I eyed the steep and stony descent with some trepidation. The trail, or what passed off as one, appeared to be made for goats, not humans.
“It’s okay. The path is perfectly safe. Nothing will happen to you,” said Rajesh, my guide.
“That’s easy for you to say,” I told him, as I placed my camera in its protective case and put it in my backpack. As an afterthought, I also put my cellphone in as well, not willing to take any chances with it while climbing down..
“Are you sure this trail is safe?” I asked.
“Not only is it safe, it is also the quickest way to descend.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” I muttered to myself, as I looked around to see the vista spread out before me. Beyond the goat trail that is.
An almost circular lake, tranquil and pretty as a picture — ringed with a thick green cover and dotted with temples around its periphery — stretched out below me. This is the Lonar Crater Lake, which was created when a high-speed meteorite slammed into the basaltic lava flows about 52,000 years ago. The meteorite is believed to be buried deep within the lake.
Though the Lonar Crater was ‘discovered’ in 1823 by a British military officer, C.G. Alexander, it wasn’t until 1973 that it was found that the Lonar Crater was a one-of-its-kind. It remains the only meteorite impact crater in basalt in the world.
According to local belief, Lonar derives its name from the mythical demon Lonasura (also called Lavansura). This demon used to harass and trouble the local people so much that Lord Vishnu descended to earth to vanquish him. The crater, and the lake that now fills it, was formed when Lonasura was pushed back into the netherworld with tremendous force by Vishnu!
I first ‘saw’ Lonar Crater as a grainy picture in a slide show as part of an undergraduate class in Geology. It wasn’t particularly impressive and I didn’t think much of it.
Three years later, as a postgraduate student, I ‘saw’ Lonar crater again. This time it was through a stereoscope.
I still remember that moment when the satellite image (quite like the picture on the left) of Lonar crater turned into a 3D stereoscopic image and the details came into focus — the circular shape, the lake inside the crater, the ridges, the shadows cast on the lake, the steep sides of the crater…
It was a mesmerising sight and one that I had to wait for 21 years to see for real. Last December, an overnight train journey from Mumbai to Jalna, followed by a 3-hour bone rattling bus ride got me to Lonar and to my first look at the crater and the lake. For real 🙂
The Lonar Crater Lake was much bigger and deeper than what the photographs and satellite images had conveyed with a mean diameter of 1.8 km, and sides sloping inwards at nearly 75 degrees. As for the lake, it was an unbelievable shade of green — not moss, not acid, not olive but a mix of all three and kind of mysterious that just begged to be explored. And that’s exactly what I did once I checked into my hotel and freshened up.
That day in Lonar turned out to be a day of revelations for me. I had arrived in Lonar with only some knowledge of its geological history. What I was not aware of, and what Rajesh (the local guide that my hotel arranged for me) went to great lengths to impress upon me, was its mythological and historical associations as well.
Lonar has been ruled by Ashoka, the Satavahanas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Devagiri Yadavas. Lonar was also a trading centre in the past, especially for salt and soap. In fact, the Ain-i-Akbari reportedly mentions that Emperor Akbar liked the quality of soaps from Lonar. The town has also had a history of glass making in the not too distant past. Today, none of these industries exist and when I walked through Lonar town, it was difficult to believe that it once was a bustling centre of trade.
The only thing that Lonar retains of its past is the crater and 32 temples, of which 19 are protected by the Archaeological Society of India. Most of the temples are in various stages of ruin and some continue as places of worship.
The temples are spread out in town and some are ringed around the lake. Though it is possible to visit all the temples in a day, I did not want my only day in Lonar to turn into a temple hopping tour. Instead, I decided to concentrate on visiting a few of the prominent ones and also explore the Lonar Crater.
The first temple I visited was the Viraj Tirtha, locally known as Lonar Dhar. Situated near the southern rim of the Lonar Crater, it has many shrines located within its complex. The Viraj Tirtha has a tank whose waters are considered to be holy and on the day I visited, it was full of pilgrims taking a dip.
There are steep steps leading from the temple straight down to the edge of the Lonar Crater Lake. I went down halfway to see the ruins of some temples and then came right back.
The Daitya Sudan Temple, perhaps Lonar’s best-known temple, was the next temple I visited. Located in the heart of Lonar town, its unique architectural style makes it stand out from the other temples in the town. The absence of a temple spire (the guide was not very clear whether it was destroyed or whether it was even built in the first place) does make it look a little funny and ‘truncated’, but the sheer variety of exquisite carvings on the external walls make up for it. The guide kept referring to the Daitya Sudan Temple as being similar to the Khajuraho temples; but not having visited the latter, I couldn’t really say if he was saying the truth or not !
