Socio-Economic Status of the Megalithic Culture in Peninsular India

The Megalithic Culture was once considered a phase of prehistoric times and is now considered to be in the early historic period of the historical epoch. The Indian subcontinent contains large-scale evidence of megalithic culture. Here, the Megalithic Culture in Peninsular India will be discussed in the first chapter and then the socio-economic status of the Megalithic Culture in Peninsular India will be examined.

An Introduction to Megalithic Culture in Peninsular India

1.1. A Brief Introduction to Megalithic Culture

The term ‘megalith’ means a large and rough stone block. The term ‘megalithic’ means the structures made out of large and crude stone block/s in Early Iron Age times.

Those structures were mainly built to commemorate the dead. Those can be identified in the forms of monolithic as well as polylithic. And also as graves with human remains in them as well as memorial structures without human remains in them. So, such structures are termed megalithic burials.

However, the practice of using stones for burials extends into early historic times hence it is not limited to Early Iron Age making the use of the term ‘megalithic’ to have wider implications. (Vaidya 2014: 720). Therefore, the Megalithic Culture is understood through the cultural material found in the tradition where megalithic burials were practiced. In that sense, the sites without megalithic burials can yield megalithic cultural materials. Hence, the megalithic burial in the technical sense can be found in later periods but the term ‘Megalithic Culture’ can only be applied to refer to the culture in the Early Iron Age. And, the culture was practiced in a wider scale during this period but not in later periods (Vaidya 2014: 720).

1.2. Introduction to Megalithic Culture in Peninsular India

As the term megalithic is defined, the most significant feature of the Megalithic Culture is Burials made out of crude cut stones with the use of iron technology and erected on the landscape (Peter 2018: 516). According to K. Paddayya there are ten Iron Age burial types in Peninsular India (Peter 2018: 519). There are numerous megalithic sites that have been discovered in Peninsular India and an adequate number of sites have been excavated. The megalithic sites in peninsular India are concentrated in Maharashtra (Vidarbha), Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana. There are around 2,200 megalithic sites found in Peninsular India. According to Joshi, the significant sites in the Vidarbha region are Naikund, Borgaon, Bhagimohari, Mahurjharhi, Raipur, Takalghat, Khapa, Khairwada, Khaundinyapur, Tuljapur-Gadhi, Bahl, Tekwada, Ranjale, Bhosari, Pimpalsuti, Inamgaon, and Arni (Vaidya 2014: 721). In Kerala, there are major sites such as Porkkalam, Machad, Pazhayannur, Cheramangad, Arippa, Mangad, Poredam, Kurumassery, Vellimatukunnu, Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad, Trissur, Cheramangad, Eyyal, Vandiperiyar, Thiruvilvamala, Idukki, Alappusha, Tiruvandapuram, Ernakulam, Kollam, Perungulam, Kattambal, Chevayur (Chandra et al., 2016: 99–104). When it comes to the ingenious characteristics of the megalithic culture in Peninsular India, it is noteworthy that the Kudakkallu (umbrella stone) type megalithic burials are only found in Kerala.

As evident in almost every megalithic site, iron technology is the foundation for megalithic culture. Iron ore was discovered, smelted, and turned into tools such as agricultural tools, craftsman tools, and into weapons (Vaidya 2014: 729–728). This indicates that the culture was technologically based on iron in the megalithic culture in Peninsular India as well as it was in other regions.

Also, one of the main aspects of megalithic culture is its ceramics. The currently evident ceramic collection from Vidarbha has made with the potter’s wheel and fired in a kiln (Vaidya 2014: 727). The ceramics found in the region are mainly Black and Red ware (BRW), Black Burnished ware (BBW), Micaceous Red ware (MRW), and Red ware (RW) which is painted on the exterior. The Black and Red ware in Megalithic Culture differs from that of found in Chalcolithic cultures due to its glossy polished surface and thin sections (Vaidya 2014: 727). Among all the Black and Red ware (BRW) is the most prolific and diagonal ceramic type of the Megalithic Culture and it is the same for Peninsular India (Chandra et al., 2016: 104). Overall, ceramics were a main component of the Megalithic Culture and they were highly sophisticated in the sense of material technology, production technology, design, function, and decorations. For instance, the Black and Red ware were given those two colours by controlling the air intake to the kiln in which they were fired.

As mentioned above, the megalithic culture in Peninsular India has dominant features of the culture itself, such as the use of iron technology and the wide and common use of black and Red ware (BRW). And when it comes to burials, Kerala in South India provides inherited ones, such as megalithic burials in the type of umbrella stone. The socio-economic aspects of the megalithic culture in Peninsular India will be discussed in the next chapter.

Socio-economic status in Megalithic Culture in Peninsular India

The socio-economic status of Megalithic culture in Peninsular India can be examined under subsistence patterns, settlement patterns, trade commerce, craft specialisation, mortuary practices, and social organization. Each of these areas is interconnected, as are the undividable socio-economic activities. Discussing these areas would provide a better understanding of the status of the subject matter.

