Lonar’s massive crater-lake is possibly one of India’s most significant geological landmarks, says S. Venkatraman

A meteorite weighing 2 million tones and approximately 100 meters in diameter travelling at 18 km per second crashes onto Planet Earth. This impact, in the present day village of Lonar in Buldhana District, Vidarbha region of Maharashtra is believed to be equivalent to a 6 megaton bomb. Did this phenomenon obliterate life on earth during the Jurassic era or was it just one of the many meteorites that crashed into our planet at regular intervals? Scientists claim this was probably a Martian meteorite that crashed just 50,000 years ago, and classify the crater as a Hypervelocity Impact Crater formed in basalt rock, with the terrain resembling the moon’s surface. The recent discovery of a bacteria strain (Bacillus odysseyi) from the crater site resembles the one found on Mars.

Many theories abound about the origin of this crater, and here I am on an overcast day, standing at its rim, gaping at the breathtaking view offered by what is probably one of the most important geological landmarks in India. Water has collected at its base to form a lake. The grey sky reflected in it and the lush green foliage all around are the only two colours visible.

Earlier in the day, I had arrived at the main bus stand in Aurangabad at 3:00 am, taken a bus to SIDCO bus stand, then another to Sultanpur and then another to finally arrive at Lonar at 9:00 am. I assumed I would be one of the first visitors this early but was soon proven wrong. A temple-like structure with what looked like a perennial stream of water pouring out of a spout greeted me. Many pilgrims were gathered around, taking a quick holy shower in the waters. My first view of the crater-lake was from here, at Gomukh Temple, as I could see the lake ensconced from all sites by a tapered landmass covered by rich overgrowth. Approximately 15 temples crowd the place, near the lake base, along the rim, and higher up.

I walk along the track around the rim looking for a vantage point for a panoramic view of the lake till I find a spot to sit down and soak in the scenery. The chilly breeze is my only companion until a herd of buffaloes comes by to sit in the shade of the bushes. The crater is reportedly 1.8 km in diameter, 7 km in perimeter and 150 m deep. It is not difficult to imagine the scene, how the meteorite must have landed with a massive crash on this spot.

I head towards the village where I am told of a beautiful temple that records the origin of the crater. Opposite the village school, Daitya Sudan temple wears a nondescript look, as it stands guarded by a two feet wall and dense foliage. Sitting on top of a pedestal, the architecture resembles a Hoysala temple, but the comparison ends there. The roof looks unfinished and there are no ornate pillars inside. A weak wooden door separates the outer world from the inside.

There are three chambers inside, the first having a naked ceiling with visible brickwork supported by huge arched pillars devoid of any sculptures. Darkness pervades the sanctum sanctorum and a torch is required. The ceiling is again just brick and the walls are devoid of murals. A four foot idol of Lord Vishnu sits alone in the darkness, with no signs of any worship or rituals. The door frame has some carvings on the stone. A small frieze on the top of the ceiling in the middle chamber shows a deity crushing an asura with his foot. This, they claim, is the origin of the legend of why this place is called Lonar.

Lavanasur (in Sanskrit, Lavana means salt and Asura means demon), a demon, used to terrorise the villagers here. Vishnu took on the responsibility of eliminating him. Lavanasur hid in a lake covered by a hill. Vishnu kicked the hill away and placed his foot in the demon’s navel, pressing till the blood poured out and killed the demon. The crater symbolises the demon’s navel while the shore is his body, and the salty water symbolises his blood.

The crater-lake is also referred to in Ramayana, where it's called Panchapsar Sarovar, near Mandakarni’s ashram in Dandaka forest. The sage stayed underwater for 10,000 years. Lord Indra, threatened by the sage’s penance, sent five apsaras to distract him. The apsaras ended up becoming Mandakarni’s wives. And the lake became known as Panchapsarotataka (Lake of Five Nymphs’).

The lake is also mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari, which records Akbar’s empire in the form of a gazette. It says Lonar lake’s brackish water was used for making glass and soaps yielding substantial revenue.

The crater-lake has been of great interest to scientists. NASA has conducted experiments here. Despite being only rain-fed, the water is very salty. A plaque says the water's pH value is a high 11. There are fears that pollution from the village and gradual increase of inlets into the lake is causing the waters to rise, changing the lake's character, not to mention the danger of flooding. The sides of the crater-lake are reportedly very rich in biodiversity. Listing the Lonar crater in a World Astronomical Monuments roster along the lines of World Heritage Sites could help in safeguarding and furthering research at this beautiful geological structure.