A visit to the Kamalja Mata temple was next, for which I had to descend into the crater. This was the moment I had been waiting for — this was to be the highlight of my trip to Lonar. Of course, when I saw the goat trail, all my excitement vanished and I debated whether I should descend or whether I should just walk around the crater instead. But when I saw the challenging look on the guide’s face and the beautiful crater lake below me (see the first photo in this post), I knew that I had to descend into the crater.
And so I set off — slipping and sliding at times, descending gracefully and calmly at other times. But always carefully. I gave many of the locals who were on their way to the temple or returning from the temple a lot of entertainment with my bumbling descent. I am offered advice (“Take off your shoes”), encouragement (“You can do it”), and also some good-natured teasing (“You city people are all alike”). They, of course, climbed or descended the goat trail like the sure-footed
goats locals that they were.
It took me about 40 minutes to hit level ground and I can’t tell you how happy and relieved I felt then. A short walk and I was standing before the Kamalja Mata Temple.
The temple is much revered by the people of Lonar and nearby towns. Apparently, the annual yatra of Kamalja Mata sees lakhs of pilgrims congregating at the temple every year. The temple had a calm and soothing atmosphere with families relaxing and children playing. I was really glad at that moment that I didn’t chicken out of descending into the crater.
The temple is not very big and as soon as one enters the garbha griha is right in front, with the idol of Kamalja Mata staring right back at you. I don’t mean to be irreverant but the expression of surprise and the exaggerated ‘O’ of Kamalja Mata’s mouth was very cute and had me smiling widely.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the waters of the Lonar Crater lake are a deep, mysterious green. This is due to the presence of a blue-green algae which lends the lake that particular colour. Standing at the edge of the lake and watching the gentle ripples fan out and then still, imagination runs wild about the lake and what could lie beneath.
With sunset a little over an hour away, the guide suggests that we turn back. We decide to walk around the lake and take another path to the top. It’s a lovely walk with birdsong and sunlight filtering through the thick canopy of trees. I’m tree-identity challenged and can only recognise teak trees with some degree of confidence !
We also pass ruins of temples and though I would have liked to explore them, the overwhelming smell of bats is a big deterrent. It was sad to see the external walls of all these temples defaced with graffiti and slogans. Though one sees things like this at most Indian monuments, I don’t think I can ever get used to it. 😦
The path to the top does not appear to be as bad as the one I descended from. At least there appears to be some semblance of steps to climb! The climb starts of well, but within minutes I find the going fairly tough as the steps are steep and tricky. The ascent is slow and soon I am huffing and puffing my way up.
I don’t know how I manage to climb or even how long I take, but when I do it is such an exhilarating moment. That moment when you wonder if you really did what you just did, if you know what I mean. I am also in time to see one of the most beautiful sunsets I have experienced.
I left Lonar the next day. Over the weeks and months that have passed since the visit, I haven’t been able to get that visit out of my mind, but this time it isn’t for the right reasons:
- Considering the geological importance and the uniqueness of the Lonar Crater Lake, and also the presence of so many temples on its banks, there are no security guards.
- The Maharashtra Tourism Department must be the worst state tourism in the country. There was hardly any on site information available in any of the places that I visited.
- Rajesh, my guide, was a bit of a mystery. I could never make out if he was cooking up information or if he was actually narrating the recorded history of the area. It didn’t help that he mumbled, rather than speak. And he was supposed to be a student of history and a trained guide !
- I’m not even going to get into the facilities for stay or eating at Lonar. Let’s just say that there is scope for improvement. Lots of improvement.
I wonder why we can’t strike a balance with regard to places of interest in India. Either they are promoted to death (like the Taj Mahal or Kerala) or are not spoken about at all (like the wood fossil park at Akal). Though Lonar is known in travel circles, the facilities and infrastructure leave a lot to be desired, in spite of having the potential to be a fabulous getaway. It’s so frustrating !
I hope this little rant of mine at the end has not put you off from visiting Lonar. It’s a place that deserves more than a visit. It deserves some love from discerning travellers like you. 🙂
Note: Rushikesh Kulkarni of Breakfree Journeys visited Lonar recently and met Bugdane Sir, former school principal, Lonar resident and someone who has been fighting a lone battle to preserve Lonar’s heritage. Bugdane Sir has written a booklet on Lonar and Rushikesh got one copy for me, which I have used for part of the background information given in this post. Thanks, Rushikesh.