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A muniyara with grey clouds looming in the distance

A muniyara with grey clouds looming in the distance

I was awoken from my slumber early this morning by a persistent knocking on the door. By the time I managed to haul myself out of bed and open the door, there was no one there. Curiously, a bucket of steaming hot water lay by my feet. I recalled my conversation with the hotel caretaker the previous night. He had said hot water will ‘come’ at 7 am. When he had said that, I had taken it to mean that hot water would start flowing through the pipes at 7 am, not physically arrive at my doorstep. But arrive it did. Such are the ways of Kerala.

After a quick bath, I went down to the restaurant and asked what was available for breakfast. I wouldn’t have done this anywhere except Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Normally, one would ask for a menu. But South India offers only a limited range of breakfast items: appam, vada, roast masala dosai, parotta, chicken curry, the waiter rattled off. I repeated my standard order of masala dosai and tea instead of coffee, considering this was Munnar.

After breakfast, I bought a newspaper and stood reading it by the roadside. I was amazed at the turnover of newspapers at an average ‘Book Stall’ in Kerala – as shops that specialize in newspapers and cigarettes are referred to here. Labourers and mechanics in checked lungis, professionals in sober shirts and trousers, all of them needed their daily fix of newsprint along with a bidi or a Flake. They would hurry to the shop, thrust a ten rupee note in the shopkeeper’s hand and walk away clutching a Malayalam daily in their armpit after quickly lighting up a smoke. No wonder Kerala has the highest media exposure stats in the country. Also, it makes me happy to look at people on the road in Kerala and think ‘Hey, almost all these folks here are empowered to read and write. Isn’t that just swell?’.

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A prehistoric family grave. Probably that of a tribal chieftain.

I soon headed to the state bus depot, got into a crowded bus to Marayoor and stood there, clutching at the supporting rods for dear life while the bus swerved and trundled along the ghat. The muniyaras beckoned to me. I was heading back to the Stone Age. I soon discovered along the 2-hour journey that sloping roofs were not the only innovation Malayalees had come up with to counter the perennial rain. State buses in Kerala are quite unique too. They don’t have any glass windows from which one can stare at the rain and contemplate about life. When it isn’t raining, the windows are completely open to the elements. When it starts pouring, people pull down metal shutters like shopkeepers shutting shop, completely blocking out all rain and sunshine. It was like travelling in a moving tunnel with only the windshield letting in any light. Not only that, I spotted one retired gentleman in Munnar wearing a flowery umbrella like a dainty Japanese hat by attaching it with hooks to a contraption along his temple. Wow it really must rain cats and dogs, I thought.

Marayoor was a small town located in a valley, sugarcane fields and palm trees surrounded by hills. The bare rock face of Annamudi, the highest peak in South India, stood out amidst the cacophony of green around me. I decided to take my routine walk around the town before actually getting down to doing anything. ‘Marayoor jaggery – the best in India’ claimed gram panchayat boards intermittently. A bunch of government-aided shops sold forest produce procured by tribals who still head primitive lifestyles in little hamlets in the hills, relatively untouched and quite hostile towards modernity. These tribals still speak a dialect that is neither Tamil nor Malayalam. Their language could very well have been the root of both languages, according to some linguists. But that is a story for another day when I’ve done my homework, I thought. 97% of Marayoor taluka is classified as an ecologically sensitive zone, home to the Nilgiri tahr, an endangered mammal that is endemic to the Nilgiris and is the state animal of Tamil Nadu. Property transactions are banned.

I began asking around for the Iron Age muniyaras, a word whose etymology is derived from muni (hermit) and aras (dolmens). People began pointing me in the general direction of the village high school which was the closest landmark to the muniyaras. The distances quoted varied, from 1km to 5km. I decided to walk it anyway, it didn’t feel right to hire a motored vehicle to go see a primitive marvel. Walking around Marayoor reminded me of my own native village on the Western coast in Karnataka: serene two-storied houses surrounded by palm groves, a few chickens clucking in the verandah, children playing cricket in the front-yard using slabs of rock as wickets, a lonely bike parked by the door probably used by a strapping young lad to fetch groceries when ordered by his mother.

