‘Matted with a thick undergrowth
exposed and gaping
to the clear open sky
her dark and rugged entrance
weathered by the elements
and thrilled with anticipation
long sought for
- Krem Lymput (Imaginary-1993)
(From Jagged Lines – Poems by B. D. Kharpran Daly)
What an exciting thought to the vigorous and eager adventurer, ever seeking new challenges and thrills and never finding enough to satiate his enormous appetite for excitement, especially of the unknown and untrodden. Would the sight of a deep, dark chasm excite his imagination to an orgiastic frenzy of exploration? Definitely yes, for the caver is a romantic adventurer – seeking the thrills and splendour of the dark and mysterious virgin subterranean passageways. The fearful excitement of abseiling down unknown depths into the dark bowels of the earth, swimming over deep and silent lakes, carefully negotiating over crystal pools, belly-crawling through tight and oftentimes wet squeezes, climbs over slippery and exposed rock walls, more invariably than not leads to discoveries of chambers or passages of immense beauty not to be even contemplated on the surface. Even the novice caver wriggling through an easy squeeze or the cave diver at the cutting edge of technology will testify to the intense uniqueness of the experience.
Caving is a very satisfying and rewarding adventure sport as it involves the exploration of the unknown and untrodden mysterious underground, its survey and mapping, and its description in all its entirety (morphology, geology, hydrology, etc.). Actually caves are more of a scientific resource as they are considered to be natural museums, harbouring within their deep confines ancient bones of animal and man, fossils of prehistoric marine life, rare and endemic troglobitic cave fauna which has evolved and adapted to the dark, damp and hostile environment and the history of the region’s climatic conditions firmly embedded in the stalagmites. The speleologist, be he an archaeologist, paleontologist, biospeleologist or climatologist would be amply rewarded with discoveries of deep virgin caves. To quote: Caves are regarded as natural museums in which evidence of past climate, past geomorphic processes, past vegetation, past animals and past people will be found by those who are persistent and know how to read the pages of earth history displayed for them. (Gillieson)
Until recently India was considered to be a region having no significant karst landforms, though some caves have been reported by British officers in the early 19th century, followed by inquisitive Indian scientists and the odd casual visitors as late as the early nineteen eighties. These caves have been reported scattered across several states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Sikkim and the North Eastern states; all in all nothing much to talk about.
It was only in April 1992 when members of the Meghalaya Adventurers’ Association first started to explore caves in Meghalaya. This was soon followed by a team of four British cavers, led by Simon Brooks, following up on information provided by Daniel Gebauer. It was only natural therefore that the two teams, working independently of each other – Indian and European cavers to eventually meet, and to work together. The collaboration blossomed into a very fruitful cooperation in the exploration and mapping of the caves of Meghalaya. Since 1995 the cave expeditions in Meghalaya, under the project, Caving in the abode of the clouds took a more systematic and meaningful scientific approach to such documentation. From a mere dozen or so caves known to exist in the State then, there are now over thirteen hundred caves noted with just over 800 explored or partially explored and mapped, yielding a total cave passage mapped to over 364 kilometres. Today, the State of Meghalaya has the longest and the deepest caves in India, with Krem Liat Prah-Um Im – Labit system being the longest at 31 kms and Synrang Pamiang the deepest at a vertical range of 317 m. The tiny State of Meghalaya has done the country proud by figuring today on the World Cave Map.
Caves are normally formed in sedimentary rocks especially limestone. Millions of years ago, Meghalaya was probably a little coral island which rose from a tropical ocean swarming with sharks and teeming with crustaceans which thrived in the warm ocean waters. Its birth was not a smooth and easy process, but rather a succession of dramatic events, where parts of the land were uplifted only to sink before rising above the sea again.
Limestone was deposited on whatever part was under water, while rivers from the inland brought sand to the coast, building up sandstones and burying mangrove forests destined to become coal.
Plankton and algae and other life like shellfish and snails, which thrived in that primeval warm shallow sea, used the calcium carbonate brought down by the rivers to build their shells and when they died, those shells or skeletal remains were deposited on the sea bed. Limestone was also deposited by the precipitation of calcium carbonate by the lime-bearing water from rivers due to the heating and evaporation of the sea-water.
