(Message sent Sun, 17 Dec 2006 04:30:23 -0700)
Hello everyone. I'm back in Aurangabad after two nights out at the Lonar Meteor Crater, a fascinating spot where a meteor hit 50,000 years ago, gouging out a hole 2 km across. The crater is easy to spot in Google Earth - it's the big round thing just to the west of 19 58.552 N 076 31.085 E. Just to the east of this point you'll notice a complex of red-roofed buildings; that's where I stayed.
Because the Google Earth coverage of the place is so good I had studied the crater quite a bit before leaving NZ. This had the curious effect that when I finally saw it in the flesh it was instantly familiar, and it felt more like returning to a cherished place than visiting it for the first time.
Aside from the fundamental coolness of standing where fiery doom was once visited upon the Earth, the crater is a lovely thing to see. The steep interior slopes are heavily forested in some places, and there's a lake at the bottom, fed by a trio of streams that between them have cut a complex gorge into one quadrant of the crater rim. The lake has no outflow, losing its water only to evaporation (I think that this makes it technically an inland sea), and so the water is very salty. Despite this the crater teems with life, with lots of birds, lizards, frogs, monkeys, and bats (of which more later). The lake is not quite round. Silt flowing down the streams that cut the gorge have formed a small delta, which is now used for farming.
The crater is the perfect size: big enough that you get some feeling for the huge energies involved in its creation, small enough that you can see how big it is. You can see the whole thing from any point on the rim, and you can walk completely around the rim in about three hours or so.
The thing that really stands out and makes the crater Indian is the dozen or so temples built along the shores of the lake. Most of them date from the 12th century, and were built using big stone blocks without mortar. Some have been half-submerged by the changing lake levels. Some are tumble-down and have long since been abandoned, while others are in daily use. Some are a curious mix of the two, with fresh offerings to an idol in a dilapidated temple with the erstwhile roof lying about in piles of rubble.
Two of the temples have been taken over by bats. You can tell which ones by the terrific racket they make, which you can hear from metres away. I went inside one and shone my torch up. The ceiling was just jammed with the little guys, all crawling over each other. I tried taking some photos, and got some interesting shots of hundreds of pairs of beady eyes reflecting the flash. Eight hundred years of concentrated bat poo has an aroma all of its own. And it's welcome to it.
I took a guide with me for my first couple of hours in the crater. I'm always in two minds about guides. On the one hand I'm always worried that I might miss out on something I'd find interesting, on the other hand the guides rarely know more than is printed in the guidebooks, and have an annoying tendency to say, "Stand here. Face this way. Take photo." On balance I find them a waste of money. I employed a guide - very briefly - at one stage at the Taj Mahal. Things got off to a rocky start when he said, "This is the forecourt. You know why it's called the forecourt? Because it has four gates."
Anyway, I employed this nice chap at the crater, mostly in the hope that he could point out to me the evidence of meteoric (rather than volcanic) origin. In the end the thing I found most interesting about his guiding was his attitude to the temples. One of the ancient Vedic sagas involves Rama and his wife Sita, who are usurped from their rightful throne, and spend 14 years wandering in a forest. According to the guide Rama and Sita spent some of their 14 years in Lonar Crater, and some of the temples were built on places where they visited. I asked him outright if he believed this to be true, and he said yes, as the story came from the gods and therefore couldn't be wrong. Interesting that something that is just a story to me - one of billions humans have told each other over the centuries - is history to him.
It being a Saturday, the guide was fasting. He fasts every Saturday to thank his god, Hanuman, for the wishes he has granted him. But it turns out that you can eat prasad (food blessed by the gods) even while fasting, so when we got to one of the still-operating temples we had a good feed of coconut pieces and sweet crunchy things. Now that's my idea of a fast!
The three men running the temple were pleased that I ate the prasad, saying that most tourists refused it, fearing the dread Delhi-belly. But I figure if you can't trust food blessed by the gods, what can you trust?
After ditching the guide I spent the rest of the day just wandering about inside and around the crater. It is a very fine crater indeed, and made Joff very happy.
On the way out to Lonar I stopped for a second time at Ajanta. I found that, rather than going to the temples again, I spent my whole time there wandering about the ridges above the cliff where the temples are, keeping the temples in view whenever I could.
One of the hazards of Ajanta is the rock sellers. Yes, the sellers of rock. I guess they should be applauded for a degree of enterprise above begging, but I really don't think that they know their target demographic well. Even though they have some mildly interesting stuff - quartz crystals, geodes, and the like - what's the very last thing in the universe travellers would want to put in their luggage? Well OK anvils, but rocks would be next on the list. They are persistent little buggers too.
Tomorrow I'm off for a second visit to Ellora, and then, having run out of time as I always do on these trips, I fly to Calcutta for the beginning of the end.
PS: Please let me know what colour rock you want for Christmas.