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The Scottish highlands in Kerala

The high school was located on the foothill of a rocky hillock. It was shut for the vacations. I was pointed to an adjoining grassy knoll by a little kid heading my way. I went past the brand new toilets built for schoolgirls, trampled upon brambles and thorns and searched desperately for any sign of prehistoric life for an hour. This was turning out to be a disappointment, not even remotely as dramatic as I’d imagined. I found a few Cairn stones stacked on top of each other hidden behind thorny bushes and some evidence of a few megalithic burial sites judging by the stones arranged in a circular manner around a nonexistent mound.

A muniyara with the village high school in the background

A muniyara with the village high school in the background

The sun was beginning to peek through the clouds and I sipped some water to regain energy. I went back down to the high school and asked the first man I saw for the muniyaras, convinced I’d not yet found them. To my delight, he turned out to be a high school teacher, the most educated person I could have hoped to find in Marayoor. He not only pointed me to the muniyaras but also accompanied me to the site.

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The Pampa river flowing past Anchunaad

I had hit upon the motherload! Sitting right in front of me was a dolmen, just like I’d seen in pictures on the Internet. Three gigantic granite slabs arranged vertically at right angles and covered by yet another gigantic granite slab, called a capstone. There were an additional ten to twenty of these dolmens surrounding the one in front of me. The entire scene reminded me of the Scottish highlands, stone slabs perched on a bed of rock surrounded by a sea of green. I could see the Pampa river winding its way to the Bay of Bengal. I excitedly began making some inquiries about the muniyaras with the teacher. Instead, the man submitted me to an articulate, brief history of Munnar without any provocation. I like such people, I thought.

“In the early 1870s, Daniel Munro, a British officer at the Kingdom of Travancore came to this region and found that the climate and soil was ideal for tea cultivation. Rapidly the hills were deforested and massive tea plantations came up. Most of the labour for this was acquired from Tamil Nadu which was going through the great famine that killed more than 2 million people in Madras Presidency. The history before that is not very well known. A tribe known as Muthuvans are considered the original inhabitants of the areas. They still live in the surrounding mountains,” he said, pointing to the distant forests in the hills. “The British never managed to convert them to modernity and now the Indian government is struggling. In fact, they never even discovered this area. Marayoor literally translates to ‘land hidden by the mountains’. This entire area is called Anchunad derived from anj (five) and naad (place), consisiting of the five villages of Kanthalloor, Keezhanthur, Karayur, Marayur and Kottakudi, ” he told me.

“What primitive technology was used to mine the granite, cut them into slabs and arrange them in this fashion is not exactly known. It is a wonder that they still survive to this day considering they are more than 3000 years old. It is usually considered by archaeologists that a group of four to five dolmens clustered together was built as the final resting place for an important family. The bigger the dolmen, the more important the person for whom it was built.”

Plastic bags, Lays packets, shards of broken beer bottles, cigarette stubs lay around the dolmens, symbols of modern decadence that pays scant respect to antiquity. “The government does absolutely nothing to preserve these prehistoric monuments. ‘Anti-socialist’ elements come and litter the place,” he said. Considering how cleverly the Stonehenge is marketed by the United Kingdom as evidence of a flourishing prehistoric civilization, the ASI and the Indian government ought to at least mark out areas of historical importance, install educative boards, and protect them from littering and vandalism.

The panoramic view from the hillock

The panoramic view from the hillock

The man soon took my leave and left to my own devices, I toured the hill for a couple of hours and scoured the burial chambers for remains of pot shards or beads or any archaeological evidence. I didn’t find anything except yet more beer bottles and empty packets of chips. Yet this was a site like no other. Sitting atop a capstone, looking down at the panoramic view, all windswept hair and dreamy eyes, I tasted yet another flavour of our delightful history marked as much by intricate sculptures and towering minarets as by the beautiful remains of the pre-Aryan Neolithic culture of South India.

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