Natural Sculptures: Stalactites & Stalagmites
Numerous legends exist about stalactites and stalagmites, the fascinating results of water dripping and deposits collecting over years. Hena Das talks about some famous, some not-so-famous sites and the stories behind them.
“Mites go up and the Tights (tites) come down” and “Stalagmites with a ‘g’ grow from the ground, while stalactites with a ‘c’ come from the ceiling”. That’s all I remember being taught about stalagmites and stalactites in my geography class. But there’s a whole world of ground-and-ceiling growths out there that are as intriguing as they are strange. Here are some of my favourite.
Frasassi Grottos, Ancona, Italy
The Frasassi Grottos, located in Genga, are one of the largest karst complexes in Italy. Made of five smaller grottos, they have stunning formations of stalactites, stalagmites and pillars in all sizes.
The Abisso Anconagrotto is the largest in Europe—large enough, they say, to fit a cathedral in. Each natural formation is simply named, not for lack of an active imagination I assume, according to its shape. So there are the ‘spaghetti’ stalactites and ‘dining candles’ stalagmites that jut out randomly from the floor of a crystal clear lake. With a constant temperature of 14 degree Centigrade, the caves can be visited throughout the year.
Keep an eye out for the Sword of Damocles, a large, menacing stalactite named after the Greek legend of Damocles, a courtier who switched places with the king, only to have a sword hanging over his throne, held by one hair of a horse’s tail.
Cheddar Caves, Somerset, England
The Cheddar Caves are two show caves—Gough’s cave and Cox’s cave—located in Cheddar Gorge, a limestone gorge near the village of Cheddar.
These caves were, and still are, used to age cheddar cheese, which is how they got their name (and surprisingly not their smell). The caves make for an exciting day trip (if it involves cheese, what’s not to be excited about?), with a great audio tour, fascinating stories of the legends, and light shows that highlight the beautiful jagged rock formations.
Apart from the stunning stalactites and stalagmites, Gough’s cave is famous for the Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton found in the cave, estimated to be 9,000 years old.
Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, New Mexico
Located in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, these caverns have been described as the ‘Grand Canyon with a roof on it’.
The National Park is home to 117 known caves. The Big Room, a natural limestone cave, is the seventh largest in the world. One of the chambers, the Bell Cord Room, has a peculiar, long and narrow stalactite hanging out of a hole in the roof, which resembles the bell rope coming out of a church steeple. Another room of note is the Guadalupe Room, with a dense collection of thin soda straws. For all those brought up on Batman comics, the nightly migration of about 4 lakh Mexican Free-Tail bats out of the caves is a sight to see.
The caves are said to have been discovered in 1868 by Jim White, a 16-year-old cowboy. He also named many of the caves like the Big Room, King’s Palace and Queen’s Chamber and giant stalagmites like the Witch’s Finger and Totem Pole.
Reed Flute Cave, Guilin, China
The Reed Flute caves are a zigzagging maze landscaped with stalactites, stalagmites, stone pillars, stone curtains and stone flowers, all lit up with bright lights, giving it a fairyland feel.
The cave features over 70 wall inscription from the Tang Period (618-907), bearing witness to the long history of the cave.
According to locals, the cave got its name from the reeds growing abundantly outside the cave entrance, which were used in ancient times to make flutes and pipes.
Borra Cave, Andhra Pradesh, India
The Borra Caves on the Ananthagiri Hills in Vishakhapatnam have stalactite and stalagmite formations that are over a million years old.
In the midst of lush, picturesque mountains, the Borra Caves are home to a number of gods, naturally shaped out of the stones due to the flow of River Gosthani. There is a Shiva Lingam—a limestone stalagmite, a rock in the shape of Lord Ganesha, a lion’s face and an owl. There’s even a stone bed and pillow, and an area that was supposed to have been used by Buddhist monks.
A local tribal tale tells of a cowherd grazing his cow, which disappeared after it dropped through a hole in the ground. The cowherd found his missing cow, alive, after a fall of 195 feet inside the underground cave, and attributed the miracle to a stone resembling the Shiva Lingam. The news spread, and soon a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva came up on the site.
Amarnath Caves, Jammu Kashmir, India
Amarnath is home to what is probably the world’s most famous ice stalagmite, the Amarnath Shiva Lingam, situated inside a shrine said to be over 5,000 years old.
The stalagmite forms every year over the winter and melts by August. The Lingam attracts lakhs of people annually who come to seek the lord’s blessings. In 2014, the Amarnath Yatra will begin on June 28th and end on August 10th.
According to a Hindu legend, this is the cave where Shiva explained the secret of life and eternity to Parvati. Two ice formations besides the Shiva linga within the cave, represent Parvati and Ganesha, their son. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bons make an annual pilgrimage to the cave to worship the ice lingam. It is believed that the lingam grows and shrinks with the phases of the moon during the summer festival, though there is no scientific proof of this.
Spelunking: Yes, that’s a real word, and as fun as it sounds, it isn’t for the claustrophobic. Spelunking or caving is the recreational exploration of cave systems. It involves all sorts of getting dirty, crawling in the mud and making nice with bats, kind of fun. Of course, it can get dangerous, so be sure you have a trained professional with you.
Karst: This is a type of landscape formed when mildly-acidic ground water gradually dissolves soluble rocks underneath the surface of the earth, creating caves, complexes and grottos over time. Fresh water springs and limestone formations like stalactites and stalagmites are typical to karst landscapes.
Spelothems: Nothing to do with spelling competitions, spelothems are the various formations in the caves created by the dripping, drying or crystallisation of minerals dissolved in the cave water, such as stalactites, stalagmites and columns.
Soda straws: Looking exactly like they sound, soda straws are formed when water dripping from the roof of a cave leaves a ring of mineral deposits around a hole, leading to the formation of a ‘straw’ over time. These may become stalactites if the hole at the top of the straw gets blocked.