December 23, 2013

Crater Lake at Lonar, Maharashtra

(This article was published in The Hindu's supplement Metro Plus on 14-Dec-2013)

A meteorite weighing 2 million tones and approximately 100 meters in diameter, travelling at a speed of 18 kilometers per second crashes onto Planet Earth. This impact, in the present day  village of Lonar in Buldhana District, Vidharbha region of  Maharashtra is believed to be equivalent to a 6 megaton bomb. Did this phenomenon obliterate life on Earth during the Jurassic era or was it just one of the many meteorites that crashed into our planet at regular intervals? Scientists claim that this was probably a Martian meteorite that crashed just 50,000 years ago. They classify this crater as a Hypervelocity Impact Crater that has been formed in Basalt rock, a one of its kind with the terrain resembling the Moon’s surface. A recent discovery of a particular bacteria (‘Bacillus Odysseyi’) from the crater site resembles or probably is the same as the bacteria reported by the Odyssey spacecraft on Mars’ surface.

Many theories have been proposed and dismissed regarding the origin of this crater, but agnostic of all, here I was standing at the rim of a crater, gaping at the breathtaking view in front of my eyes, on an overcast day. This should be one of the most important landmarks in the Geological Map of India. Water had collected at the base of the crater and had formed a lake. The greyness of the skies reflected in the water in the lake, and the lush green foliage all around were only the two colors that were visible today. I had managed to sneak past a broken fence and there lay an unobstructed view of this magnificent crater. 

Lonar Crater Lake
Earlier in the day, I had arrived at Aurangabad Main Bus Stand at 3am and took another bus to SIDCO bus stand from where buses operate in the Vidharbha region. Luck favoured me, and even before dawn had broken. Another connecting bus to Sultanpur and I finally arrive at Lonar at 9am after another short ride. I assumed that I would be one of the first visitors given the early arrival but soon was proved wrong as I stepped past the official entrance to the lake. A temple like structure with what looked like a perennial stream of water from a snout greeted me. Many pilgrims were already there taking a quick bath under the clear waters. My first view of the crater-lake was from here, at the Gomukh Temple, as I could see the lake ensconced from all sites by a tapered landmass with rich overgrowth.  Approximately 15 temples dot this crater-lake, near the base and also along the rim and at higher elevations. Looking for alternative higher vantage points I glanced upwards only to see people busy with their morning ablutions. 

Gomukh Temple. Check out the snout at the mid-bottom and the stream gushing out

I walked on the road surrounding the crater rim looking for a vantage point for a complete panoramic view of the lake and this is how I ended up at my interim resting spot. There was nothing else to be done from this point than just soak in it and savour the scenery. The chill breeze was the only companion that I had for the time being, before a herd of buffalos came by and sat under the shades of the bushes. The crater is supposed to be 1.8 kilometers in diameter, 7 kilometers in perimeter and 150 meters deep. It is not difficult to imagine the  whole act of the meteorite crash at this very place given the setting. 

I headed towards the village wherein I was told of a beautiful temple that also had a record of the cause of this crater. Opposite the village school, Daitya Sudan temple wore a non-descript look and stood guarded by a 2 feet wall and lots of foliage around it. Sitting on top of a pedestal, the architecture resembled that of a Hoysala temple, but the comparison ends there. The roof looks unfinished and there are no ornate pillars inside the temple. A weak wooden door separates the outer world from the inside of the temple. 

Daitya Sudan Temple
Interior of Daitya Sudan Temple
There are three chambers inside, with the first chamber having a naked ceiling with the brickwork visible supported by huge arched pillars devoid of any sculptures. Darkness pervades the sanctum sanctorum and only a torchlight is of help for now as there is no electricity to power the tubelights inside. The ceiling looks like a patchwork of bricks and the walls are devoid of any murals. A 4-foot tall idol of Lord Vishnu sits alone in the darkness inside the sanctum-sanctorum. There are no signs of any worship or rituals being performed to the idol. The entrance to the sanctum-sanctorum has some carving on the door frame made of stone. A small frieze on the top of the ceiling in the middle chamber shows a deity crushing an asura by his foot. And this purportedly was the origin of legends of why this place was called as Lonar. 

Lavanasur(In Sanskrit, Lavana means salt and Asura means demon), a demon, used to terrorize the people in this region. He had a special boon, which made his death to be unlike those of the ordinary. Lord Vishnu took on the responsibility of eliminating him after the requests from the people in the region. Lavanasur hid in a lake covered by a hill. Lord Vishnu kicked the hill away and twisted his toes by placing it on the demon’s navel and the oozed blood became the reason for the saltiness of the water. The crater symbolizes the demon’s navel while the shore is his body.

Though the temple looks extremely well preserved from a few meters away, on closer inspection, one sees that almost all the sculptures on the exterior walls are broken. Most of them have lost a limb or leg, and none of them are in complete shape.  Some of carved figures on the exterior walls are evocative of erotica showing couples in different sexual practices. There are also different deities, apsaras and humans in different forms on the walls, all of which are broken. It was extremely disheartening to see the state of the exterior walls.

Exterior Walls of the Daitya Sudan Temple

The crater-lake place has also been referenced as Panchapsar Sarovar, which was sage Mandakarni’s ashram in the Dandaka forest in Ramayana. The sage stayed in the waters of the lake for 10,000 years and consumed air alone.  Legend has it that Lord Indra, threatened by the sage’s devotion and ascesis, sent five of his apsaras to distract the sage and cause a hindrance in his prayers. The apsaras ended up being his wives and serving the sage. And hence the pond became known as Panchapsarotataka(‘Lake of Five Nymphs’).  
Many broken. Amorousity!

Slaying of the Lavanasur inside the temple - on one of the sides of the ceiling. Was lucky to spot this in the utter darkness inside.

The lake also finds mention Ain-i-Akbari. Ain-i-Akbari is the third part of Akbarnama and records Akbar’s empire, in the form of the modern day gazette, and mentions that Lonar lake with its brackish water was used for making glass and soaps yielding substantial revenue.

In the modern world, the crater-lake has been a subject of immense interest to the geologists and scientists. NASA has conducted many experiments here. Despite being fed only from rains, the water is extremely salty. A plaque reads that the pH value of the water is 11 which is extremely high. But there are fears that the behavior of the water is changing due to the pollution from the village and the water seepage from the nearby farms. Water mixed with fertilizers and chemicals is changing the alkanity of the water, and also the gradual increase in the inlets to the crater-lake is causing the water level to rise, in the lake and changing the behavior even more; not to mention flooding the temples near the lake. The sides of the crater-lake are supposed to be extremely diverse with different birds and animals inhabiting it. Listing the crater at Lonar in a World Astronomical Monuments roster along the lines of World Heritage Sites would be extremely useful in safeguarding and furthering research at this beautiful geological structure.

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