All's not well in the bat-cave

If we as a people so revere nature, why do we go to so much trouble to disfigure it?
The view from Kavala Caves, Dandeli
Is there a legit word ending in “phobia” for the fear of being ripped off? Whatever it is, it was on our minds when we set out early in the morning from Dandeli's Kulgi Nature Camp for a safari. Safaris are always dubious deals – at the outset you are force-fed the disclaimer that every sighting banks on “good luck”, which is thereafter effectively neutralised by the grunting and gnashing diesel vehicle that ferries you around the forest.

Our destination that morning was Kavala Caves, 25 km inside the forest and accessible only by a 2 km walk from a waterhole where the jeep track ends. Part of that walk also descends into a valley from where you can see and hear the roaring rapids of the dark and beautiful Kali river.
The Kali is a gorgeous, gushing torrent of darkness
Birders can be exasperatingly enthusiastic morning persons and our poor “guide” hadn't bargained for that when he fixed our itinerary the night before. Well before the appointed hour we roused his recumbent self with hollers and heavy knocking. To the end that he very evidently forgot to brush, and every time he turned to us to proffer guidance we shrank back, nearly asphyxiated.

When we left, the camp was still in darkness and pale veins of dawn light were draining the ink from the sky. In the murky forest we passed the odd shadowy elephant and several feral buffaloes that played tricks with our eager eyes. As the day brightened we saw spotted deer, jungle fowl, peacocks and a solitary barking deer.  

Our walk to the caves took longer than usual, much to our impatient (and perhaps hungry) guide's chagrin. En route, we stopped to chase butterflies, admire a displaying Black-naped Monarch and an Elliot's Forest Lizard. Our first sighting of Malabar Pied Hornbills occurred on this walk. There were enough sunbirds, ioras and swifts en route to delay us further. Then we argued over a Shaheen Falcon's identity, some of us contending that it might have been a Black Baza. Morning light and its myriad tricks! 

In the mouth of the cave, which has effectively been transformed into a shrine
Winding steps led us down to the cave. As we approached it, a familiar haunting reek of disused attics assailed us -- the rank odour of bat droppings. These were limestone caves and the interiors should have been white or, at least, whitish in appearance. But then again, caves with stalagmites and stalactites have long awakened religiosity in kindred souls and, true enough, the stalagmites here are worshipped as Shivalingams. 

Stalactites darkened with soot

The interiors of a limestone cave are usually white or whitish, unlike these darkened by oil and smoke from offerings
On Mahashivaratri, which falls every year in February or March, thousands of pilgrims are allowed into the national park. And they bring along votive offerings in incense sticks, oil for lamps, cotton wicks, coconuts, bananas, flowers, earthen lamps, milk in sachets and packed refreshments to nourish them on their pilgrimage. And how did I know all of this? Just by looking around. 
The inside of the shrine houses a stalactite that is worshipped as a Shivalingam, and our guide quickly got down to business and was perhaps slighted when we did not join in
Our guide was also possessed of sudden devotion inside the cave and he lit the incense sticks that he had brought along. Later, when I brought up the matter with him, he seemed offended that I should place the welfare of sundry forest creatures over the appeasement of the Almighty. If only our forest staff could be trained to differentiate among simple priorities.

We traversed parts of the cave on bended knee, and sometimes all fours
The task of cleaning up after religious rituals is left to the Lord who, having other things on His agenda, never gets round to it. Over the years, garbage has accumulated in and around the caves. Carrying it all back to Dandeli is an idea that has never occurred to those responsible for the park's maintenance, and the caves' distance from the nearest camp doesn't help its cause.
Pligrims have dumped leftover grain under a tree outside the caves
Once inside the caves, parts of which we traversed crawling on all fours, we were aghast to observe that the interiors were blackened with soot. The smooth limestone structures were discoloured from so many years of touching. It was also hot and humid and we started to feel slightly claustrophobic.
Pilgrims have left behind litter of every description
As we emerged from another part of the cave towards the light, we disturbed several roosting bats, which flitted in and out uttering tiny shrieks -- perhaps the only human-audible sounds in their ultrasonic repertoire. None of us were bat experts, and we couldn't determine the species. The bat had large ears, a longish, slightly upturned snout and a dark brown stripe on the sides of the throat. I managed a decent photograph, which might help us identify it.

Bats inside the cave
We returned from the caves struck by their beauty but appalled at how they had been ritually defiled. This experience was in stark contrast to one I enjoyed at Mercer Cavern, a limestone cave in California, which I had visited in 2001. While those caves had no bats, they were nearly pristine, illuminated thoughtfully in white and beige and pink, with only one calcite structure reserved for visitors to touch and feel. Unfortunately, even if we get round to addressing our problems, we will always have too much of religion to deal with.

Text and photos by Beej
Read other posts from Dandeli