Over time, up to five beds of limestone accumulated, which alternated with sandstone. At places these limestone and sandstone beds laterally pass into each other because of the earth’s forces at work, in lifting and sinking some sections of that little coral island, which is today the tiny state of Meghalaya.
The Khasis have their own mythology to account for the extensive karst formations. They believe that the caverns are the bones of the giant U Ramhah, who died alone and unattended on the hills. When he was found, the story goes, the community came in numbers to perform rites, but his body was too large to be cremated. So they waited for his flesh to rot, so that they could gather his bones. The people piled the bones on the hillside, while they made an urn large enough to contain them. Meanwhile, there blew a hurricane so wild, it carried away the bleached bones of U Ramhah and scattered them all over the southern borders of the Khasi Hills, where they remain to this day as limestone caverns.
The geology of Meghalaya would confirm to the development of sedimentary rocks especially limestone all along the southern and south-eastern borders of Meghalaya and Mikir Hills of Asom in an almost 300 kilometres long stretch. These are the areas, from South Garo Hills in the west through the Khasi Hills and into the Jaintia Hills in the east that harbour Meghalaya’s enigmatic caves. All the three distinct regions of the state have their fair share of caves, with the Jaintia Hills however having the most numerous, most extensive and deepest caves in the Indian sub-continent.
Caving has not really attracted the attention of adventurers in India; the reason being the poor karst conditions prevailing in the country. Meghalaya however, is blessed with a vast underground network of caves and caverns because of its high grade limestone, world’s highest precipitation, elevation and a hot and humid climate, which are the ideal conditions for cave formation. Other north eastern states like Asom (Mikir Hills), Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Sikkim as well as other states in India could have a fair share of caves, though not as numerous or extensive as in Meghalaya.
Meghalaya has quite a few sandstone caves also. Krem Mawtynghiang, located at Lum Iawpaw, Nongnah, west Khasi Hills, is one of the world’s longest sandstone cave. Interestingly, this cave has not yet been fully explored. It could very well double its length.
The prospect of caving in India, though not as great as in many parts of the world like the United States of America, Europe, Indonesia or more recently China, is still more than worth the time and energy to satiate the cravings and passion of an adventurer’s spirit. Caving is a blend of mountaineering and diving and the caves of Meghalaya would test the skills of a caver to the limit. Krem Chympe would require over three kilometres of swimming over a series of deep pools only on the main trunk passage, while Krem Shrieh (Tangnub) – the deepest shaft in India - would require 97 m of abseiling on a single rope and then climbing up again. The caves of Meghalaya are as beautiful as any found anywhere in the world.
Let us delve into some of these caves.
South Garo Hills
The cave is situated four kilometres north of Nengkhong village on the banks of the Chibe Nala. The two adjacent one m diameter circular entrances lead to 5681 m of dendritic river cave which also contain a maze of stooping to walking size passages. The small entrances really belie the size of the cave. The main feature of the cave, besides the stream-ways and the sandy tube passages, is ‘The Planetarium,’ an impressive chamber (30 m wide and 20 m high, up to 60 m long).
Siju dobakkol (Siju Cave):
It is situated on the bank of the Simsang river, below the village of Siju and has a very impressive entrance. The cave consists mainly of a single major river passage beautifully sculptured, containing a sizeable stream and chambers strewn with large boulders. 120 m from the entrance, there is a large chamber which houses a huge colony of bats, after which the cave takes its name. There are also side passages bringing in tributary streams. It is 4772 m in length. The other caving areas in South Garo Hills are Chockpot, Asakgre.
West Khasi Hills
The caving areas are around Borsora, Khongjoy and Nongjri with Lum Iawpaw at Nongnah harbouring soft calcareous sandstone caves.
Partially explored, it is already one of the world’s longest sandstone caves with 3160 m of surveyed passage. When fully explored it could very well double in length.
