Especially in the thirteenth century in southern India, during times of intense fighting, many brave young soldiers gave their lives to defend their homeland. Hero stones, which still stand to this day, were dedicated to their memory.
These stones can be found throughout the forests of the Nilgiris. They are often one of the sides of the uncut stones of dolmens. They are carved with a representation of the young hero who gave his life in battle.
A significant part of Indian history was spent fighting the invading Muslims. This went on from the seventh century to around the eighteenth century, when the British arrived.
In the fourteenth century, the Moslems in the north of India became more determined to extend their rule to the so-far unconquered south of India. The Sultan of Delhi sent his armies to sack some of the cities in the south. After thirty years of resisting the Moslems, the Hindu king, Veera Ballala, was killed in battle in 1343. Then the Hoysala lands were merged into a new Hindu kingdom which later became the Vijayanagara Empire. The south was never subjugated by the Moslems.
Mr. Kumaravelu, who I was fortunate enough to have as a guide among the Nirligiri hills and who is a Field Officer for the CPREEC (the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre), is a historian who did his PhD thesis on the hero stones or memorial stones.
Since the time he was a child, collecting wood in the forest with his mother, he has known the people of the forest, especially the Kurumba tribe, and they have shown him where there are many of the hero stones. Some of the hero stones had already been brought to town squares and set up in public. Others were known only to tribal people and were still in hidden in the forest.
In the Nilgiris Hills, where we were traveling, from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, first the Hoysalas and then also the Vijayanagara kings of southern India were busy defending their country. Both these dynasties extended their rule to include parts of the Nilgiris.
Mr. Kumaravelu has studied and classified around 140 of these hero stones. A few were early stones with inscriptions. He showed me two of these located in the forest.
The first hero stone that we saw was put there in the thirteenth century. It was placed inside an existing dolmen, which was around 2,500 years old. The remains of the stone circle around the dolmen had been first put there 3,000 years ago.
Off to one side, a wild boar was investigating something in the brush. Mr. Kumaravelu told me to move, to get out of the way, since apparently wild boars can sometimes attack, without warning. I moved out of the way, and the boar carried on with his activities, not seeming to feel that I was of much interest.
The dolmens containing the hero stones were a few yards from each other, maybe twenty yards, surrounded by forest, not too far from the road. They had an extraordinary feeling about them that I often felt in India of being in touch with a past immeasurably distant.
In Egypt, the immeasurably ancient (perhaps even more ancient than in India) places are tourist sites. Through the course of Egyptian history, which has known conquests, disturbances, changes of religion and essentially abrupt breaks with the past, there is a sense of disconnection. One can tune into the extremely distant past of Egypt, but one simply cannot connect it with present-day Egypt.
The link has been lost; whereas, in India, that is not the case. The people who live in the villages and the hills, who are the people of modern India, seem to have every connection with the most distant past. They are the same people, with, to a large extent, the same ways of viewing the world, the same traditions, the same faith in their gods, the same ways of going about things—all perhaps somewhat diluted in this contemporary age, but certainly not gone. The link and the connection with the most distant past are still alive—and that is one of the things that makes India unique.
Yes, there were wars in India, and changes of dynasties. There was a Moslem invasion, then a British one, then a general sort of western/American cultural one, but none of these seems to have broken the invisible strand connecting the soul of India with her own past that stretches back into a time of myth (the link may be a bit bruised and bent, but it is not broken)—a time where myth is more real and more relevant than in the more prosaic, “objective” perspective that we in the west tend to have of the passage of time.
Because of this, India has a unique inner life (and holds a profound fascination for some visitors from the west) that one does not find anywhere else.
Photos and video: Sharon St. Joan
Top photo: First hero stone
Second photo: A hero stone in the Government Chennai Museum
Video: The first hero stone
There is more, better video, if you’d like to check back later in a couple of weeks.
To view the website of the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre,