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The science behind India’s natural wonders

From unique crater lakes in basaltic rocks, to mysterious “ghost lights” without an established scientific explanation, there are many natural wonders to be witnessed in India.

Lonar Crater

The Lonar lake in the Buldhana district of Maharashtra was formed from a meteorite impact around 52,000 years ago. The crater is about 1.8 kilometres in diameter, and 150 metres deep. It is the only hypervelocity impact crater lake in basaltic rock anywhere else in the world. The lake exhibits some unusual properties. The waters are both alkaline and saline, in layers that do not mix. Each of the layers have support different species of life forms. There are microorganisms found in the lake, including nitrogen fixing bacteria, that are rarely found elsewhere in the world. The lake is fed by a freshwater stream that originates from a temple. Most mysteriously, compasses fail to work at some points in the lake. There are various kinds of salts that are found in the lake, and are sold in the local markets. The salts vary in chemical characteristics, composition and appearance. The salts seem to originate from a source deep within the lake bed. It is unknown what is there at the bottom of the lake, and if the original meteorite is still there. The meteorite that caused the impact is believed to weigh around 2 million tonnes, and was travelling at a speed of 90,000 kilometres per hour. The lake has been studied extensively, including by the the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), the Geological Society of India and the Smithsonian Institution.

Borra Caves

Located in the Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh, the Borra Caves are the deepest caves in India. They extend to a depth of 80 metres. The caves have various kinds of formations caused by mineral deposits over the years. There are many irregular stalactites and stalagmites, some of which are artificially lit for the pleasure of the tourists. The caves are so deep, that natural light never reaches the formations. Inside the cave, there is an ancient Shiva temple, where stalagmite are worshipped as the deity. The caves have been formed over a period of many years because of the water flowing in the Gosthani River. The water from the roof of the caves seeps through the limestone, and then drops to the floor. Tiny deposits left by these drops over the years has led to some interesting formations. These formations have been given names, and a crocodile, mushrooms and even a human brain can be found here. Archeologists have discovered some stone age tools in the caves, which indicate that humans had been using the caves for habitation as long as 30,000 to 50,000 years ago.   

Manikaran Hot Springs

Manikaran is a temple complex located close to Manali in Himachal Pradesh. From the banks of the parbati river, there are spouts of spiralling steam. The water gushing out is at a high pressure, and extremely hot. Humans cannot even stand next to the hot springs for too long. Even the surrounding rocks are heated by the springs. The water is so hot, that food can be cooked in it within twenty minutes. The local Gurudwara serves visitors dal, rice and vegetables that have been cooked in the hot springs. The waters in Manikaran were throwing up gemstones till 1905 earthquake in the Kangra valley. There are other hot springs in nearby areas, including at Vashisht, Tattapani and Khirganga.  


Bhedaghat Marble Rocks

The marble rocks flank the Narmada river on both sides at Bhedaghat. These are marble formations along a gorge around 8 kilometers in length. The marble formations are of many colours, including white, brown, green, black and blue. The soft white marble is rich in magnesium, and can be carved out with a scalpel. There is a spot known as Bandar Kudni, which is a ledge so named because the two opposite cliffs come so close together, that a monkey can jump across. Another formation is known as the elephant’s foot. The most common way to enjoy the rock formations is to take a boat ride along the river. The boat rides are also available at night, for those who want to enjoy the formations in moonlight. There is also a cable car service to ferry tourists across the gorge. The marble from this area is mined, carved into figures, and then sold across the country. Egg shells of dinosaurs have been found at the many ghats nearby.


Kokankada

The Indravajra is a very rarely seen phenomenon, that can be spotted from the cliffs of Kokankada at Harishchandragad in Maharashtra. The cliffs are the tallest in Maharashtra, and offer a breathtaking view of Konkan. If the conditions are just right, then trekkers can spot a circular rainbow forming a halo around their shadows. The phenomenon is known as a brocken spectre or a glory. The valley below the cliff has to be foggy, and the sun has to be rising behind the observer. This can only happen during the early morning time, around sunrise. The best time to spot the phenomenon is between october and November. The phenomenon occurs because of the uniform size of the small water droplets in the air. The droplets backscatter and refract the sunlight, leading to the appearance of a halo around the shadow of the observer.

Indravajra at Kokankada. Image: Sudhir Bane.

Kokankada has an overhanging cliff, shaped liked the hood of a snake. This leads to vertical winds that in turn cause other interesting weather effects. Water falling off the cliff forms a vertical waterfall at times, with the water going upwards instead of down. Small or light objects thrown off the cliff return to the spot where they were thrown from. Vertical cloudbursts can also be seen here, where the clouds roll upwards from the cliff face.  

Yana Rocks

Close to the village of Yana in north Karnataka are two massive black limestone formations. The Mohini Shikhara is 90 metres tall, while the Bhairaveshwara Shikhara is 120 metres tall. The trail to these rocks are surrounded by interesting limestone formations. There are over 60 rock formations of various shapes and sizes. There is also a cave system at Bhairaveshwara Shikhara, which are lit by sun rays from natural skyholes. A natural shivling is formed by mineral deposits of the water dripping from the limestone roof. The caves are inhabited by bats. A good time to visit is during the Shivaratri festival.

Ghost Lights

Ghost lights are wispy lights or fires that appear without any apparent explanation. This is a mysterious phenomenon in nature. They are also known as ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp. There are many theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon. The most widely accepted is that it is caused by the organic decay of compounds such as phosphine and methane, which can release photons. In marshy regions of West Bengal, the lights are called “aleya”. They can confuse or mislead fishermen who follow the lights. In the Banni Grasslands of Gujarat, the lights are known as “chir batti”, which literally means ghost light. They appear in the marshy areas only in very dark nights. The colour can range from blue to red, and hover between 0.5 to 3 metres above the ground. The lights are also known to appear at times in the salt flats in the Rann of Kutch. Jim Corbett described a phenomenon of ghost lights appearing away from marshy areas, in the forest, on a patch of rock on which no man could walk. The lights appeared on the Nepal side of the Sarda river, opposite Tanakpur in Uttarakhand. The lights were all of a uniform size, and did not flicker in the wind, and did not produce any smoke. The lights at Purnagiri are described in book, The Temple Tiger and the man eaters of Kumaon.

Aditya Madanapalle

Aditya Madanapalle

An avid reader of the magazine, who ended up working at Digit after studying journalism, game design and ancient runes. When not egging on arguments in the Digit forum, can be found playing with LEGO sets meant for 9 to 14-year-olds.