THE CAVES OF MEGHALAYA

This story is written weaving two streams of thought.

One is in normal text; the other is in italics.

PLEASE READ FOOTNOTE AS WELL FOR UPDATE.

Below the ground in Meghalaya (Photo: Simon Brooks)

Below the ground in Meghalaya (Photo: Simon Brooks)

Many years ago in Meghalaya, North East India, a group of school students from Shillong were in Cherrapunji on a picnic.

Those days, Cherrapunji was famous for having the highest annual rainfall in the world.

Nearby was a large cave.

One of the boys, eager to explore the dark passage, sought company from his friends. None were ready. Dejected, he hung around. Given to reading, he was unhappy to be denied an adventure of the sort books talked of. Just then two boys from the locality turned up offering to lead him in. They made a crude hand held flame torch, walked the entire length of the cave and exited through a small shaft at its end to the other side of the hill. The boy finished schooling, graduated in physics from the local college, gave his bank test and became an employee of the State Bank of Mysore (SBM). For several years he worked in various parts of distant Karnataka, removed from family and friends in Meghalaya.

His appeals to be near home fetched him a transfer to SBM’s branch in Kolkata. But that didn’t satisfy for although Kolkata was closer to Shillong on the map than Karnataka, as a journey, home was still long way off. He sought to quit but the bank was reluctant to let him go for he was a good officer. Staying alone, work was his life. Eventually his relieving order came, just the day Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Back in Shillong, his qualifications and background could have got him a high profile job. Instead of that he accepted the post of CEO at a local bank passing through difficult times. Decades later, the Shillong Co-operative Urban Bank was in fine shape and Brian Dermot Kharpran Daly, 63, although of retirement age, continued to get extended tenure. It may have seemed SBM all over again, but then Shillong was home.

It was May, 2010.

Inside a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: Simon Brooks)

Inside a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: Simon Brooks)

Meghalaya was home to the longest cave passages in India.

They ran for several dark kilometers under the beautiful, green carpet of this land of hills and rains. “ Three factors – limestone, heavy rains and elevation – work in unison here to make these caves,’’ Brian, the state’s best known cave explorer, said. Limestone was easily eroded by water. Meghalaya still received some of the heaviest rainfall in the world. Additionally, the hilly state had sufficient slopes for water to develop the kinetic energy needed to sculpt and carry off debris, leaving behind marvelous limestone caves. The caves now found mention on the state’s tourist brochures although entry into complicated systems was possible only with expert guides. At the time of writing this article, some 1200 caves had been reported, around 800 of them explored and roughly 360 kilometers of cave passages had been mapped, including India’s longest cave – Krem Liat Prah-Um Im-Labit System – as yet estimated to be 31 kilometers.

The exploration was continuing.

In India, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Mizoram and Uttarakhand also found mention for caves. However when it came to the ten longest caves in India, all ten were in Meghalaya. Ranked for depth, nine were in Meghalaya and one was in Mizoram. That was how much North East India dominated in the subject. The study of caves or speleology was yet in its infancy in India. There was no university department or chair dedicated to the topic including at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). A few dedicated and seemingly networked scientists scattered nationwide maintain an interest. The only institutional names in the field were the Raipur based-NGO, National Cave Research and Protection Organization headed by Dr Jayant Biswas and the Shillong based-MAA. Every year during Meghalaya’s dry months, expert cavers from overseas reached the state to explore its caves in league with the MAA. That’s how the underground map of the region evolved. Both the Indian Army and the Indian Navy had links with the MAA to partake in the adventure.

The entrance to a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: Simon Brooks)

The entrance to a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: Simon Brooks)

There was more to caves than adventure and geology. Darkness coupled with other changes to environment as one went deeper and deeper into caves, molded exclusive cave life, the study of which was called bio-speleology. Cave fauna typically fell into three categories: (1) Trogloxene – species which visit or take shelter in caves but do not complete their whole lifecycle there (e.g. bats, frogs, lizards) (2) Troglophile – species which live permanently in the dark zone but some of which can also survive in a suitable environment away from the cave. They could be called future troglobites (e.g. fish, salamander, crayfish and millipedes) (3) Troglobite – species which live wholly and permanently in the dark zone of caves. They are mostly blind, albinic and having extra sensory organs (e.g. same as for troglophile). Ilona Khar Kongar, scientist with the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), said that there had been reports of fauna unique to Meghalaya’s cave systems. They awaited further study.

