At Lonar, in the district of Buldhana, lies a meteor impact crater that is not just visually dramatic but also of ecological and scientific interest. And what’s more, it is steeped in ancient lore and is a rich heritage site. Of course, for ages there was much debate over whether in fact it has been created by a meteor or whether it is a volcanic crater because it has a perfectly round basin-like structure with definite edges. For quite some time, many geologists backed the latter theory. However, according to recent research, it was formed and was active about fifty thousand years ago, a period of time that does not match with that of the formation of volcanic layers in the Deccan region, which is about sixty-five million years old. In addition to this there is a typical glassy material found around the crater, which is created due to the heat generated from the impact of the meteor, forming an Ejecta Blanket. Because of these findings, one can now say with certainty that Lonar is a meteoric impact crater.
This is one of numerous meteor impact craters found in various parts of the world in countries like Russia, America, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Norway, Canada, Saudi Arabia and parts of Europe, which have been formed either as recently as a few years ago or are as ancient as two thousand four hundred million years. Their dimensions vary from the diameter of just 5 meters to about 300 kilo meters. In comparison to these, the one at Lonar seems to be very ordinary as its diameter is only 1.830 km and it has a depth of 150 meters. Nevertheless, it is one of the best preserved and easily accessible five largest craters of its kind in the world. Because of its perfectly rounded shape, available saline water, flourishing bio-diversity and the continued existence of human habitation and heritage sites in its vicinity, the meteor impact crater at Lonar stands out as unique.
Temple and related complexes around reveal the history of the place. There is the Daitya-Sudan temple, which is a very well articulated piece of architecture and a good example of ancient Indian civil engineering. Then of course there are others like the Shankar-Ganesh temple, Wagh-Mahadev temple, Ambarkhana Sun temple, Shukracharya’s Observatory and Sita nhani, Kumareshwar.
The crater, and the lake at its centre, has been associated with the distant past, finding reference as Panchapsar, in the Valmiki Ramayan and has been later written about by the epic poet Kalidas sixteen centuries ago. He too, calls the lake Panchapsar in his famous text – Raghuvamsh. Apparently, when Lord Rama was flying overhead on his way from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya, his capital, he showed his beloved Queen Sita the crater, which looked like the moon among clouds. Researchers are of the opinion that he was definitely referring to the lake at Lonar as that is how it appears when seen from above. How the poet managed to get a bird’s eye view of the lake no one quite knows. The other often asked question is why the name ‘Panchaspar’? Well, quite simply, this refers to the five different streams that feed the lake.
The lake in the crater has been so significant that it has continually appeared in ancient narratives and lore. According to one interesting mythological story -“Lonarasur, a demon, used to stay in the crater’s saline waters. Vishnu, the god known for sustaining life, killed the demon there in the Lonar Lake.” Inspired by this story one of the Chalukya kings built the magnificent Daitya Sudan temple. This 6th century masterpiece still remains among the finest sculptures of ancient times. But then, one should not assume that its importance ended somewhere in the distant past. The lake in the crater continued to be noticed and well regarded even in the later Mughal period and is mentioned in Ain-e-Akbari.
The British officer G. E. Alexander first noticed its unusual form and considered it to be a geological wonder. Later on, other British officers and Indian officers after independence endorsed the same. They studied it in detail and attempted to draw together whatever information they could and enlivened the recorded texts for posterity.
Apart from the rich heritage that the place is endowed with there are other aspects to consider too. The lake is hyper-saline and as such has been the birthplace of a unique ecosystem. It consists of very rare organisms, which are not often found anywhere else on the planet. A team of scientists from the National Centre for Cell Sciences (NCCS), Pune has found typical bacteria in the crater that can eat up Methane and one of the dangerous Green House Gases and also some other bacteria which absorb harmful radiations. Who knows, because of this, Lonar could hold hope for ways to cope with and tackle the problem of Global Warming and on a larger scale even Climate Change in general.
In conclusion, then, the wonder of the Lonar impact crater lies in its multiple layers of specialness. Here, culture and geology lose their boundaries and merge into a spectacular wholeness, which includes science and sacred lore, the unravelled past, the emerging present and the effulgent future. As importantly, it is the meeting of worlds – a meteor from outer space, connecting with our planet and creating a whole new dimension of life.
Author: Abhijit Ghorpade Photographs © Parag Purandare, Shilpa Wadekar Source: Heritage India Vol 4 Issue 1 (2011)