East Khasi Hills
Krem Mawkhyrdop or Krem Mawmluh:
An easy cave for a novice caver but would still provide the thrills and excitement and a dash of adrenaline pumping into the heart of a first timer. The main entrance of the cave is located on the western flank of Lum Lawbah in the hamlet of Mawmluh, just about two kms from Cherrapunjee or Sohra. The stream waters enter the sink, as also the effluents coming out of the Mawmluh Cherra Cements Limited, making the main sink entrance a deadly trap of black quicksand. The best option to enter the cave would be through a high level bypass entrance which runs parallel to the main passage.
The cave takes in a lot of water during the monsoons, flooding some of the passages up to the ceiling. It is the Khasi Hills longest cave system at 7194 m.
About six kms from the village of Nongjri (East Khasi Hills) towards the border with Bangladesh, lies a very inconspicuous entrance hidden in the jungle covered boulders. It reveals itself by the cool air it blows. The main trunk passage runs for about one km with inclined walls and ceiling into a passage known as ‘Way to Heaven,’ which is a very loose and slippery climb.
Beyond this climb is a series of spacious galleries which are very rich in calcite formations. Here, the main attraction is the Mughal Room which measures more than 25 m wide, 25 m high and 75 m long.
The cave which is 6641 m in length, was first explored, though partly, by Captain Fisher in 1827, who described it as the Cavern of Booban.
Krem Liat Prah-Um Im-Labit system:
This is currently India’s longest cave at 30957 m in length. It is a vast system comprising of several sections like Krem Liat Prah, Laumann’s Pot, Snowman’s Pot, Krem Um Im 1 to 8, Knee Wrecker Pot 2, Krem Labit (Khaidong), Krem Chune, Krem Labit (Moolesngi) and Krem Rubong. The main Krem Liat Prah sloping entrance through a roof collapse, leads to an ancient trunk passage of impressive size named Aircraft Hangar, which has a meandering stream with huge mud banks. There are many inlet streamways but two of the most important ones are Krem Um Im 1 and Krem Um Im 6. Krem Um Im 6 is reached by crawling in the stream below a boulder choke following lengthy swimming passages. In the huge dry tunnel of the Grand Trunk Road in Um Im 6 a relatively tiny side passage provides the long crawl which connects it to Krem Labit (Khaidong). This cave is notable for its mud floored phreatic tunnels – resembling lengthy, roofed over brown deserts. A tight squeeze from the vast Agarophobia Chamber enters the base of Krem Chune entrance shaft.
This mighty cave system has great variety and provides great sport and interest for dedicated cavers. The most notable feature of the system is it’s enormous relic passage which would provide important geological nformation on the extreme age of the caves of the Shnongrim/Nongkhlieh Ridge which were undoubtedly formed well before the surrounding valleys were developed. Most of the many entrances which are vertical in nature are spread over a large area on the ridge, while the main entrance is located near the two villages of Lumthari and Nongthymme.
Kotsati - Umlawan Cave system:
The entrance of Krem Kotsati, usually submerged during the monsoons, is located in Lumshnong village. It is a network of many caves like Krem Kotsati, Krem Umtyongai, Krem Umsynrang Liehwait, Krem Wahjajew, Krem Lalit, Synrang Thloo, Krem ‘Washing Place Inlet,’ Krem Umshor, Put Lyer, Garage Pot, Thlooong Kharasniang and the thirteen other entrances of Krem Umlawan. It is a river cave of asymmetric dendritic pattern and its main feature is the Virgin River, which is characterised by a long series of beautiful rim-stone pools. The Virgin River Passage is itself over 5000 m in length. At one end, the cave eventually opens out into the Crystal Maze, described by A. R. Jarratt as ‘a smallish, intricate labyrinthine passage…all fantastically decorated with layers of gypsum crystals, stalactites and stalagmites.’ Grey limestone walls are flecked with crystals of black gypsum, orange stal, and patches of red sandstone ceiling add to the multi-coloured effect. This cave system is a maze of passages and with 21530 m of surveyed passage, it is India’s second longest. It is also India’s second deepest cave with a vertical range of 218 m. A through-trip through the cave system would be an experience to behold, with the great variety the cave can offer.
