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Lonar Crater, India, January 2016

As a youth, I was dragged on geology-themed family field trips more times than I can remember. "Look, it's Oregon's only nickel mine!"; "Let's go vist a gravel pit"; "I think there's a really interesting road cut up at this exit." When my dad visited me in Flagstaff one summer, of course we headed to Meteor Crater, the Grand Canyon, and the Petrified Forest NP. (Hey, all of Arizona is geology, which is why he loved going to grad school there.)

In early 2016, one of my colleagues at PSI was headed to India for his fourth trip to the Lonar crater. At about 2 km across and 50,000 years old (*), this is one of the better-preserved craters on Earth. It's some 500 km from Mumbai, accessible by a flight to Aurangabad and a three-hour drive. Shawn flew there from the US and spent a week collecting rocks.

By coincidence, one of HH's colleagues in Mumbai has a close connection to the crater: her father, Dan Milton, was one of the geologists from the USGS who came out in the 1960s and 1970s to do the initial surveys of the site. With his daughter and new grand-daughter in India, and the irresistable temptation of a Scrabble tournament in Bangalore, Dan couldn't stay away any longer, and planned a trip to coincide with Shawn's. I heard that Beth was headed out too, so I too was unable to resist, and joined them all for a few days of crater exploration.

The crater is off the regular tourist route through India (Lonely Planet has only a few sentences), but worth a trip even if you're not a geologist. The attraction is not just the lake, but the set of more than a dozen intact rock-built Hindu temples that have been built around the lake's rim. Some of these date back close to 1000 years. Most of them are in good shape (in some cases reconstructed), although some have fallen down and are now piles of beautifully carved rocky blocks with peacocks, elephants, and dancing ladies.

In the past the lakebed has been used for agriculture... even a decade ago, there were banana farms in the crater itself, and people living there. Most of this has moved out now, but there is still one large house / temple / farm on the lake's edge.

The easiest lodging option is the government-run MTDC hotel. There's no visitor center or map, but I've put one sketch from a paper below. The town is also worth a visit. Our guide Anand Mishra knows the crater and the area well, and has worked with Shawn on many of his trips here.

Also check out someone else's trip to the crater during the Navratri festival -- beautiful photos and a lot more people and bananas than we saw in January.

(*) Shawn says the erosion makes him think it's closer to 500,000 years.

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Check out that sign! The crater is not a major tourist attraction, here we are.
We're staying at the single hotel near the crater, which is a government-run operation, barely visible at far left. The sign and the hotel are the only tourist amenities that have been built here.

Tripadvisor's reviews aren't exactly glowing ("Unimpressed but no real choice"), but where else can you sleep on a crater rim and get three meals of dal and pakora, all for $20/night?

I've driven to the crater with Heidi's colleague Beth. That's her dad, impact geologist Dan Milton on the right. While at the USGS in Reston in the 1960s and 1970s, he made four trips out to the crater to do the initial surveys of it. This is his first trip back in 40 years. Even that sign (1975) is brand new!
A sketch taken from a paper by VS Taiwade (1995), to which I've added the color. The main path starts near the hotel, and goes down past the first few temples (orange). After that the path gets a bit more faint (green line, which we followed clockwise), but is still doable with proper dodging of bushes. In the upper-right is the water source that goes into the lake, now surrounded by (of course) one more temple. The entire loop is about 8 km from the hotel and back.
First thing on the agenda: walk to the crater floor, of course! It's about 1 km down to the lake. Dan goes down with our guide Anand.
The crater is somewhat eroded, but still unmistakably an impact.
Down to the crater floor, Dan takes a break in one temple.
And our guide gives a history lesson. There are over a dozen temples here. Most are from the 1100-1500 era. You can see one of the idols in the temple behind him.
Oh! And here's the reason we're here in the first place: my colleague at PSI, Shawn Wright, is on his fourth trip to the crater. He's picking up rock samples and will take them back to the US to analyze them. This is a two-week trip for Shawn; the rest of us are here just for the weekend.
A geologist never goes without that rock hammer!
Check out that impact melt glass that Shawn's come across!
Some awesome samples.
Testing a few basalts...
Meanwhile, Anand is sampling the water. Like any lake with no drainage out, this one is very salty!

In South Africa, I made a few trips to the Tswaing impact crater, which is a little smaller, but similarly saline. Sadly, I forgot to actually taste Lonar water to do the first-hand verification.

