Aurangabad, incidentally, is known as “The Optic Fiber Capital of India”. However when we asked one of the locals why it was so i.e. “Aurangabad ko ‘The Optic Fiber Capital of India’ kyon bolti hain?” he told us, in a somewhat complicated marathi accent, that the omelette walah did not come till 6 am. We nodded and left. Later we entered the Aurangabad bus stand and, in the bus stand restaurant, resolved to order breakfast. The waiter gave us a menu and we started ordering. At the mention of each item he nodded his head. No. Not available. Poha? No. Bonda? No. Bhajiya? No. Misal Pav? No. So what do you have? Nothing. Only tea. Kitchen is closed. Thank you.
We boarded a bus for Lonar a little past 6 am and were surprised at how comfortable the bus was. The seats were well padded and the ride was very comfortable. However we were still hungry, had no food and I noted that only one of the tour party seemed to be sleeping contentedly. And then I noted that the India Today Food Special I had brought along was missing. Hmm.
As the trip progressed we noticed something peculiar about the dietary habits of the locals. Apparently the staple diet of the locals in central Maharashtra is alu bondas and various bhajiyas. And they serve this from dawn to dusk. Now I do not mean to not appreciate this diet, I am sure there are traditional reasons why this diet is preferred, but to the outsider it was a little hard to digest. Every stopover we were served nothing but tea and deep fried vegetables. It was so bad we could have easily played that schooltime game with the locals:
What’s for breakfast?
Whats for lunch?
Whats for dinner?
What is your name?
Ha! Got you!
An other alarming trend was the complete inability to use Hindi as a medium of communication as we went more and more into the rugged heartland. After a point even the marathi became very difficult to understand. However after much shaking and rattling and bonda eating we reached the village of Lonar in Buldhana district. We had reached our destination. Well almost.
I walked over to the nearest shop and asked the old man for our final target. “Bhai saab yeh hypervelocity basaltic meteoric crater aapko pata hai?” He blinked. I then spread out the palm of one hand and made a ball of the other and, drawing a graceful trajectory, slammed one into the other. He smiled and nodded, went into his shop, and handed me a nice little plate of Bondas and Bhajiyas.
But soon we saw a sign board for the MTDC hotel, where we were to stay, and began to walk. We had carried with us a Lonely Planet guide and it gave us some idea of what we were about to face. A brisk walk to the crater it said. We began to briskly walk and after some distance we saw another sign board which told us to take a right from the main road and walk for another two kilometers. So it was no surprise that as we walked we all concluded it would have been much simpler if the meteorite had landed near a major railway station or airport or in South Bombay and would have been much easier to explore. But try telling the MTDC that.
Anyways we reached in due course and checked into the hotel. Right across the road, was quite literally, the biggest hole in the ground I have ever seen. It was some 150 meters in depth and almost two kilometers across. One moment you are walking by the road tanning slowly into an apricot and then the next moment you are standing looking over one of the biggest craters in the world. Breathtaking indeed. We rejoiced and decided to do our first trek a little after lunch when the sun went down.
There was no power in the hotel. This was a minor issue however and we bathed and freshened up and dropped into the MTDC restaurant which, the board outside proclaimed, was open from 6 AM to 11 PM. And right now, at noon, it undoubtedly was. However we once again must doff our hats at the MTDC and its commitment to the exact meaning of every word it uses. In this case, ‘open’. Open, most popular linguists agree, does not mean ‘you can eat here’. Merely that the doors are open and you may enter. We entered the restaurant and asked the waiter “Boss khan ke liya kya hai?”. He thought for a moment nodded “Ok” and left. Never to be seen again.
We were facing that marathi problem again. We finally located a more helpful fellow who told us that the restaurant was closed and lunch would be served at 2:00 PM. Not a morsel before. Finally we had lunch and walked out across the road to descend into the crater. It was a most arduous journey and sapped most of our energy but by the time we reached the edge of the crater the sun had mellowed somewhat.
Finally we gathered enough courage to descend. The crater, incidentally, has twelve ancient temples inside and our guide books told us it was almost entirely untouched by the modern human hand inside. A most surreal experience it was sure to be. We trekked to the bottom through perilous slopes and over craggy merciless rocks and finally made it. The lake at the bottom is super alkaline and has a pH of 10.5 or so. Or, as they call it in Chennai, tap water. No sign of any other human beings yet. We decided to trek around the shallow lake at the bottom.
A few temples later we came across a bunch of cavorting couples. And to be honest a lot of modern human hand was touching a lot of other modern human things if you know what I mean. But onward we continued letting the couples be and merely taking a few photos for our reference. That is when we bumped into a large metal object that seemed to be making rhythmic thud noises.
A diesel generator? At the bottom of a crater! This was quite unsettling, and smacked of human presence. We happened upon a nice little agricultural setup right in the middle of the crater where they seemed to growing spinach. We sat and watched them at work for sometime and, after the initial shock had passed, sat down to enjoy the rustic pleasure of it all. But this was short-lived as one of the farmers received a phone call to the tune of something by Himesh Reshamiyya and we quickly left.
It was beginning to darken now and the sun was slowly turning in for the day. We quickly located our way back and followed the exact way up the crater as we had come down. We emerged at the top some 4 kilometers away from the hotel. Most of us were gasping for breath from the ascent and walked quite slowly. The locals seemed to think we were foreigners and a particular gentleman walked with us. He was an incessant conversationalist.
Man: Ah! Hello!
Us: Ahem… Hello!
After a couple of kilometers, like long-term love affairs that are forced to turn to issues of Cosmo and Playstation, we ran out of things to talk about and the man let us be. We returned to the hotel and decided on our next plan of action. Buy beer.
We bought much beer and the night was full of fun and frolic and we decided that we would wake up early next day morning, say around six, to do a complete trek of the bottom and all the temples. Then we would catch the bus to Aurangabad at around 11:45 AM. We decided to skip the delicacies of the MTDC restaurant and procured dinner from one of Lonar’s best eateries. We were hungry and ate in a hurry and the Dal Tadka left us in a much greater hurry the next day morning.
Back in Aurangabad our plan then was to make a quick visit to the caves at Ellora. But before that lunch beckoned. After two days of eating railway food and deepfry we used the excellent selection of the Lonely Planet guide to Aurangabad. Lunch was a success in so much that we must have wiped out prawn from most of the western Indian seaboard. Suddenly Ellora seemed to far away and we had to settle for the humbler Aurangabad Caves. Built apparently by the same dudes who built the ones at Ellora and some of the ones at Ajanta, these caves are smaller and only number some ten caves. But they offer a great view of Aurangabad city which, because we had climbed up 2.3 million stone stairs to reach to the top and were hyper ventilating, pupil dilating and so on looked magnificent in several shades of colour.
We finally reached the station in time and we quickly dispersed, each person assigned a specific commodity to purchase for the trip like food, beverages and reading material. Now let this be a warning to all, never drink a beer called Zingaro from Lonar. Some of us apparently were still buzzed and in the ensuing confusion we boarded the train with 14 litres of drinking water, two dozen five-star chocolates and 7 copies of the Mid-Day. Suffice to say that by the time we reached Bombay we were well hydrated and buzzing with sugar but we had all done the same Sudoku puzzle 7 to 8 times each.
I was more than pleased when I reached home. It had been a most wonderful trip. I had enjoyed the journey, the trekking and of course the joys of fellowship and sharing. So it was with much glee I entered my house and went into the kitchen to eat something. I opened the still warm food containers to find that my maid had made our weekend special. Bonda and Bhajiya.