Krem Umthloo-Synrang Labit system:
India’s fourth longest cave at 18181 m, located near the village of Tongseng, is a magnificent river cave with equally magnificent formations. The numerous entrances of 50 to 60 m deep potholes like Krem Myrliat, Krem Moolale, etc. lead to a dentritic pattern of stream cave passages, which all resurges at Krem Ticha.
The 50 m sink entrance is free-climbable, through very unstable boulders, to reach the realms of a fantastic big river passage, the likes of which would only exist in fairy tales.
The cave entrance is situated near the village of Chiehruphi, with a wet crawl entrance passage over very awkward boulder strewn passage, leading to one of the world’s finest cave passage. This 7630 m long meandering stream-way (Wah Lariang) is probably one of the world’s longest single cave passage. The cave is very rich in formations, coloured in orange, red, black, grey, blue, green, and white.
Titanic Hall chamber would rank as one of the most beautifully decorated chambers anywhere in the world, with white sparkling walls and thousands of cave-pearls lying scattered on the floor. With 14157 m of surveyed passage and 317 m deep it is currently the 5th longest and the deepest cave in India.
Krem Tyngheng-Diengjem System:
This superb cave near the village of Samasi, is a typical ‘Meghalaya-Style’ large river passage and dry fossil passage. The downstream section, which is a maze of waterways, requires a lot of swimming. The cave resurges in the village of Umkyrpong on the banks of the Kopili river through Krem Diengjem. With 21206 m of surveyed passage it is currently India’s 3rd longest cave.
Krem Chympe (Pielkhlieng Pouk-Sielkan Pouk system):
A resurgence cave of huge dimensions, it is situated near the village of Khaddum. With over four kms of swimming section over a series of very large lakes, formed by the existence of more than 50 natural dams or gours, six to eight m high, it is really an adventurer’s dream. The cave is beautifully adorned with splendid formations especially in the Perfect Passage and has a very large colony of bats and possibly cave-adapted fish. Not fully explored, but with 12434 m of passages already mapped, it is currently India’s 6th longest cave.
Krem Shrieh (Tangnub Monkey Cave):
At the end of a fluted canyon near the village of Tangnub lies this excellent system. It starts off as a massive vertical entrance shaft of 97 m deep, measuring 20 m by 40 m at the surface and opens to 60 m by 60 m at its base. The cave also has marvelous key-hole passages, coated with orange mud. It is presently the deepest shaft known in India and with a surveyed length of 8862 m it is ranked 7th.
The potential for the discovery of many more caves in Meghalaya is enormous. This would tickle the imagination of any caver or speleologist. The prospects are simply tremendous; they are lying hidden, waiting to be found. I’m sure caves will still be found a hundred years from now.
Alas! The availability of very high grade limestone, which is the reason for the abundance of splendid cave systems, has also attracted the attention of cement companies, which during the last few years have sprung up like mushrooms, causing immense damage to the cave systems by the indiscriminate quarrying of limestone. Coupled with the unregulated, unscientific mining of coal, cave habitats are put to severe strain if not total extinction. Two new species of cave fauna, not found anywhere in the world, have recently been documented as Schistura papulifera (loach) and Hetoropoda fischeri (spider). Such forms of life are of great importance to the scientific community and the world at large, as part of the biodiversity of the region and in addressing questions relating to evolution and biogeography.
Industry and quarrying should acknowledge the importance of these fragile and unique cave ecosystems by mining and quarrying in the areas that would do least damage to these archaeological heritage sites.
We as care-takers should enjoy the fruits and beauty of these caves and their ecosystems and hand them over, as pristine and intact as possible, to our future generations for their enjoyment also.
A comprehensive study of caving in Meghalaya.
Big stalagmite, Krem Chympe. (Simon Brooks)
Krem Umlawan streamway. (Simon Brooks)
Formations in Krem Chympe. (Rainer Hoss)
Krem Umkseh. (Simon Brooks)
Mawshun meringue. (Hugh Penny)
Perfect Passage, Krem Chympe. (Simon Brooks)