2.1. Subsistence pattern and settlement pattern

As mentioned earlier, the technological foundation of the Megalithic culture was iron technology. Iron tools and implements are found in almost every burial site, and they exhibit similar features. Among them are tools and implements such as; flat iron axes, shaft whole axes, and flanged shape hoe, pick axes, bill hooks, iron wedges and crowbars, spears, arrowheads, blades, knives, chisels, tripods, bells, shreds, lamps, spearheads, daggers, swords, etc. (Valsa 2015: 64). These iron objects indicate various functions. That provides proof of different socio-economic activities in the culture.

First, the types of these iron implements can be used as indicators of certain activities in certain practices. Across the Peninsular India, iron tipped plough is evident and a model plough in cast iron also have been unearthed from a cist burial in Angamaly and in Periyar basin (Peter 2018: 517). That indicates agriculture as a major economic practice in megalithic peninsular India. And also, the axes and knives indicate the ability to remove the forestation and clear the lands for agricultural fields. Nonetheless, archaeo-botanical studies have suggested that the megalithic people carried out agricultural activities in both seasons and a variety of grains such as rice, wheat, millet, barley, lentil, black gram, horse gram, common pea, pigeon pea, and Indian jujube have been cultivated (Vaidya 2014: 731). Moreover, the variety of iron tools and implements suggests a craft specialisation in both blacksmithing and other crafts, and for that to occur in a civilization, a food surplus is an essential factor. Also, grinding stones and rollers have been recovered belonging to Megalithic Culture suggest the application of those for grinding grains for flour (Vinod and Pillai 2016: 105). According to these facts, it is clear that agriculture was a major practice in their subsistence pattern leading to a more complex economy.

When considering the non-agro-related iron artefacts found in megalithic Peninsular India, largely found weaponry tools such as arrowheads, spearheads indicate hunting as a major practice in their subsistence pattern Valsa 2015: 64). They might have hunted wild animals as well as butchered domesticated animals for food. Terracotta modes of animals such as canines have been found from Feroke and Perumpatally suggests the animals were domesticated (Vinod and Pillai 2016: 106). In addition, it is understood that agriculture and pastoral activities were simultaneous in megalithic Peninsular India (Vaidya 2014: 731).

Nonetheless, the artefacts discovered provide conclusive evidence of full-time craftsmen and artisans such as potters, carpenters, lapidaries, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, goldsmiths, etc. The existence of these professions reassures surplus production. That surplus production of food is a clear indicator of wide agro-pastoral activities.

The settlement pattern in Megalithic culture in Peninsular India was indeed guided by the subsistence pattern of the culture. The standardisation of iron implements suggests a village culture with well-established contacts. The community could have been both settled and mobile in lifestyle choice according to the food production they were engaged in. The recent researches shown that there have been an inclination towards a more settled agricultural and live stocking way of life in the culture where exchange, transportation and pastoral activities were also happen (Vaidya 2014: 731). According to the studies carried out, it appears that the settlement pattern was influenced by the lifestyle choices mainly focused on agriculture. Therefore, the settlements were located in fertile alluvial plains in close proximity to natural water sources such as rivers or major tributaries (Vaidya 2014: 731). These settlements led the way to an economy with surplus production in which craft specialisation could happen and artisans could have economic security. Then, the developed craftsmanship provides sophisticated tools and implements that can improve the rate and the quality of the expansion of agriculture and other economic activities. So it is safe to imply that agriculture was the guiding force behind the expansion of settlements, as pastoral activities, exchange and trade may have been the established contact between sites throughout Peninsular India in Megalithic culture.

As discussed above, the subsistence pattern appears to consist of agriculture, pastoralism, and hunting, with a diverse application to it accordingly. Therefore, the community in Megalithic culture in Peninsular India may have been a society where various groups with various lifestyles as evident and it appears that within the subsistence pattern, agriculture was the leading area, which had a decisive impact on the settlement pattern of the culture.

2.2. Trade Commerce

Coins, ornamental items, ritualistic artefacts, and pottery have been unearthed belonging to the Megalithic culture in Peninsular India. Coins, in fact, are evidence of trade and commerce. Ornamental items such as jewelry are found in burials (Peter 2018: 519). Semi-precious stone beads made out of carnelian, agate, chalcedony, jasper, feldspar, and quartz, as well as terracotta beads, are found, and those luxury products indicate the trade commerce in Megalithic culture in Peninsular India. Those beads found in Kerala appear to be non-local productions and they must have come from exchange (Peter 2018: 521). As a matter of fact, raw materials such as carnelian, agate, jasper, copper, and gold are not naturally available in Kerala. Therefore, the occurrence of those materials indicates the exchange and networking system during the Megalithic cultural phase in Peninsular India (Vinod and Pillai 2016: 106). Furthermore, scholars such as Thakuria and Joshi imply that the use of gold and the presence of eye beads and etch beads indicate there were good exchange networks and trading (Vaidya 2014: 731). Nevertheless, as far as ceramics are concerned, the uniformity of them throughout almost everywhere Megalithic culture spread, especially in the form of Black and Red ware (BRW) could be an indication of exchange or trade. Also, the conclusive evidence of food surplus, craft specialisation, weapons made out of iron and implements that indicate the use of horses further supports the idea of an exchange network and trade in Megalithic culture in Peninsular India.

