Or where Anuradha Goyal gets high at a cave party

All earth is a playground of water and rocks. In some places, water hides rocks beneath and in other places rocks hide streams of water beneath them. They have been sporting with each other for millions of years. In a few places, when the slowly dripping water makes its way through a weakness or fault line in the rocks, it slowly but surely widens the space and over time creates a cave like structure within a rock. This extremely slow process gives birth to natural caverns over millions of years.

The water in these caverns is usually laden with minerals and the drippings create structures wherever they fall, forming the famous stalactite and stalagmite structures. Stalagmites build up from the ground up, when water keeps falling in the same spot. Stalactites are formations that grow down from the ceilings, formed from water droplets that don’t fall but get frozen over time into a rock. When these two formations, growing from opposite directions, join each other they form pillars. These rock formations can take wacky and weird shapes and give rise to many stories, myths and legends. Ideally, these formations should not be touched, as the human touch can kill their growth. These caves are of special interest to archaeologists and students of natural history as they were once the homes of early man and animals. Fossils and other remains are often discovered here during explorations.

Such caves exist across the world and there are many more waiting to be explored. I have seen them in San Antonio in Texas, US, in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, in the limestone hills on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. In India, I have seen the caves in Meghalaya on the outskirts of Sohra, more popularly known as Cherrapunji, and in the Araku Valley of the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh.

Once inside the caves, a lay traveller won’t be able to make out the subtle differences that exist between them. You need to have studied their formations in detail to see how vastly and mysteriously they vary. The atmosphere inside the caves is usually very humid and the temperature a few degrees lower than the outside. It is pitch dark with water dripping here and there, and slow streams flowing through some parts.

Caves that allow visitors are reasonably illuminated with well-defined paths through which you can walk while admiring the formations. Guides, wherever available, will tell you stories about the discovery of the caves while asking you to guess at the formations but more importantly, they show you many unique formations that make you wonder at this face of nature.

Borra Caves in Araku Valley gets its name from hole in the ceiling of the cave —Borra means ‘hole’ in the local language. Legend says that one day a cow fell into the cave through this hole and when the villagers reached the cave, they discovered a Shiva lingam formation on the spot and believed that the cow had been saved by God. There was also a rock formation like a cow’s udder right above from which water was dripping on to the lingam. They named the river coming out of this cave Gowsthani or cow’s udder.

Records say that the caves were discovered in 1807 by William King George of the Geological Survey of India.

The Mawsmai Cave in Meghalaya, near the rain capital of the world, is just one of many formations here. The elongated cave can be very claustrophobic due to its narrow passages that connect the various rooms and pathways in the cave. Sadly, due to constant human touch, all the formations that are within the reach of visitors have stopped growing and you can see their surfaces flattening out.

At the Demänovská Cave of Liberty in Slovakia, you climb a hill to reach the mouth of the cave and then go up and down more than 900 steps, passing through various pillared hall formations, graveyard-like formations and a small city-like formation. At a small water body within, people throw coins into the water and make a wish! This cave was discovered in 1920s and was opened to the public soon after. Batu Caves in Malaysia is at the top of 272 steep steps. The cave is home to temples dedicated to Lord Murugan whose giant golden idol stands just outside the limestone hill, as if watching over the city of Kuala Lumpur. Batu Caves were discovered in the second half of the 19th century, first by the Chinese and then recorded officially by the colonial officers. They get their name from the river that flows by their side.

The natural Bridge Caverns near San Antonio, Texas were discovered by a group of students in 1960. They were looking for an underground passage below a limestone bridge, and as they followed the flow of air coming from beneath the bridge, they ended up discovering these natural caves. The owners of the land opened up the caves to the public. Today, they offer many different tours and experiences, including a walk with hand-held lanterns.