We live in a world torn in constant dichotomy. We pit Science against God. We pit reason against faith. We pit logic against beliefs. We pit cold, hard truths against mystic mumbo-jumbo. But often, both the worlds don’t have enough answers. Both are riddled with the same questions. Both have the same clues. And both are hoping against hope that they are on the right path. And at the heart of it all, both the worlds never stop searching. Never stop seeking. Once in a while however, the two worlds collide. Quite gloriously.
Like it happened in Lonar, a very small and unremarkable village in Maharashtra, which at first glance, looks like an insignificant enough place to be ignored by the higher powers of both Science and God. But well, the universe works in mysterious ways.
Around 60,000 years ago, this area, which now falls in the Buldhana district of Maharashtra, played host to a visitor from outer space. Ok maybe not host exactly, considering the visitor was an angry, blazing meteorite. And let’s say, this visit was more of a cataclysmic crash of unimaginable fury and force. For those with no imagination, here are some numbers you can crunch — a massive meteorite or comet, 60 meters long and weighing 2 million ton, was racing at a speed of 90,00 kms per hour towards Earth and when it struck the ground, the energy released by the hypervelocity impact was equivalent to that of six-megaton atom bombs! Phew!
And the result of that impact was the Lonar crater — 1.8 kilometers long and 150 meters deep — the only hypervelocity natural impact crater in basaltic rock in the world. And at the bottom of it is a highly alkaline and saline lake — touted to be the third largest natural salt-water lake in the world — fed by the waters from three perennial springs, the source of which is said to be unknown. Cut to thousands of years later, 1823 to be precise, and British Officer J.E Alexander ‘discovered’ this spot with a whole ecosystem thriving around the densely forested crater lake — from a hundred varieties of migratory birds, pea fowls, chinkaras, gazelles, primates and fourteen types of algae to even flower and fruit-bearing trees. The crater is of even more significance to astronomers, geologists and astrophysicists as it is supposed to have many similarities to the landscape of a moon, giving them much scientific insight into the working of our lunar companion. Let’s call it the Lonar-lunar connection.
Meanwhile, even as scientists from all over the world were getting all hot and bothered over this natural wonder, authors of ancient Indian scriptures seemed to have already put their flags on this terrain much before anyone else. According to the Skanda-Purana, the name ‘Lonar’ came from the demon, Lonasura, who lived in this subterranean abode and terrorised the people of the Earth. Now, heeding to his people’s prayers (something he evidently doesn’t do too often now) Vishnu came to the rescue, by sending his avatar in the form of a man named Daityasudana, who exposed the demon’s hideout, kicked away the rock that kept him hidden, thereby creating that crater. He slayed that mighty demon and when his blood was spilt, it turned into a lake. A highly salty one because of the demon’s decomposed flesh, it is said. In fact, Sanskrit scholars claim the crater was even mentioned in other ancient texts like Kalidasa’s Raghuvansha, Padma Purana and Aina-i-Akbari. And somewhere post the 10th century (some say 13th), multiple temples were built all around the lake.
Fast forward to today and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this obscure town has evoked much curiosity from both the scientific community and the religious rabble. But we backpackers fit into neither category. Having read about this place in one of my many desktop travelling days, on a sudden whim, we decided to take a bus to Lonar after we covered Kaas, Bamnoli, Thoseghar and Chalkewadi in our mini Maharashtra tour. But Lonar was one hard-to-reach village with no direct connectivity. So here’s the rough sequence of events that led us there. A bumpy local bus to Pune → Crashed at a friend’s place → Wisely used this opportunity to dump our backpacks full of soiled clothes in a washing machine! → High-five civilization! → Spent the next day lazing around with our friend, PHD scholar and the soon-to-be Dr Srijay Kamat at his laboratory, looking at 4,000x-magnified images of yeast under a microscope → Took instructions from Srijay about a secret mission he wanted us to undertake at Lonar. (No, seriously!) → Took an overnight bus to Mehkar, the closest village to Lonar → The filthiest bus ride ever and we’re at Mehkar.