Caves were also known to hold fossils and in Meghalaya’s case, marine fossils going all the way back to a prehistoric age when the land was submerged by sea. Additionally, the region’s caves had become academically interesting from another angle – the several thousand year-old stalactites and stalagmites possessed details of past climate. For any curious mind therefore, these caves may seem the stuff of heritage. In Meghalaya however there was no such official declaration in favor of the caves and cavers like Brian were defending before authorities why this underground network of pitch dark passages was fascinating.

Inside a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: Rainer Hoss)

Inside a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: Rainer Hoss)

Somewhere in the early 1990s, Brian sought to spice up his life in Shillong with adventure. He thought of treks. But nothing really attracted. Born and brought up in Meghalaya, he knew there were caves around. He floated an organization called the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA). The group started to explore caves. Shortly after the activity began, at one location, villagers spoke of a team of foreigners who had come looking for caves. Since caves were sculpted on rock that yields itself to shaping by water, tracking the distribution of such minerals helped locate cave-rich zones. Limestone is a fantastic cave-building medium. Deposits of soluble rock were called karst and in Meghalaya karst existed at the state’s southern portion, in an east-west line, curving to the north at the eastern end. The foreigners had done their homework. Brian’s inquiries showed that the British team included respected names from international caving. The MAA tied up with them and soon expeditions to explore the caves of Meghalaya began in right earnest.

The results would amaze anyone fascinated by the planet. Deep under Meghalaya were subterranean passages; gushing rivers, crystal clear ponds, natural rock dams and vast chambers you could only crawl into. “ People now come and tell me of caves,’’ Brian said. In 2004, he was awarded the Tenzing Norgay National Award for Adventure in the land category. However, leaving aside the cavers’ battle with the mining lobby, he wished that the younger generation responded more enthusiastically to caving. The reason for the low key response he saw till then probably lay in the nature of the challenge.

Near Lad-Rymboi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Near Lad-Rymboi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mining was a well entrenched industry in Meghalaya.

H.H. Mohermen had lived in the thick of it.

Following a stint in London studying theology, he became a lone crusader for environment in the much mined Jaintia Hills. “ A relative who had served on the local hill council once told me that coal mining was allowed to grow unfettered because it resembled a cottage industry,’’ Mohermen said.

For a taste of Meghalaya’s mining country, I passed through Lad-Rymboi. Here pastoral Meghalaya took a hiatus. There was heavy truck traffic, the roads were awash in slush, grease stained automobile workshops repaired vehicles and a labor force of strangers roamed the town with numerous wine shops. Closer to Shillong, on the periphery of mining country one found the smallest unit of the coal business – tiny bunks typically managed by local women, selling excess coal dumped by passing trucks. Few years ago, the color of some rivers in the Jaintia Hills changed, dead fish turned up and in places, water became undrinkable. Hydroelectric projects complained that the water was corrosive. While activists attributed it to pollution from unchecked rat hole-mining, an official of the State Pollution Control Board said that given the high sulphur content of Meghalaya’s coal this was bound to happen even naturally.

Cave formation was a million year-old chemical process.

Indeed you could call a cave, a laboratory, with processes running at terribly slow pace. But it was undeniably chemistry; tamper with ingredient, quantity or concentration and you altered the experiment. According to Brian, that’s what mining did. To start with it deforested, causing soil erosion, sending soil down into caves and altering the cave’s drainage pattern. Coal mining also impacted indirectly – that same acidic water worrying humans on top, got down into the caves changing cave chemistry. With resident mining culture and wanting the modern motifs of economic growth, Meghalaya leveraged its limestone deposits to attract the cement industry.

That had direct impact on caves.

According to Brian, the attraction he felt for caving was that it wasn’t any one activity but a convergence of many – there was the adventure, the exploration, the science, the mapping, the planning, the skills and finally, the philosophy and literature you indulged in even away from caves. Brian had authored many articles on the subject; written books and compiled poetry. All this pointed to the need for an evolved mind; something rare in today’s world of adventure where everything was the stuff of snapshot success.

Negotiating bats; inside a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: George Baumler)

Negotiating bats; inside a cave in Meghalaya (Photo: George Baumler)

Further caving had its anxious moments. Once, Brian was injured by falling rock in a vertical shaft. Some caves didn’t have horizontal entrances; they had a shaft plunging into them. There was little room for escape should anything fall from the top. Shafts could be deep; India’s deepest at Krem Shrieh in Meghalaya was 97 meters (320 feet), several times longer than a single rope length and therefore requiring `pitches’ as in rock climbing. Lowering yourself into one of these passages could be tricky because they typically have narrow mouth and wider bottom. That meant a rope anchored at the top progressively stayed off the side leaving the abseiling caver wholly dangling on rope in a growing void.