There are a lot of visitors! One bus group from Ahmedabad walks down. But it was a mistake for me to wave and take this pic, since suddenly we were mobbed by seflies. You can see the large temple (Kamaljadevi) in the background.
Across the lake...
Walking along the edge, another temple.
Hmm, what's inside this one?
Anand goes in. We hear flapping...
Holy moly! Look at those bats! And not just the ones that are flying... there must be another 200 bats hanging to the ceiling here.
I did not take these photos! What happened is that this is known as the bat-temple. Anand took my camera and flash in, went in alone, and pointed it in the dark. (I had pre-focused it.) The flash woke up the bats, so they took off quickly, and flew over our heads out of the temple.

Had I known what was happening, I would have left the bats alone -- I suspect they're pretty cool to watch emerging naturally at sunset, and that's better than bothering them during the day.

Check out the crazy movie...

Bats... and check out those amazing carvings too. They're extremely well preserved. Note the two elephants at the center, above the doorway.
"I WILL NOT DO THAT AGAIN!"
There are a dozen mostly-intact temples around the lake, and remnants of more.
This is the large Kamaljadevi temple + home which we could see earlier across the lake. People live here. There is clean water for drinking and irrigation... these bowls are for animals allegedly, and there is some farming to the right, out of view.
Looks like this temple (adjacent to the one above) has had some reconstruction.
Walking further clockwise, Anand says this is the first time he's seen these ruins... water level is below normal. You can see the Kamaljadevi temple to the right, and the MTDC hotel is roughly to his back.
Another temple part -- exposed for the first time in Anand's 100+ trips around the lake.
Leopard poop! Looks like that leopard has eaten some tasty boar.
Beth checks out one more temple!
Wow -- looks like a game board, kind of like this one we saw in South Africa?
Shongololo!
Finishing our walk around the lake edge, we climb some steps to the largest temple complex.
The largest of the many temples at the Lonar impact crater. The lake is fed by a spring, which comes out into the little pool here before wandering down to the crater floor.

I love this photo because there is so much going on here: from selfies, to a guy running on the wall, to bathers, to people on cell phones, to a tour guide, to babies, to one guy looking at the lake, to a guy collecting water for his house. And, oh, an impact crater!

The next morning, there were probably 100+ people here, and at least a dozen in the pool itself, a few doing laundry.

You can also see the Kamaljadevi temple straight across.

Everyone uses that water!
Back on the rim with Shawn, we take a few photos.
I walked over for a shot of the crater at night. I'd forgotten fresh batteries for my remote, so I held the shutter button down myself for this 400-second exposure. The sky was dark and there was no moon -- I'd love to come back to take some pics of stars through the moon-lit temples on the bottom sometime.
Back at the hotel, Shawn is meeting up with an architecture student from Aurangabad. Her student project was to design a museum / vistor center / research center, so she shows him the plans.

Shawn's reaction to it: whatever do you is fine, but DON'T BUILD ANYTHING ON THE CRATER RIM! There is a ton of great geology still to be discovered here, so don't cover any of it up!

Photobomb by Artie!
"When I saw that impactor coming in..."
Artie is also enjoying his first trip to an impact crater!
As is Catherine.
I take a few hours and wander into the town of Lonar, about 1 km down the road.
Beautiful goats!!
Pigs doing what they do.
Some laundry.
These women were in front ouf their house. You can see the wood stacked up -- all gathered that day for burning, and one of the big reasons for the winter smog cloud that sits over all of India.
Walking around the town is a very different experience on a weekday vs. weekend! I had a bit of a kid-parade following me around (asking for attention and selfies, not food), until every once in awhile a parent would chide them all and they'd slink off.
Anand runs into me, and we get on his motorbike to go into town. His brother runs a sugar-cane juice stall. And we see his mom.
He takes me to one of the (non-meteoritic) temples in town, where he is usually goes.
And we're about to head back to Aurangabad!
One last view of the crater, seen from...
... the somewhat shaky observation tower.
45 minutes later and en route to the airport, our driver gets a call. After a bit of translation, we figure it out: the hotel wants their key back, and I still have it. Uh oh. However, there's an easy solution at hand: we flag down a motorbike, and he's gong to Lonar (not surprisingly -- it's the only major town around). So he'll get that key back to the MTDC for me.
At the Aurangabad airport, there is a publicly viewable complaint book. One flyer is clearly not satisfied with the amenities available.
There is an open-but-unused airport lounge. After an exhaustive analysis, we figure out that we are not among the 49 listed dignitaries allowed to use it. So we sit in the chairs and eat samosas instead.


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Henry Throop

Last modified Thu Feb 25 11:22:00 2016