South India, November 2008
I travelled to a small, remote village called Lonar to see a meteor impact crater. It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time.
At two kilometers in diameter and 180 meters deep, the Lonar meteor impact crater was the third largest meteor impact crater in the world (the biggest one being in Arizona in the U.S.).
Whilst there were 50 sizeable meteor impact craters in existence, few of them were recognizable as such. Some of them were very old and had been eroded to the point where they were only identifiable from the air – e.g. Australia; others were filled to the brim with water and formed lakes – e.g., Africa; and still others were buried under ice – e.g., Canada and Russia. The Lonar meteor impact crater was one of the few meteor impact craters which was immediately identifiable as such. No doubt this had much to do with its age: formed approximately 50,000 years ago, a short period of time by geological standards, it was a ‘new’ crater.
My desire to visit a meteor impact crater and see it up close up, had a bit of a history to it – starting from when I was a kid and read up everything I could about dinosaurs. In those days, there were, in comparison with today, many gaps in the body of information known about the Earth’s past. There were no computers and no satellite surveillance technology. One of the greatest puzzles at the time concerned the disappearance of the dinosaurs: it was known that they had inhabited the earth for 200 million years and then suddenly vanished, but it was not known why.
The story of their sudden extinction was portrayed graphically in the geological strata: the layers of rocks with dinosaur fossils were replaced by other rocks with the successors of the dinosaurs, the mammals, but there was nothing in between – no layers of rocks recording the gradual disappearance of the dinosaurs and accordingly, an increasing number of mammals. The time of the dinosaurs’ disappearance could be accurately fixed – 65 million years ago – but the reasons for their disappearance could not. All sorts of explanations were offered including: a disease, an upsurge in volcanic activity and a change in climate. But everything was conjecture.
When I first became interested in the dinosaurs, I believed in God.
Whilst the reasons for the disappearance of the dinosaurs intrigued me, I put it down to the hand of God. My Sunday school teacher suggested that when He created the dinosaurs, He was experimenting with life forms. He was moving towards a higher life form, the ultimate of which was of course, the human race.
This of course made no sense what so ever.
If God was omnipotent – and I was assured that He most definitely was – then why should He mess around for 200 million years with dinosaurs when he could have put the perfect product on the earth in the first place?
And then why remove the dinosaurs so quickly?
Seemed like a raw deal to me.
Dinosaurs were cool, they were really interesting and as far as I could see, they didn’t deserve to be wiped out. Kind of like someone being sacked from their job because the boss was in a bad mood.
Why didn’t God at least phase the dinosaurs out?
It never occurred to me that my Sunday school teacher might have been having a few doubts herself. I thought she knew everything and that feeble minded me couldn’t grasp the essentials.
By the time I did grasp the essentials, I had also rejected God and what’s more, lost all interest in the dinosaurs.
Girls were more interesting. And so was surfing and drinking and smoking dope and doing lines of speed.
Then one day, 30 years later (I managed to survive my youth), when I was surfing the net rather than big waves, I stumbled upon the answer to the puzzle which as a kid I had so often wondered about:
The reign of the dinosaurs was brought to an abrupt end by a meteor.
I knew a bit about meteors.
I found one once in the mountains of Macedonia and still have it.
The Earth was constantly being bombarded by meteors, but by and large, they burnt up when they entered the Earth’s atmosphere and all they left behind them was a brilliant flash in the sky – which we saw as ‘shooting stars’. Sometimes, however, a meteor was large enough that even after entering the earth’s atmosphere and melting and vaporizing, it was still big enough to land on the earth as a small molten blob. The blob cooled and solidified and was usually found as a button sized stone, sometimes dark and full of iron (like the one I found) and other times translucent, like murky glass.
From the billions of meteors which had entered the Earth’s atmosphere in the course of its history, very few of them had been big enough to leave an impact crater.
