Eerie shadows dance on the walls as a sliver of light from the mobile phone reflects off the underground stream. Bats flutter out of crevices in a mass of flapping wings, their high-pitched shrieks magnified in the claustrophobic passage. Heart pounding, you reach out to the nearest wall for support when you feel something crawling up your arm. A cave can be a scary place. It can even be dangerous place. But it is also a breathtakingly beautiful place, a subterranean paradise where art and science fuse to form some of the most extraordinary images and structures. It is a photographer’s delight. A living laboratory for scientists.
It was into such a cavern—Krem Mawmluh—in Meghalaya that legendary caver Brian Dermot Kharpran Daly and Ashish Sinha, a paleoclimatologist from the California State University, went down on a bitter cold February afternoon in 2003. When they emerged several hours later, they were holding a piece of stalagmite which would one day throw new light on Earth’s evolution and give the northeastern state a unique badge of honour—the Meghalayan, the new geological age ratified in July by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the geological time-keeper.
Geological time scale is massive and complex but fundamentally it’s about dividing Earth’s 4.6-billion-year history into different stages that represent significant changes in the planet, such as appearance of new life forms or collapse of civilisations; the longest is Eon, followed by Era, Period, Epoch and the smallest, Age. The Meghalayan, the youngest time period in the Holocene Epoch, began 4,200 years ago when a mega-drought ravaged many civilisations, including the Indus Valley, Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia.
The stalagmite from Krem Mawmluh threw up vital clues but Sinha had no idea that his study would make history. “I was both pleased and surprised. Pleased, because it was our study that puts Meghalaya on the world map. Surprised, because, I did not expect they (ISC) will choose our record, given that they had to choose from so many other records, which are just as good, if not better than ours,” Sinha, 51, tells Outlook in response to an e-mailed questionnaire.
For 72-year-old Daly, the new age marks a significant milestone in his lifelong mission to discover and map the caves in his home state Meghalaya. “I have been stressing on preserving our unique caves. I just hope the Meghalayan Age will make our government and the people realise how important these caves are…the heavy burden I was carrying has been lifted,” he tells Outlook at his office in Shillong.
Daly, founder of the Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association in the early 1990s, and his team have discovered more than 1,700 caves so far. “We have also mapped nearly 1,000 of them,” he adds. These include the ‘Fairy Cave’— Krem Puri—the world’s longest sandstone cave measured to an astonishing 24.5 km, nearly three times that of Mt Everest. When an international team of scientists traversed the labyrinthine cave, they found it teeming with flora and fauna and even dinosaur fossils, including a giant aquatic reptile Mosasaurus that lived 66-76 million years ago.
“Preserving caves are just as important as preserving natural forests or archaeological monuments. There is so much we don’t know about the cave’s ecology and types of species that inhabit them,” says Sinha, who was born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Limestone mining is one of the biggest threats to the caves of Meghalaya, says Daly, hoping that the government will take steps to stop their destruction. But he is not yet done. “We are going back to Krem Puri next February. Who knows, we may find another 25 km in it. That’s the beauty of caves. They don’t give up their secrets easily,” he adds.
By Anupam Bordoloi in Shillong