On another occasion, in a cave with multiple entrances, a few cavers having entered through different passages met at a point. There, an experienced woman caver decided she wasn’t feeling well and retraced her steps. Somewhere she got lost in the labyrinth of passage ways. Her absence was noticed only after everyone had exited the cave complex. A search was launched and after several hours, she was located sitting crouched to preserve body heat, in utter darkness. Her headlamp was broken; the consequence of a fall. “ Hypothermia is a real danger in caves, particularly those with water and streams inside,’’ Brian said.

Limestone formations near the quarry in Lumshnong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Limestone formations near the quarry in Lumshnong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At Shillong, there were visible signs of the cement industry’s status in the North East.

`Times change, Taj does not’ – said a hoarding for Taj Cement. Another one sponsored by Star Cement featured well known personalities like Bhupen Hazarika, Mami Varte, Sourobhee Debbarma and Lou Majaw, the Shillong singer famous for his devotion to Bob Dylan. Meghalaya’s cement companies were not big names nationwide; they were local giants. The lone cement multi-national that entered the state made a conveyor belt to ship the mined limestone to adjacent Bangladesh. Lumshnong, over 100 kilometers away from Shillong, was a couple of curves on the highway with a few shops and houses. Home to cement plants, a large limestone quarry loomed next to the highway here. If you looked at the stray rock formations behind the adjacent houses, you got an idea of what the quarry must have looked like originally – fluted, termite nest like outcrops of limestone. Now all that remained was a large crater. Jack hammers drilled away on its sides and trucks carried away the raw material. The crater floor was soggy mud. At one end, atop a rocky cliff, a worker was demolishing rock. Directly below, thirty feet or so, hugging the pit floor was a three feet high horizontal gash in the rock from which a stream flowed to the outside world. That, I was told, was one of the access points to the Kotsati-Umlawan System, at 21 kilometers explored till then, India’s second longest network of cave passages and its second deepest. At the other end of the pit, closer to the highway, piled up debris soaked and shifted by rains, had sealed off a claimed large entrance to the cave. Gregory Diengdoh from MAA hunted futilely for a third entrance, a vertical shaft, known to be somewhere around.

The fourth, an erstwhile `show cave’ for tourists where we went in, had become inexplicably muddy. Behind us, the sunlit entrance gradually diminished to button-size and at the first fork, altogether disappeared. We navigated with headlamps in pitch darkness. A thick film of slippery, gooey mud covered the floor, the cave’s boulders and its sidewalls. It was very slow, slippery going. Deep within, you heard the roar of the underground river. Not far inside the cave, I decided to wait for a dry month to progress further. It didn’t make sense to load the risk and risk at day’s end, was a personal assessment. The cavers though had a different explanation – although we were just weeks from monsoon and hence into sporadic showers, the excessive mud inside the cave could be due to river water periodically backing up as a consequence of blocked passages, courtesy the overhead quarrying.

Unproved, that was yet speculation.

The quarry at Lumshnong. The stream, I was told, was one of the entrances to the Kotsati-Umlawan System (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The quarry at Lumshnong. The stream, I was told, was one of the entrances to the Kotsati-Umlawan System (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ Somewhere thousands of miles away, not too far from the nation’s capital

A little posh town rose up from the desolate and barren land

It grew in width and length, it steadily grew in height

Where once the land was flat, today a mountain of flourishing complexes

A miracle indeed unfolds

As the buildings of Gurgaon tower to the sky, the limestone hills of Meghalaya

Leveled to the humble ground.’’

          Extract from a poem Brian wrote imagining the journey of Meghalaya’s limestone.

My visit to Lumshnong was in May 2010.

As of then, for a state so much into mining, Meghalaya which saw 24 chief ministers in 38 years did not have a Mining Policy. “ Every time we ask, they say it’s getting ready,’’ Patricia Mukhim, Editor, Shillong Times, said. In its absence, officials acknowledged that unorganized coal mining was subject to few restrictions, while limestone quarrying by large companies followed Central Government norms. At least that was the official explanation.

There was a Mining Policy taking shape.

The urgency for it was partly fuelled by Public Interest Litigation (PIL).

