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Starring Lonar

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer take an excursion to the world’s only high-velocity meteor crater in hard basalt - Lonar

At lake level, the crater towers 130 m above

Looking for a getaway that offers more than the usual mountains-lakes-forests-and-beaches scene? We’ve found it. It is, quite literally, the only one of its kind in the world. And, if you’ll permit us to stretch a point a bit, it’s been created by, and for, a star visitor.

Interested? So were we and, since we were in Aurangabad after our visit to Ajanta and Ellora, we decided to drive out 165 km, and see things for ourselves. Our friend, philosopher and guide was the very enthusiastic Capt Surendra Surve of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC). We also got a number of fascinating facts, about this unique place, from researcher Ganesh Sonune. According to scientists, about 50,000 years ago, something large, and very fiery, came blazing out of the sky. It was an enormous rock from outer space, a meteorite, snared by the earth’s gravity and snatched out of its orbit.

A small stream that feeds the lake

When it hit the hard, black, basaltic rocks of the western ghats, the earth shook and cracked. Some of it vapourised; much of it melted; a great amount of it was ejected as a pluming fountain of lava and rocks and cascaded around the great hole gouged out by the falling star. The early humans, who had witnessed this titanic cataclasm, had it seared into their memories. And out of their recollections, evolving into myth and legend, was born the story of Lonasura. According to one version, this terrible demon, who preyed on humans, hid himself in the earth but was killed by Lord Vishnu. Taking pity on this terrifying creature, however, the Preserver, named the asura’s excavated den, LONAR.

We came upon Lonar quite unexpectedly. At one moment, there was the bumpy rural roads, undulating between scrubby dunes; there next there was the cluster of red-roofed buildings of the MTDC on our right. And on our left was the huge crater of the meteorite.

It’s enormous. We stood at the rim of the crater: almost 6 km around. From here, the ground slopes away at a 30 degree angle to the bottom. There, a lake spreads, fed by rain-water and small streams and springs trickling down the basaltic rock of the crater. And since the only exit for this water seems to be evaporation, it is strongly saline.

But no amount of statistical data can account for the almost hypnotic presence of the lake. It stares up like a compelling, cyclopean eye: alien and appealing at the same time. We decided to give in to its spell and began to clamber down.

Boulders thrown out by the great explosion

It’s not easy. Huge boulders, thrown out by the great explosion, lie scattered around like a haphazard tumble of giant building blocks. The sun thudded down on us and the bare boulders reflected its heat. But, as we got deeper into the crater, shrubs and bushes appeared, giving way to trees and welcoming shade. The ground softened underfoot and there was the faint mushroomy smell of wet earth. We paused and caught our breaths.

We were 130 meters below the rim, at lake level. A cool breeze blew and the lake looked like velvet brushed the wrong way. Water-birds hunted in the shallows, flew in a flurry of spray when we approached too close, peacocks mewed, monkeys gambolled in the trees. It felt very much like an undisturbed Eden. But that was deceptive. Old stone temples now appeared, many of them ruined and abandoned, some of them partially submerged. A few, however, were living places of worship, one was the centre of an annual fair. In some places, the lush vegetation had been cleared for fields and orchards. We walked much of the way round the 3.5 km shores of the lake. Once, when a particularly hot summer had lowered the level of the water, people claimed that they had seen glittering, glassy crystals revealed by the receding lake. These are probably shock-melted glass created when certain rocks are subjected to a sudden impact of great heat and great pressure. Moreover, over the thousands of years of its existence, the lake seems to have developed a unique ecology. All these, if studied carefully, might reveal secrets which could have a major impact on theories of the origin of life and of the formation of our solar system.

Lonar is also unique because it’s the world’s only high-velocity meteor crater in hard basalt: it doesn’t erode or change its qualities easily. It is as close to being a virgin crater as it is possible on earth. But, when we stood at the bottom of this huge depression and looked around us, we saw how human interference could change it rapidly. It was like poisoning a genius because you wanted to steal his clothes!

One of the crater’s living temples

Today, however, Lonar’s intriguing Star Terminal is still unique.