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Lonar Lake: The Meteor Mystery That Has Eveyone Intrigued, Buldhana

Lonar is one of Maharashtra’s best-kept secrets. Home to the Earth’s only hyper-velocity impact crater in basaltic rock, Lonar is named after the demon, Lonasura, and is ringed by fascinating temples, including one with erotic sculptures reminiscent of Khajuraho. The crater was formed fifty-two thousand years ago, when a meteor crashed into the earth at an estimated speed of 90,000kmph, weighing 2 million tonnes. It gouged a hole that was 1.8km wide and 150m deep. Over time, the jungle took over, and a perennial stream transformed the base into a tranquil, green locale.

And yet, for all of its rareness, surprisingly few have heard of Lonar Lake apart from locals and occasional trekkers. From the pack of meteors that plummet towards the Earth – anywhere from 30,000 to 1,50,000 each year – this one managed to create the Earth’s largest and only hyper-velocity impact crater in basaltic rock. Lonar Lake has triggered NASA scientists and officials from the Geological Survey of India to attempt answers to questions like: Why is the lake alkaline and saline at the same time? Why does it support micro-organisms rarely found elsewhere on Earth? Why do compasses fail to work in certain parts of the crater? And what lurks at the bottom?

Most tourists come to nearby Aurangabad to visit the Ajanta and Ellora UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but never make it as far as Lonar. The four-hour drive from Aurangabad runs through picturesque villages and fields of paddy, and ends at the Government guesthouse, an excellent place to start your astronomical adventure. The path down to the lake is slippery, the quicksand on the banks making this a truly treacherous trek. But you forgive the grazed knees and lost shoes for the sheer joy of trekking through the lush jungle, of finding curious minerals like the ancient glass formation maskelynite, and stumbling upon centuries-old, abandoned temples that are now inhabited only by insects and bats.

The forest itself is a haven for birdwatchers, with several species of migratory and local birds such as shelduck, black-winged stilts, brahminy ducks, red-wattled lapwings, blue jays, bayaweavers, hoopoes, barn owls, golden oriole, larks, tailorbirds, parakeet and peafowl. Gazelle, langur, bats, mongoose, barking deer and chinkara also inhabit the forest, along with snakes, scorpions, monitor lizards and brilliantly coloured insects and amphibians.

But it’s at the lake that sci-fi meets religion meets Indian folklore. Take a walk around the temples, each with a legend attached to its name: the partially submerged Shankar Ganesha temple, noteworthy for its rectangular Shiva idol; the Ram Gaya temple, named for Lord Rama’s departure; and the Kamalja Devi temple, which doesn’t see much of a crowd, comes to life during Navratri. Your tiny pilgrimage ends with Gomukh, also known as Dhara or Sita Nahani temple (Sita is said to have bathed here), accessible only by an arduous climb. The architecture is unremarkable, but the temple houses a kund into which flows the mysterious, perennial freshwater spring that feeds the lake below. The most significant temple, however, sits in the town. The Daitya Sudan temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, slayer of the demon Lonasura (who also lent his name to the village). Locals claim that the crater was the demon’s den and that the lake’s murky water results from its spilled blood. The temple itself is reminiscent of Khajuraho, with erotic sculptures of copulating couples and ravaging beasts.

The views of this mighty crater lake, the only one of its kind in the world, are bound to give wings to your imagination. Images of ancient civilisations and mighty warriorson gold-plated vimaanas flying over the lake come to mind. Perhaps, there lies a brahmastra within the bowels of Lonar Lake? Perhaps some ancient, extraterrestrial treasure that holds the secrets to our universe?

Approximately 50,000 years ago, a meteorite traveling at about 11 miles per second slammed into India’s Deccan Plateau. The collision formed Lonar Lake, the one of the largest, most unique basalt impact craters in the world.

The oval-shaped crater, which has a circumference of about five miles at the top, is both saline and alkaline. Perennial streams and springs feed into the lake. It’s home to a horde of algae and plankton species that thrive in its unusual ecosystem and give the water its vibrant color.

Because of its basaltic surface, scientists now use Lonar Lake to study craters and impact structures on other, more difficult to reach places like the Moon and Mars.

When the lake was first brought to international attention in the 19th century, scientists originally thought it was of volcanic origins. However, in the mid 20th century, geologists began to suspect it stemmed from an extraterrestrial encounter. Their suspicions were confirmed after maskelynite, a glass formed by high-velocity impacts, was found at the site.