In 2006, realizing that it was only a matter of time before unbridled mining destroyed Meghalaya’s caves Brian approached Subhas Dutta of Kolkata, who had filed PILs before. With his help the MAA moved the Supreme Court. Such litigation was not new for Meghalaya. Local journalists recalled a previous lawsuit against the logging business. However unlike in logging, there was no interim stay on mining till the case was disposed of. The journalists and activists I spoke to attributed this to Meghalaya lacking an environment movement and the state’s peculiar land holding pattern; land was owned by the tribes. Protection of environment may work in a specific area (Samrakshan Trust in Garo Hills found mention as successful example). But another stretch of land was another tribe’s property and therefore their headache. This inhibited a larger environment movement.

While activists may want a movement, the mining industry – they said – dealt with specific tribal leadership. Theoretically, this appeared participative industry and the way forward. Two and a half months later, in August, even the central government, responding to the Maoist issue (extreme left movement largely based out of the forests and hill tracts of Central and East India), was recommending a participatory model that advocated sharing 26 per cent of a mining company’s profit with tribal communities. Yet it wasn’t that simple because to work properly, any model needed a learned, holistic view of development. That included a tribe knowing how much they were losing irreversibly and how much should be mined.

From inside a cave with headlamp switched off. The faint light in the distance is the entrance (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

From inside a cave with headlamp switched off. The faint light in the distance is the entrance (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In Meghalaya, some of the stories I heard wasn’t pretty. There were occasions, I was told, when villagers seeing mines on their land exhausted, tried to encroach on someone else’s. Then, there was the story of villages with gates to fend off likely fights. One story was generic to the problem of land exploitation in India – that when the potential of a land was revealed, powerful people began to amass real estate anticipating profit.

I could not independently verify any of this background talk.

Nevertheless so much was clear – in a state with few opportunities, mining was prime opportunity. A casual perusal of academic studies on the state, available at Shillong’s book shops, underscored this point. Mining was a major source of livelihood in the state. When information spread of his opposition to mining, Brian’s caving expedition was once threatened with disruption.

Devoid of support by powerful masthead, `freelance journalist’ fell to the bottom of the media heap. When I called up a senior official in the state government requesting for an appointment, I was initially shouted at. Then he cooled down and gave me a time with cautionary advice – there was a Cabinet meeting and I may have to wait. I waited from 3PM onward at the secretariat. By 5PM or so, the visitors and staff left. The officer’s peon and I sat sharing jokes in an empty building. Around 6PM, the power failed plunging us into utter darkness, quite like being in a cave. I thought of my visit to the Kotsati-Umlawan System; how it had been pitch dark inside the cave with our headlamps switched off. An hour later, power returned to the secretariat. The peon and I laughed, seeing each other’s faces again. Close to 8PM, the official arrived. He was tired but spared time for the freelancer.

Entrapped in government bureaucracy, struggling to balance ecology and economic development, he vehemently insisted that caves could not be surveyed as the MAA had done. This was when caving had for long been an international pursuit and modern instruments permitted cave passages to be plotted (right up to 3D images if required) as the cavers proceeded. It illustrated the tenor of divide in Meghalaya in the name of mining. The same Brian had authored the book on cave systems published by the state’s Directorate of Information and Public Relations and one of his essays on caves was included as chapter for study in the state’s Class XII syllabus.

Still the MAA irked officialdom.

“ Shouldn’t we have economic development?’’ the government official asked.

I had no answer.

In the years following my Shillong-visit, this question would become a national dilemma. The matrix for viewing it at macro level was simple: India’s high population, the emergent scale of human needs and the scale based-model of global industry couldn’t do without exploiting minerals. At micro level, this combination of interests cut formidable imagery before anyone living in the lands due for exploitation by mining. Tribes and marginalized communities, living on those lands, hit back becoming villains in the eyes of those advocating industry from rich cities.

I knew why interest groups like cavers irritated government and industry. They were not even the owners of the land in question. They espoused interest in science, adventure, even aesthetics – all irrelevant to the daily reality of survival by money. But which was the higher philosophy and ethic – deciding human lifestyle by ownership of planet or doing so by fascination for planet?