In the BBC article (under the ‘science and technology’ section) I read about the meteor which exterminated the dinosaurs with a mixture of amazement and excitement. I printed it off and read it several times. In the 1970’s an American geologist involved in looking for oil on the ocean floor, discovered evidence of a huge crater off the coast of Yucatan in Mexico. With a diameter of 180 kilometres, it dwarfed any of the meteor impact craters elsewhere in the world. For many years, it was thought that this crater was the remains of an ancient volcano. Modern seismic equipment for mapping the ocean floor, however, had allowed scientists to reach a very different conclusion. The crater was, in fact, a geological scar left over by what was probably the biggest meteor ever to have hit the earth (65 million years ago, incidentally this area was on dry land and not under water).
Amongst other things, I read the following:
The meteor, described as a ‘space rock’, was somewhere between 10 and 15 kilometres long; it had hit the Earth at 20 times faster than a speeding bullet and created an explosion over a billion times more explosive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One scientist was quoted as saying:
‘The explosion of hot rock and gas would have looked like a huge ball of fire on the horizon, grilling any living creature in the immediate vicinity that couldn’t find shelter. The initial impact would have triggered off large scale fires, huge earthquakes, and continental landslides which generated tsunamis. The final nail in the coffin for the dinosaurs happened when blasted material was ejected at high velocity into the atmosphere. This shrouded the planet in darkness and caused a global winter, killing off many species that couldn’t adapt to this hellish environment. Today you can actually trace debris to the rim of the crater from across the world. You can start in Europe, cross the Atlantic, and it just thickens as you approach the Yutacan impact crater.’
In another BBC article, I read that scientists even knew where this giant meteor had originated in the universe and could determine when it began travelling inexorably towards earth. This was well before the dinosaurs had evolved. In other words: the dinosaurs’ future extinction had been already a fact long before they even appeared on earth. It took that meteor hundreds of millions of years to reach our planet, but reach it did – with devastating results.
It was the larger consequences of the Yutacan meteor which fascinated me and fascinated me endlessly. Small mammals were able to survive the ‘hellish environment’ created by the Yucatan meteor because they could burrow down deep into the ground. The dinosaurs could not. Because of something as simple as this, one species vanished and the other survived – and went on to rule the earth and eventually evolve into a myriad of life forms including the human race. If there’d been no Yutacan meteor, there would have been no human race (humans being the most evolved form of a mammal, though I sometimes wonder).
The Yucatan meteor then, played a pretty basic sort of role in the appearance of the human race.
After reading about the Yucatan meteor, I began compulsively looking up everything I could about meteors in general.
And it didn’t take long before I discovered that besides the Yucatan meteor, there was mounting evidence that meteors in general might have had other profound effects on the history of life on our planet. One example: thirteen thousand years ago, much of the wildlife and the first human inhabitants of North America suddenly disappeared. This occurred at the end of an ice age – a time when they should have been flourishing, instead of vanishing. For many years it was another vexing puzzle for scientists until it was conclusively proved that once again, a giant meteor was involved.
Yet another example: it was hypothesized that the very creation of life on earth could have come about because of meteors. Scientists had found meteors which contained organic compounds necessary for the creation of life and the construction of DNA molecules. It was known that life first appeared on earth about 3.5 billion years ago when the world was covered in water (some scientists believe that the oceans were the result of the earth colliding with a comet). At around the same time, the earth was being blitzed by by meteors in what was known as a ‘meteor rain.’ It was hypothesized that the meteors ‘seeded’ life by bringing organic compounds with them, which then reacted with the water. One thing was certain: the building blocks for life could be found in outer space.
Meteors then, had not only destroyed life forms on Earth, they may well have created life in the first place. It was a strange idea: meteors created life, set the stage for the evolution of the dinosaurs, wiped them out and made way for the evolution of the mammals – and Homo Sapiens.
To get to Lonar I caught a local bus from the city of Aurangabad early in the morning. Distance wise it was not far, 200 kilometres or so.
Time wise, however, it took me almost 8 hours.
It was a memorable trip.
Heading out of Aurangabad at first light, I got an intimate view of the socio-economic extremes in an Indian city. In one part of town, I could have almost been in a western country. There were modern shops and boutiques, showrooms and supermarkets, malls and takeaway outlets. After that came the reality check: kilometre upon a mind-numbing kilometre of shabby little dwellings, piles of rubbish, and packs of pie dogs.
