal. Though we found nothing kept or displayed. Since Hire Benakal is successively occupied by varied cultures of different era, therefore remains of each civilization have been deposited here in layers. Deeper layers are from older time periods.

Amazing Rock Formations

The entire area is full with rocks and boulders of unusual shapes and sizes. A drum-shaped boulder is famous among them.

Drum-shaped Boulder of Hire Benakal
Drum-shaped rock; Uday, our auto-driver posing like a drummer

This is an excellent hiking destination near Hampi. Let my pictures show how jaw-dropping the beauty is:

Amazing Rock Formation of Hire Benakal

Amazing Rock Formation of Hire BenakalAmazing Rock Formation of Hire Benakal Amazing Rock Formation of Hire Benakal Amazing Rock Formation of Hire Benakal Amazing Rock Formation of Hire Benakal Amazing Rock Formation of Hire Benakal

 

How to reach Hire Benakal

Hire Benakal aka Hirebenkal is located 10 kms west of Gangawati town in Koppal district of Karnataka. Hospet is the nearest railway station.

Hire Benakal can be visited as a day trip from Hampi, located about 50kms away from here.

The cheaper option is arriving Gangawati by public bus from Hospet or Hampi and then hire an auto for Hire Benakal.

The easier option is to take auto, car or two-wheeler from Hampi or Hospet. Arrive Gangawati with the help of Google map and ask locals how to reach Hire Benakal.

After arriving at the bottom of the hill you have explore the area by foot. Here you will find this route map.

The marked trail of Hire Benakal
The Route Map of Hire Benakal

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Tips for Visiting Hire Benakal

  1. If you are planning to visit the megaliths only, then the above route map is enough for you. Start ascending. You will find boulders marked with arrow signs throughout the entire trail. Only one rock-shelter will fall on your way. But if you eager to explore other rock-shelters, especially the cave with the painting of child-birth (you should not miss) then you must take off route while descending. There is no marking, no map. You need a guide.
  2. There is no official guide for Hire Benakal area. Shepherds from local village go to the hill with their cattle. They know where those rock-shelters are located. Before starting the hike, go to the nearby village; ask for somebody who can help you.
  3. Usually locals do not know any language apart from Kannada (local language of karnataka). If you cannot communicate with your guide in Kannada, then you can ask your auto or cab driver to be an interpreter and hike all the way along with you. Most of the Kannada-speaking drivers from Hampi can speak English or Hindi.
  4. Hire Benakal is such a less explored destination of Karnataka, even the drivers from Hampi do not know about this place. So it is your responsibility to help them finding Hire Benakal.
  5. Locals will only take you to different areas. Do not expect they will discuss history with you.
  6. If you want to stick on the marked trail, then it’s a half-day hike; otherwise a full day will be required for more explorations.
  7. Leopards and bears are there in the hill. So you must get down before sunset. Start as early as possible.
  8. Locals are familiar with the movement of leopards and bears. If they feel unsafe to take you to any place, do not force them. Our guide Pampapati took us to six painted rock-shelters out of ten.
  9. Snakes are also there. Be careful.
  10. It is a easy to moderate hike. The trail is slippery for loose rocks and full of shrubs. Not recommended for people with walking difficulties.
  11. Wear a pair of good hiking shoes. Even in winter you will sweat while ascending, so dress accordingly. Cap, sun-screen, sunglass, plenty of water and packed lunch are must.
  12. Do not use flashlight while photographing rock-paintings.
  13. Do not litter the place. Do not make damage to the megaliths and the rock-shelters.
Photogarph of our local guide Pampapati
Pampapati, our local guide