Brian Kharpran Daly (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Brian Kharpran Daly (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

While the lay individual may presume that cavers go in leaving physical traces to identify the trail back that wasn’t always the case. “ I advise people to periodically look back and remember cave features for navigation because entry and exit points in subterranean chambers appear different when the direction changes,’’ Brian said. It was also important to never break team (there may be several independent teams exploring different parts of a cave, but each team should stick together) and systematically map the passage as one went along so that the data for navigation was available right there. A typical cave survey kit would have nyloflex tape measure, compass, clinometer (for measuring gradient), plastic coated cave survey book, pencil and GPS. Back at camp, a day’s survey data was processed with specialized software to generate a detailed map. A lot of this work had been rendered easier by the Disto-X, a device that measured distance, direction and inclination at one stroke. It could be linked to the cartographer’s PDA inside the cave itself, to make a detailed map. Interestingly, the cave explorer’s credo was not to always retreat but proceed with the faith that multiple entrances and exits existed For Brian, it was like a spiritual quest. A vast underground chamber glistening with cave pearls (sand particles covered in calcium carbonate) was like an audience with God.

State authorities, I spoke to, insisted that the mining industry followed Central Government guidelines preventing such work from anywhere near archeological sites. But then as of May 2010, none of the caves had been declared `heritage.’ Following the PIL, the state government commissioned studies by agencies like the Indian Bureau of Mines and the Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research. From the documents I was shown, the first had given a clean chit to the impact of mining near the Mawmluh cave in Cherrapunji while the other said the Umlawan cave hadn’t collapsed and there was no adverse effect to caves in the Lumshnong area from blasting. In a paper on the Mawmluh cave published in Current Science (April 10, 2009 issue) Dr Biswas observing the influx of mining effluents into the cave through the river at its entrance had said, “ It could be presumed that the cavernicoles (cave organisms) belonging to the twilight zone of the caves are already under extinction.’’

Brian had the conservationist’s approach.

The ideal model in his eyes was to absolutely protect some caves in the interest of science and exploration. In the case of other caves, villagers could protect them as heritage with revenue from well managed tourism for upkeep. To the journalist tuned in to both sides, what stood out was the unbridgeable divide – the MAA sought strict conservation; the government responded with the language of mining standards. The reason for opposing Brain was comprehensible – how can human livelihood and economic development be held to ransom by a bunch of exotic caves hosting strange life? In their separate worlds, both sides cut logic. Somewhere in between was the sheer joy of beholding mammoth caverns underneath, their spectacular beauty and the world of trogloxenes, troglophiles and troglobites – inhabitants of a fragile ecosystem. Government officials said that a Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court had recommended the installation of an Expert Group to look into Meghalaya’s caves.

Cave exploration in Meghalaya (Photo: Hugh Penny)

Cave exploration in Meghalaya (Photo: Hugh Penny)

With a copy of the 2006 PIL not available, I asked Brian what his demand was. According to him, his wish was for a prioritization of the caves, listing out those that were important from an exploration and scientific point of view. They should be protected. As for the rest – he thought – local villagers could protect some caves and manage them as tourist attractions. He knew that the going would be tough even then because the Shnongrim Ridge in the Nongkhlieh area where caves proliferated was prized by industry for its limestone.

“ Wherever you mine in Meghalaya you are going to destroy caves. It is like Swiss cheese,’’ he said.

All this was in May 2010.

In September that year, it was reported that the Court had dismissed the PIL.

The news reports cited mining bodies in the state, welcoming the Court decision.

Brian’s son and daughter have joined him on caving expeditions. His son, a trained mountaineer, worked then with a leading Indian private bank at their branch in Jowai. Besides his passion for caves, Brian made one of the best homemade wines in Shillong. Strangely, here too, he learnt the ropes late, worked systematically at improving his craft and took the art to a superior level.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He visited Meghalaya in 2010 to do this story. A slightly abridged version of this story was published in Man’s World [MW] magazine. A smaller story on Brian was published in The Hindu newspaper. The photos taken by Simon Brooks, Rainer Hoss, Hugh Penny and George Baumler were provided by Brian and have been used here with his permission. An April 2013 news report from Shillong, quoting Brian, said that 19 new caves had been discovered in the Jaintia Hills, taking Meghalaya’s total to 1350 caves with 887 caves spanning 387 kilometers explored. When contacted late August for this blog, Brian said that Meghalaya’s Mining Policy was passed by the state government in 2012. However its specific rules and regulations were still awaited. Aside from official mention of the need to protect caves, they haven’t been declared heritage yet. Brian retired at work in 2012. He became honorary Vice Chairman of the Shillong Co-operative Urban Bank, where his son also now worked. Brian’s new book on caves has been published. An overview of it can be accessed at http://sbpra.com/briandkharprandaly/) 

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