2.3. Craft Specialisation

There are several factors that indicate the craft specialisation in Megalithic culture in Peninsular India and there are several ways the craft specialisation can be indicative of the socio-economic status of the subject area of study.

Among the iron tools and implements found in megalithic sites, a variety can be recognised, as mentioned earlier (Valsa 201-5: 64). It indicates the specialised craftsmanship of blacksmithing and the specialisation of any crafts in which those tools and implements have a functional use. For instance, chisels are among the most abundant iron tools found and the type is uniform throughout Peninsular India, which indicates the specialisation of stonecutting and possibly carpentry. Also, the relative sophistication of ceramics indicates the specialised craftsmanship in pottery. Gold and copper implements indicate the existence of goldsmiths and coppersmiths in the Megalithic culture. As well, this evidence of specialised craftsmanship indicates a food surplus, as mentioned earlier. So, the society appears to be composed of groups of people according to their occupation, such as farmers, carpenters, stonecutters, lapidaries, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, goldsmiths, and potters. That means the community was designed according to the way economic practices were carried out.

So, as mentioned above, the presence of craftsmen and artisans indicates the food surplus, the exchange of products, raw materials, and services for each. The need for luxury items in the community is also indicated by specialised craftsmanship such as goldsmithing and lapidary. And also, this indicates how society might have been divided according to occupation.

2.4. Mortuary Practices

Mortuary practices in Megalithic culture in Peninsular India provide some important insight into the socio-economic status of the culture itself. Some scholars argue that the megalithic burials reflect the cultural preferences of Iron Age societies for selective commemoration rather than patterns of actual mortality. They further explain that the silent majority did not leave inscriptions or tombs behind (Peter 2018: 525). When considering the artefacts found in urns in burials, it is clear that not everyone had semi-precious stones, gold, or relatively highly valuable artefacts or ornamental artefacts. Although the megalithic burials have some common features and common items deposited in them, some features and burial items can be seen only in certain types. For instance, the memorial stones of Menhir are said to have been erected without human remains and they are not graves. This means there are certain individuals for whom memorial megalithic structures were built. Furthermore, the absence of precious stones or metals in some burials and their presence in others could indicate socio-economic differences. Perhaps, it is due to the political power in the society or perhaps it is due to the economic power the dead person once had. It could be what the dead possessed when they were among the living that went into the burial with them. Either way, it appears to indicate socio-economic diversity or hierarchical social organisation in the Megalithic culture of Peninsular India.

Also, in the Vidarbha region, it is evident that horses were buried with the dead, possibly after scarific, and this may have been a local ethnic tradition. Which drives the question of ethnicity among the megalithic cultural people. It is important to understand that under the dominant culture, the local traditions may have been practiced, enhanced, and evolved.

2.5. Social Organisation

The discussion above has provided some conclusive evidence and theories about the megalithic culture in Peninsular India. Based on those as well as specific factors, the social organisation of the Megalithic culture in Peninsular India can be examined.

Agriculture-based subsistence patterns and a settlement pattern, a food surplus and hence the craft specialisation, exchange and trade altogether illustrate a community life in Megalithic culture in Peninsular India. The community, in the sense of social security, might have provided the artisans with opportunities to improve their skills and move the craft to the next level. Otherwise, full-time occupants would not emerge, as food security could be low. Instead, it is safe to imply that there was a community lifestyle where each group provided their contribution to the society in the form of food, raw materials, finished products, and services.

One of the indicators of the social hierarchy of the Megalithic culture in Peninsular India is the burials (Peter 2018: 522; Valsa 2016: 64). At each site, only one or two burials are found to have beads deposited in them, which suggests that either certain members of the society could afford the beads due to their social or economic status or that certain members of the society were considered more important than the rest so they deposited something they considered special in their graves only. And also, as mentioned earlier, the establishment of memorial structures without any human remains is a possible indicator of the social hierarchy. And also, different types of monuments and variability in mortuary practices, including non-local artefacts among funerary goods, suggest social hierarchy (Peter 2018: 517). Ethnic differences, political and religious factors, and occupational differences might have been the cause of this social hierarchy.


Megalithic Culture in Peninsular India has its own unique characteristics as well as common features. The socio-economic status of Megalithic culture in Peninsular India is considerably complex and interconnected. The economic aspect and the social aspect cannot be discussed individually and should be discussed as a whole context. Agriculture was the force behind socio-economic status. The subsistence pattern, mainly agriculture, designed the settlement pattern. The production surplus of agriculture led to food security; thus, craft specialisation occurred, which in turn impacted the growth of agriculture. Meanwhile, exchange and trade occurred for raw materials, finished products, food, and services from artisans. This economic situation led to a community lifestyle where individuals exchanged their production and services with each other as occupants. This led the society to have social differences based on occupation and there were prevailing differences such as local ethnic practices. The social organisation was based on economic occupations, but the evidence found from the burials and other sites suggests a social hierarchy occurred, possibly due to economic differences, ethnic differences, and probable political and religious factors.


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