Not wanting to go into too many details, I will say that small Maharashtrian towns are definitely in some sort of competition with each other to be the shittiest place in the country. No, I’m not just using shitty as a cool euphemism for pathetic. I literally mean shit. Crap. Turd. Faeces. Of dogs, humans, pigs, cattle and anything that walks or flies. There was lots of poop everywhere. On roads. Footpaths, if any. On the compound walls of public toilets. It was like some giant shit bomb exploded over all of these towns. Let’s just say, it was not fun navigating our way through this.
Wanting to get away from there as quickly as we can, we hitched an auto ride from Mehkar to Lonar, paying Rs 250 for the 24.4-km journey. And having found out earlier that there is an MTDC hotel right next to the crater, we landed up there. We could have stayed in a dormitory by paying just Rs 150 a bed, but we decided to indulge ourselves to a double room with an attached bathroom. And surprisingly, we managed to bargain with the manager and bagged the room worth Rs 936 for 700 bucks. Considering we were probably his only customers then, he was in no mood to argue!
After dumping our bags in the room, when we headed the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) restaurant situated on the first floor of the building for breakfast, the view that greeted from our table was the crater! A perfectly circular and massive hole in the Earth slanting impressively into the greenish-hued lake at the bottom. And as we gobbled up our masala omelettes, all we could picture in front of us was a giant fireball crashing there and how everything around would have got instantly annihilated into nothingness. Not the cheeriest of breakfast conversations.
All fueled up, we decided to trek down to the bottom of crater, a very steep rocky path which was around 175 metres-long. And as we cautiously climbed down the uneven terrain, minding our every step, we saw little village kids running up and down merrily. And barefoot, at that! In fact, there were quite a few local people trekking down with us to make their way to the Kamalja Devi temple, which was at the bottom of the crater. As we were informed earlier by the friendly MTDC manager, people from all the neighbouring villages visit Lonar during the nine days of the Navaratri festival to take blessings from these ancient deities. So, there we were, awestruck with the view of the first meteorite crater we have ever seen. So magnificent, so full of otherworldly mysteries. And walking right next to us were a sea of people, who unmindful of this cosmic spectacle, had come there fuelled by just one emotion — devotion.
So we walked together — they with their devoutness and we without our curiosity — till we reached the bottom. The lake greeted us with strong and foul odours of rotting greens. On closer inspection, we saw that the edges of lake was completely algae-ridden. We followed the trail made by the pilgrims over the years, with the goal of walking the entire circumference of the crater, which we had then wrongly assumed as just around 2 kilometres.
As we navigated our way through shrubbery, hundreds of millipedes, a temple ruin or two and the eyes of very curious locals, who looked at us as if we were the ones from outer space, we realised it wasn’t just a few devotees who were also giving us company. As we got closer to the temple, we saw thousands of people making their way to or back from it.
There were just swarms of people, bringing with them the usual filth of used plastic wrappers, papers, banana peels and all sorts of litter, which they threw around carelessly. They had not only formed long, winding queues outside the main sanctum, but had also camped outside with their families. I wondered if any of them would be aware if the very soil they are standing on was part of one of the rarest ecosystems in the world. Even if they did. It didn’t matter. Herein lay their God. A slayer of demons. And appeasing him was the sole goal of this arduous pilgrimage. Contemplating about the marvels of space was not part of the itinerary.
Well, it was on our agenda. So, we decided to keep walking ahead. But from here on, the path wasn’t as pronounced. It was evident that not too many people ventured beyond the temple. The shrubbery grew thicker and the trail thinner. We realised that the temple marked just 1/4th of the whole route and we had a long way to go.
Armed with a broken branch to brush away overgrowth and thorny bushes from our route, we walked. For a very long time. Mostly in silence. It was quite an experience, being in the middle of the dense woods, light beautifully by the mottled sunlight pouring in through the thick shrubbery, listening to the chatter of monkeys and the chirping of an assortment of birds, with the faint voices of people and the resounding of temple drums and bells in the background. The lake seemed quiet too. It was sort of a trapped lake with the water having nowhere to go really. Stagnant. Supporting no macroscopic life inside it due to it’s very high alkaline levels and salt content. But all around the lake, existed such a rich diverse ecosystem. A microcosm of the world thriving inside of a freak accident.
