Continues from ‘The Space Rock, Part 1’: https://serioustravelblog.com/2018/06/01/1097/
To get to Lonar and see the meteor impact crater, I caught a local bus early one morning from the city of Aurangabad. Distance wise it was not far, 200 kilometres or so. Time wise, however, it took me almost 8 hours.
It was a memorable trip.
Aurangabad was a large city. Heading out through its outskirts before sunrise on a bone rattling bus, 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.
Outside the city however, it was a different world. 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. By this time the sun had come up and, with a vengeance. 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.
The bus stopped at each little colony and when it did, there was a scene of confusion and yelling; in an already desperately overcrowded bus, people fought to manoeuvre 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.
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.
The meteor impact crater was a few kilometres outside of Lonar.
Near the crater 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 were the only available accommodation.
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.
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. 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. 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).
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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?
I thought 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.
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.