Of deep, dark structures

Borra Caves

Of deep, dark structures
A  recent visit to Andhra Pradesh’s Araku Valley near Vizag was just that bit underwhelming for someone who has lived in the Nilgiri Hills. The Araku Valley is a nice enough hill station which is part of Visakhapatnam district; nice, but not really spectacular.

The Anantagiri and Sunkarimetta Reserved Forests go on to make this area very verdant; adding to the scenic beauty is a set of peaks, the Galikonda, Raktakonda, Sunkarimetta and Chitamogondi. The vistas were nice but not breathtaking, and the gaggle of typical tourists, with their own detritus of plastic, paper and wet waste, apart from the loud noise that issued from their mouths as well as from boom-boxes they were carrying, had us less than enchanted.

The climate was great at the start of the day but quickly became scorching, and trekking in the reserved forests in the heat was not the most pleasing of prospects. This is a coffee country, and the coffee grown in these parts travel widely across both India and abroad. We quickly found an outlet that let us get our java fixes in the morning and evening, and soon, were looking forward quite happily to that new routine.

And then one morning, we visited the Borra Caves, nestling deep in the forest at 2,313 feet above sea level in the Ananthagiri Hills. And this turned out to definitely be the jewel in the valley’s crown.

The caves, which were discovered in 1807 by British geologist William King, are deep, dark and mysterious, with narrow sulphur streams running through them. The massive stalagmites and stalactites to be found in these cavernous interiors are more sturdy rock formations than sharp arrowheads, but fascinating for all that. Known as Borra guhalu in Telugu (caves bored into the ground, goes the loose translation), these caves, supposedly the deepest in the country, are karstic limestone structures that go down some 260 feet! This, by the way, is not too difficult to believe when you are standing in front of these colossal structures.

Here come the legends...

As with anything ancient in India, there are some charming legends attached to the Borra Caves, too. One such is that a cow grazing hereabouts fell through a hole into the caves. The cowherd who went searching for the cow came upon a stone resembling a shivling inside the cave, and he also found his cow alive and unharmed. He attributed this to the benevolence of Lord Shiva. The villagers — there are about a dozen tribal villages in these reserved forests — immediately built a temple for Lord Shiva and it continues to be the main attraction for worshipping visitors; we had to join a long and winding queue to have a glimpse of the stalagmite structure ourselves. Another local piece of lore has it that just above the shivling, there is a stone formation resembling a cow, thus linking it to the Gosthani river  (cow’s udder, in Sanskrit), which originates from here.

The river is a sinuous silver streak glimpsed from a height. It flows for a good 120 km before joining the Bay of Bengal through an estuary near Bheemunipatnam. It is also the chief source of drinking water to the city of Visakhapatnam. We come across a signboard that says succinctly enough: Danger. Swirls in river. Do not swim.

Indeed, it is the Gosthani which is the main cause for the shape of these fascinating structures. Water percolating from the roof of the caves continuously dissolves the limestone and then trickles, drop by drop, to form stalactites at the roof of the cave; then it gradually drips down to the ground to form the arrestingly huge stalagmites.

The Borra Caves are spread over an area of one square kilometre and are certainly very large, measuring up to 330 ft horizontally and 246 ft vertically. The rocks, almost all of them gleaming with moisture, shine pure white at places, a deep sulphurous yellow at others, and at yet other spots, are dark brown, almost black. Archaeologists of the Andhra University found Paleolithic implements in the caves, dating back 30,000 to 50,000 years, during their dig some years ago.

Sure enough, our guide showed us the regulation structures that apparently exist for the edification of tourists: stalagmites and stalactites resembling Shiva-Parvati, a mother and her child, the beard of a rishi, the human brain, a crocodile, a temple, a church, and the like. On our part, we duly strained our imagination and almost convinced ourselves about the shape of these arrangements.

First impression

What is rather startling about these caves is how deep and dark they are once you enter their bowels. It is almost a prehistoric darkness; one that seems to contain much myth, lore, history. However, the darkness is soon dispelled  and one is almost sorry for it. There are mercury, sodium vapour and halogen lamps, which light up the interior in a most dramatic, if almost intrusive, fashion, much to the ubiquitous selfie-taker’s delight.

All too unfortunately, the Borra Caves, on the day we visited and in all probability every day, are also chock-full of noisy people blowing shrill vuvuzela-like horns and whistles, apart from hooting, shrieking, screaming and generally behaving in a terrible fashion. There was, of course, no one to shush them. I kept thinking of how terrified the bats in the cave must be. Then again, when was the last time Indian tourists thought about bats?

The Borra Caves are located about 92 km north of Visakhapatnam. And yes, I have to say this in conclusion. The caves, marketed properly, could well turn out to be a huge tourist draw. A better-behaved kind of tourist, that is.
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