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Going underground

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DIG DEEP: Chambers can present surreal tableaux with exquisite formations of calcite caused by dripping water

Exploring what lies beneath the earth's surface is an unlikely adrenalin sport, but it's one that is gaining popularity in Meghalaya.

To the uninitiated, it may be difficult to understand what pleasure can be had from squeezing one's body though a tiny opening or shimmying on one's stomach through dark, muddy, subterranean passages. But die-hard fans of caving, or spelunking as it is also known, say it gives them a buzz like no other sport.

Caving is still in its nascent stage in India, but is catching on. And it's certainly not for claustrophobics. For Brian Kharpran Daly of Meghalaya, a pioneer of caving in his state, the spark was kindled way back in 1964 when he went on a school picnic to Cherrapunji. "There were no adventure clubs then but like many young boys I was entranced by the mystique of caves. My imagination had been fired by the exploits of Huckleberry Finn. " Daly's schoolmates were unenthused by the prospect so he had to wait till two local boys volunteered to take him to a cave. "Armed with a blazing kerosene torch, we set off. We had to crawl on our bellies and inch along on our hands and knees, braving pools of water and muddy patches. But eventually we found ourselves in a small chamber. There was a small opening above our head with lianas (vines) and we used them to clamber out. "

Daly, who describes himself as a banker with the soul of a poet, had to wait for many years before his magical boyhood experience could fructify into a passion and an exacting scientific discipline. Posted to Karnataka during the early days of his career, it was only in 1995 after his return to Meghalaya that he and some friends formed the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA). Their adventure activities included trekking, rock climbing and a little caving. They were fortunate in that their state is blessed with scenic splendour and has some of the most extensive and deepest caves in the subcontinent. The presence of over 90 per cent calcium carbonate in the state's limestone ranges, heavy rains and elevation allow water to react with limestone and form an outlet, thus sculpting out caves.

"Back then we knew about only some 10-12 caves but because we were in a limestone region, we knew it was only a matter of time before we discovered more, " says Daly.

When they began exploring, they had no specialised equipment or expertise. "But after contact with international explorers our skills and knowledge grew. Our international project 'Caving in the abode of the clouds' has now completed 19 years, " he adds. While there is a core group, many new members join up for a season or so. Caving is not possible in the monsoons and activities take place from October to March.

Today, some 1, 300 caves have been identified and it is believed that the figure will cross 2, 000. As many as 800 caves have been mapped, totalling an area of 360 sq km of passage. A 17-member international team has succeeded in linking Krem (which means cave in Khasi) Liat Prah Um Im in the Jaintia hills to Krem Labit to create a single cave system 31 km long.

Daly, who was in Mumbai to participate in the celebrations of the mountaineering federation, Girimitra, and who is the 2005 recipient of the Tenzing Norgay Award, describes the requisite skills for caving. "It demands good fitness levels and expertise in both climbing techniques, diving and swimming. This is because entry to a cave may be a direct walk in, but in the case of a vertical entrance like a pothole or shaft it means having to abseil down on a rope. Sometimes the entry into a river cave like Krem Chympe will necessitate diving and swimming for some 3. 5 km across a series of deep and very large underwater lakes. The lakes have been formed by 50 or more natural dams called gours. "

Venturing further into a cave system and its intricate maze of passages and chambers may entail crawling, stooping, trying to negotiate gours or traversing hanging rock walls and pitches. Krem Lablat, for example, requires large stretches of belly crawling.
There is also the risk of hypothermia. But, adds Daly, the adventure element forms just 10 per cent of the caving experience. The other crucial element in speleology is the scientific aspect - that of exploring, mapping and documenting virgin caves. Each chamber must be duly named and tabulated and different teams exploring various parts collate the survey data at the end of each day using a software.

Then there are the endless possibilities of various scientific studies that speleology affords. These includes aspects like hydrology, biospeleogy, climatatology, morphology and anthropology.

Cave systems and chambers can present surreal tableaux with exquisite formations of calcite caused by dripping of water. Some of these are brightly coloured stalactites, stalagmites, eccentriques (deposits going in various directions), cave pearls (sand particles covered in calcium carbonate), corals and sparkling rocks. Besides their stunning beauty, these formations are also of great interest because of their geomorphological features.

For biospeleogists it is the creatures of the dark that fascinate. In the absence of sunlight, fish, salamanders, bats, spiders, woodlice and millipedes have developed special features to adapt to the never-ending nights. Some fish have no pigmentation, some have no eyes and some spiders grow to the size of a man's hand and have huge antenna. Most of the species are highly endemic and found only in one particular area. A new species of loach fish (Schistura papulifera) and a spider (Heteropoda fischeri ) has been discovered in this region.

Caves can also be regarded as historical and natural museums in which evidence of past climates, past vegetation, prehistoric creatures is found. They can also provide information on climate conditions and monsoon patterns as far back as 30, 000 years ago and are thus a very important for scientists recording climate change.

Unfortunately, large-scale limestone quarrying and unscientific and primitive methods of coal mining are destroying large sections of caving systems in Meghalaya. A PIL filed in the Supreme Court by Daly and MAA was dismissed in 2010 but the court did order the constitution of an expert panel for protection of the caves.

Daly and other environmentalists are anguished by the havoc that is being wreaked. The Lumshnong area has already been damaged by limestone quarries and cement plants. The caving ecosystem of Nongkhlieh/Shnongrim ridge which is one of the largest caving regions in terms of cave density is at high risk. At Sohra in Cherrapunji district, where there is a large state-owned cement plant, there has already been a cave-in.

Caves, which are the last frontiers of discovery, and which have been created over millions of years are now being ruthlessly and carelessly destroyed. A forest once gone can, perhaps, be regenerated. A cave once gone can never be replaced.

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