Cist Burials of the Kumaun Himalayas

Article excerpt

Introduction

Megaliths from Kumaun have been reported from the 19th century - the earliest reports go back to Henwood (1856). In 1991-93 we surveyed the various types of burials and found that they belong to different peoples and periods. Some belong to the Chinese tea plantation workers of the last century; some to early Christians; some to the Rohellas who attacked and plundered the region under Ali Mohammed Khan in 1743-44. One of the Hindu sects (Nath Gosains) also bury their dead in a sitting posture in a stone-lined pit. Despite these confusing graves, prehistoric burials are also there. In our earlier article (Agrawal et al. 1991: 59-60) we tried to sort out the different types of burials, to identify and isolate the earliest ones. The early cist burials, almost ubiquitous in Kumaun, are found in large numbers from the valleys of Koorman, Gomti, Western Ramganga (all tributaries of the Ganga system) and so forth, distributed over a large area. Even in our explorations of short seasons, we discovered cists in large numbers from the Ganai, Gwaldam, Baijnath and Bageshwar areas [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Their orientation seems to be determined by the slope of the hill or the terrace rather than by the cardinal directions, as was also the case in the Swat valley (Stacul 1987). Their large number and wide distribution area between the Garhwal and Kumaun divisions is indicative of a long-persisting cultural tradition.

Megaliths

A variety of megalithic types are available in Kumaun: cairns, menhirs (monoliths), dolmenoids, cists and some suspected passage-graves also. We must, however, emphasize that these identifications are based on surface observations. We have not excavated any so-called 'megaliths' during our explorations. Some cists have been excavated by Garhwal University and, at our instance, by the Archaeological Survey of India. In 1991-93 explorations were carried out by us in several river valleys, i.e. the Gomati, the Koshi, the Western Ramganga, the Kauravgad, the Mansari Nala and the Gagas, to trace the oldest burial sites. Like the Swat valley in Pakistan, the megalithic tradition in Kumaun also seems to be old (Joshi 1987) and perhaps continued up to the early historical period. The following megalithic types of burial were recorded.

Dolmenoids

So far only one dolmenoid structure has been found in Almora district, located near the painted rock shelter at Petshal. No antiquities were found around the dolmen.

Cairns

There are remains of six cairn circles on a terrace-like platform on the eastern slope of Deolidana, about 3.5 km south of Almora. These circles vary from 190 to 220 cm in diameter. One of the circles encloses a menhir.

Four cairns were found near the cup-mark site at Odyari, 14 km northwest of Almora. Out of the four, two are circular; the remaining two are roughly rectangular.

Menhirs

A sandstone menhir (145 x 45 x 21 cm) was found on an agricultural terrace of the river Gomati at Gagrigol on the Bageshwar-Almora road, located close to the local cist-burial site.

As mentioned above, near the firing range at Deolidana a menhir was found enclosed by a cairn circle. This menhir is triangular in section and only 70 cm in height. Here several cup-marks and pits have been dug into the granite boulders exposed on the hill slope.

There is an elaborate tradition of erecting memorial stones in Kumaun, some of which may be traced back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Some of the most recent examples are located in Pithoragarh and in Almora districts.

Cist burials

In 1960, on behalf of the Archaeological Survey of India, one of us (DPA) examined the graves at Malari (30 [degrees] 41 [minutes] N, 79 [degrees] 55 [minutes] E), which is located in the Niti Valley at an altitude of 3800 m amsl, about 61 km beyond Joshimath on the bank of Dhauliganga in Chamoli district of Garhwal. …