Outside the city and its desperate limits, the bus drove passed arid land dotted in places with crops of corn and canola and wheat; rectangles of green seemingly pasted on to the wide plains of red-brown. It was in this new landscape that I saw first-hand the next instalment of the great Indian socioeconomic underbelly. Along the sides of the road there were colonies of low huts made from mud and stones. Little dark men with big bright coloured turbans herded water buffalo and cows and goats. Women awaited their turn at water pumps to fill their shiny brass pots, which they then transported back to their huts by balancing the pots on their heads. It was here, on the land, where at least 70% of the people in India lived, trapped by a combination of low caste, poverty and illiteracy.
The bus stopped at each little colony and each desperate village and when it did, there was the same scene of confusion and yelling, as some people fought to get off and others fought to get on. In an already desperately overcrowded bus, people fought to maneuver themselves into the thronging mass of bodies squeezed into the aisle. It was an uncomfortable, at times exasperating trip. Sometimes the bus went no further than a couple of hundred meters before stopping again. And every time it stopped, it got stiflingly hot inside the bus. The combination of intense heat, packed humanity, and a lack of any kind of breeze was lethal. The bus became like the Black Hole of Calcutta on wheels.
There was a bit of a scene getting off the bus at Lonar bus station.
When the bus stopped, I got up with the aim of getting off the bus as quickly as possible. My rucksack, however, was stuck in the rack above the seats and I had to wrestle it out. When I joined the queue in the aisle, I found myself behind an old lady who was bent over and had trouble walking. In front of her was another woman, a dwarf, maybe a meter high, wearing a sari and dragging a sack of rice. When the inevitable break in the file of passengers alighting from the bus occurred because of the dwarf and the old lady, five or six whiskery old men, dressed in grubby white shirts and dhotis, rushed up the stairs to claim a seat and then found themselves confronted by the dwarf, the old lady, an irate westerner, and behind him, a line of Indian men yelling angrily. But they couldn’t turn back because there was a crush of people pushing them upwards. There was an impasse with the people in the bus, including me, determined not to let anyone come any further inside the bus – and the people outside caught up in the reflex motion of shoving and pushing.
The air was filled with yelling and gesticulating.
Finally, the bus driver appeared and ordered the people outside the bus to disperse.
The old men backed down the steps and dwarf and old lady made their way down.
I followed after them.
Lonar was a typical small rural town.
There wasn’t much there; a busy main road lined with small stalls and shops. Most of its inhabitants were poor. There was no sign of a middle class to be seen in Lonar besides that is the Indian tourists who drove through the town in their sedans and SUV’s.
The meteor impact crater was a few kilometres outside of Lonar. Near the crater there was a hotel built by the state government of Maharashtra; I caught a scooter rickshaw out there from the bus station; I didn’t have a booking. On the way, travelling over a pot-holed road, the rickshaw passed empty brown fields dotted with huts and a few ramshackle houses. The hotel was really in the middle of nowhere. It was rather run down, but ten years before, when it was built, it must have been an impressive sight in the midst of that arid and impoverished landscape. There were four single level bungalows next to a two- story concrete building with a huge balcony on the second floor. The building was deceptive. From the outside, it looked like it must have had lots of rooms, whereas in fact, there was only an office on the first floor and a dining room on the second. The bungalows constituted the only available accommodation. The divergence between appearance and reality was in itself the classic story of India. Fortunately for me, there was a bungalow available and it wasn’t too expensive. Outside my bungalow was a small veranda where a pigeon nested above the fuse box. Swallows flew in under the veranda.
The only place where it was possible to eat was at the hotel – the village was far too small to have any kind of restaurant. The dining room was an experience in itself. Someone had got the idea into their head to build a dining room as big as a barn with a ceiling as high as a cathedral. Why this was, considering the small number of guests which the bungalows could accommodate – was a puzzle. Appearance and reality. The five fluorescent lights in the dining room, attached to the ceiling, were far too high to ever be changed. You would have needed a cherry picker to do that and maybe even that would have been inadequate to the task. Consequently, only one of the lights was still working and the dining room was permanently dark: fine during the heat of the day, not so useful at nights. It was sobering to think about how much cement had gone into constructing this building (and how many dwellings for the poor could have been built from that cement). Being in that dining room gave me the feeling of being in a deserted palace, something abandoned long ago by a princely family.
