Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya
Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya Shutterstock

How This Cave Explorer Is Unveiling Meghalaya's Wonders While Protecting Them

Brian D. Kharpan, a spelaeologist, has extensively explored caves in Meghalaya. His explorations have led to the discovery of over 1700 natural wonders, which are invaluable for scientific research in paleoclimate and biodiversity

It was in the 1990s that spelaeologist Brian D. Kharpan founded the Meghalaya Adventurers' Association (MAA) with a friend to uncover the hidden caves of Meghalaya. Since then, Kharpan and his team have tirelessly explored and discovered over 1,700 caves in the northeastern state, which boasts some of India's longest and deepest caverns.

Fast forward to August 2023—Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognised Kharpan's contributions on his "Mann Ki Baat" radio show. During the 104th episode, Modi introduced Kharpan to the listeners, highlighting his passion for speleology—the scientific study of caves.

Modi also commended Kharpan and his team for their ecological research in these caves. "Brian and his team have studied the fauna within these caves, uncovering scarce species not found elsewhere on the planet. I commend their dedication and efforts," he said.

OT chatted with the 76-year-old Kharpan to learn more about his work, his experiences exploring Meghalaya's caves, and the state's hidden aspects. Excerpts from the interview here.

Kharpan (left) has been exploring caves in Meghalaya for the last three decades
Kharpan (left) has been exploring caves in Meghalaya for the last three decadesWikimedia Commons
Q

Tell us about your extensive experience exploring caves in Meghalaya? What makes cave exploration in this region unique?

A

Over the past 32 years, I've dedicated myself to discovering, exploring, and mapping caves in Meghalaya, significantly enriching my knowledge and expertise in speleology. Cave exploration in this region encompasses a comprehensive survey of cave systems, studying their morphology, hydrology, geology, speleology, and other scientific disciplines. It's a blend of 10 per cent adventure and 90 per cent scientific inquiry.

The uniqueness of Meghalaya's caves lies primarily in their vibrant biodiversity. We've documented numerous rare cave species, such as Schistura papulifera and Schistura larketensis (loaches), Heteropoda fischeri (spider), Neolissochilus pnar (the most extensive cave fish globally), Teretamon absarum (crab), and Murina jaintiana (a newly discovered bat species previously unknown to science).

Not only this, but Meghalaya is also home to over 50 percent of India's bat species, including several critically endangered ones. The caves serve as crucial habitats for these species, highlighting the region's ecological significance.

Q

Beyond just discovering new caves, what hidden aspects of Meghalaya have you encountered during your explorations?

A

Exploring caves in Meghalaya involves navigating through remote and rugged terrain, often leading to unexpected discoveries beyond cave systems. I've encountered breathtaking landscapes, hidden waterfalls, and other natural wonders that were previously unknown. Cave exploration in this region not only unveils the underground marvels but also reveals the richness of the surrounding environment. Its journey continually surprises me with its natural beauty and diverse ecosystems.

Cave exploration also leads to discovering natural marvels like hidden waterfalls
Cave exploration also leads to discovering natural marvels like hidden waterfallsShutterstock
Q

Caves can be a dangerous environment. How do you balance the sense of adventure with safety measures?

A

Cave exploration inherently involves navigating through dark and unfamiliar environments, where one must contend with various obstacles illuminated only by the light of a lamp. All adventure activities indeed carry risks, but caves amplify these challenges.

Safety measures are crucial in every expedition. We meticulously plan each trip, ensuring we have the necessary equipment, such as helmets, ropes, and communication devices. Before entering any cave, we assess the potential hazards and prepare accordingly. Teamwork and communication are also vital; we always operate in groups and maintain constant contact to ensure everyone's safety.

Q

Out of all the caves you explored in Meghalaya, is there one that left a lasting impression on you? Why?

A

Krem Amarsang holds a special place in my heart among all the caves in Meghalaya. It's arguably the most challenging cave regarding physical and mental demands—it requires utmost alertness and stamina, leaving you exhausted upon return to camp. Interestingly, this cave remains partially unexplored to this day, and we plan to revisit it in January 2025 to continue our exploration.

However, beyond Krem Amarsang, several other caves have deeply impacted me. Each cave possesses unique beauty, vastness, and depth and presents its challenges.