As we forged ahead, we walked to the edge of the lake to find the ruins of another old temple. But these were no abandoned ruins. It was flocked by a group of excited children, who seemed to have broken away from their parents during the temple visit to do some of their own exploring. Looking at us and our cameras, they immediately started chanting “Ek photo lo na please” in unison. So, we stopped to goof around along with the boisterous lot, who insisted on getting pictures clicked with both of us on their camera phones. They were so fascinated by us that they hung around us, watching our every move and even offering us their lunchboxes. We promised to mail them the photographs Lovell clicked after two of them proudly told us they possessed email IDs.
The sun had risen quite high by then and the perfectly placid lake was acting as a giant mirror of the sky. We sat down there to admire the lovely view and observe the colourful proceedings at the Kamalja Devi temple, that was now exactly on the opposite side of the lake. From this vantage point, we could watch the chaotic activity at that holy spot far away in the distance, but could hear nothing. It felt as if the silence of the forest had muted all the noisiness of the people.
Then, it was time to carry out the secret mission assigned to us by our previously mentioned friend, the soon-to-be Dr Srijay Kamat. And we had to do so discreetly. Ok since you insist. I’ll tell you what the mission was. We had to collect water and soil samples from the lake in a vial he had equipped us with, so that he can have a party in his laboratory later — run tests on some yeast he intends to find in the sample or something of that sort. It’s all quite interesting actually. So yes, with the help of the puzzled kids, who lent us a plastic bag to use as a glove, we accomplished the mission. And we were on our way again.
We had walked half the perimeter of the crater and we still had a long way ahead. Exhaustion threatened to get the better of us, what with the merciless noon heat, the high humidity in the area and our depleting drinking water supply adding to our woes. Every now and then, the monotony of trekking the silent forest was broken by the appearance of more temple ruins, the last remaining relics of a bygone era.
After what seemed like a long time, we reached the remains of another ancient temple, the shade of which was populated by a bunch of resting villagers. On seeing the flurry of activity here, we realised that there is another way up the crater close by and that we didn’t have to go back up the same route we came down. We followed the people walking around and also the delicious sound of gurgling water and chanced upon the path of one of the perennial springs that flow into the lake. Legend has it that Ram and Sita had visited this lake during their exile period and that Sita had even bathed in this spring, lending it the name, Sita Nhani.
Another short trek later, we were at the foot of a very steep flight of stairs. We could see the beautiful Gomukh temple on top, right on the rim of the crater. We had reached extreme levels of fatigue by then and that last flight of stairs drained out every ounce of energy left in us. Once up, we see hundreds of pilgrims bathing themselves under the strong gush of water from the perennial spring which flows continuously into the temple tank, before it cascades its way right down to the lake. Against the backdrop of the amazing scientifically-significant Lonar lake, this temple looked magnificent. At that very moment, God and evolution sat together in peaceful co-existence, overlooking the scene in total harmony.
We had climbed up to reach the main hub of the Lonar village and when we checked the tracks on our map, we realised that we had been walking for almost three whole hours, covering around 7 kilometres around the crater.
As we dragged ourselves back to MTDC, which was a walk of another never-ending kilometre away, stopping only to gulp down a whole litre of water and Maaza, we realised how significant Navratri was for these humble village folk. People and more people from Lonar and neighbouring villages were making their way to this temple area in hordes to seek darshan during this auspicious time and the whole hamlet wore a festive atmosphere.
It’s only when we reached our room, we realised how drained out we actually were. A quick shower and lunch later, we collapsed into a very deep slumber, waking up only post sunset. We decide to take a stroll to the rim of the crater once again and were surprised to still see activity down at the temple, with people climbing up and down the crater. Dismissing the idea of trying to climb down again, we went back to the comfort of our beds.
Night had fallen in Lonar. But the Gods were not yet asleep. Nor were the owls that hooted in unison as the creatures of the night got ready for their hunt. The lake which was witness to thousands of centuries of both nothingness and civilization, shone eerily in the moonlight as it whispered stories into the darkness. Stories of outer space, of demons slain and mysteries unraveled.
But too worn out to hear it all, somewhere in Lonar, two tired travellers were fast asleep.
Resources & references
- Playlist of all videos in this post, on YouTube.
- Geology of Lonar Crater, India [PDF]
- Geology, Microecological Environment and Conservation of Lonar Lake, Maharashtra, India [PDF]