The first thing I did on arriving was to order a meal and a pot of tea. After that long, hot and tedious trip on the bus to Lonar, I was exhausted. The waiter and cook were two cheerful village boys dressed up in some kind of official uniform: blue trousers, white shirts and little waistcoats; these were rather grubby. Both boys got round barefoot. At nights when they were finished, they walked off through the dust and passed the low prickle bushes and spent the night at home in their village.
After my meal, I went and sat on the balcony.
It was already late in the afternoon. It didn’t take me long to realize that the balcony was the best part of the hotel; it afforded a remarkable view.
The crater was a deep symmetrical hole in the midst of arid, yellow-brown, treeless plains. The afternoon sun was nearing the horizon and an incandescent light glanced across the plains, lighting up the steep sides of the crater on the far side. At the bottom of the crater was a lake, a deep aqua-blue.
Half of it was shadowed and half of it was illuminated.
50,000 years ago when the meteor struck the earth, an enormous quantity of rock was blasted out of the ground and left piled high around the edges of the crater, forming a towering wall of rubble. The thousands of years of monsoon rains and hot summer winds had worn down the wall into a low, gently rounded lip upon which grew a few prickle bushes. Most of the rubble from the perimeter wall had been washed back down into the crater in the process, forming the lake. The original impact crater was much deeper than today – the meteor itself lay 600 meters beneath the lake. But the sides of the crater were still quite steep.
Between the crater and the hotel – a distance of perhaps 200 hundred meters – was a narrow road. Late in the afternoon, it came alive with local life: old men or alternatively, young boys, with herds of cows, goats and water buffaloes; oxen-drawn carts piled high with fodder; lines of women carrying large bundles of firewood on their heads. The contrast between this stream of local traffic and the enormous, gaping hole in the earth in the background was sublime.
Yes, here was the magic of India.
As night descended, the outline of the crater was illuminated under a desert sky patterned with stars.
Swallows darted in and around the balcony, like magical dancers.
Waking up in the early hours of the morning, I wondered about the first humans who had inhabited the area around Lonar.
50,000 years ago, these would have been hunters and gatherers.
The desert plains would have been covered in immense jungles filled with all sorts of wild animals. It was perfectly possible that members of these early people saw the meteor which collided with the earth and left the deep impact crater in its wake: saw a blinding flash many times more powerful than a nuclear explosion and heard the terrifying noise accompanying it (which would have been heard hundreds of kilometres away).
How did those early human beings react when they saw the lunar crater – 600 meters deeper than it is today and ringed by towering cliffs of rubble?
What did they think as they scaled those cliffs and peered down into the infinitely deep crater – and saw in its midst a huge space rock?
Their incomprehension must have been overwhelming and even, dangerous – as dangerous indeed as a long toothed carnivore lurking in the jungle. The psychological threat to the sanity of a species able to think and remember must have been formidable. Only the imagination, the capacity to find meaning in dreams, to worship mythical beings, could have saved them – just as it helped them to survive in the midst of the jungles and wilderness.
In time, they found a way to explain the inexplicable.
This was in itself an immense achievement for primordial Man.
Early the next morning, I descended to the bottom of the crater following a well-trodden path.
The trip took longer than I thought.
Lower down, on the sides of the crater, were trees filled with birds and monkeys and peacocks. The path wound its way through the trees until it reached the lake. It then followed the edge of the lake. At various places, not far from the water, there were Hindu temples. Most of them were old and in ruins. One temple, however, was a recent construction and obviously in regular use. Inside a painted cement cupola there were lots of framed posters of multi-armed, luridly coloured gods and goddesses. There were so many of them that there wasn’t much of the ceiling or walls still visible. One of the posters which caught my attention featured lots of big green leaves; each leaf had a set of brooding eyes. At times, the temple must have seen many worshippers. There was a row of drinking taps set into a cement block connected to a synthetic pipe running out of the crater. To have constructed that temple and connected it to a water supply would have been quite a job. I sat in the shadow of the temple and watched mynah birds and rats feeding on a pile of rubbish left behind by the last lot of pilgrims.