Lonar Lake is rimmed by lush forests and a smattering of old temples. Supposedly, compasses fail to work near some parts of the crater because of its unique geologic makeup

Facts about Lonar Crater Lake that can make you go OMG

1. The lake is located in the world's only high velocity impact formed in basaltic rock. As per scientists, the crater was formed after a comet or an asteroid hit the area at a speed of 90000 km per hour.

2. Lonar Crater Lake is the best preserved and youngest carter formed in basalt rock. Two methods have been used to determine the age of the lake. While thermo luminescence analysis reveals that the age of the lake should be 52000 years old with a spread of 6000 years correction on either side; whereas the Argon-Argon dating system revealed that the carter was formed around 570000 years ago with a spread of 47000 years correction on either side.

3. The lake’s mean diameter is around 3900 ft or 1.2 km, and the diameter of the crater on which the lake sits is 1.8 km.

4. The carter on which the lake sits is oval in shape indicating that the comet or asteroid hit the spot at an angle of 35 to 40 degrees.

5. You won’t find any kind of vegetation in the mud belt, which is due to the alkaline content of the area.

6. If you go to the southern end of the lake, there is a sweet water well. Then there are two streams that are like water source for the lake as these streams flow directly into the lake.

7. The ecosystem of the lake will also amaze you are there are two distinct water regions in the lake that don’t mix with each other.

8. The outer region of the lake is neutral region that has a pH level of 7. The lake’s inner region is the alkaline part that has a pH level of 11. Both the regions are unique and houses diverse flora and fauna.

9. The most prominent reptiles found in the Lonar Crater Lake are the monitor lizards.

10. Another feature of this lake is the non-symbiotic nitrogen fixing microbes, such as Klebsiella sp. Slackia sp. Paracoccus sp. Actinopolyspora sp., and Halomonas sp. As per studies, it has been revealed that all these microbes are able to live only in alkaline conditions and that too with a pH level of 11.

The Guide

Orientation

Lonar is a small town in Buldhana district of Maharashtra, about 140kms/4 hours east of Aurangabad. It is located 370kms/9 hours east of Mumbai.

Getting There

Aurangabad is the closest airport to Lonar, with direct, daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai. More than 20 trains run between Mumbai and Aurangabad via Manmad Junction. A post-monsoon rail journey offers stunning views of misty mountains, lush fields and waterfalls. The central bus stand in Aurangabad is about 1km from the train station. Buses to Lonar ply via Jalna and take about 5 hours. MSRTC, Shivneri and private buses run overnight services from Mumbai to Aurangabad (₹650 for non AC, ₹750 for AC sleeper). Taxis can also be hired from Aurangabad.

Seasons

March to May are the hottest months in Maharashtra, and temperatures can climb upwards of 40°C. Occasional thunderstorms however, provide respite from the heat. Winter (Oct-Feb) is mild, with clear skies, gentle breezes and average daytime temperatures that range between 12-25°C. Monsoons begin in June and can go on up to September. The maximum amount of rainfall is expected in July.

Explore

Lonar’s main attraction is the lake and the temples that surround it. Aurangabad city, 140km away, has several historic monuments such as Bibi ka Maqbara, the oft-ignored Aurangabad caves and the medieval watermill Panchakki. Within Aurangabad district are the UNESCO World Heritage caves of Ajanta and Ellora; Daulatabad, also known as Deogiri, the famous capital city set up by Mohammad bin Tughlaq; Khuldabad, also known as the Valley of Saints; the famous Grishneshwar temple; and the Pitalkhora caves.

Stay

The MDTC Holiday Resort is one of the few options in the area, and is decently located 1km from Lonar town centre. (Paryatan Sankul, Lonar; 07260-221602/ 07260-221602; ₹1,800 for an AC double room; maharashtratourism.gov.in). A better option would be to stay in Aurangabad and drive to Lonar Lake for a day trip. Hotel Manmandir Executive is a decent budget option (C5, Manmandir Terminus, Adalat road, Aurangabad; ₹1,800 per day for an AC double room. See www.manmandirmotels.com/tariff.html). For a mid-range budget, choose Windsor Castle, which serves good food, and has modern amenities (Town Centre, Jalgaon Road, CIDCO, Aurangabad; 0240-2484818, 2484177, 2486011/ 91-98500-08222; ₹3,900 per day for an AC double room. See hotelwindsorcastle.com).

Good to Know

Guides charge upwards of ₹800 for the day, and are worth it. Wear good walking shoes and carry drinking water, sunscreen, insect repellent, a cap, sunglasses and quick-dry clothes. Mobile network is patchy within the crater. There are dhabas and tea stalls at Lonar, and the temples have potable water. There’s an ATM near the bus station.




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