Unusual and mysterious, dolmen circles have long been an exciting attraction for tourists and history buffs alike. People have often wondered about what the dolmens were used for and about the people who built them.
In and around Kodai, there are over 60 dolmen sites, which go back to over 2000 years ago, and they are an unknown part of its heritage.
Dolmens are box-like structures built above ground. Typically, a single stone slab rests on three stone pillars, about 3 feet from the ground. Nora Mitchell, a British botanist and Kodaikanal International School (KIS) alumni, described them as single-chamber stone tombs. According to some sources, the oldest dolmens are in Western Europe and are believed to have been built around 7000 years ago.
According to Mitchell, the ‘dolmen builders’ were the first people to live in the Palani Hills in about 1500–2000 BCE, as evidenced by the artefacts left by them. In her book, The Indian Hill-Station: Kodaikanal (1972), she describes groups of dolmen circles surrounding Kodaikanal. These were constructed so that a torch flare lit in any one circle could be seen by its neighbours on either side, making it an effective way for people to communicate with each other.
No one knows who built the dolmens. Thurston, a British academic, had a theory that the Kurumbas (an indigenous community, now classified as a Scheduled Tribe by the Indian Government) are the descendants of the dolmen builders, as several groups of Kurumbas still build dolmens as resting places for their dead, or as temples. Although there are no Kurumbas in the Palani Hills today, Mitchell suggests that they were most probably defeated by (and later probably intermarried with) Paliyans (another Adivasi community who are the original inhabitants of these hills) or other invaders.
Shankar, a Paliyan man from Vadagaraparai, believes the dolmen builders were his ancestors. Standing near a dolmen just a few minutes’ walk from his village, he said, when we spoke with him in 2016, ‘My ancestors were very small people and used the dolmens as homes. Families would cook and sleep here’.
It is well-established that the builders of dolmens are the oldest inhabitants of the Palani Hills, making the dolmens some of the oldest structures in the mountains. More recent excavations by Dr K Rajan from Pondicherry University, and RaNa Kumaran and M Saranya from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have found archaeological evidence dating back to the pre-Iron Age in the Palani Hills. Some of the excavations are dated to 1500–2000 BCE.
Many of the dolmen sites strewn across the lower and middle hills—Pannaikadu, Thandikudi, Pethuparai and Addukam—are worth a visit. But they also face new problems. According to the archaeologist Dr Smriti Haricharan, ‘Most dolmens in this region are in a state of severe damage. While some lie within forest areas [Kodaikanal wildlife sanctuary and reserve forest], other sites are within private property, which poses considerable threats to these historically significant relics.’
Preservation of these structures could be an important step in conserving what remains of the pre-Iron Age history of the Palani Hills. In the future, these sites could potentially become places for tourism, creating awareness about ancient civilizations and inculcating an interest in local history among tourists who visit Kodaikanal each year. As of today, there is no infrastructure to support organised tourism to the town’s dolmen sites. Some of these sites are worthy of having a fee attached to their maintenance and promotion as tourism sites. For instance, the site that is about five kilometres from Pannaikadu village, about an hour’s drive from Kodaikanal town, lacks any infrastructure. ASI has erected a board acknowledging its archaeological value; however, the site is strewn with mismanaged waste.
With the right kind of effort, this site can be transformed into a responsible tourism site that is worthy of recognition as a symbol of Kodaikanal’s—and India’s—pre-historic era.