A couple of kilometres before the Bangladesh border, near the village of Nongjri in Meghalaya, a small cemented path heads through areca nut plantations and an evergreen forest. It ends at a rocky outcrop, which is the opening to the Krem Lymput, a six-kilometre long limestone cave nestled in the East Khasi Hills. About two months ago, I was in Shillong—the capital of Meghalaya—and after four days of waiting for an Arunachal Pradesh permit, I was weary of the crowds and tired of the March sun. After trawling a few pages online that sold me the root bridges of Sohra in Meghalaya, I chanced across the possibility of disappearing into the earth in the Khasi hills. The descent into the krem—khasi for cave—is the beginning of an adventure involving jagged low ceilings, slippery inclines, belly-crawling, and wading through crystal pools of water. The thrill of it lies in the discovery of absolute darkness and silence hosting endemic species—such as bats, fish, insects and arachnids—fossil passages, and fantastically shaped stalactites and stalagmites that slowly formed over thousands of years.
The belt of the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia Hills, which is around 200 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide has more than a thousand cave systems that date back to the Eocene Epoch—a division of the geologic timescale from 56 to 34 million years ago. While local populations have known about these caves for generations, the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA), which was founded in 1990, began the process of formal documentation only in 1992.
Brian Kharpran Daly, a founder member and general secretary of the MAA, told me when we spoke on the phone, “When we started, we never had equipment, it was all crudely put together. We realised we do not have the expertise so we reached out to international cavers.” This process that started in 1992, turned into an annual collaborative project of speleologists from several countries—under the banner of the Abode of the Clouds Expedition—which Kharpran said has documented 1350 caves and mapped 387 kilometres of cave systems till date. In a podcast for the multi-language news platform swissinfo.ch on 11 April 2015, Swiss caver and an expedition member of the "Abode of the Clouds", Thomas Arbenz said, “You go there and you are the first to set foot on a new, empty blackness … like explorers in old days. [There are] 30–40 new caves, 20 kilometres of cave passages in one expedition.”
“Whether big or small, a cave is thrilling to discover. It is a different experience to delve into the dark territory,” said Kharpran. No wonder then that spelunking or caving has been growing in Meghalaya as a niche adventure sport in recent years. Piran Elavia a former IT professional who has been exploring these caves since 2010. Realising the potential of the sport, he started offering cave expedition tours through his eco-tourism company Kipepeo in the same year. “I started out with a group of seven people in the first year, and now there are at least 50–60 people per season,” he told me when we talked last month
Gregory Diengdoh has been exploring caves in Meghalaya since he was a child. Having picked up the nuances of the exercise from senior cavers while he was growing up, Diengdoh now runs Meghalaya Adventure Tours. “Caving is a new sport that is gradually growing popular. Many first-time cavers contact us to try it out,” he said when we spoke on the phone last week.
Apart from those interested in the adventure of caving, a large number of speleologists have recently turned their attention to the caves of Meghalaya. “Caves cater to multiple sciences such as geleology, paleoclimatology, paleontology, meteorology, zoology,” said Kharpran. A fascinating and rapidly growing field of speleological research is followed by geochemists and paleoclimatologists such as Sebastian Breitenbach, a researcher at the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.
Stalagmites are a great source of historical information on climate conditions, beyond the range of meteorological record, and Breitenbach has been studying monsoon patterns from stalagmites for the past decade. Working with researchers from other leading scientific institutions and local cavers such as Kharpran and Diengdoh, he looks for stalagmite samples that provide information on monsoon variability. “By comparing data in multiple records from Uttaranchal and Meghalaya caves, we are able to spatially reconstruct the monsoon and especially flood and drought patterns over many thousands of years, including the last glacial period,” he said. While stalagmites in north India tend to be difficult to study owing to the religious significance of the lingam, the krem of Meghalaya offer multiple samples that can be used for comparative study. “Dating a proper sample using uranium series methods, we can access the monsoon record from a few to half a million years,” Breitenbach added.
Despite the enormous potential for both tourism and scientific research, there are threats to the cave systems and little seems to be done by the state to protect them. “Think of the cave as a library, and the stalagmites as books. Damage to the cave and its formations is like destroying the library,” said Breitenbach.
Kharpran, Elavia, Diengdoh and others have been raising awareness about coal and limestone mining that damages the caves. They have been demanding protection for the caves through community engagement, petitions to the government and through the local press by pushing for regulations on mining and calling for a proper implementation of the Meghalaya Mines and Minerals Policy, 2014. Since 2011, more than 15 leases have been allotted for limestone mining to government and private cement companies such as Lafarge and JUD Cement. A Comptroller and Auditor General report in June 2014 observed that, except for Lafarge, none of the other companies had even obtained environmental clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Despite a ban on mining in the region by the National Green Tribunal since 17 April 2014, owing to the half-hearted implementation of the Meghalaya Mines and Minerals Policy, illegal coal mining and unregulated limestone excavation has caused cave collapses, destroyed formations and blocked passages in many caves. Kharpran and other members of the expedition have reported damage to the Krem Mawmluh in the East Khasi district, Krem Rabon and Krem Umlawan in Jaintia hills among many others.
Elavia thinks that involving local communities in caving tourism can be fruitful. “Only a rise in tourism that will increase visibility will push the government to protect the caves,” he said. The Meghalaya Tourism Department has only recently begun to promote cave tourism; in March it organised a three day workshop and training camp for 40 participants on cave tourism in collaboration with the MAA and local groups at Siju in the South Garo district.
The mapping of a cave system is never fully complete. Openings and passages are overlooked, some areas are too difficult to belly-crawl through, while flowing water may block openings with rocks. Kharpran, who is also a recipient of the Tenzin Norgay National Adventure Award for his contribution to cave exploration, said, “Every time I enter a cave, I just have one thought that this cave should never end!” His wish was almost answered as he led the 2015 chapter of the Abode of the Clouds Expedition in February that mapped the Krem Liat Prah, which now holds the record for India’s longest cave at 30,397 meters.
Khaliq Parkar is a lapsed academic who travels under the pretense of field-work.