Q

Meghalaya is known for its unique cave systems. What specific features or challenges do these cave systems present for explorers?

A

Meghalaya's cave systems are truly exceptional on our planet. Exploring these caves presents several distinct challenges. Firstly, the rugged and often remote terrain makes access difficult, requiring physical endurance and careful navigation. Inside the caves, the lack of natural light poses constant visibility challenges, relying solely on artificial sources such as headlamps.

Moreover, the dynamic nature of caves, with their constantly changing environments due to water flow and geological processes, means that explorers must adapt quickly and be prepared for unexpected obstacles. Safety is paramount, as the unique conditions of each cave demand meticulous planning and adherence to strict protocols.

Q

What's the process of discovering a new cave? What kind of equipment do you typically use?

A

Discovering a new cave involves a systematic approach focused on karst landscapes. To understand how caves form, explorers seek out lines or depressions, follow rivers to their sources, or investigate areas where the water disappears, or steam emerges, particularly during temperature variations like early mornings, evenings, or after rainfall. Experience plays a crucial role in knowing where to search effectively.

Specialised equipment is essential for surveying caves. We use GPS devices to record the coordinates of cave entrances, compasses to determine cave passage directions, tape measures to measure distances between survey points, and clinometers to gauge the incline of cave passages. Modern technology like the Disto X, a laser device coupled with a PDA, enhances accuracy and efficiency in cave mapping. This equipment not only aids in documenting the physical dimensions and geological features of newly discovered caves but also ensures safety and precision during exploration missions.

A caving exploration inside Siju cave, Meghalaya
A caving exploration inside Siju cave, MeghalayaShutterstock
Q

Are there other types of caves in Meghalaya with distinct speleological formations?

A

While most caves in Meghalaya, like elsewhere in the world, are formed in limestone, this region also boasts unique speleological formations. One standout example is Krem Puri, the longest sandstone cave in the world, stretching an impressive 25,317 meters in length.

Sandstone caves like Krem Puri present distinct geological features compared to limestone caves. They often exhibit different textures and formations and sometimes unique underground landscapes shaped by the specific properties of sandstone. Exploring these caves offers insights into the diverse processes that create underground environments, adding to the richness of Meghalaya's speleological diversity.

Q

Have your cave discoveries led to any scientific breakthroughs or spelaeological advancements?

A

Absolutely. The caves of Meghalaya have yielded significant scientific discoveries, particularly in spelaeology and paleoclimate studies. For instance, a stalagmite extracted from Krem Mawmluh in Mawmluh village, Sohra, provided crucial data for a scientific survey of paleoclimate. The analysis revealed a distinct chemical signature indicating a mega-drought that occurred 4,200 years ago and persisted for two centuries. This event had far-reaching consequences, contributing to the decline of civilisations, including those in Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, the Indus Valley, and the Yangtze River Valley. Recognising its global impact, the International Commission for Stratigraphy designated this period in Earth's history as the Meghalayan Age.

Breathtaking Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya
Breathtaking Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji, MeghalayaShutterstock

Additionally, Meghalaya's caves have enriched our understanding of prehistoric life. Fossil discoveries include bones of Mosasaurs, marine dinosaurs, and specimens from Ambulocetus, an animal transitioning from land to whale. These findings expand our knowledge of ancient ecosystems and highlight the region's importance as a repository of paleontological treasures.

Q

Given the fragile ecosystem of caves, how do you ensure your explorations promote conservation efforts?

A

Exploration of caves in Meghalaya is strongly emphasised on scientific documentation and education for scientists and the public. It is essential to reserve these caves naturally, minimising human impact and ensuring they remain undisturbed.

We prioritise leaving caves untouched by tourism, with only a select few opened under the supervision of trained guides. This approach helps mitigate potential damage to delicate cave formations and sensitive ecosystems.

Furthermore, our explorations contribute to raising awareness about the ecological significance of caves. By sharing our findings and promoting conservation practices, we aim to foster a deeper appreciation for these unique environments and encourage responsible stewardship among visitors and local communities.

Q

Looking ahead, what are your plans for future cave explorations in Meghalaya? Are there any specific regions or cave systems that pique your interest?

A

Despite 32 years of exploration, our quest continues as we uncover new caves in Meghalaya. To date, we have mapped an impressive 560 kilometres of cave passages, yet uncharted areas are still awaiting discovery.

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