Humans and caves go back to the dawn of time. In popular media and imagination, people of the Palaeolithic era are cave-dwellers, armed with rocks and clothed in animal skins and furs. While it is true that human ancestors did live in caves in that period, these were probably not their predominant dwellings. But since bones, artefacts, weapons and paintings in caves are sheltered and preserve better, a lot of objects used by early humans are found there rather than anywhere else, giving rise to the perception that humans mostly inhabited caves.
Our fascination with caves is long-standing. These dark, mysterious places figure in many an adventure story. Aladdin for instance, found his magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders. The thieves in the Ali Baba story hid their treasures in a cave which opened with the famous spell ‘Open Sim Sim’. Pirates are often associated with caves, as are many children’s stories involving lions and tigers.
Most caves are formed by the dissolution of limestone. Why does this happen? Rainwater as it falls to the earth dissolves carbon dioxide that it encounters in the air it passes through. As this carbon-di-oxide laden water percolates through the soil, it turns into a weak acid. The acid slowly dissolves the limestone along the joints, planes and fractures in the soil to form cavities. Some of these cavities in time become large enough to form caves.
India has its share of breath-taking caves which are of interest from a geological standpoint as formations; from the archaeological stand point in that they house ancient cave paintings and artefacts; and from an aesthetic and religious standpoint—as the home of fantastic carvings and temples.
The earliest evidence of humans in India have been found in the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh, with some of the shelters showing evidence of being inhabited 1,00,000 years ago! The cave paintings here go back to about 8000 BC. The Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra have Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, with the oldest dating as far back as 2nd century BC! Badami, Elephanta, Amarnath and Borra are among other popular and highly-visited caves.
But Meghalaya may take the prize when it comes to caves. The Krem Liat Prah caves in the Jaintia Hills are listed among the longest caves in the world, with a length of 30,957 meters—and this is only the explored length! In fact, the top nine out of the ten longest and deepest caves in India are in Meghalaya!
Another interesting cave is the Siju Cave of the Garo Hills, also known as the Bat Cave, which spans over 4 kilometres long, but with nearly all of it is filled with underground streams and rivers, is not easy to explore.
During my recent visit to Meghalaya, we were able to visit three touristy caves (Mawsmai and Arwah caves, and the Garden of Caves at Laitmawsiang) which easily are accessible and not too difficult for even the inexperienced. And that gave me a small taste of what it would be to be a spelunker —a person who walks and climbs in caves as a sport (from the Latin spelunca, which in turn derives from Greek spelynx, both of which mean ‘cave’).
A lot of the work of discovering, exploring and bringing to light the caves of the state has been done by the Meghalaya Adventurer Association founded by Brain Dermot Kharpran Daly and his group of dedicated spelunkers.
But all is not well with the caves of Meghalaya. Limestone mining for the cement industry is a major threat to the caves. As one drives across the state, one can see hill after hill carved and hollowed out. In fact, this has already led several disasters including the collapse of the Krem Mawmluh Caves, the seventh-longest cave system of the state. Much of this mining is now illegal, but that does not mean it has stopped!
Is there nothing we can do to stop the depredation of these amazing structures that have formed over million years?