It was on the cards of course: a meteor impact crater in the land of God turned into a sacred site. The middle- class Hindus came to see the crater alright, but the crater had been turned into a Divine Place, yet another one. A Hindu tourist was a pilgrim. And for many of these tourists, the Lonar crater had been placed on the pilgrim trail, along with so many other places.
It seemed to me that there was something distinctly un-sacred about a meteor crater. Or perhaps what I mean is, un-sacred in the sense of it being irreconcilable with the idea of a Divine Plan. Basic to all religions is the denial of coincidence, chance; is the belief in a Creator and a set of laws behind our lives and the world around us. Science, however, has a different message: there is no set of laws behind our lives excepting those involving the cold logic of physics and with respect to the appearance of life on our planet, the laws of evolution. The image of a lump of rock colliding with the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs suggested that our existence was no more worthy, no grander, no more meaningful, than microbes or dust, than black holes or glaciers, insects or diseases; that there was nothing divine or special about our existence other than its purely freakish occurrence.
Sitting there in the shadow of the temple looking out over the lake and the steep sides of the crater, I wondered how religious people – and not just Hindus – could reconcile the role played by meteors in the creation of the human race – with the idea of God. It was not easy. Most of them would not even make the attempt, but rather go into denial. Believers all over the world had a bad record when it came to dealing with science. It wasn’t that long ago that the Catholic Church had insisted that our world lay at the centre of the universe and that it was flat and created by God in seven days. Those who had questioned such self-evident truths were excommunicated and in more than a few cases, tortured and burnt at the stake. Contemporary examples of denial were just as easy to find. In many Islamic nations – including the once secular Turkey – it was a punishable offense to publicly lend support to the theory of evolution – the definition of ‘publicly’ including the social media. In Saudi Arabia, to deny the existence of God was apostasy – punishable by public beheading. Likewise, American born- again Christians – including leading members of the Republican Party – also refused to accept the theory of evolution and insisted instead that behind all life there was an ‘intelligent design’.
Was a ‘space rock’ a part of ‘intelligent design’?
It seemed difficult to suppose that the Yucatan meteor was a divine object representing the will of God. The two concepts seemed to be mutually exclusive. No wonder that many of the True Believers were in denial; once they left the door open to the Devil of science, they were faced by the sheer unlikelihood of a Divine Creator in the sense of an omnipotent father figure, some being, some force, who was capable of caring and loving and judging we mortals.
Yes, a temple at the bottom of the Lonar crater seemed a highly inappropriate structure to me. Far more appropriate would have been an information centre containing up to date information about the Lonar meteor and, meteors in general. And if there were to be any revered images placed nearby, then these would be of the philosophers and writers who through the ages – and also, to this very day – faced enormous persecution at the hands of the true believers for the crime of thinking aloud and daring to put rational inquiry above religion.
I ascended out of the crater with certain questions in mind.
Why did the concept of our existence beginning with a meteor crashing into Earth cause such consternation in the human soul?
Because it suggested that our lives were meaningless and that there was no afterlife?
That our existence was an infinite mystery?
The only answers I could find all pointed in one direction.
Despite our veneer of modernity, we were still like those first hunters and gatherers, who, staring into the abyss of a crater blasted out of the earth in one enormous explosion, were left with nothing to hang on to other than a dreamlike capacity to invent stories about mythical beings.
I stayed at the hotel for a week.
The days went quickly, even though I didn’t do much besides reading books – and bringing my diary up to date.
One night on the balcony, only the sound of crickets to be heard, I saw a shooting star. It took some time to burn itself out. There was a long, bright streak in the darkness like a sky rocket.
I imagined, in the sight of that luminescent flash across the darkness, the end of everything – and perhaps, the start of something new.