23 November, 2008

Erupting Shrine

Many years ago, while on a reconnaissance sortie off the Makran Coast, I had flown over what seemed to be small volcanoes spewing out a slushy liquid. When I reported the strange geological phenomenon to my squadron mates, they promptly shrugged it off as a flight of fancy. However, when I got to fly over the same area again, I made it a point to record the spectacle with the on-board video camera. During the replay, there was a full house in the video room and everyone was awe-struck at the weird and wonderful ways of Nature. The volcanoes soon became a must-visit way point for the squadron pilots during all coastal missions. A high speed run over the volcanoes was one thing, but a close-up look at the vents had always enthused me.

In January 2001, I, along with a few colleagues, got a chance to see and hear the bubbling froth and, heard tales about intrepid Hindu visitors for whom the mud volcanoes are sacred. They are commonly known as ‘Chandra Kops’ or cones of Ramchandra (a Hindu moon deity). Besides the three volcanoes near the coast, there are four others scattered in the Hara Mountains further inland.

Located about 220-km from Karachi by road, the journey to the Chandra Kop trio is not for the faint-hearted. Though an excellent coastal highway has been completed by the Frontier Works Organisation, it will be some time before ordinary tourists feel secure enough to drive down to the volcanoes, in addition to gazing at some of the most unusual topographical features the country has to offer. 

After a bone-jarring journey through harsh, forlorn countryside, which had seen us retrace Alexander’s ill-conceived and ill-fated return route to Persia via Uthal-Bela-Averan-Turbat-Pasni, we switched east to Ormara for our return journey to Karachi. The journey requires a four-wheel drive vehicle and, quite literally, a spine for adventure. A good night’s rest at the Coast Guards' check-post at Aghor was just what we needed for the next day’s journey.
Breaking off from the road near a place called Sangal, we detoured south into the stark shrub-dotted wasteland that was occasionally cheered up by a chirruping lark. After driving for twenty minutes or so, we picked up the outline of the larger volcano through coastal haze. Rising to a height of 100 metres, it is about a kilometre in diameter at the base. Grey, muddy liquid could be seen oozing from the vent of the volcano. As we approached closer, the two smaller volcanoes also became visible in the vicinity. Though modest by volcano standards, the Chandra Kop trio is considered to be large-sized amongst mud volcanoes.

Nearing the large volcano, we were obviously excited to have a peek down its vent. Fifteen minutes of fast climb left us panting, but it was worth every gasp because it was truly an astonishing sight. Methane gas could be smelt, as well as seen to be bubbling from the fluid that was oozing from the vent. The spilt slush had left the rim slippery and one misplaced step would have us hurtling down the slope. All the same, one step too close and a horrid, grisly end was nigh. In fact, our driver told us about a mishap that had taken place some months ago when three Hindu pilgrims who had ventured too close to the mouth, slipped and were gobbled down into the thick gooey sludge. Incense sticks placed close to the rim testified to the risk that some visitors had been taking, but confirmation of the accident from any other source could not be had. A somewhat safer ritual involves tossing of coconuts into the vent, akin to appeasement of gods at a Hindu shrine, which the volcano is considered to be.

Hindu lore is not uncommon in Baluchistan, indicating a sizeable presence of Hindus sometime in the past. The exquisitely named Sri-Mati Hinglaj Temple, (more commonly known as ‘nani ka mandir’) deep in the hills north of Aghor, is another revered shrine, which attracts pilgrims from overseas.

Mud volcanoes resemble magmatic volcanoes in so far as they erupt powerfully, with flaming hydrocarbon gases reaching great heights; they also occasionally throw out tons of mud. During the Makran tsunami and earthquake of 31 October 1945, the volcanoes were seen to be throwing up flames which shot up several hundred feet in the air. At night it was said to be a most eerie spectacle.

There is said to be a direct relationship between petroleum deposits and mud volcanoes. They resemble super-deep exploration wells, providing valuable information of oil and gas. The near-exclusive occurrence of mud volcanoes in oil-rich countries like Azerbaijan, Iran, Malaysia, Mexico and Venezuela seems to confirm the petroleum linkage. Oil and Gas Development Corporation would do well to send some prospecting teams to do a survey, if not already done.

Research done by a visiting team of scholars (1997-98) has found that the larger of the Chandra Kop trio has a conduit going down about 30 metres, into which fluid feeds a funnel-shaped mud lake. Being a sort of an underground reactor in which oil, gas and various minerals are synthesised, the volcano is also a source of some unusual substances. The oozing liquid is said to possess curative properties for the treatment of a range of diseases, although mud baths in health spas would be most incongruous in Baluchistan, in present times. A more promising prospect lies in including the Chandra Kops on the tourist map, while somehow ensuring that crass commercialisation does not spoil these geological wonders of Nature.

© M KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article appeared in the daily newspaper, The News International, 27 May, 2001.

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